Frustrated, this Utah County woman tried to investigate how police handled her sex assault allegation

The Utah Investigative Journalism Project reviewed more than 150 sexual assault cases that were scheduled or went to trial.

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

Adyson LeeMaster remembers laughing and singing as she celebrated a friend’s birthday at a party earlier this year. Late that night, feeling tired, drunk and wanting to be safe, she said, she asked her friend to help put her to bed.

A man texted her from the ongoing party, offering to join her if she felt “lonely.” LeeMaster struggled to reply, repeatedly misspelling the word “drunk.” “You’re drunk you mean?” the man wrote. She responded “ya.” “OK then you’ll sleep well. Goodnight!!!!” he texted back.

She woke up the next morning, she said, with hand-shaped bruises on her thighs and pain in her abdomen.

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify sexual assault victims, but LeeMaster agreed to the use of her name.

In “bits and pieces” over the days that followed, she said, she recalled feeling the man on top of her in the night, and waking up on the floor, seeing him framed in the doorway as he went to sleep on a couch early in the morning. She had a sexual assault exam, but hesitated about trying to pursue charges.

When LeeMaster decided two weeks later to go to Provo police, she provided photos of her bruises; the texts between her and the man, showing his acknowledgment that he knew she was drunk; the names of witnesses who could confirm her impairment — relevant for its impact on her ability to consent; and told them about her rape kit exam.

But prosecutors declined to pursue the case, she said, citing a lack of evidence. “Basically,” LeeMaster said, a staffer at the Utah County attorney’s office told her, “it would be my word against his.”

A review of court data by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project shows that LeeMaster’s case fits a general pattern: Prosecutors statewide appear more reluctant to press rape and sexual assault cases toward trial when they are based primarily on the word of an alleged victim — without a confession, a defendant allegedly caught in a lie during interrogation, DNA as an identifier or when a defendant denies sexual contact, or witnesses who saw the alleged assault or events around it.

Prosecutors also appear to more often press toward trial when the accused person was in a position of trust — such as family members, employers and others — rather than an intimate partner, a date or an acquaintance.

To be clear, most criminal charges filed in Utah and nationwide are resolved through plea bargains before being set for trial. The Utah Investigative Journalism Project examined rape and sexual assault charges from the past five years where prosecutors did not agree to plea deals initially, and either scheduled a trial before resolving the case or took it all the way to a jury.

The total of 165 such cases excluded allegations of child sexual abuse, but included charges involving alleged victims who were age 14 and older. It also excluded a small handful of cases where there was no information filed in the complaint.

A divided path for sex assault cases

The 165 cases examined by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project can be divided into two general categories:

• 53 involved allegations of assaults by intimate partners and acquaintances.

• 112 involved other connections; generally family members, employers or other people in positions of trust, often accused of abusing victims between age 14 and 18. Utah law is clear that minors cannot consent to sexual activity with an adult, particularly if that person holds a position of trust. Less than 10 of the defendants were strangers.

The data showed a unique divide between the two groups.

Among the 112 cases not tied to a partner, a date or an acquaintance, more than half — 58% — were filed based primarily on the word of the victim.

But for the 53 cases of alleged intimate partner and acquaintance assaults, only seven were charged primarily on the word of the victim. The majority of those cases pushed toward trial had additional evidence, such as these confessions and statements:

• In a February case filed in Box Elder County, a defendant told police it wasn’t illegal for a husband to rape his wife. In fact, Utah law specifically states the opposite.

• In a 2019 Provo case, a man apologized to a date for an assault in a text message, writing: “I honestly didn’t mean to hurt u like that, I enjoyed our convos and vibes.”

• In a 2019 Salt Lake City case, a homeless woman staying with a man in his van was dropped off at a hospital with crude writing all over her body, injured to the point of slipping into a coma. The defendant told police that “it was consensual until she lied to me.”

Defense attorney Cara Tangaro, who often represents those accused of sexual assault, points out that prosecutors are ethically obliged to only pursue cases with a likelihood of success. Believing an alleged victim and deciding whether the case is provable beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury are two different standards, she notes, in a system built on a presumption of innocence for the defendant.

“I’m not sure that it’s better to put a woman through a trial and get a not-guilty verdict,” said Tangaro, who worked in the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s special victims unit in the early 2000s and has been a litigator for over 20 years.

It’s not a view shared by Justin Boardman, a former sex crimes detective and now consultant who travels the country training police and prosecutors on trauma-informed investigations.

When cases are declined with the intent of sparing a rape victim the ordeal of trial, prosecutors say, “‘we’re doing this in their best interest,’ which makes them feel warm and fuzzy,” Boardman said. “But in reality, they often haven’t asked the victim.”

He acknowledged trials can get intense and emotional, but said they also can give victims closure. And if victims are supported and interviewed in a trauma-informed way, he said, their testimony may be stronger and they may recall more corroborating details that might have been overlooked in a cursory investigation when police doubt charges will be filed.

He pointed out that any officer who shoots at someone is excused from immediately providing a full statement. An officer is allowed to rest and process the memory, in order to ensure a more accurate and complete statement.

Police interviewing rape victims, on the other hand, often expect them to write a statement on the spot. When it’s short, fragmented and missing important details, Boardman said, it’s no wonder officers later feel like they “lack evidence” or the victim is “uncooperative.”

“What we haven’t done,” Boardman said, “is apply the science we have been using for ourselves, to the victims of crime.”

‘How most sexual assaults happen’

While advocates like Boardman say there is room for improvement, it’s also true that these can be difficult cases for juries to accept, even with strong evidence.

In a 2018 case, which reached trial just last fall, a man was charged with multiple felonies for allegedly sexually assaulting his wife during an argument in which she was attempting to move out. When police responded to the domestic violence call, they pulled the man off her as she was screaming for help — and while he was in the process of trying to put duct tape over her mouth. He was shirtless, her pants had been pulled down and her infant was alone outside in the car.

The officer’s body camera recorded the defendant explaining that “she was acting like she was being raped and she wasn’t.” He admitted to pulling her pants down so that he could “touch her crotch for like a split second.”

The woman told police she had endured a lengthy history of abuse. She had recorded an alleged assault earlier that year on her phone, which was played for the jury.

The case went to a jury in October and the defendant was acquitted on the three first-degree felony counts that alleged he sexually assaulted her. The jury found him guilty on a single second-degree felony charge of forcible sexual abuse for touching the victim’s genitals.

Ben Willoughby was one of the prosecuting attorneys on the case and declined to comment on the outcome, deferring to the jury’s decision.

But generally, he said, sex assaults are challenging to prosecute as the community, jurors included, vastly overestimates the prevalence of “stranger rape” cases.

Of the cases reviewed by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project, there were only two clear cases of “stranger rape”: a man who hid in a locker room at a Salt Lake Community College campus in 2017 and attacked a woman, and a 2021 case in Cedar City when a homeless man allegedly high on methamphetamine was accused of attempting to rape a woman on a dog-walking trail.

A few other cases involved strangers but in atypical settings. In two different cases, police alleged women were raped as acts of retaliation from rival gangs. In Willoughby’s 16 years of prosecuting sexual assault cases, he said, he has handled only three cases involving strangers.

“The vast majority of women are sexually assaulted by people they knew and so they have to run the gauntlet of being accused of being ‘conniving’ and ‘manipulative,’” Willoughby said.

“If as a community we want more sexual assault victims to be successful in getting justice,” he said, “then we need as a community to better understand how most sexual assaults happen; victims usually know their attackers.”

‘Running in circles’

In the days after the party, LeeMaster said, she communicated with the man who she suspected of assaulting her and he claimed the sexual contact was consensual.

LeeMaster said she decided to go to police after a friend described her own experience with the same man; the friend said she had to repeatedly tell him no as he attempted to make unwanted physical contact with her.

Police did not interview him, but the police report notes that in text messages the man said LeeMaster was a willing participant.

Months passed after she talked with a Provo detective for about an hour, she said, and she learned police did not contact the friend who had shared her experience and talked to only one witness at the party.

She felt she had to do her own investigation into how police handled her case. She filed a request for a declination letter from the Utah County Attorney’s Office, about the decision to not file charges, but said she was told it didn’t have one.

She requested a copy of the police file but was never given documents related to her rape kit, she said, because the department claimed medical privacy laws blocked her from accessing them.

”It should not be this hard to get my records, of my body,” LeeMaster said.

Officer Shad Lefevre of the Provo Police department would not comment on LeeMaster’s concerns about the investigation or the records, except to say that she could file a complaint if she felt the investigation was inadequate.

“I’m just running in circles and no one is giving me any answers,” LeeMaster said.

Brigham Young University nursing professor Julie Valentine, a longtime researcher into sexual assault prosecutions, said LeeMaster has a right to her own rape kit record.

Police should have referred LeeMaster to Wasatch Forensic Nurses, a nonprofit organization of sexual assault nurse examiners that helps survivors access and understand their rape kits in supportive settings, said Valentine, an associate dean in the College of Nursing.

Her research has shown that in Utah County, the primary reason law enforcement did not refer cases for prosecution — 39% of cases — was the belief the evidence was “unfounded.” She said in an interview: “Basically, they didn’t believe the victim.”

[Read more: Most sexual assault cases in Salt Lake, Utah counties stall in police departments. New research explains why.]

The Utah County attorney’s office has recently taken on the responsibility of informing all victims about its declinations to file charges, after complaints that law enforcement were not keeping them informed, said Chief Deputy Sandi Johnson.

Staff in the office are heavily invested in trauma-informed training, she said. “There’s a lot of distance to go trying to change an entire culture — not just law enforcement and prosecutors — but an entire culture in our society, it takes a long time,” Johnson said. “But I can tell you we’re moving in the right direction.”

As part of a graduate internship before the night of the party, LeeMaster was leading treatment classes for sex offenders at the Utah State Prison. After the alleged assault, she found herself struggling to remain composed as she spoke with prisoners about victim trauma, until the end of the day when she could get to her car and weep. But she was not quitting.

“I love my job and he doesn’t get to take that away from me,” LeeMaster said.

She wants her story to help prevent sexual assault. Children should be taught about boundaries, she said, and women and men need to learn about consent — which can be more nuanced than “yes” or “no,” extending to not feeling manipulated or coerced by a partner.

Sex should be openly discussed, she added, so that a sense of stigma doesn’t lead to more victimization. “I’m so sick,” she said, “of no one talking about it.”