Darin Thomas spent a year under a cloud of accusations, charged with heinous crimes that could have landed him in prison for life.
A Vernal police officer went undercover in 2018, and after exchanging text messages, accused Thomas of making plans to sexually assault a child.
But the evidence wasn’t there. A judge threw out the majority of charges, and prosecutors dismissed a final misdemeanor count on the eve of a trial.
Thomas says that even though the charges were dropped, the damage was done. He lost his job at the local school district. His mugshot was published in newspapers and on TV. His reputation, he felt, had been ruined.
Now, Thomas is suing the officer, Vernal Police Department and the prosecutors who filed the case in court.
Thomas alleges in the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in federal court, that Vernal police and the Duchesne County Attorney’s Office knew Detective Shaun Smith had, in the past, manufactured “sex abuse type charges with no evidence.” Some of those cases, attorney Randy Richards argued, were highlighted in news reports — and he said their publication effectively put the city on notice to Smith’s investigative methods.
A Salt Lake Tribune investigation from 2018 found that Smith had used tactics while going undercover that some experts and defense attorneys said bordered on entrapment and could be creating crime.
Hundreds of pages of police reports showed that Smith had a pattern: He often posed as a woman or young girl online, and trolled websites such as Craigslist, responding to sexually charged ads that caught his attention. Most of the ads were legal, posted by men seeking casual sex.
The detective asked the men to exchange money for sex. If they agreed, he arrested them for solicitation.
Nearly every defendant caught in this sting took a plea deal, often pleading guilty at their first court dates without an attorney. Almost all received no jail time and were fined.
Thomas’s case was different. He challenged Smith’s investigative tactics because he had more on the line. Prosecutors had charged him with not just sex solicitation, but also more serious crimes like conspiracy to rape a child, conspiracy to sodomize a child and conspiracy to have unlawful sexual activity with a child.
Police began investigating Thomas in 2018 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 Smith, who had received training with the state attorney general’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force.
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 sexual encounter.
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.
A judge tossed most of the charges, finding there was no evidence to show Thomas took “substantial steps” to plan to have sex with a child.
Thomas was planning to go to trial on a single remaining count of sexual solicitation, saying he wanted to prove his innocence and be vindicated.
His attorney planned to argue that Thomas never agreed to pay for sex and Smith entrapped him 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.
But prosecutors dismissed that last charge on the morning of the trial, saying there was a mix-up with a subpoena.
Thomas alleges in his lawsuit that Smith violated his constitutional right to due process by “manufacturing evidence of the vilest nature” and swearing it was true under oath. He also claims that prosecutors were malicious in their prosecution.
“These defendants knew or should have known that utilizing manufactured and perjured statements of child sexual abuse would result in the arrest, incarceration, and destruction of the reputation of Mr. Thomas, would cost him his job working for the school, and would result in significant financial loss and, in all probability, result in his incarceration for a mandatory 15-to-life sentence in prison,” the lawsuit reads.
Thomas is seeking an unspecified amount of money in damages.
Neither police officials nor Duchesne County Attorney Stephen Foote responded to a request for comment Wednesday.
After The Tribune began inquiring about Smith’s tactics in 2018, his investigations into sex crimes stopped. The assistant chief said then that it was because the department had ramped up a crosswalk initiative, and Smith’s other work had increased.
Recent search warrants show that Smith has returned to work investigating alleged sex crimes against children, but it appears most of his investigations are into possible child pornography flagged by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
He’s also been promoted to sergeant.