Utah County ‘ritualistic’ sex abuse prosecution in limbo after judge questions political ties and conflict of interest

A judge has banned Utah County prosecutors from prosecuting a case stemming from a high-profile ‘ritualistic’ sex abuse investigation.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah County Attorney David Leavitt held a press conference in Provo on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, where he alleged Sheriff Mike Smith had dredged up an old, unverified witness statement that accused Leavitt and 14 others of “cannibalizing young children” and participating in a “ritualistic” sex ring. Now, the prosecutions against the only two people charged in connection to the sheriff's investigation are in limbo — after a judge questioned whether Utah County officials have mishandled the startling witness statement and raised the issue of “political tie-ins.”

In 2022, then-Utah County Attorney David Leavitt made a bombshell accusation: He argued his detractors — including the county sheriff — were trying to damage him politically by dredging up an old, unverified witness statement that accused Leavitt and 14 others of “cannibalizing young children” and participating in a “ritualistic” sex ring.

While Sheriff Mike Smith denied that his investigation had anything to do with politics, the bizarre allegations hung over the final weeks of the county attorney race and Leavitt lost his re-election bid.

Now, the prosecutions against the only two people charged in the investigation are in limbo — with one of the cases paused after a judge questioned whether Utah County officials have mishandled the startling witness statement and raised the issue of “political tie-ins.”

Ex-therapist David Hamblin and his ex-wife Roselle Stevenson have been charged with abusing a girl in the 1980s who lived in their neighborhood, where Leavitt was the couple’s neighbor. Hamblin’s defense attorney, Michael Petro, has theorized in court papers that the “ritual sex abuse” investigation that led to the charges was politically motivated.

In arguing that point, Petro referenced a recording where a Utah County Sheriff’s investigator can be heard telling Stevenson that they were hoping to withhold certain evidence in Hamblin’s case that the judge had ordered to be handed over — including the 151-page statement.

“It is exculpatory, they have a right to look at it, they have a right to verify it,” the investigator says in the recording, according to court records. “We were just hoping we could get at least thorough a preliminary hearing before that happened.”

The undated statement was written by 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. Hamblin faced charges more than a decade ago for child sex abuse accusations involving that woman, but they were dropped in 2014 after prosecutors said they were having trouble obtaining documents to corroborate her report. The alleged victim in the new charges is a different person.

Fourth District Judge Roger W. Griffin didn’t mince words in December when he ruled that he continued to have significant concerns which led him to believe the Utah County attorney’s office had a conflict and could not prosecute Hamblin in an unbiased way.

“I’ve got concerns that investigators were slow walking exculpatory evidence to the defense in an effort to get a tactical advantage,” he said, according to a recording of the hearing. “And I think that in and of itself screams for the need to have outside county attorney’s office that is not beholden, [or that] there isn’t any political tie-ins to either the current or the prior administrations — both with the county attorney and the sheriff’s department,” he said.

His decision has left Hamblin’s case — which has been offered to and rejected by other prosecutors — without anyone assigned to take it to trial. A similar conflict of interest has been raised in Stevenson’s case, though a judge there has yet to weigh in.

A rotating cast of prosecutors

Petro also pointed to other evidence to support his theory of political motivations. Months before the criminal case against Hamblin was filed, for example, a prosecutor in Leavitt’s office who was also running for county attorney at that time submitted a public records request for the witness statement that tied Leavitt and Hamblin together.

The June week that primary ballots dropped, the sheriff announced that his office was investigating a “ritual sex abuse” ring without mentioning Leavitt. But Leavitt held a news conference denying the claims in the old witness statement and contending the resurfacing of the document was perfectly timed to interfere with the election.

The charges against Hamblin were filed in September 2022, after Leavitt lost the primary to Jeff Gray, who would be the next county attorney as there was no Democratic challenger.

To avoid a conflict of interest, Juab County Attorney Ryan Peters had been deputized as a special Utah attorney general prosecutor, and he filed the charges against Hamblin and, later, Stevenson. Peters also filed a separate count in Sanpete County that alleges Hamblin molested a boy between the ages of 4 and 5 during therapy sessions at his Spring City home at least six times between 1990 and 1992. (A conflict of interest issue has not yet been raised in that case, though a Utah County prosecutor did recently file a notice of appearance there.)

But Peters is off the case now, after Gov. Spencer Cox appointed him to be a juvenile court judge last October — leaving no one at the Juab County attorney’s office who can handle the case.

Prosecutors wrote in a November filing that Peters reached out to four other prosecuting agencies asking them to step in, but only the Utah County attorney’s office said it would take the case.

The state attorneys argued that since Gray was now the Utah County attorney, there was no conflict of interest and lawyers in his case should be allowed back in on the case. If the judge didn’t allow Utah County to prosecute, Deputy Juab County Attorney Misty Hope wrote, there would be no one to do it.

Petro argued in response that the fact that only Utah County prosecutors were willing to take the case is a “fact that should give the court pause” and shows that the office is inherently biased. The defense attorney wrote in a court filing that many Utah County employees have had “public and personal feuds and vendettas” against Leavitt, and the prosecutors’ office is still “reeling from the effects of having David Leavitt at the helm.”

“The level of resentment felt in that office by remaining colleagues is still fresh,” Petro argued, adding that it was likely they would call Leavitt as a witness if the case ever went to trial.

Griffin, the judge, noted during a December hearing that the Utah County sheriff also opposed Leavitt’s re-election, and that the race between Gray and Leavitt had been a “pretty heated campaign” — with Gray running on a tough-on-crime platform while Leavitt sought criminal justice reform.

Gray is now the boss of every prosecutor in Utah County, the judge said, and that made him question whether they could handle the case fairly.

“It’s just difficult for this court to envision fair treatment based upon the sequence of the facts if I allow the [Utah] county attorney’s office back in,” he added.

A Utah County prosecutor filed a notice that he was entering Stevenson’s case earlier this month, but her attorney has filed a request to remove him due to a conflict of interest.

’We do not believe there is a conflict’

Deputy Utah County Attorney Tim Taylor said his office plans to appeal Griffin’s ruling in the case where Hamblin is accused of sexually abusing his neighbor.

“Simply put — we do not believe there is a conflict,” Taylor said. “We disagree with the court’s reasoning. David Leavitt is not even the defendant in this matter, and so we are confused as to why the election is an issue in the court’s opinion. We are absolutely confident that we can fairly prosecute this case.”

The sheriff’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment. The Salt Lake Tribune also tried to reach an attorney representing the alleged victim in this case, but she didn’t respond.

Hamblin’s legal team wouldn’t answer questions about the judge’s ruling but said in an email: “We will just note that Mr. Hamblin strongly denies the allegations against him and the court filings speak for themselves.”

A spokesperson for the Utah attorney general’s office said there has been “no final decision” made in his office about how the case could be handled. A prosecutor from that office could step in — but it’s been more than a month since Griffin’s ruling, and that has yet to happen.

In response to a question asking whether officials with the Utah County attorney’s office are concerned that they are the sole entity willing to take Hamblin’s case, Taylor responded by saying that sex offense cases take a “tremendous” amount of resources — which other jurisdictions don’t always have.

“Once again,” he said, “we don’t believe we have a conflict in our office, and that is why we are looking to appeal.”

Hamblin, 68, is charged in his first case with multiple counts of sodomy of a child, rape of a child, aggravated sexual abuse of a child and lewdness involving a child. In arrest documents, law enforcement authorities said that a woman came forward in April 2022 alleging she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by Hamblin, who was her neighbor, in the mid-1980s.

She described to police an instance when she and two other children were in the man’s basement and were forced to perform a sex act “while he critiqued and criticized their abilities.” She estimated she was 6 or 7 years old at that time. Stevenson is accused by the same alleged victim, who told police that the couple sexually abused her over a several-year period. She is charged with sodomy of a child.

It’s not clear from arrest records what elements the sheriff’s office considered “ritualistic” as they investigated Hamblin and Stevenson.

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