After facing serious charges for the past eight months, Darin Thomas was starting to lose hope.
He was accused of making plans to sexually assault a child. He lost his job at a school district. His mugshot was broadcast on television and printed in newspapers. He spent 11 days behind bars. He felt abandoned by those closest to him, that his reputation was ruined.
“It’s just a destroyer,” Thomas said of the accusations. “It destroys everything.”
But Thomas said he was innocent, and believes he was tricked by an undercover officer who posed as a woman he knew.
A judge last week tossed all of the charges, except for one misdemeanor, against Thomas. It’s a relief for the Duchesne County man, who says now he’ll try to get his job back.
“It’s just not right,” he said. “I don’t want this to happen to anybody else. It’s just a horrible thing, but what a relief to have the judge do the right thing.”
‘It was a setup’
Police began investigating Thomas earlier this year after a woman told her probation officer that she knew a man who was paying her for sex and he wanted her to find underage girls to bring into their relationship.
She was in trouble with the law herself, according to court records, and had been working as a police informant.
The woman’s parole agent called Vernal Police Detective Shaun Smith — who received training with the attorney general’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force — to take on the case.
The woman met with police in a Roosevelt hotel room, according to court records, where Smith told her he would take over her phone and pretend to be her in conversations with Thomas.
Smith, posing as the woman, first told Thomas that he had found 17-year-old and 14-year-old girls for a possible tryst. But in later conversations, Smith changed the age of the younger girl to 13 — so any possible crime could be charged more harshly because a 13-year-old is legally defined as a “child” while a 14-year-old is considered a “minor.”
Smith later wrote in a search warrant that Thomas agreed to pay for sex with the woman and they discussed various sex acts the man wanted to do with the young teens. The officer also claimed in court papers that Thomas had asked for nude photos of the girls.
Thomas told The Salt Lake Tribune that he repeatedly said he only wanted to be with the woman he knew — but the woman kept insisting that she had the young girls staying at her home and couldn’t get rid of them.
“The way Shaun Smith talked to me, it was just a set-up from the get-go,” he said. “He entrapped me the whole time. It just wasn’t right.”
Neither Duchesne County prosecutors nor Vernal police officials — including Smith — responded to requests for comment for this story.
Thomas recalled texting on and off with the woman for about a week, and the topic of the underage girls kept coming up. He said he did make some sexual comments about the fictitious girls — but he thought it was a sort of fantasy driven by the woman. He never wanted to have sex with anyone underage, he said.
Days later, Smith and half a dozen agents with the Internet Crimes Against Children task force descended on Thomas’s Roosevelt home.
While he was getting arrested, Thomas remembers Smith saying, “It took me a week to get you to say the wrong thing.”
The agents then searched his home, and took every electronic device he had to search for child pornography. (No illegal images were found.)
Thomas spent a week and a half in jail before he was allowed to post bail.
“I was in shock,” he said. “How can this be? I had no idea what was even going on.”
Thomas was charged with serious crimes. Conspiracy to rape a child. Conspiracy to sodomize a child. Conspiracy to have unlawful sexual activity with a minor. If convicted of any of the charges, he could have faced the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.
Thomas had worked for 24 years at the Duchesne County School District, supervising the maintenance department. After he was charged, the district put him on leave without pay, and recently began the termination process. Thomas is appealing.
‘Danger of abuse’
A Salt Lake Tribune investigation published in September found that Smith posed as a woman or young girl and asked men to pay for sex online dozens of times. He most often trolled websites like Craigslist and responded to sexually charged ads that caught his attention. Most of the ads were legal, posted by men seeking casual sex.
When Smith responded to the ads, he often asked the men to exchange money for sex. If they agreed, he arrested them for solicitation. This is an unusual tactic for Utah police.
Some experts and defense attorneys said Smith’s techniques border on entrapment and could be creating crime — but none of the defendants ever challenged the detective’s methods at trial. In more than 30 cases reviewed by The Tribune, Thomas was the only person to dispute the allegations in court.
Thomas said he felt Smith twisted his words and manipulated him.
“He preys on people,” Thomas said. “He does not care if you are innocent or guilty. He throws these horrendous charges on you without evidence. Now I’m branded.”
Thomas’ attorney asked for the charges to be tossed, arguing in court papers that his client never actually asked for child pornography in the conversations. They did discuss sending photos, defense attorney Loni DeLand wrote, but Thomas specifically asked that the photos be clothed. The most damning statement — ”I’m tittering between wanting to see everything and not” — was not a request to see nude photos, the attorney argued.
The most serious charges alleged a “conspiracy,” arguing that Thomas had made an agreement to commit sexual acts on children. But DeLand, who previously worked on the case, said that the conversations were vague, and Thomas could not agree to commit a crime because there was “no true co-conspirator.” Smith and the woman were acting on behalf of the government, he wrote, and did not intend to commit the crimes that were being discussed.
Eighth District Judge Clark McClellan agreed, writing in a court ruling that a one-sided agreement can “introduce the danger of abuse by a government agent manufacturing the crime.”
“In fact, the court notes that the detective in this matter was the one who initiated the idea of finding a 13-year-old girl for the defendant’s relationship,” the judge ruled.
Defense attorney James Lewis, who is Thomas’ current attorney, said if the judge had not dismissed the charges, the next step likely would have been to evaluate whether Thomas had a viable entrapment defense.
Thomas is still facing a single charge — a sex solicitation charge for allegedly agreeing to pay the woman he knew $100 for sex. Lewis said he might ask for the charge to be dropped.
But Thomas said, for now, he’s relieved that the judge tossed the felony charges. He hopes that now that he’s no longer accused, he can get his job back at the school district and reclaim as much of his old life as possible.