A Utah woman reported a sexual assault — but ended up facing a criminal charge herself for asking the state to pay for her rape kit

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Sample Rape Kit. Thursday, January 26, 2017.

She asked the state to pay for her rape kit and, as a result, she ended up charged with a crime, accused of making a fraudulent claim. This St. George woman even spent time in jail.

And then, nine months later, it all just went away.

Prosecutors backed off and dropped the case. Authorities involved, from St. George to Salt Lake City, are pointing fingers at one another as to how these charges — rare in Utah — even got filed.

What happened here? It’s unclear. But the woman’s defense lawyer is frustrated and worries about the effect such a flawed process might have on other victims considering whether to report a sexual assault.

“Just because charges were not filed based on her report does not mean a crime did not occur and she was not a victim,” attorney Amy Powers said. “My concern is this case will perpetuate the stigma that prevents victims from coming forward.”

The accusation

The woman called St. George police on a March afternoon in 2017, reporting that she had just been bound with tape and forced to perform a sex act on an acquaintance after he shot her up with drugs.

The encounter ended, she reported, after she bit him and was able to escape.

Police officers took the woman to the hospital, where she had a sexual assault examination completed. Investigators took her clothing as evidence, and found clear tape in the home that had hair on it and appeared to have been “wrapped around something.”

But as a detective began to question the woman further, a police report reads, she started changing her story.

She eventually told investigators she had met up with the man to get drugs but still maintained that she was sexually assaulted.

The man denied having sexual contact with the woman, telling investigators she had offered sex in exchange for heroin because she had no money. He denied, he said, and gave her the drugs for free.

Officers examined his body. They found no bite marks, though the alleged victim had told officers she “bit him as hard as she could.”

After consulting with a prosecutor in May 2017, St. George police decided to close the case. No charges would be filed against the man.

‘Not justice’

St. George police and Washington County prosecutors never considered filing a case against the woman for her report. So how did the woman end up facing a charge herself in a Salt Lake City courtroom 300 miles away?

Ask the agencies involved in the case why it was filed, and no one is eager to take responsibility. The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office filed the case in court but points the finger at state investigators with the Department of Public Safety for bringing limited information to a prosecutor tasked with making the call. DPS officials say they were acting on a referral from the Utah Office for Victims of Crime and say the ultimate decision falls to the prosecutor. The director for the crime victims office would not discuss why it referred the case to investigators — but also said it has no authority to decide if a charge should be filed.

However it came to be, the woman in February found herself facing a class A misdemeanor. She came to Salt Lake City for one court date this summer, but a warrant for her arrest was issued in August when she didn’t show up at another hearing.

She was arrested in Washington County late one evening in early September, according to jail officials. She left the facility in the early morning hours after hiring a bondsman to help her make $500 bail.

A prosecutor finally asked for the charge to be tossed just weeks ago “in the interest of justice,” according to court records.

Powers, the woman’s attorney, said that while dismissing the charge was the right thing to do, it’s a case that never should have been filed.

“For someone to be traumatized again through the judicial system, both through the case and her actual imprisonment, is not justice,” she said.

The Salt Lake Tribune does not generally identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

‘We do not want to discourage victims’

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said that a charge was initially filed in February based on limited information that a prosecutor received from a Department of Public Safety investigator, who wrote in charging documents that the woman “misrepresented the facts of the crime” when she submitted a $750 medical bill — the cost of a rape kit — to the state office that provides compensation for crime victims.

Gill said that once a prosecutor looked at the case more closely, it became clear that the woman did not receive any money herself — the payment went through a rape recovery center in Washington County that had helped her after she reported the crime.

As the situation became clear, Gill said, his office decided it was proper to dismiss the case. He could not explain why it took nine months to reach this conclusion.

“Whether the underlying [report] was valid or not is a determination to be made by the Washington County Attorney’s Office,” he said, adding that if prosecutors there had thought the victim was lying about the assault, the better option would be to charge her with making a false police report.

Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap said there’s no paper trail indicating his office ever considered filing charges against the alleged victim — and, in fact, there wasn’t any documentation that her case was formally screened for charges against the man she said assaulted her.

The police report seems to suggest that the officer who investigated the case had an informal conversation with a prosecutor before closing it.

“After our discussion, we concluded no further action would be taken due to lack of evidence,” the officer wrote. “[The woman’s] account of the incident is inconsistent with the evidence gathered during the investigation.”

Brian Redd, director of the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations, said a DPS investigator took on the case after it was referred by the Utah Office for Victims of Crime as a possible fraudulent claim. Redd said the investigator did not do much independent work, but gathered some materials and brought it to prosecutors in Salt Lake County — where the crime victims office is located — for possible charges.

It was an unusual step for government officials to take against someone claiming to be a victim. Redd said his office receives referrals like this occasionally, noting it’s an issue that is “very sensitive” to both his department and those who work at the crime victims office.

“We do not want to discourage victims from reporting crime,” he said.

Gary Scheller, director of the Utah Office for Victims of Crime, said he couldn’t discuss the woman’s case specifically because benefit claims are considered private. He said his office will bring cases to investigators if there are “issues of concern.”

Scheller said it’s a “widespread myth” that false reports to police are common, but he did not detail what it was about this specific case that made his office believe it was fraud.

“We have gone to great lengths, and we know the Department of Public Safety and the Salt Lake County district attorney have also, to prevent to the best way we responsibly can, taking any actions which could possibly be misconstrued to promote myths or in any way chill or hinder a person victimized in any manner from coming forward to seek help,” Scheller wrote in an email.

There is a specific charge in Utah tied directly to allegations of fraud against Scheller’s office. The severity of the charge, called “fraudulent crime victim reparations claim,” depends on the amount of money an alleged victim is trying to fraudulently claim. Because the cost of her rape kit was valued at greater than $500, but less than $1,500, the woman faced a class A misdemeanor. This carries heavier penalties than if prosecutors would have charged her with filing a false police report, which is a class B misdemeanor and carries a potential penalty of up to six months in jail.

Before this case, court records indicate that only two other people have faced criminal sanctions for a fraudulent crime victim reparations claim in the past five years and they were connected. That case involved a man and a woman filing a claim in 2016 seeking more than $1,000 in benefits after the man reported he was sexually assaulted.

But investigators wrote in charging documents that the case against the alleged assailant was dismissed because the 19-year-old man admitted he made up the allegation and also lied about his age. Their cases are still pending — arrest warrants were issued shortly after the charges were filed in 2017, and they’ve never been located.