Seizure and search: Civil rights lawsuit alleges feud-inspired conspiracy by Garfield County sheriff

Escalante business owners allege the southern Utah lawman is merely trying to settle an old score against their son-in-law, a former police chief.

The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Escalante business owners Stephen and Jeanne Seymour have had to deal with a problem many American families have wrestled with: a child struggling with drug addiction.

Their son’s on-the-job misconduct forced the Seymours to fire him from the family business, High Adventure Rentals. Then, in June 2020, they say, he returned to the office, broke in and stole two computers.

This sad but familiar story is relayed in a civil rights lawsuit the distraught parents filed last April. But the case isn’t against their son. Instead, it names Garfield County Sheriff Daniel Perkins as the defendant.

The couple allege that their son was merely a “pawn” used by the sheriff to steal the computers from which the lawman then sought to obtain their personal information. The purpose? According to the lawsuit, Perkins wanted to build a criminal case against them for tax evasion and embezzlement because of his lingering resentment against their son-in-law, the former police chief of Escalante.

The Utah Department of Public Safety as well as attorneys for Garfield County confirmed at least one aspect of the alleged conspiracy. When sheriff’s deputies recovered the Seymours’ stolen computers, rather than return them to the rightful owners, they attempted to enlist the State Bureau of Investigation to conduct a forensic analysis of the devices. The Seymours assert this indicates the sheriff’s interest in turning up evidence against them, rather than their son, the alleged thief.

The state told The Utah Investigative Journalism Project that its investigators did not search the computers because Garfield County lacked probable cause. Still the Seymours allege the sheriff or his employees proceeded to search the computers without a warrant or probable cause.

While the Seymours declined to be interviewed for this article, their lawsuit explains their view that the sheriff has it in for them, all because of his vendetta against their son-in-law, former Escalante Police Chief Kevin Worlton, who had a felony case brought against him in 2015 only to be abandoned before trial.

“Sheriff Perkins has a huge issue with me and doesn’t care if my loved ones are hurt with his abuse of power,” said Worlton, who moved his family from Escalante to the East Coast after the drawn-out debacle wiped out his job and standing as a police officer.

Perkins declined to comment for this story and referred a reporter to the lawyer representing him and the county. The attorney did not respond to an emailed query.

Small-town life and strife

Growing up in Utah County, the idea of a simple life in a small town had a strong pull for Worlton.

“From the time I was in high school, I always envied folks living in small-town America and dreamt about life in a small town,” Worlton wrote in an email. “It’s hard for me to look back now and say what I liked most as many of those things were illusions.”

Worlton fell in love with the vast wilderness in Garfield County, its hunting and farming lifestyle and the salt-of-the-earth friends he made.

He also found nothing “simple” about navigating small-town politics.

Brought in as a one-man police department for Escalante after more than a decade as an officer in the populous Wasatch Front, Worlton was tasked with cleaning up illegal drugs in the town of roughly 800 residents. But he also wanted to serve the community in other ways.

City Council minutes show he applied for a Violence Against Women Act grant to help provide domestic violence resources to the county. That grant was awarded, he said, but never accepted when the county sheriff later took over his jurisdiction.

Worlton said that while his initial interactions with Perkins were professional, he quickly began to feel animosity developing. Worlton suspected it was territorialism on the part of the sheriff, who seemed to want sole control of law enforcement in the county.

In 2014, Worlton said he was preparing a search warrant on a narcotics distributor with a violent history, so he coordinated with the much larger Iron County Sheriff’s Office, which had a SWAT team, to back him up in serving the warrant. The night before he was to execute the warrant, however, the SWAT commander told him the backup operation was canceled.

Worlton said Perkins told him that it was canceled at his request. He argued that the no-knock warrant wasn’t justified and that Worlton would be backed up by his Garfield County deputies instead of Iron County SWAT. Perkins was angry that Worlton hadn’t cleared the operation with him first, he said, even though it was not the sheriff’s jurisdiction. Worlton said he had authority as Escalante police chief to conduct the operation in the town and he sought help from Iron County deputies partly because they had more experience than Garfield County deputies.

Worlton also said some of the arrests he had made during his 10-month stint in Escalante had been people with City Hall connections.

One individual he arrested knew and apparently had close ties with the then-mayor of Escalante, Jerry Taylor. Taylor met with the suspect the day Worlton took him to jail and later, Worlton said, gave him cash to retrieve his impounded vehicle.

Worlton said he later discovered the suspect in question was an informant for the sheriff, and the suspect later complained to the Utah attorney general’s office about Worlton’s practices.

Taylor, now a Garfield County commissioner, refused to talk about the matter when reached by phone.

“I don’t want to revisit the past,” Taylor said. “I have no comment.”

‘Cut and paste’

Worlton’s drug investigations came to a head in December 2014, when he busted six individuals.

By March 2015, Worlton himself would be charged by the state with two felony counts of making false statements and a misdemeanor for official misconduct.

In one of the false-statement charges, the state alleged that Worlton had fabricated a conversation with a woman by asserting she had implicated other suspects he later arrested for drugs. The other charge accused Worlton of lying about reading a suspect Miranda rights. The official misconduct charge came from not keeping his warrant papers “organized and usable,” according to the complaint.

Worlton retained counsel through the state Fraternal Order of Police and was represented by attorney Bret Rawson. Rawson is still amazed that the state ever decided to go after a police officer for what he describes as “cut and paste” errors.

“If police officers were held to a standard where they can’t even make paperwork mistakes — I mean who would ever sign up to be a cop?” Rawson said. “The fact is legitimate mistakes are commonly made — but we don’t lock these people up. We train them or support them.”

From the beginning, Rawson said, the charges against Worlton amounted to a misguided attempt by the attorney general’s office to improve its image and show it could take on public corruption cases after ugly scandals erupted around former Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow. Felony charges against both ex-officeholders were either dropped or thrown out by a jury.

“I imagine they were feeling the heat of the Shurtleff/Swallow fiasco immensely,” Rawson said.

Worlton said prosecutors made him multiple offers that would take any prison time off the table in exchange for his guilty plea.

Court documents also show that prosecutors seemed to be discussing a plea deal with other individuals, including a woman whom Worlton had arrested and who had complained about him to the attorney general’s office.

Rawson said in a sworn affidavit that more than two years into the case, he was provided an audio recording made by the arrested woman. In the recording, she had captured a state prosecutor assuring her that she would never have to actually testify in court against Worlton because he would certainly take a plea deal instead of going to trial.

“[The prosecution] never thought I would have the resources or that I would risk my freedom for what is right,” Worlton said.

Rawson said the entire conversation with the witness was highly inappropriate, and he filed a complaint of prosecutorial misconduct.

“You can’t tell a witness to ‘keep this between us,’” Rawson said. “That’s not his client. He works for the people and the defense has the right to know what is said to witnesses by the all-powerful government.”

‘Left us hanging’

In September 2018, 3½ years after the charges were filed, state prosecutors dropped the case against Worlton. They said they did so at the behest of Escalante City amid leaders’ worry that the trial would end in acquittal and the city would be liable for Worlton’s legal fees.

After the ordeal, Worlton left his once-beloved small town and moved his family thousands of miles away for a fresh start.

He said in an email that the recent purported attempt to investigate the Seymours and the allegations against the sheriff in his in-laws’ lawsuit show that Perkins’ personal vendetta has never ended.

Louise Barnes was a Escalante City Council member during the Worlton case and said she hadn’t heard about the recording made of the prosecutor-witness conversation. For that matter, she said the state didn’t communicate with local leaders at all.

“We were all so disappointed and confused by what the A.G.’s office did in dropping it,” Barnes said. “We felt like they put everyone through a lot, and we didn’t understand why. We felt like they left us hanging in a very precarious position legally.”

Ultimately, Barnes said, the decision to drop the case was justified.

She said it also made sense to have the county sheriff take Escalante under his jurisdiction after Worlton’s departure. The deputies live in town, she said, and they do a good job at a lower cost than a dedicated officer — and without the drama.

The politics sometimes get too personal in a small town, Barnes said.

“When I was on the council, I knew [Worlton] personally, I knew his wife and we talked all the time,” she said, “and then, all of a sudden, I can’t even talk to them.”

Turns out, crime in a small town gets personal as well. The same woman who had previously been promised by the prosecutor that she wouldn’t have to testify against Worlton was arrested June 7, along with her boyfriend, for possession of crystal meth and assault. The boyfriend also happened to be the Seymours’ estranged son.

Worlton, for his part, lives a different life with his wife in North Carolina, where he has a job outside of law enforcement and far from the politics of his old job, but always, he said, with “the specter of my case looming over us.”

And now Perkins’ old feud with him just continues against his in-laws, Worlton added.

Attorneys representing the county filed an answer to the Seymours’ lawsuit denying all allegations. The only major assertion in the complaint that the county agreed to was that the sheriff did send the Seymours’ computers to the state Bureau of Investigation rather than return them to the couple.

While the state said it did not search the computers, the Seymours’ lawsuit said that someone did while they were out of their possession. The complaint alleges that it was Perkins or members of his office acting “without a warrant, subpoena, probable cause, exigent circumstances or other legal basis.”

No hearings — or trial — have been scheduled in the case.

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