More than 120 phone calls, texts and emails have offered tips to the Utah County Sheriff’s Office in the past three weeks — since the startling announcement that it was investigating a ritualistic sex ring.
Sergeants who have experience in sex assault cases have been pulled in to help review all the information the office has received, said Sgt. Spencer Cannon.
The investigation may seem out of left field — or, for those who remember the “satanic panic” era in Utah and nationally, out of the past.
So what is the sheriff’s office investigating? How is it connected to a bizarre twist in the election for the next Utah County attorney?
And why does one man — once diagnosed with being the victim of ritual sexual abuse — urge people to come forward if they have stories to share?
This is what we know so far.
What and whom are they investigating?
The Utah County Sheriff’s Office said its investigators are looking into ritualistic sex abuse allegations that date back to the decades between 1990 and 2010 and span Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties.
The sheriff did not disclose any other details. However, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt publicly tied himself to the case shortly after the sheriff’s announcement, telling reporters at a June 1 news conference that he was named in a report from that time period that he said was connected to the sheriff’s investigation.
But Cannon said the report that Leavitt was referencing was not what started the sheriff’s investigation last year.
“We had a victim come forward and disclose abuse of this nature,” Cannon said. “And so that’s what started our investigation. The case that David Leavitt spoke about is not the case we initially started investigating. It’s not the case that we became aware of in April of last year.”
Detectives did find the case — which involved allegations against a therapist — months after the investigation started, the sergeant said, but he wouldn’t disclose whether it’s part of their current probe.
However, court records indicate that the same therapist, who worked as a psychologist in Utah County in the 1990s, is currently being investigated by law enforcement for sex assault-related allegations.
What’s the connection between Leavitt and the report in the therapist’s case?
The Provo police file in the therapist’s case was released to The Salt Lake Tribune and others through a public records request. It includes an unverified witness statement from a woman who describes in graphic detail a ritualistic sex abuse, murder and cannibalism cult that she said she witnessed when she was a child.
Leavitt and his wife were both named in that undated, 151-page report. The woman accuses Leavitt of sexual abuse and participating in a ritualistic killing, which are allegations the county attorney denies.
But Leavitt did have a personal connection to the therapist at the time, he explained at his news conference.
“This therapist was my elders quorum president in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Leavitt said. “He was my neighbor. I had a family connection.”
Although the therapist was initially arrested in 1999, charges alleging he had sexually abused the woman as a child weren’t filed until 2012.
Utah County prosecutors dropped the charges against the therapist in 2014 — which was five years prior to Leavitt being elected county attorney.
The prosecutor handling the case told a judge that he wanted the case dismissed because he was having trouble getting medical records and other documents to corroborate the woman’s report.
“A lot of it’s due to just the age of this case,” he said in a recording obtained by KSL. “It’s an extremely delayed disclosure.”
The former therapist, whom The Tribune is not identifying because he isn’t currently charged with a crime, filed a petition two months ago seeking to have the 2014 dismissed court case erased from the public record.
Prosecutors with the Utah attorney general’s office have objected to his request.
“The petitioner is currently the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by four law enforcement agencies into the same conduct which was the basis of the 1999 arrest,” a lawyer with the attorney general’s office wrote.
How one man was diagnosed as a victim of ritual sex abuse
In the pile of old records released by the Provo Police Department is a witness statement from one man who alleged he was sexually abused by this therapist in the early 1990s.
Brett Bluth said in a recent interview that he had been desperate when he started seeing the psychologist. He had just returned from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said, and was struggling internally because he is gay. The predominant faith in Utah has historically opposed gay marriage and same-sex relationships.
Bluth recalled coming out to his bishop — who he said referred him to a therapist who had a track record of “curing people of their homosexuality.”
“My desire was to have that completely severed from my life. [That] was the goal,” Bluth said. “I wanted it gone. I was very uncomfortable so I was very willing, I was very hopeful.”
This wasn’t conversion therapy, Bluth said. And the therapist, he said, soon started hypnosis therapy. Bluth got a diagnosis: Multiple personality disorder due to ritual sex abuse as a child.
“I was very uncomfortable with that,” he recalled. “I don’t think the human brain can wrap their mind around what ritual abuse is. It’s hard to hold. It’s atrocious. So his diagnosis was very foreign. I went along with it because this is what he was telling me was happening to me.”
There are reasons the claim seemed possible to Bluth. In the 1980s and early 1990s, parents in Utah and across the country were worried about “satanic panic,” and that their children could be brought into an abusive cult. A 1988 “special report” in Utah County’s Daily Herald featured the headline: “Satanism in Utah County: Our children may be victims of growing cult.”
But Bluth said he always felt something wasn’t right with that diagnosis. He never felt like he lost awareness during the hypnosis therapy, and never remembered disclosing any suppressed memories of being abused as a child.
“He would say, ‘That is what those ritual abusers programmed your brain to do,’” Bluth said of the therapist, a description also included in his eventual report to police. “So it became a battle between his version of what happened in that hour and my version of what happened in that hour. [He would say,] ‘Well, do you want to be cured of your homosexuality or not? Either believe this or don’t. But if you don’t believe it, you’re still going to be gay.’”
Allegations of sexual contact under the guise of therapy
So he believed, Bluth said, and continued the appointments for two years.
In one alleged incident Bluth also described to police, the therapist told him that his childhood sexual abusers had put him in a big black bag and tied it off, leaving him there until he almost suffocated, he said.
The therapist, he told The Tribune, suggested they reenact that scenario in his office as a way to heal from that trauma.
“I see this trauma that severed your personality,” Bluth recalled the therapist telling him, “and created all these evil personalities that are gay. And if we go through enough of these, we can then eliminate those personalities from your psyche and you’ll be straight.”
But the thought of eliminating parts of himself scared Bluth. What if the therapist cut off the important parts of him, like his humor or sensitivity?
“It was terrifying,” he said.
Bluth alleged to police that at one point, the psychologist exposed his genitals under the guise of therapy. He also alleged in the report that during their last session, the therapist encouraged Bluth to perform a sex act on him as a way to heal from trauma from his childhood.
Afterward, Bluth said, “He prayed over his semen that it would undo the unrighteous semen that had been placed inside my body as a kid. And I was disgusted.”
The LDS Church in 2016 publicly denounced any therapy, including conversion and reparative therapies, that “subjects an individual to abusive practices, not only in Utah, but throughout the world.”
Bluth said he never went back to the therapist. He said he came to the realization that nothing that the therapist had told him was real several months later, after meeting several other patients who all said they had received the same unusual diagnosis of multiple personalities due to ritual childhood sex abuse.
“I just started going, ‘Oh my God, I’m not unique,’” he said. “That was not what I thought it was. That was all planned and it’s been repeating.”
Bluth said he confronted the therapist about the sexual contact that had happened during treatment, he said, and told the man that if the therapist didn’t report himself to state regulators, he would.
Was this reported to Utah authorities?
The therapist did turn himself into regulators. Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing records show he gave up his psychologist license in 2000 after admitting he “had intimate relationships with several patients during clinical therapy sessions and claimed to some of these patients that the intimacy was therapeutic to them.”
The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse, but Bluth agreed to be named. An attorney for the ex-therapist did not respond to a request for comment.
Bluth disclosed to Provo police what had happened with his therapist in 2013, after seeing a news report that the former therapist had been charged with sexually abusing a child.
He said he thought he might be able to testify about what happened to him as a way to bolster the account of the alleged victim, the one who wrote those 151 pages of accusations. He knew that there wasn’t much the police could do for him, because the statute of limitations had passed for his allegations.
“The police looked at me like I was crazy,” Bluth remembers.
Bluth said when he found out last fall that the Utah County Sheriff’s Office had an active investigation, he spoke with law enforcement again.
He encourages anyone else who have been victimized — and perhaps not believed in the past — to come forward.
“There are a lot of people fighting for them right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of safe people who can support them.”
Why does this affect a political race?
Leavitt called reporters to a news conference on June 1 to decry the investigation by the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, which had announced the day prior that it was investigating a ritual sex abuse ring.
The county attorney said he found the timing of the announcement suspicious, since Smith, the sheriff, has been at odds with him for years and has endorsed his opponent. He believed reporters were tipped off to the therapist’s dismissed case, chalking it up to a political ploy to get him out of office.
He called for the sheriff to resign, which Smith said he will not do. He denied the investigation had anything to do with the election.
“This is not political,” Smith said. “This is something we take very, very seriously. This is some of the most egregious crimes that happen in our community, when our children are victimized at this level.”
The accusations have continued to overshadow almost everything else in the Utah County attorney race. Leavitt’s opponent, Jeff Gray, appeared to try to distance himself from it when he held his own news conference last week to discuss the issues he believed were important in the race.
But when he opened the floor to questions, the first came from a television reporter: “What are your thoughts on David Leavitt coming forward without being named and saying there are leaked documents connecting him and his wife to the allegations of cannibalism and murdering children?”
“That’s an ongoing investigation and I’m not going to comment,” Gray responded. “I’m a prosecutor. I don’t make decisions on things until I have all the facts. And the facts are just not out there.”