She was attacked at a SLC luxury apartment complex. Did it do enough to protect her?

Utah law requires fewer specific protections for tenants than other states.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) 4th West Apartments, located at 255 N. 400 West in Salt Lake City. A woman who was attacked just inside the main entrance is suing the complex, arguing it did not do enough to protect her safety.

Her mind froze as a stranger pointed a gun at her in the stairwell of a Salt Lake City apartment complex. He demanded she take her clothes off.

It was just after 2 a.m. on a February morning earlier this year, and the Utah woman had returned to her friend’s place at the luxury 4th West Apartments after a night out. She had offered to take her friend’s black Labradoodle out the main entrance for a bathroom break.

Stunned by the masked gunman, she said in an interview, she remembers thinking, “Why isn’t anyone coming to save me?”

He demanded again that she undress, the woman’s attorney later wrote in a lawsuit, and told her he was going to masturbate.

With her pants around her ankles, she lunged at him, she said, with the instinct to try to get the gun. He pushed her to the floor, she said, grabbing and scratching her chest.

As she screamed and a door slammed nearby, she said, he ran.

The 24-year-old woman is now suing 4th West Apartments, alleging it did not do enough to protect her safety.

The attack emotionally destroyed her, said the woman, who now lives in another state while attending law school.

“I lost my confidence and I’m anxious all the time,” she said. “Every aspect of my life has been affected by this.”

The woman is not identified by name in her lawsuit, and The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify alleged sexual assault victims.

The issue of tenant safety has been underscored in recent years by an apartment building boom across the Wasatch Front that is, in many cases, creating thousands of new housing units in areas that are marginal by definition. Some, like the new 4th West complex, are in places that had not recently been residential.

And nearly a third or more of Salt Lake County residents rent their homes, a number that has been rising steadily as home prices escalate out of reach for most Utahns.

Under Utah law, tenants appear to be largely on their own to do “due diligence” in reviewing the safety of locations they might rent, and parsing their lease contract for specifics before they sign.

The 4th West Apartments deny having having any liability for the February attack, an attorney wrote in its response to the woman’s lawsuit, placing blame instead on both the woman and the assailant.

Was the complex aware of safety concerns?

The woman said she felt angry, after the attack, when she looked at the apartment complex’s website and read that it advertised 24-hour security on its premises.

Her lawsuit alleges that there were supposed to be two security guards at the complex — but there was only one working on Feb. 13 during the early morning hours when she was attacked.

The second person who wasn’t there, her lawsuit alleges, is the one who was supposed to walk the perimeters of the apartment complex and could have possibly stopped the attack.

Her lawyer, Michael Young, alleges that the security guard who was working when her client was attacked was supposed to be monitoring security cameras.

In the footage that was recovered, her assailant can be seen watching her as she let the dog out, at the main entrance near a circular drive in front of the building. It also shows him approaching the woman, according to the lawsuit, but the attack happened just inside the doorway, out of sight of the camera.

After the man fled, the woman ran upstairs and her friend called 911. But by the time a Salt Lake City police officer arrived, the man was gone. He’s never been found, according to public records, and police have closed the case.

The lawsuit says managers of the complex subsequently sent an email to residents, asking if they “notice any behavior or person that seems suspicious or dangerous, please call the authorities to report it or to get help. Please do not assume that somebody else has contacted the authorities, as that might not be the case.”

The email did not disclose that a woman had been attacked at the complex, according to the lawsuit, but advised residents to not open doors for others, as it “gives opportunity for undesirable consequences.”

The lawsuit alleges that the 4th West Apartment managers were put on notice that there were safety concerns and security issues in a string of Google review left by residents, who indicated it was an unsafe area at night. One said, “when the sun goes down it seems that just about anyone can break into the building.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) 4th West Apartments, located at 255 N. 400 West in Salt Lake City. The complex denies being liable for a February assault at the main entrance of the complex.

Another person wrote that they felt the security staff was more interested in policing their use of the pool and other amenities — not in protecting them from crime.

Police records show that officers have been called to 4th West Apartments on two other occasions on sexual assault reports since it opened in 2017, and have been asked to respond nearly 20 times on reports of trespassers.

Officers have responded to dozens of disturbance and noise complaints in that time, but records show police are most often called not because of safety concerns — but for towing.

What does Utah law require?

Attorney Heinz Mahler, representing 4th West Apartments, wrote in the response to the woman’s lawsuit that she was harmed as a “direct result” of her “own negligence or other fault.”

He also argued that the apartment complex has no control over the persons who harmed her, and managers did not act with malice.

Her damages, he argued, were solely caused by the assailant, whose attack was “unforeseeable” to managers.

Some states specify requirements for apartments or rentals to have lighting, security cameras in common areas, functioning alarm systems and, in some cases, security guards.

But the Utah Fit Premises Act is more limited. It only says that in order to protect the physical health and safety of renters, property owners may not rent premises unless “they are safe, sanitary and fit for human occupancy.”

The law allows renters who are proven victims of domestic violence, stalking, sexual offenses, burglary or dating violence to require their landlords install new locks on their residential units — providing the renter pays.

Owners also cannot penalize or evict renters for making “reasonable requests” to public safety agencies for help.

But that appears to be as far as Utah law goes on ensuring safety.

“The courts have for the most part taken that perspective that unless a landlord was negligent, that they really can’t prevent most things from happening,” said Paul Smith, executive director of the Utah Rental Housing Association, which represents the state’s landlords.

“The most important concept is, landlords shouldn’t be negligent,” said Smith. “But on the other hand, we can’t prevent floods and fires and burglaries. All we can do is try to make it as safe as possible.”

The group, which recently changed its name from the Utah Apartment Association to better reflect its diverse membership, represents 2,500 landlords overseeing nearly 105,000 rental dwellings across Utah.

The trade group advises members not to answer when prospective renters might ask about neighborhood safety.

Said Smith: “We train them to say, ‘Listen, I can’t answer a question like that. You have to look into crime statistics or reach out to the police department. You really have to do your due diligence on that.’“

“It seems safe,” Smith said, “but who knows?”

The rental industry in Utah has been divided, for example, on the installation of surveillance cameras in this regard, with some fearing their use might imply a level of safety even though the cameras aren’t monitored 24/7.

One advocate for Utah’s renters warned that extensive security measures targeting common areas in apartment complexes could be used against tenants, in monitoring their behavior and tracking their movements.

“Would it give landlords more opportunity to harass tenants?” advocate Tara Rollins asked.

Some public housing authorities in Utah have encouraged and even offered financial incentives for police officers to live in their complexes, Rollins said, as a way of providing a routine law enforcement presence.

“Just having them there,” she said, “is often a deterrent.”

The woman attacked at 4th West said she hopes her lawsuit sparks change at the apartment complex.

Just before she was attacked, she remembers, she saw another young woman walking a dog outside, and she wants to keep other women safe.

“This shouldn’t ever happen in the first place, especially when there’s security guards and cameras — or there’s supposed to be,” she said. “I’m just really angry, and sad, and I’m scared for the current residents. I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I’ve been through.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.