Special report: Young sex abuse survivors, backed by a county attorney, say a new Utah law deprived them of justice

Serial abusers should be tried and punished in adult court, they say.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Annie, now 20, was 16-years old when a classmate in high school raped her and then told her from that moment on, "You're my girlfriend, but I'm not your boyfriend." From that moment on, he stalked her almost daily. San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws said he wanted to prosecute Annie's attacker in adult court for sexual assault, but a gap in the law prevented him from doing so.

Editor’s note: To protect their privacy, The Salt Lake Tribune has agreed to change the names of sexual abuse survivors in this story.

San Juan County • Annie hadn’t planned to tell anyone her high school boyfriend raped her during her junior year. That he ignored her pleas to stop when he started pulling at her clothes, or how she held her arms tight to her chest trying to keep them on.

She didn’t tell anyone how he ordered her to perform oral sex or have intercourse — though she told him she didn’t want to do either. That after he raped her, he said, “You’re mine now.”

Four years later, in 2020, Annie’s abuser was accused of raping another minor and Annie’s name came up in the investigation. That’s when she told a police officer what happened.

“I was raised to do the right thing, even if you don’t want to or if it’s hard,” the now-20-year-old woman recalled in a recent interview. “You’re still supposed to, because in the end, it’s worth it.”

Her ex-boyfriend was convicted in only Annie’s case, though he was initially accused of abusing others. By the time his case moved through the court system, Annie hardly felt like speaking up was worth it.

Her abuser was 20 years old when charged. He pleaded guilty to rape and sexual exploitation of a minor in juvenile court, entering those pleas nine days before his 21st birthday. Juvenile Justice Services loses its ability to impose sanctions when a person turns 21.

He also pleaded guilty to more minor sex crimes and to stalking in the adult system. He stalked Annie after he turned 18 so he was legally an adult and could be charged as one.

In the end, the young man’s punishment for all of his crimes was one year of home confinement.

Fighting serial sex abusers

The light sentence didn’t feel like justice to Annie.

And it doesn’t feel like justice to San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws, who says a recent effort to keep kids out of prisons created a legal loophole. Young perpetrators who have abused multiple victims are getting lenient sentences, he said, because prosecutors can no longer ask a judge to push their cases into the adult system.

If that happened, as Laws wanted, Annie’s abuser could have faced a five-year-to-life sentence for a rape conviction.

This case isn’t an anomaly.

The county attorney shared the story of a young man accused of sexual crimes involving 11 girls. He admitted to five felony charges but was only sentenced to 10 days in lockup and probation.

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify youths charged with or convicted of crimes unless their cases have been certified to the adult court.

Laws warned the San Juan County School District of a “developing rape culture” in August, aftering seeing an increase in cases where teen boys have been accused of sexually assaulting multiple girls.

Teen dating violence is an issue that extends far beyond San Juan County, according to Liliana Arbon, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, though survivors can be more reluctant to seek support in small towns.

“We have some barriers, obviously, when it comes to reporting in our rural communities because of that fear of [a lack of] anonymity,” Arbon said. “There’s still so much stigma to sexual violence that there’s a lot of hesitation.”

Arbon said funding resource centers and early prevention programs for youth are keys to addressing the issue and empowering survivors to report crimes.

Laws is working with the school district and victim advocates in his area to expand sexual education programs, placing a heavy emphasis on teaching kids about consent.

But the San Juan County attorney said he’d also like the Legislature to fix what he sees as a mistake.

“I would like to see victims of crime, especially this type of crime, get their rights back in juvenile court,” Laws said, “and to be afforded the same rights as the victims in district court.”

When teens are tried as adults

In early 2020, Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, urged his fellow legislators to limit when youths could be sent into the adult system.

“The way we treat our young people in the criminal justice system,” he said on the House floor, “speaks to how we feel, in our state, about our young people.”

The bill was in response to a spike in Utah kids as young as 14 being sent to adult court for offenses such as property crimes. It passed unanimously.

Now, teenagers over the age of 16 can only be sent to adult court for the most serious offenses, such as aggravated rape and aggravated arson. Youths who are 14 and 15 can go to adult court only if accused of murder or aggravated murder.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Annie, now 20, was 16 when a classmate in high school raped her. San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws said he wanted to prosecute Annie's attacker in adult court for sexual assault, but a gap in the law prevented him from doing so.

Laws said he couldn’t prosecute Annie’s abuser as an adult because, while the young man faced accusations of rape and sodomy, they weren’t on the list of “aggravated” crimes. An aggravated sexual assault charge is used when someone rapes a victim while using a weapon, during a kidnapping or causes serious injuries.

The San Juan County attorney argues this new legislation has gone too far and believes the old law had appropriate safeguards.

In each instance, prosecutors had to show it was in the public’s best interest for the accused to face much harsher penalties in the adult court, while a judge also weighed whether it served the child better to remain in the juvenile system.

Laws said he’s only tried to certify one case, for a Moab teen whose reckless driving caused the death of two of his classmates. It ended in a plea deal.

If it’s not an option to move the cases to the adult system, Laws said, he’d like to see the juvenile system retain jurisdiction on sex crime cases or serial offenders until a young person is 25. That’s currently what happens for youths who are charged with an “aggravated” crime.

While he supports rehabilitation for young offenders, there should also be more consideration for the abused. Frustrated, Laws said, “Victims can’t get treated as these girls did.”

The impact of reform proposals

Snow has sponsored juvenile justice proposals every year since 2017 and he’s open to more changes, but said they have to focus on the best outcomes for society.

Sending kids to adult prison, Snow said, shouldn’t be taken lightly because teens don’t get treatment in prison.

“We have to keep them in solitary confinement in order to protect them,” he said.

New data shows the reforms Snow helped pass are working as intended. Juvenile Justice Services announced earlier this month that it’s seen a 46% reduction of low-risk youth in locked detention centers since 2017.

Brett Peterson, the director of Utah’s Juvenile Justice Services, said the latest reforms are backed by research that shows sending teenagers to prison leads to worse results. Youths reoffend more often, he said, and usually in more violent ways.

“We’re always concerned with victims’ interest and public safety,” he said. “[But] sending kids into the adult system doesn’t improve public safety.”

Peterson said the goal of the juvenile system is rehabilitation and age-appropriate treatment, even for youths accused of horrendous crimes.

The San Juan community reacts

In the fall of 2019, 11 girls would eventually tell police that a boy committed sex crimes against them. Two of those girls talked to The Tribune, described here as Andie and Ally, to protect their privacy.

Andie was 16 when she was assaulted, and said she was open to a friendship with the boy because she recently moved to San Juan County and didn’t know many people.

But, as she later told a juvenile judge, the boy harassed her for nude photos and often begged for sex. She always said no. At his house one day, though, he kept kissing her and trying to take her clothes off.

“He started, you know, being all over me and I started to realize what was going to happen,” she told The Tribune. “I didn’t do anything about it. I just let it happen. I didn’t stop him. I was terrified. And I froze.”

Andie felt numb as he drove her back to school. She didn’t tell anyone.

Ally was raped by the same boy on homecoming night. She was 15 at the time and he invited her back to his house with their friends after the dance.

She said he pressured her to have sex, but she told him she didn’t want to. Ally agreed to go to his room and kiss. She said he became aggressive — choking her as he had sex with her, even as she told him no.

Ally told a few friends what happened and after the police became involved, people in town started to talk.

She was dating another boy by the time her allegations were public, someone who she said treated her well. His parents forced them to separate, Ally said, worried she would accuse him of the same.

“So we had to break up,” she said, “because I got raped.”

The boy admitted to two counts of rape and three charges of sexual exploitation of a minor. Juvenile court records show he was ordered to complete treatment and probation for three months, which included a 10-day sentence in juvenile detention.

Andie, now 18, hoped she would feel better after her abuser was sentenced. That it would help the bad dreams and panic attacks and flashbacks. It didn’t.

“It wasn’t just me,” she said, tears in her eyes. “It was a lot of girls. And for him to get off that easy? I just felt like I didn’t get the justice I was hoping to get.”

Defense attorney Tara Isaacson represents the boy. She said her client spent months in an inpatient treatment center specifically for juvenile offenders, and also underwent extensive evaluations that the judge used at his sentencing.

“Placing a 16-year-old into an adult jail or prison is detrimental to the juvenile, and ultimately does not make the community safer,” she said. “This is an example of the system working the way it is supposed to. This juvenile has had significant consequences, while also receiving treatment so that he does not reoffend.”

Teaching consent

The reported assaults have become a wake-up call in San Juan County.

In August, Laws addressed the school board and warned of a “developing rape culture” among the county’s students, which included victim blaming, a normalization of sexual violence and failure to believe survivors’ stories.

Local law enforcement had averaged four reports of sexual offenses annually between 2000 and 2010, according to Laws’ report, but that number jumped to 19 over the past decade, with the vast majority of cases involving students in Blanding and Monticello.

Tess Barger, director of client services at Seekhaven, a Moab-based sexual assault and domestic violence resource center, said she sees a shift nationally, where survivors are more comfortable speaking out. And she’s seen it in San Juan County, too. This could in part account for the rise in reported cases.

Seekhaven has served the Moab area since 1990, and expanded into San Juan County in 2017, where it employs two advocates.

“In the past, people who have been victimized have not felt that there was a space for them to be able to safely disclose their experiences,” Barger said, “and what I appreciate is that the San Juan County community is very much striving to make sure that there is space to have these conversations.”

The San Juan School District adopted a new sex education curriculum in the wake of Laws’ report. It includes videos and web-based courses on consent and sexual harassment.

Janae Monson, one of Seekhaven’s victim advocates in San Juan County and a parent of students in the district, is impressed with conversations the curriculum has opened up.

“[It] was extremely impactful and empowering not only for kids who have been victims,” Monson said, “or who were friends with victims, but even, maybe, for potential perpetrators in the sense of young people who didn’t really understand what good, healthy boundaries were.”

The district’s new sex education program is “more detailed and more uncomfortable, maybe, than it ever has been before,” Monson said, “and I mean that in the best way.”

Laws said he hopes the conversations will create a culture change in San Juan County, because today he is limited in what he can do in the courtroom.

Editor’s Note: Seekhaven operates a 24/7 crisis hotline for residents of Grand and San Juan counties who are in need of shelter or advocacy services: 435-259-2229. More information is available at seekhaven.org. Utah’s state-wide Sexual Violence Crisis Line is 888-421-1100.