Charges dropped against ex-Red Rock Canyon School employee accused of child abuse

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Red Rock Canyon School in St. George. Tuesday, July 9, 2019.

Prosecutors have dropped a child abuse charge against a staff member at a now-shuttered school for troubled youth who had been accused of assaulting a girl during a riot.

Gino Sanchez, 39, was charged last June with the class A misdemeanor. Prosecutors allege he punched a 17-year-old girl in the face and pulled her hair during an April riot that broke out at Red Rock Canyon School, which closed in August amid intense scrutiny over its treatment of youths.

The 128-bed facility provided residential treatment for youths ages 12 to 18 — a mix of teens whose parents pay for them to stay there, out-of-state foster children and some who are ordered to be there by a judge.

Red Rock had also been frequently visited by police investigating staffers for child abuse, drugs and sex crimes, according to a Salt Lake Tribune investigation.

Sanchez was the sixth staffer in 2019 alone who had been charged with child abuse — and the only one to have his case dropped.

Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap said Wednesday that prosecutors asked for the case to be dismissed because they have lost contact with the victim. Without her testimony, he said, the case could not move forward.

Sanchez's attorney, Daniel Tober, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that his client was grateful that prosecutors dropped the charges.

Tober wrote that they believe the evidence would have exonerated his client, and said Sanchez was not at fault for the riot. Sanchez became the fall guy, the attorney said, for school owners and operators who were “happy to allow blame to fall on him in hopes of taking the focus off them.”

“Mr. Sanchez believes the school was not following mandatory state safety guidelines which created the opportunity for the youth to riot, and did not provide the staff with enough resources, including personnel, to stop it,” Tober said. “When the riot started, Mr. Sanchez only defended himself and others, sustaining multiple injuries in the process. He did not assault or seek to hurt anyone.”

The April 28 riot left five youths injured. Several students and staffers later told police that violence had escalated that evening after Sanchez called a group of young girls “thirsty hoes,” “bitches” and “horny little girls” before ordering them back to their rooms, according to nearly 100 pages of police reports released to The Tribune.

These comments upset the girls, they later told police, and they confronted Sanchez.

Charging documents say that two school employees watched Sanchez yell at the girls in the courtyard, go up a flight of stairs, then grab the girl by the hair and punch her in the face. A third staff member reported that she watched the girl punch another staff member, then Sanchez hit the girl in the forehead.

Sanchez told police the girl attacked him, according to charges, and he pushed her back and away from him “with an open hand.”

“Sanchez denied punching [the girl],” charging documents state, “saying that if he did there would be injuries.”

Sequel Youth and Family Services, the company that owns the facility, announced in July it would close the school, saying it had not “consistently delivered on our mission.” It also announced days later that it would shutter a second treatment center, Mount Pleasant Academy, due to low enrollment. The company continues to operate two other facilities in Utah.

Two other former Red Rock Canyon School staffers, Lausii Sewell and Nathan Sorensen, still have cases pending alleging that they abused children in their care.

Two women, Pulemau Latu and Lealavatualua Grohse, admitted over the summer that they assaulted a student in a bathroom. They were ordered to pay fines, complete community service and take anger management classes. Their pleas were held in abeyance, meaning the child abuse charge will be dismissed if they complete these requirements and commit no new crimes.

Even after the school closed, police investigations into staff misconduct continued.

Officials in California announced in October they were filing charges against a former staffer after confirming he had fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl who had been student.

St. George police also recently investigated a separate report of sexual assault, after a woman called the police after the riot and told them her daughter said she had been forced to engage in a sex act with a staffer while at the facility.

Police found a man who had worked there with the same first name, but he denied the allegations and said he worked in a boys unit and didn’t interact with girls. Prosecutors declined to file charges, and the case was closed.