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Newly released records show it was ‘standard practice’ for BYU police to help with Honor Code surveillance

“My assignment ... was to provide information,” Lt. Aaron Rhoades told attorneys in a July 2020 deposition.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "This is my favorite room in the house," said Katie Wilson of her craft room, Nov 29, 2021, where she paints transformational scenes with acrylics on canvas to help process emotions after she reported being sexually assaulted as a student at Brigham Young University in 2015.

Katie Wilson went to Provo police six years ago to report that a man had sexually assaulted her. She was a student at Brigham Young University, but she didn’t talk to the school’s police force because it had happened off campus.

So when she recently learned that her case appeared in newly released emails from a BYU police lieutenant to other school officials, she gasped.

Suddenly, Wilson said, her conversations with an associate dean made more sense.

The emails don’t show what information the police lieutenant may have shared after he used a restricted database to access Wilson’s case file in Provo.

But the associate dean, Sarah Westerberg, “knew a lot of details about my sexual assault that I hadn’t shared with them,” Wilson said. And Westerberg used that information, Wilson said, to confront her about whether she had broken the religious school’s rules.

At BYU, which is funded and overseen by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an Honor Code Office enforces strict rules that include bans on immodest clothing and premarital sex.

Westerberg “said I was breaking the Honor Code with what I was wearing,” Wilson said. “She knew I had let him drive me home afterwards, and she didn’t care that I didn’t know where I was, or that he had hurt me so bad that I couldn’t find my way home. She knew he had me touch him on the drive home, which she said sounded like consent to her, instead of me just trying not to die.”

Those details were “all stuff I told the police the night it happened,” Wilson said. “I wasn’t even at a point where I had talked to my friends about it. I talked to police, I talked to the county attorney, and I talked to my therapist, and that was about it.”

Records recently obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune confirmed campus police Lt. Aaron Rhoades inappropriately accessed not only Wilson’s report to Provo police, but reports related to nearly a dozen other students. And they show Rhoades’ surveillance of students was part of a de facto system, with university employees in several school departments asking him for information and welcoming his reports.

Much of that information came from searching a shared database used by Utah County police agencies and looking at other agencies’ police reports, access allowed only for legitimate law enforcement purposes.

The Tribune first requested documents in 2016 about communication between BYU police and the Honor Code Office, while reporting on the school’s response to reports of sexual assaults — work that won a Pulitzer Prize.

BYU and The Tribune spent five years entangled in open records litigation, including arguments before the Utah Supreme Court.

The private university also supported a judge’s secrecy order that would keep the records hidden. And it nearly lost its police department altogether, after state officials said the university wouldn’t hand over records to police regulators.

Now, BYU and The Tribune have resolved the contested records requests without further litigation, as recommended by the Utah Supreme Court. In September, the Department of Public Safety released documents from its decertification proceedings against the BYU police department, with certain privacy redactions, as a result of negotiations among DPS, BYU police and The Tribune.

The released records include investigative reports, excerpts of emails, and depositions of state and BYU employees that have never before been made public.

‘My assignment … was to provide information’

Current and former students at BYU started speaking out in 2016 about how they were targeted in Honor Code investigations — and sometimes penalized — after reporting sex crimes.

A BYU police official told The Tribune at that time the department was not “out there digging up dirt on students and shipping it to the Honor Code Office.”

But the newly released documents confirm that’s exactly what was happening.

Rhoades would send regular emails detailing student arrests and crimes reported by students to the dean of students, BYU staffers told state investigators, which would trickle down to the Title IX Office and Honor Code Office.

Employees at the Honor Code Office look into reports of students who violate the private university’s strict administrative rules, which include bans on alcohol, drugs and coffee, restrictions on contact between male and female students and a conservative dress code.

The Title IX Office, meanwhile, is tasked with investigating sexual misconduct to comply with a federal law that requires schools to provide education without sex-based discrimination. It also provides services to students who report sexual assaults, such as helping them postpone assignments or tests.

The newly released documents say staff in both offices would sometimes call Rhoades for details on cases they were looking into. The lieutenant would read to them what was in the police reports, which were records that were not available to the public.

An Honor Code staffer reported it was “standard practice in the office” to use Rhoades as a source. One Title IX staffer described the process as “not rare nor regular.”

The documents show it was information that the university’s employees welcomed.

“Oh my goodness — I think someone must have finally spoken to the police and helped them understand that they are responsible employees!!” one Dean of Students Office staffer wrote in an email that contained details Rhoades had provided about a reported sexual assault.

Rhoades, who has retired, would later say in a deposition that he had been doing this since 2011, and that it was a directive that came from the top.

“My assignment as the investigations lieutenant was to provide information to the Honor Code Office from the Utah County jail booking system on students that were booked,” he said.

(The Salt Lake Tribune)

But the new records confirm Rhoades also investigated students who had reported being victims of crimes.

And state investigators found proof that Rhoades’ actions went much further than checking booking logs, which are public. He accessed around 16,000 police reports from other Utah County police agencies during a two-year period, from a shared database that only police officers have access to. And investigators say he gave private information from those documents to school officials in nearly two dozen cases.

The newly released documents include excerpts of 11 emails that Rhoades sent or received. They include these exchanges:

• An employee in the Dean of Students Office wrote to Rhoades in 2014 asking that he look up a police report for several students who had unspecified involvement with police. The staffer noted that the group included a woman who “has been in the media for a blog and newspaper article in which she commented on her Honor Code opinions regarding sex.” Rhoades responded the same day. State investigators found Rhoades had searched for the woman’s name in the shared database and accessed a private Provo police report.

• Rhoades provided information in September 2014, at the Honor Code Office’s request, about a student caught smoking marijuana in his apartment. State investigators found Rhoades searched for the student’s name in the shared database and accessed a BYU police report.

• In October 2015, Rhoades wrote an email to Dean of Students Office employees about five students who reported allegations related to rape or stalking. One included a woman who reported to police “after talking with her bishop” and deciding it was “50/50 if the sexual contact was consensual or not.”

• A Dean of Students Office staffer wrote to another employee about details that Rhoades had provided about two cases related to sex offenses. State investigators found Rhoades had searched the shared database and accessed a Utah County rape investigation.

• In January 2016, Rhoades wrote to Title IX and Dean of Students staffers that Wilson had reported to Provo police months earlier that she was sexually assaulted. His email primarily included details of a separate case she reported to BYU police that month, when she said the same man had physically assaulted her on campus.

In that same email, Rhoades told the two school offices about a different student, saying she was able to get a no-contact order against a man who assaulted her. The man was not a BYU student, Rhoades noted, but he was “also threatening to report [the female student] to the Honor Code,” he wrote.

The students affected

The names of students and university employees were redacted from documents released to The Tribune. The documents also don’t say what the Honor Code Office did with the information, or whether students were disciplined because of what Rhoades shared.

Wilson, the student who had reported being raped to Provo police in 2015 and was surprised when Westerberg interrogated her using details of that case, first described being investigated for Honor Code violations in a 2016 Tribune story. She used the pseudonym Emily at that time, but agreed to the use of her name for this story. A Tribune reporter recognized her case in the newly released DPS records, based on its details, and told her.

Westerberg, who also served as BYU’s part-time Title IX coordinator, left that office as part of widespread reforms the university announced in fall 2016. That job was replaced by a new full-time position, and she kept her role as associate dean of students. She has since been promoted to dean of students, the office that oversees the Honor Code Office.

BYU police had first directed Wilson to the school’s Title IX office in January 2016, when she told the department that the man she had previously accused of sexual assault had attacked her again, this time on campus while she was working as a custodian. Wilson believed the second case was in retaliation for her sex assault report to Provo.

Wilson was not initially disciplined by BYU — apparently, she said, because the two criminal cases were pending against the man, and his attorney had advised him not to make statements to the BYU officials who were investigating Wilson.

But later, Wilson said, Westerberg “called me at some point and told me I wasn’t welcome to sign up for classes again.”

Wilson, suffering from anxiety after the cases and subsequent investigation into her Honor Code compliance, withdrew from her classes.

“I still don’t have my college degree because of all of that,” Wilson said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Falling," acrylic on canvas by Katie Wilson, Nov 29, 2021. Wilson paints transformational scenes with acrylics on canvas to help process emotions after she was sexually assaulted as a student at Brigham Young University in 2015.

The criminal cases against the man she had accused continued until fall 2017, when his lawyers produced a receipt they said showed he was at a restaurant about 40 minutes after Wilson reported being attacked on campus, she said. Prosecutors said it was exculpatory, Wilson said, even though police records show her co-worker also reported seeing the man near the building where they worked.

Records of the criminal cases against the man no longer appear in the state courts’ database; Wilson said one of her family members learned they were expunged.

Wilson said she also reported the man, who was not a BYU student but was a Latter-day Saint, for church discipline. However, a stake president (a regional lay leader) later canceled plans to take a statement from her. She’s not aware of any action the church took after that.

“Everyone let me down,” she said.

‘They tried to use that against me’

Keli Byers was another one of the students whose information Rhoades accessed. She remembers being called into the Dean of Students Office in 2014, just weeks after comments from her were published in Cosmopolitan and as controversy over the article was growing on the conservative campus. In the magazine, she was critical of what she felt was a school culture of shame and unworthiness surrounding premarital sex.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Keli Byers, a former BYU student, poses for a portrait. Records show a BYU police lieutenant accessed Byers' police record and shared information from it with the Dean of Students Office, after Cosmopolitan in 2014 published Byers' comment that BYU had a culture of shame and unworthiness surrounding premarital sex.

Byers knew the dean had called her in to talk about the story, she recalled in a recent interview. He had told her some people on campus wanted her suspended, she said, but he decided to just give her a warning.

At the end of the conversation, the dean brought up something else: He somehow knew that a year earlier, she had been cited for trespassing at the old Utah County jail — a common place for college kids to sneak into around Halloween because of rumors it was haunted.

Byers hadn’t paid her fine, so a warrant had been issued.

“Oh, by the way,” she recalled him saying, “Can you fix the citation issue? Because you can’t be in good Honor Code standing if you have a warrant out.”

Byers didn’t know it at the time, but Rhoades had accessed her citation from months earlier at the request of a Dean of Students Office employee.

“I am on [an] errand and hope you can help me in this urgent matter,” the employee wrote in an August 2014 email. “Recently, a handful of kids, about 5-6 of them, including 3-4 BYU students were involved with the police — perhaps arrested. I believe that among those students was the student who has been in the media for a blog and newspaper article in which she commented on her Honor Code opinions regarding sex.”

But there wasn’t anything urgent about Byers’ citation — court records show it was issued 10 months before the email. The email, though, had been sent less than two weeks after that Cosmopolitan article had been published online.

Rhoades responded to the BYU staffer, saying that he had already talked to another employee about the case a week earlier. Investigators found that Rhoades accessed Provo’s police reports and Byers’ criminal trespassing case on Aug. 19, 2014, five days after the article was published online.

Byers didn’t know about this records access until a Tribune reporter told her in recent weeks.

“It’s upsetting, but not surprising,” she said. “There’s nothing in the Honor Code that says that ‘I will not get in trouble for being in an abandoned Utah County jail late at night.’ I think that’s very frustrating that they tried to use that against me.”

She didn’t feel like Rhoades’ accessing her case affected her standing at BYU. But the Cosmopolitan article did put her on the Honor Code Office’s radar, she said, and at one point she was required to prove to both the Honor Code Office and the Title IX Office that she had been forced into a sex act while on a date.

“I had no choice in that,” she said. “Because if I had denied the Honor Code counselor access to my Title IX officer, they would have expelled me.”

The Tribune generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse, but Byers agreed to the use of her name for this story.

In the end, Byers said, she was kicked out of the university for not finishing community service hours she had been assigned.

Rhoades’ focus on sex crimes

State investigators began looking into Rhoades in 2016, as The Tribune began publishing stories that included accounts from students who said they were targeted and sometimes penalized by the Honor Code Office after they reported sex crimes.

The newspaper obtained documents that showed an Honor Code investigator contacted Rhoades in 2015, asking him to verify the name of a student who had reported to Provo police that she had been raped.

The documents showed that the lieutenant looked at the records that same day and relayed intimate, nonpublic details from the report — including information from the woman’s sexual assault medical exam — to the Honor Code counselor.

The student was subsequently forbidden from enrolling in future classes unless she submitted to an Honor Code investigation.

When state investigators looked at Rhoades’ logs of 16,000 queries in the countywide law enforcement database, they found a trend: Rhoades had looked at sex crime reports hundreds of times and had searched specifically for the term “sex offense” 50 times.

Rhoades’ attorneys, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, explained in 2019 that the lieutenant had been looking at sex assault reports to understand trends in the area, noting he taught a woman’s self-defense class on campus.

But according to a newly released transcript, Rhoades said in his own deposition that he felt this was the type of information he was supposed to turn over to the Dean of Students Office to comply with Title IX.

“There was Title IX reports that had to be reported,” he said, “anything dealing with sexual assault, domestic violence, those kind of things.”

“And were those also turned over to the Honor Code Office?” a state attorney asked him. “To the Dean of Students,” Rhoades replied.

“And that was part of your assignment?” the attorney asked. Rhoades answered simply: “Yes.”

S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors of Educational Campuses LLC, said there’s nothing in Title IX that would mandate an officer to go find possible cases of sexual violence.

“There is not and never has been an expectation under Title IX that a campus police department would go on a fishing expedition looking for sexual misconduct information in other law enforcement agencies,” he said. “There just isn’t. It is an unwarranted invasion of privacy.”

The department’s reaction

BYU police officials have denied that was Rhoades’ assignment and tried to distance themselves from Rhoades’ assurance that it was.

Larry Stott, who was chief at this time, said in a deposition he didn’t believe that Rhoades was regularly passing on information to the Title IX Office but said it happened on occasion because of “legal requirements” that required the department to pass on information.

Stott said he first found out in December 2015 that Rhoades had accessed the 2015 rape report after the request from the Honor Code Office. Provo’s police chief told Stott that one of his officers at the city had subpoenaed the university as part of a witness retaliation investigation, Stott said. That case was connected to the alleged sexual assault but didn’t directly involve Rhoades.

In January 2016, Stott said, he disciplined Rhoades after he had a conversation with the lieutenant and learned more about what he did.

“I told him that was absolutely unacceptable,” Stott said in his deposition. “I gave him instruction on how he should use the [records-sharing] system, restricted his use on the system and what he was doing there. I started contemplating a transfer for him. So he had a verbal reprimand. He ended up with a transfer.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU Police work a football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Chris Autry, who became chief after Stott retired in 2018, said he was surprised to hear that Rhoades thought it was his assignment to monitor booking logs and share any information with the Honor Code Office.

“I never understood there to be such an assignment,” said Autry, who has worked within the department for more than 20 years. “All police agencies at Utah’s various universities, including BYU, are tasked with enforcing public laws on campus. In order to protect the campus community, they routinely share public law enforcement information with other campus units, including university officials who handle campus safety issues.”

Another lieutenant who worked in the department for 37 years told state investigators that it was the job of the investigations lieutenant — the position Rhoades had — to be a “liaison officer” to the Dean of Students Office. The lieutenant, whose name is redacted in the documents, said it would be ethically wrong to provide information from another agency’s report, and added he had tried to create distance from the Honor Code Office.

“[He] said over his career he was asked numerous times by the Honor Code Office to provide police report information and he turned them down,” a state investigator wrote. “[He] said it is not a police department’s role to feed information into that except information that is public.”

State investigators also interviewed record-keepers at the other Utah County agencies whose cases Rhoades looked at. One said if a BYU employee had asked for one of the reports Rhoades accessed, she would have denied the request under the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, because the case was still pending.

Another said she would never release a report from a sexual assault exam; Rhoades shared information from one with the Honor Code Office in at least one case.

‘I felt like it was politics’

State investigators spent about nine months looking into Rhoades and whether his actions broke the law. One later said in his deposition that he had been assured criminal charges were going to be filed, the newly released transcript showed.

But once the case reached the higher-ups within the Utah Attorney General’s Office, it petered out.

“I felt like it was politics,” said the investigator, whose name is redacted in his deposition. “And I felt like it was because — pardon me if this sounds not professional — but I think they were all golfing buddies. That the attorneys representing the A.G.’s Office, and Sam Alba [Rhoades’ attorney], and those in that office, I felt like they were all kind of buddies and they just all kind of swept it away under the rug.”

(The Salt Lake Tribune)

A spokesperson for the A.G.’s office denied that prosecutors had any kind of relationship with Rhoades or his attorney beyond knowing one another “professionally.”

Craig Barlow, an attorney in the A.G.’s office, said in his deposition that there were several reasons why they didn’t prosecute. He said that Rhoades would have faced a handful of only low-level misdemeanor charges, and he worried the resources that his office would need to dedicate to the case didn’t match the relatively minor nature of the crimes. And Rhoades’ attorney had told them that they intended to fight the charges hard, he said.

There was also discussion at one point that Rhoades would voluntarily surrender his policing license if prosecutors didn’t move forward, Barlow recalled.

“There was some indication,” he said in his deposition, “suggestion from defense counsel, that some of the women whose behavior generated police reports and also referrals to the Honor Code Office could have been called as witnesses, and so their privacy interests versus the minor nature of the charges were also part of the consideration.”

The office did not comment on whether it had asked any such students whether they wanted to see Rhoades prosecuted.

State officials have been tight-lipped about their investigation because of a secrecy order signed by a judge that they sought at the start of their investigation. That order remains in place today, though the records referenced here were released as a result of negotiations among DPS, The Tribune and BYU.

Rhoades avoided criminal prosecution, but he did retire from BYU’s police department in 2018 and gave up his policing license. He was given a year’s salary when he retired, according to the documents, which was unusual in that department. Stott, his boss, said he had never heard of that happening before.

“I’d like to know where to get one of those,” said Stott, who also retired that same year.

The deposition also reveals that BYU paid for Rhoades’ defense lawyer.

Richard Piatt, the spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said in response to questions that the final outcome would likely not have been any different if prosecutors had filed charges. Rhoades still lost his police certification, he noted, and the state avoided a lengthy, “needlessly expensive” courtroom battle.

“In addition, BYU agreed to remove Rhoades from his position and transfer him to patrol (writing parking tickets),” Piatt wrote in an email, “and agreed that the police database could no longer be used for Honor Code Office purposes.”

Yet the state scrutiny of BYU’s police department wasn’t entirely over. In February 2019, state officials announced they would try to decertify the police force.

Rhoades’ actions were at the heart of the dispute but weren’t the reason the state wanted to get rid of the department. Officials alleged BYU police failed to do their own internal investigation of Rhoades, as required by state law, and didn’t respond to subpoenas issued as state regulators were investigating the lieutenant.

BYU appealed the decertification decision. After a process that wore on for two years, mostly behind closed doors, an administrative law judge threw out the case, criticizing the “startling lack of guidance” in the state law that governed the case.

This means the private university’s police force still patrols the campus. But legislation passed in 2019 explicitly said that the BYU police department must obey Utah’s open records laws — which BYU had denied it had to do, in litigation with The Tribune.

And university officials stress that neither the police nor the school’s private security division monitor jail bookings or other police records, and don’t share information with the Honor Code Office.

BYU’s current police chief, Matthew Andrus, said the investigations lieutenant, though, would give information to the Dean of Students Office if the department became aware of students or others who “may be a threat to the campus community or a significant threat to themselves.”

Andrus added the police department’s relationship with the Honor Code Office today is no different than any other department on campus.

“BYU police officers enforce only Utah state laws and Provo City ordinances,” he said. “Not the Honor Code.”

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