Provo • A state senator was in a Provo courtroom Thursday to see a family and political drama conclude with his son-in-law agreeing to a plea deal on misdemeanor domestic violence charges in a case that helped change Utah’s polygamy laws.
Mitchell Kyle Henderson, 50, entered a plea in abeyance on two counts and was sentenced to what is effectively a probation.
Fourth District Judge Christine Johnson will dismiss both counts if he obeys all laws for 12 months and pays a $400 fee. Henderson had been charged with six felonies for assault, domestic violence and witness tampering.
His legal wife, Nicole Henderson, left the courtroom displeased with the resolution.
“There are only a few charges before the court today," she said. "They do not do justice to what happened to me.”
She maintained that Kyle Henderson was abusive to her from the time they met in 1992 until she left him in 2016 after the alleged assaults. Her parents and victim advocates were in the courtroom Thursday, while her husband had his attorney, former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, and a woman Nicole Henderson said is her husband’s plural wife.
The Hendersons were part of a polygamous family that belonged to the Apostolic United Brethren. Nicole Henderson is the daughter of state Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, who did not seek re-election last month.
After Thursday’s hearing, Van Tassell acknowledged his daughter and son-in-law were a factor in his not seeking office. “One of the reasons I didn’t run again is because I didn’t want to put the office of senator in the middle of this,” Van Tassell said outside the courtroom.
Van Tassell raised the issue of Utah’s long-running debate about polygamy on the last night of the 2017 legislative session. Van Tassell showed his fellow senators photos of the bruises on his daughter.
The Utah Senate was considering a bill that would have affirmed polygamy as a felony in Utah and increased the penalties in some cases. The Senate passed the bill that night, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert later signed it.
But the family dispute has been wider than Van Tassell and his son-in-law. Kyle and Nicole Henderson have 13 children, and up to five of the older ones have disputed their mother’s account of what she called assaults. They were prepared to testify for their father had his assault charges gone to trial.
Prosecutors suffered another blow in September. A jury acquitted Kyle Henderson of two counts of extortion or bribery. He was accused of encouraging his wife to change her story in the assault case. Shurtleff argued Nicole Henderson misled others about the contexts of her exchanges with her husband in order to convict him of a felony and get a favorable outcome in their still-pending divorce case.
After Thursday’s hearing, Shurtleff said his client opted to enter the pleas due to what the lawyer called “favorable terms” from the prosecution.
Kyle Henderson “still maintains he did not assault her,” Shurtleff said.
The assault case stems from an April 10, 2016, episode. The husband believed Nicole Henderson was communicating with another man “and attacked her,” according to a probable cause statement.
About six weeks later, Kyle Henderson threw a beer can at Nicole Henderson and caused a hairline fracture of her arm, the statement says. On July 5, she spoke to a neighbor without his permission and he kicked her, that statement also says.
Nicole Henderson on Thursday walked the judge through the time she met her husband up through 2012, when he began courting a plural wife. (Outside the courtroom, she wondered aloud how Kyle Henderson would avoid breaking laws for a year when he is a polygamist.) She asked Johnson to not allow the plea in abeyance.
She showed the judge the same photos her father showed legislators. She says it came from an assault by her husband. Deputy Utah County Attorney Doug Finch told Johnson that those photos aren’t from the assault to which the defendant pleaded Thursday.
Finch acknowledged that the prosecution was “at odds with Mrs. Henderson” about Thursday’s resolution. Finch said his office believed the case was about an assault, and so Thursday’s pleas were “appropriate,” given the defendant was being convicted of domestic violence charges.
Nicole Henderson also wanted Johnson to impose what’s called a protective order to ensure her husband does not approach her. Both Shurtleff and Finch argued that wasn’t necessary because a family law judge has issued an order limiting the Hendersons' contact. Johnson agreed.
That family law judge is overseeing the Hendersons' divorce and child custody battle. Those cases have largely been on hold while Kyle Henderson addressed the criminal charges against him. The judge has been waiting for an outcome before deciding who should have custody of the youngest children.
After the hearing, Van Tassell said the pleas were “not everything I wanted, but this has been going on a long time."
He said he tried to stop his daughter from marrying Kyle Henderson. Part of Van Tassell’s concern, he said, was that Kyle Henderson was a Mormon fundamentalist whose church believes in polygamy. Van Tassell is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially abandoned polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates members found practicing it.
After the couple had three children, they talked about divorcing, Van Tassell said, but he advised them against it for the sake of their children. Van Tassell said he heard later from his daughter about abuse.
He said he has heard that some legislators or advocates would like to weaken the polygamy bill he pushed that night in 2017. Van Tassel still sees polygamy as inherently abusive to women.
“It’s my belief women are held as chattel,” he said.