For two years, three Vernal men sat behind bars and waited.
Accused of brutally gang-raping a 9-year-old girl in 2016, the men — Larson RonDeau, Jerry Flatlip and Randall Flatlip — had pleaded not guilty to charges. As the case twisted and turned through the justice system, their attorneys made several attempts to have the case dismissed but were never successful.
And, after two years of waiting, their side of the story was finally told during a high-stakes trial that could have resulted in a life prison sentence if the men were convicted.
They didn’t do it, defense attorneys told the Salt Lake City jurors.
On Wednesday morning, the jury of five men and three women acquitted the trio of first-degree felony counts of rape and sodomy of a child.
After the verdict, defense attorney Bryan Sidwell said his client, Jerry Flatlip, told him he was grateful for the lawyers who told jurors that he took no part in what he was accused of — holding down the young girl in a Vernal home while each of the accused took turns sexually assaulting her, as her mother was in the garage smoking meth.
“He said, ‘This is the first time in two years that I feel like somebody actually stood up and told my side of the story to someone,’ ” Sidwell said.
‘They raped me’
The prosecution’s case relied almost entirely on the testimony of the now-11-year-old girl, who told her mother March 29, 2016, that four men had held her down and raped her two days earlier on Easter Sunday.
The mother later told police that the alleged assault occurred while she left her sleeping daughter on a couch and went to a garage for about 30 minutes to get high on methamphetamine, according to charging documents.
The girl told investigators that the men held down her arms and legs and each raped her. She identified three of the men — Larson RonDeau, 38, Jerry Flatlip, 31, and Randall Flatlip, 28 — from a photo lineup.
“They raped me,” the girl testified last week.
But there was little other evidence corroborating the girl’s account, defense attorneys argued at trial. There was no DNA evidence tying the men to the girl or an alleged assault. She had no injuries that would indicate she was sexually assaulted, an unlikely scenario according to doctors the defense team consulted for the case.
“If that’s all you got is a statement of a child and so-called corroboration of the mother, I don’t think you or a reasonable jury can conclude that there is sufficient evidence or proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” defense attorney Loni DeLand told jurors during his closing argument Wednesday.
DeLand, who represented Randall Flatlip, said it was possible the girl made up the story, with influence from her mother, who had dated one of the defendants. The couple had broken up just before the alleged assault, Deland said, because he had cheated on her.
The defense attorney did not know if that might be a motive to lodge the accusation but noted that the woman was also under the influence of drugs at that time.
After the verdict, DeLand said the defense team was “absolutely thrilled” with the verdict.
“They spent more than two years of their lives with their liberty removed from them,” he said of the defendants. “And they didn’t do it. The jury was pretty clear.”
Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas said prosecutors “respect” the jury’s verdict, adding that he believes the state presented a sufficient case to the jury.
During his closing arguments Tuesday, Thomas told jurors the girl was telling the truth about what happened to her on that March day in 2016. When asked Wednesday after the verdict whether he still believed the girl, Thomas wouldn’t say.
“Personally, that’s not something I can make an assessment on,” he said. “It’s my job to present the case to the jury. I tried to do my job with fidelity.”
A case that ‘should have been dropped a long time ago’
The men were arrested and charged within days of the girl’s mother reporting the crime to police.
The charges initially were filed in Vernal’s 8th District Court, and a preliminary hearing was held several months later. A videotaped interview of the girl was played in court, but when defense attorneys tried to introduce evidence tied to the girl’s medical exams — which they argued would have been “favorable” to the defendants — the judge wouldn’t allow it. He ruled then that it went beyond the scope of a preliminary hearing and later decided there was probable cause for the case to move forward to a trial.
A fourth man, 22-year-old Josiah RonDeau, was initially charged in connection with the alleged assault, as well, after the girl’s mother identified him as one of the perpetrators in a photo lineup. Prosecutors were forced to dismiss the charges against him during the 2016 preliminary hearing, after the girl’s mother could not be found to testify.
After the remaining three defendants pleaded not guilty to charges, defense attorneys focused on getting the trial moved out of Uintah County. There was outrage in the community, DeLand said Wednesday, and many had already assumed the men were guilty based on the accusation alone.
“We would not have gotten a fair trial in Vernal,” DeLand said Wednesday with a laugh.
A judge agreed, and the case was moved to Summit County. But, in December, a mistrial was declared after too few potential jurors answered summons for the trial.
The case was moved again, this time to the 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City. Before the trial, defense attorneys tried again to get the case dismissed — arguing in court papers that there was so little physical evidence tying their clients to the alleged crime — but Judge Randall Skanchy denied the request.
Skanchy also denied their request to be released from the jail on bail at that time, in part because some of the men had indicated they wanted to return to tribal lands — where state authorities had no jurisdiction — pending trial.
Sidwell said defense attorneys never believed the prosecution had a likelihood of prevailing at trial, given the thin evidence.
“This is one of those cases that should have been dropped a long time ago,” he said. “If [the prosecutor] doesn’t have good evidence, he shouldn’t be bringing this to trial.”
While the men were acquitted in the rape case, it’s unlikely they will be released immediately from custody. All three face additional charges stemming from what police found in their homes while serving search warrants in connection to the alleged sexual assault.
Randall Flatlip is staring at 74 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, after police say they found child pornography in his home. The two other men face third-degree felony child abuse charges after police searched the home where they lived and found alcohol, marijuana and drug paraphernalia within reach of Jerry Flatlip’s 3-year-old daughter.
Sidwell said attorneys will seek to have the child abuse charges dismissed against RonDeau and his client, Jerry Flatlip.
The defense attorney said that while he’s not sure what his client will do next, he will likely return to Crow tribal lands in Montana.
After the two-year ordeal, Sidwell said, Jerry Flatlip is ready to go home.