Roosevelt • Darin Thomas had been yearning for his day in court.

After a year of facing accusations that cost him his job and reputation, he was ready to defend himself in front of a jury. To let his community in this rural Utah town know that he didn’t do the things he had been accused of. To tell them he felt he had been set up by a police officer who tried to trick him.

But that day never came.

Initially, Thomas had faced serious charges, ones he refers to as “the heinous crimes.” Duchesne County prosecutors had accused him of making plans to sexually assault a child — but a judge threw out those charges late last year, finding there was no evidence to prove the case.

But Thomas still faced one misdemeanor, an allegation that he had agreed to pay an undercover officer for sex.

Alongside his defense attorney, Thomas had been preparing for the trial for months, combing through old text exchanges and other evidence to try to prove that he was innocent.

And then the night before the trial, his attorney got a call.

There was a mix-up and police officers hadn’t served a subpoena to a woman he knew was involved in the undercover sting — the only non-law enforcement witness in the case. As a result, prosecutors planned to ask for the final charge to be dropped. And it was.

After a year, he was no longer facing any criminal charges or threat of imprisonment.

At first, Thomas felt relief. But then reality set in.

His job was still in limbo at the local school district, where he had worked in maintenance for more than two decades. People still gave him looks when he went into stores in their small Uinta Basin town. Anyone looking up his name online saw news stories about the crimes he had been accused of.

“Your life is still gone,” he said. “The relief is great, but it’s like nothing really changes. You still try to go to the store and keep your head up. It’s been hell, and it’s going to be for awhile.”

He was supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. And if that was too naive, he thought at least he would have a chance to prove his innocence and beat the charges. But Thomas says he has been ostracized in Roosevelt, a small town that covers less than 6 square miles sandwiched between vast oil reserves and Indian reservations in the Uinta Basin.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Main Street in Roosevelt on Tuesday May 14, 2019.

And with the chance of a trial now gone, there’s nothing else Thomas can do. He’s stuck knowing that there are people in his community who will never believe him when he says the allegations weren’t true.

He’s built a life and a home in this town, but now he’s nearly ready to leave it all behind.

‘They just don’t care’

How did Thomas end up here?

Police began investigating the 49-year-old last year after a woman told her probation officer that a man was paying her for sex and he wanted her to find underage girls to bring into their relationship.

At that time, the woman was in trouble with the law, according to court records, and worked with police in order to get a more lenient outcome for herself.

Her parole agent called a detective one town over who had received training with the attorney general’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force.

Vernal police Detective Shaun Smith took over the woman’s phone and pretended to be her in text conversations with Thomas, telling him she had found young teens for a possible tryst.

Thomas recalled texting on and off with the woman for about a week, and the topic of 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.

They never made concrete plans for an encounter with anyone underage.

Still, Smith eventually got a search warrant and arrested Thomas. He spent 11 days in jail before he was charged with serious crimes that could have landed him in prison for possibly the rest of his life.

A judge last year tossed most of the charges, finding there was not evidence to show Thomas took “substantial steps” to plan to have sex with a child.

Though Thomas was only facing the misdemeanor sex solicitation count after the ruling, defense attorney James Lewis said they were gearing up for the day-long trial in late April as a way to vindicate Thomas.

“By that time, Darin’s life had essentially been destroyed by these baseless charges that had been brought against him,” Lewis said. “It’s basically ruined his life up there.”

Lewis planned to argue at trial that Thomas never agreed to pay for sex and the text messages that implied a payment were too vague.

The text messages that prosecutors alleged showed Darin Thomas solicited a woman for sex:
Detective Shaun Smith (posing as the woman): running around gotta get some more alcohol lol
Thomas: Lol
Thomas: Isn’t the liquor store open?
Detective Smith: ya but im broke lol
Thomas: Come make some money, lol
Detective Smith: lol how much?
Thomas: 100 for every thing, one time only lol
Detective Smith: really?nice. whats everything lol
Thomas: Like always
Detective Smith: ...so what would I need to do for 200?

He had also planned to argue that the detective had entrapped Thomas by posing as someone with whom he had a long relationship and enticed him to possibly commit a crime he would not have done otherwise.

A courtroom battle that wasn’t

It would have been the first time someone challenged Smith’s investigative techniques surrounding sex solicitation cases — which some experts and defense attorneys say border on entrapment and could be creating crime.

A Salt Lake Tribune investigation published last September found that Smith has posed as a woman or young girl and asked men to pay for sex online dozens of times. He most often trolled websites such as Craigslist and responded to sexually charged ads that caught his attention. Most of the ads were legal, posted by men seeking casual sex.

(Photo courtesy of UB Media) Detective Shaun Smith was named Vernal Police Department's Officer of the Year in April 2013.

Though some have questioned Smith’s tactics, no one had ever challenged the detective’s methods at trial. In more than 30 cases reviewed by The Tribune, Thomas is the only person who had tried to fight the charges.

Nearly every other defendant took a deal, often pleading guilty at their first court dates without an attorney. Almost all received no jail time and instead were fined.

But Thomas’ case was different, because the sex solicitation count was tied to much more serious charges. By the time the case was supposed to go to trial in late April, Thomas and his attorney were ready for a courtroom battle.

It seemed the Duchesne County prosecutors weren’t as keen on fighting for his conviction.

Court documents show the prosecutors had planned to offer no exhibits in the trial, and were relying on testimony from only three witnesses: Smith, the woman who was working with police and the probation agent.

“I just don’t think they recognized the seriousness of it before they bring these charges,” Lewis said. “Here’s a guy that was posing as another person and, in my mind, conjuring up crimes. There was all sorts of misconduct involved, or incompetence. They just didn’t care. They didn’t seem to care about getting to the actual truth.”

Neither Deputy Duchesne County Attorney Grant Charles nor Vernal police officials — including Smith — responded to requests for comment for this story.

Thomas is considering filing a civil lawsuit against prosecutors and Smith, saying he feels frustrated that his life is still in shambles while those in power face no consequence.

The prosecutors will continue in their jobs. And Smith, the officer who posed undercover, was recently promoted to sergeant.

‘I’m going to have to go’

It was a spring day just a few weeks ago when Thomas was at his horse property with his daughter and young grandchildren. They were tending to his horses, when they heard yelling.

A neighbor had stormed out of her home and started shouting for her children to get inside and to not ask any questions about why.

Thomas’ heart sank. He felt like he knew the reason.

This type of treatment in Roosevelt has become common. When he went to his gym days after he had bailed out of jail, he was told by staffers that he wasn’t welcome there.

And his job with the school district is still in flux. He had been put on leave without pay, but was told at some point he would be terminated. Now, he says district officials have cut off communication.

Duchesne County School District Superintendent Dave Brotherson wouldn’t comment about Thomas’ job status, saying he couldn’t talk about personnel issues.

Thomas has been working as a contractor in the meantime, but even that doesn’t bring in a lot of work when any potential customer can Google his name and see the allegations he once faced.

What is keeping him in this small town is his home, a sprawling brick house with marble flooring and high ceilings that sits perched near the top of a subdivision of newer homes just west of Roosevelt’s historic Main Street.

He’s spent the past five years building the home himself. It’s his dream house, the result of years of hard work.

But after that day when his neighbor whisked her children inside, he worries that he won’t be able to rebuild his reputation in a town so small.

“That’s the stuff that makes you want to leave,” he said. “I think I’m going to have to go.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Darin Thomas at his Roosevelt home on Tuesday May 14, 2019.