Vernal • The title of the Craigslist personal ad was mundane, just “driving through - m4w.”
But Vernal Police Detective Shaun Smith saw a potential threat to his small eastern Utah community, so he responded.
“I liked your ad,” the undercover detective wrote, posing as a 22-year-old woman. “What’s in it for me?”
The 38-year-old man, who lived just a few miles from town, responded with a series of lewd messages. Smith asked for money. The email conversation moved to Facebook, where the man saw a photo of an attractive young blonde named Adrianna wearing nothing but body paint above the waist.
Smith, posing as Adrianna, asked three times to exchange money for sex before the man said he wasn’t working and didn’t have any cash.
The detective wasn’t dissuaded. “What are you offering?”
Sexual satisfaction and money at a later date, the man replied. The undercover detective agreed and told the man he could meet that same day. But the man had a transportation problem.
His mom was leaving too early to give him a ride. He called a cab. When that didn’t come, he started walking the 4 miles from his home.
Smith and another detective lay in wait at the hotel. When the man was late, they got in their car, found him walking along a Vernal street and arrested him.
This case was typical for Smith, who has posed as either a young girl or an adult woman seeking payment for sex dozens of times.
Police officials in Vernal say Smith’s efforts to thwart sexual solicitation are a priority for a department focused on protecting the community from predators. But some experts and defense attorneys say his techniques border on entrapment and could be creating crime — though none of the defendants have ever challenged the detective’s methods at trial.
“It seems like he has an obsession with these cases,” said defense attorney Loni DeLand, who has represented a handful of men caught in the stings.
A casual encounter
Utah’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force, run through the attorney general’s office, has trained Smith and provided money to Vernal police to conduct investigations involving suspects interested in preying on kids.
But most of the detective’s cases in recent years have revolved around adults seeking casual sex with other adults, according to police reports and court filings that detail about 30 of Smith’s investigations from 2015 until early 2018.
The decision to make sexual solicitation such a focus is not the norm in Utah. In fact, it’s such a rare crime that most agencies reported no sex solicitation arrests in 2017, according to an annual state crime report.
Smith had steadily applied for search warrants in these cases, but the requests abruptly stopped after The Salt Lake Tribune asked about them in February.
The newspaper inquired about Smith after a review of March 2017 warrants showed no officer in the state had filed more search warrant applications.
Assistant Chief Keith Campbell said the sudden stop had nothing to do with requests from reporters. He said Smith’s other work increased, and Vernal’s investigators are currently working on a crosswalk initiative.
But department leaders endorse the detective’s tactics, Campbell said, and support Smith’s efforts to keep the Vernal community — including the officer’s own family and children — safe from internet predators. Campbell suggested that the officer will return to working sex solicitation cases soon.
“If I had the ability to hire five more of him, I would multiply the number of cases this agency does by five,” the assistant chief said. “We are fortunate in this department in that we have Shaun Smith, who has the ability and expertise to do these kinds of cases. I know several other local agencies that would love to be able to work these cases at the level that Shaun does, but they don’t have the right people for them.”
There was a regular pattern to Smith’s investigations. He trolled Craigslist and responded to the sexually charged ads that caught his attention. In one case, a 24-year-old man from Orem wrote he was “looking for a beautiful lady” of any age to spend time with during an upcoming trip to Vernal. The ad included two photos of the man’s genitals — but made no mention of offering payment for sex.
The officer responded as both a 26-year-old woman and an underage girl. The suspect ignored the child, but began chatting with “Adrianna.”
“What’s in it for me?” the detective asked.
“What did you have in mind?” the man responded.
Adrianna made him an offer: Pay somewhere between $50 and $100 “depending on what you want,” and they could meet at a hotel room where she had a free voucher.
The man agreed, according to a police report, and a week of conversation ensued. They talked about work, their shared love of fishing and camping and what they looked for in potential partners. When the conversation turned flirtatious or sexual, Smith always reminded the man that there would be a payment involved.
“It’s gonna be awesome,” Smith wrote at one point. “But don’t forget my money.”
The man texted back, “As long as you don’t forget my kiss.”
After exchanging more than 200 text messages with the undercover detective, the man went to the hotel as planned, where he was arrested.
Campbell said Smith focused his efforts on only those men who were “bold” and “semi-aggressive.” But was this man a predator, as police saw him, or someone entangled in a rural department’s zealous pursuit of sex crimes, as his attorney says?
DeLand, who represented the 24-year-old man in court, says the text exchanges show his client wasn’t bold or aggressive.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “He was a college kid looking to get a little.”
Smith frequently posed as a woman who had a day job, but needed help paying bills — though she had a voucher for a free room at a Vernal hotel, where a room usually costs about $100. The suspect often agreed to pay an amount less than the value of the room for a tryst.
Even if the suspect never went to the hotel — and some didn’t — the conversation alone could violate Utah’s law prohibiting sexual solicitation, which says a crime is committed if someone “offers or agrees to commit any sexual activity with another individual for a fee.”
The suspects Smith arrested for sexual solicitation were then charged in justice courts with a misdemeanor. They often pleaded guilty at their first court dates. Nearly all received no jail time and instead were fined.
A growing interest
In a brief interview, Smith said his interest in these cases began several years ago, when he joined the attorney general’s efforts to catch child predators. While he was searching Craigslist for potential suspects interested in children, Smith noticed a “huge amount” of adult-seeking-adult ads.
“And just as an important as the children, I would put the same focus on the adults,” the detective said. “If you were to search Vernal [Craigslist] back then, you would see four pages of ads that were adults wanting sex from other adults. A lot of them were bold enough to put out money or drugs in exchange for sex. So that’s kind of where it piqued our interest and we went from there.”
A review of court records, search warrant affidavits and police reports show about 75 percent of Smith’s cases involved sex solicitation between two adults and almost every case originated with Smith responding to an ad on Craigslist. Most of the ads were completely legal — just seeking casual sex.
Campbell also touted the savvy undercover Facebook pages Smith created.
The page he maintained as Adrianna boasted 423 friends, with status updates ranging from “Headed to Vernal for some Water Parkin yay” to “Tequila makes her clothes come off LOL.”
It hosted four photos of what appear to be at least three different women. Campbell said in an initial interview that the photos were of people they knew connected to law enforcement, but reverse Google image searches revealed one was from a makeup blog by a Romanian woman and another from a TripAdvisor review posted by a London man.
This Facebook page, however, was deleted days after a Tribune reporter sought to clarify where the photos came from. Campbell said in an email that the profile was taken down because “it had been overused.”
“A new one will be created,” he wrote.
But if Smith does return to his work on these cases, the digital landscape has changed. Congress in March passed a bill banning websites from hosting sexual solicitation ads in an attempt to thwart child sex trafficking. The “casual encounters” page on Craigslist that Smith sleuthed habitually went dark that month, as did websites like backpage.com.
‘A considerable amount of time’
Smith still maintains a fake profile of an underage girl. And when he has engaged with a perpetrator seeking sex with a child, he takes a nearly identical approach each time. He’s a girl between 12 and 14 with no friends. She’s often self-deprecating and innocent, though always willing to play along enough to keep the man interested.
In one case, it took four days of conversation before the messages turned sexual.
The 21-year-old Oklahoma man asked what she was wearing. Pants and a pink-and-yellow shirt, she texted.
What color was her underwear? A silver matching set.
Would she cuddle with him?
She wrote: “Only if your nice and don’t hurt me.”
It was Christmas Eve 2016.
The first text came in at 4 a.m. By the end of the day, Smith had exchanged close to 100 messages with his suspect.
They wished each other Merry Christmas the next day and exchanged a few texts.
The relationship continued for months. They agreed to be boyfriend and girlfriend and wished each other a happy Valentine’s Day. Smith told the man if he visited from Oklahoma, the girl would cook him dinner.
“So is us being together just a dream of yours,” Smith texted the man three months into their correspondence, “or do you really want it to happen?”
The conversations were frequently sexually charged, the man often expressing his desire for the girl.
The man never set foot in Utah, but the texts alone gave Uintah County prosecutors enough evidence to slap him with four felonies, accusing him of soliciting and sexually exploiting a minor. The case in Utah didn’t go far, however. Charges were dismissed here and refiled in Oklahoma, where the man now faces a misdemeanor for violating that state’s Computer Crimes Act.
While most of the cases where Smith posed as an adult involved suspects who live in or traveled through the Uintah Basin, his cases involving a suspect seeking sex with a child usually involve out-of-state residents. Of the five cases detailed in court records and police files since 2014, the closest suspect to Vernal — and the only Utahn — came from Ogden.
Smith told The Tribune that the length of time he has spent on each case largely depends on whether he is posing as a girl or an adult. Those men seeking an adult will agree to pay for sex in a matter of hours or days, he said, while those interested in a child usually take more time.
“When you’re talking adult prosecutions, you can drive the conversation,” he said. “You can set the price, you can do all the work. When it comes to posing as a juvenile, you cannot make the conversation at all. The adult on the other end has to lead the conversation. So it will take a considerable amount of time.”
Eric Goldman, a Santa Clara University law professor who specializes in internet law, reviewed several of Smith’s investigations at The Tribune’s request. He said many of the tactics used are common across the country — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t problematic.
“I’m troubled when I see a law enforcement officer build up some rapport and trust with somebody and then present them with an illegal opportunity,” he said. “The person is supposed to be able to say, ‘I would never do that and I can’t believe we can have that conversation.’ But that’s not how people respond.”
Though the methods seemed typical, Goldman said he found it unusual for a police officer in Vernal to spend so much time conducting a “mind-numbing back-and-forth” with suspects who have little to no connection to the city he patrols.
But Jessica Farnsworth, Utah’s Internet Crimes Against Children commander, said she sees no problem with these out-of-state inquiries, given that people from different locations can easily connect online.
“We want our guys being proactive,” she said. “Would you rather have a child be sexually assaulted?"
What started with a handful of arrests in 2014 — two for solicitation and two for enticing a minor — increased fivefold by 2017. That year, Vernal police arrested 11 people suspected of sex solicitation and nine accused of enticing a minor.
When adjusted for population, only Salt Lake City police handled more prostitution cases.
Asked about how much time Smith and the department devote to sex solicitation, the assistant chief was vague.
“We only take the ones we can keep up with,” Campbell said, adding Smith will take more adult solicitation cases when his other caseload is low.
Smith said that if a man agrees to pay for sex within minutes of their first conversation, such behavior is “not out of character” for him. Arrests in sex solicitation cases reviewed by The Tribune were made between a day and a week after Smith contacted the suspect posing as an adult woman.
“A reasonable person would turn and walk away or say no,” Smith said. “And these guys don’t.”
During the first four months of 2017, Smith juggled conversations with at least seven men, according to police and court records.
On a Tuesday in March, Smith simultaneously exchanged messages with three men — eight with one suspect in Florida, nearly 120 with an Oklahoma resident and 19 with a Utah man. The next day, he exchanged 159 messages with the man in Florida, 31 messages with the Oklahoma suspect and 52 with the Utahn, whom Smith arrested later that day.
The way Salt Lake City police enforce the same crime is quite different than in Vernal. Sex solicitation is a visible crime, Detective Greg Wilking said, though it makes up a fairly insignificant part of the overall caseload. His officers see it all the time, on the streets and online. There is an organized task force to combat it.
Wilking said a lot of it is searching ads on websites, like the now-defunct backpage.com, where prostitutes post ads specifically stating they want to trade sex for money. Officers also go after brothels pretending to be legitimate massage parlors. They never follow up on ads where the poster doesn’t mention sex for a fee.
“I mean we are generally going after the ones we have identified,” Wilking said. “We don’t want to entrap someone who is just looking for a hookup.”
‘I’m ashamed of myself’
Public defender Lance Dean, who has represented more men in these sex solicitation cases than any other Uintah Basin attorney, said he feels Smith’s tactics border on entrapment. He has had cases that he would like to challenge in court — but his clients are eager to avoid a trial.
Utah law says a person was entrapped if a police officer’s methods create a “substantial risk” that a person commits a crime he or she would not have otherwise been ready to commit if not for the law enforcement officer.
“Conduct merely affording a person an opportunity to commit an offense does not constitute entrapment,” the statute reads.
Defense attorneys familiar with the cases say there are several issues with Smith’s investigations that could be challenged. They say the conversations are too leading and the offers too vague. Salt Lake City-based attorney Susanne Gustin, who reviewed several of the cases at The Tribune’s request, said she found the use of a hotel voucher particularly problematic. It could be argued that the defendant was just chipping in for the cost of the hotel and not for the sex itself.
“If a man takes his girlfriend to a hotel for sex and lets her use the hotel for the night, does that turn the encounter into an illegal ‘sex for hire’ scenario?” she said. “No.”
Vernal City Prosecutor Michael Harrington, who handles misdemeanors, said he has never seen any of Smith’s cases challenged. He said many factors could contribute to this, including that most defendants are first-time offenders whom he offers a plea deal with no jail time recommended.
“I have yet to review a solicitation case where I felt that any suspect had been entrapped as it is defined by Utah laws,” the prosecutor said.
In one case, a Colorado man posted on Craigslist last May looking for a Vernal woman for a “beneficial evening.” Instead, he was arrested at a city park after agreeing to pay $100 for sex. Once he got into the courtroom, he resolved his case quickly — waiving his right to an attorney and instead pleading guilty to sexual solicitation. He walked away with a $650 fine.
“Just a friendly reminder, this isn’t something we can do in our community, OK?” Judge Ray Richards told the man, according to a courtroom recording.
“I’m very sorry,” the man replied. “I’m ashamed of myself.”
Court records show about half the men caught in these stings resolve their cases similarly, by pleading guilty at their first court hearing without ever consulting an attorney. Instead, they take a deal.
Harrington explained that Richards reads a statement to the courtroom full of defendants, which includes information about their right to an attorney, before offering them a chance to meet with a prosecutor and discuss a plea agreement.
Courtroom recordings show many defendants in these cases do not officially waive their right to an attorney until they go before the judge — after the deal has already been made.
This is an “unconstitutional process,” according to David Carroll, the executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, an organization that researched Utah’s court system in 2015.
“Plea negotiations are what the U.S. Supreme Court has defined as a ‘critical stage,’ ” Carroll said. “That’s when you need the right to counsel. You can’t talk to a prosecutor, you’re not allowed to do that until you formally waive your right to counsel. You can only do that in front of a judge, individually. Not a group of all the people out there.”
Court records show that most of the defendants in the past several years have pleaded guilty to a class B misdemeanor but their fees have varied. Those who chose to represent themselves more often were given a $680 fee, while most who were represented by an attorney were given a lesser amount, often around $400.
For now, no Uintah County resident or man passing through town is facing such a misdemeanor, as Smith’s investigations into this sort of crime have stalled. But his boss said they’ll restart soon.
Even with the shuttering of Craigslist’s personal ads and backpage.com, Campbell said, perpetrators will find a new place online to purchase sex.
It could be on the dark web, Campbell opined, or somewhere else. He might not know the name of it now, but the next popular platform for soliciting sex online probably already exists.
And once they find out what it is, the Vernal Police Department will be there.