Raped by her trucking instructor, this Utah woman is suing the company saying it should have known about past complaints

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Within hours of meeting her assigned instructor with C.R. England Trucking, he took her to his truck in West Valley City and violently raped her. This Juab County woman is now suing, saying the trucking company didn't do enough to protect her and harassed her after the sexual assault with phone calls, emails and texts insisting that she either come back to training or pay back her tuition. Following a sit down interview at her lawyers's office, she looks out onto the Salt Lake Valley on Monday, June 17, 2019.

Training to be a truck driver was a way for this self-described “country girl” to learn new skills that she hoped to use to haul hay.

In the summer of 2017, she signed up to train with C.R. England Trucking — a Utah company that had good reviews and was recruiting women.

After several weeks of classroom instruction, the Juab County woman was ready to move into working one-on-one with a driver in his truck. But within hours of meeting Thorpe Steele, he violently raped her in the cramped sleeping area in the back of his tractor-trailer. He would later be charged and convicted. He’s in prison.

Now, this Utah woman is suing the trucking company, alleging it should have done more to protect her. Steele had a history of sexual assault complaints — including from a woman who said he groped her during a bus driver instruction course in Texas — yet C.R. England still hired him.

The traumatic experience was made worse, the Utah woman said, when the trucking company barraged her with phone calls, emails and texts insisting that she either come back to the training program just days after she was raped — or pay back the money it had loaned her for the full tuition.

“They basically put me in danger the moment they hired my attacker,” she said. “C.R. England just swept it under the rug and didn’t take care of the problem.”

The company released a statement Monday that disputes some details of the woman’s statements but not any related to the assault.

‘They made me relive it’

After the woman first met Steele, he described basic instructions as they sat side by side in his tractor-trailer, still parked in the C.R. England Trucking lot in Salt Lake County. He told her about the truck’s log, how to run the truck and his rules.

But then, he started showing the woman several knives he had stashed, according to the lawsuit filed Monday. Knives, he told her, did more harm than guns.

(Courtesy of the Washington County jail) Thorpe Steele has been convicted of raping a woman in the summer of 2017 during a training session to learn to drive a tractor-trailer.

And as he was showing her the small sleeping quarters, he told her that “what happens in the truck, stays in the truck.” He then grabbed her from behind and raped her.

After Steele left, the woman got out of the truck and told some employees what had happened. She said management responded by putting her in a small, windowless room and asked if she wanted the police to be called.

She sat there, alone and in pain, for what felt like “forever” until the police came. She didn’t know where Steele was or if he could come find her.

“Nobody was there to be with me and protect me,” she said in a recent interview. “They threw me in a room, and I didn’t feel protected at all.”

The woman said she was not allowed to leave until she filled out a statement for the company.

It was a few days later when the constant stream of phone calls, texts and emails started. The trucking company wanted her to return that Monday, she was told, or she’d have to pay it back for her training. One human resources employee accused her of making up the sexual assault so she could leave the training program, according to the lawsuit.

She remembers still being in pain from the sexual assault as the calls kept coming.

“They made me relive it basically every time that they brought it up,” she said.

But she couldn’t go back. It was too traumatizing.

Ultimately, the communication stopped after the trucking company had the woman sign a release of claims and liability — a document that the woman’s attorney argues is not enforceable.

C.R. England Trucking said Monday it did not pressure the woman to return to training and “relieved” her of her tuition obligation. The company also said it placed a “driver advocate” with her in a private room until police arrived.

“Once we heard of these serious allegations in 2017, we were shocked and saddened to hear about this deplorable behavior by Mr. Steele,” Lisa Callister, C.R. England’s vice president of human resources, said in a prepared statement. “We took immediate action by contacting West Valley City police, assisted in its independent investigation, and conducted our own internal investigation.”

Callister said Steele was immediately fired, and the company helped in the criminal trial.

“Regarding the hiring of Mr. Steele, we perform thorough criminal background checks for all of our employees,” Callister said. "The background check of Mr. Steele prior to his hire revealed no criminal history whatsoever. Nor had we received any prior complaints about Mr. Steele. We do not condone or tolerate sexual harassment or misconduct of any type.”

‘A sexual predator’

Steele was charged later that year with rape and forcible sodomy. In January, a jury found him guilty of both charges and months later, he was sentenced to a five-year-to-life prison term.

He is appealing his conviction, according to court records.

As his case moved through the court system, two other women wrote statements saying that Steele had groped them years earlier when he was living in Texas and working as a school bus driver.

The woman’s lawsuit alleges C.R. England Trucking should have done a more thorough job combing through his past before hiring him and putting him in a position of power. Her attorney, Michael Young, alleges in the court filing that other female trucker trainees in Utah had complained about improper contact and threats from Steele before he sexually assaulted his client.

“C.R. England hired a sexual predator to train and educate students in their driving program,” Young said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune. “Had C.R. England exercised even the slightest amount of care, they would have learned this man had a history of predatory behavior and that he should not have ever been placed in a position of trust and authority. Unfortunately, when the inevitable happened and their trainer raped my client, this billion-dollar company responded by accusing my client of fabricating the entire story and then pressured and bullied her into signing a release in an effort to protect the company from liability.”

The Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.

The woman said her assault has led to three wasted years, but she sees her lawsuit as a way to stand up for herself.

The experience has left her living in fear and anxiety. She’s not the bubbly person she once was, and it’s affected her relationship with her wife and their daughter.

“They need to be held accountable for what’s going on and not just sweep it under the rug,” she said. “So I want to do this for the other women and for myself.”