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Utah County ‘ritualistic’ sex abuse case is in limbo

A recent Court of Appeals order means there’s no prosecutor right now to handle the controversial and high-profile case.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Then-Utah County Attorney David Leavitt at a news conference on 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.

No one wants to prosecute a high-profile “ritualistic” sex abuse case except Utah County. And now that Utah County has been banned for a second time from handling it, the controversial prosecution is in indefinite limbo.

The case first came to light via a startling 2022 announcement by the Utah County Sheriff’s Office that it was investigating a “ritualistic” sex abuse ring. Then-Utah County Attorney David Leavitt denounced the move, arguing his detractors were trying to damage his chances for reelection by dredging up a years-old, unverified witness statement that accused Leavitt and 14 others of “cannibalizing young children” and participating in a “ritualistic” sex ring.

Sheriff Mike Smith denied the accusation of political meddling. But after the bizarre allegations hung over the final weeks of the race, Leavitt lost to current Utah County Attorney Jeff Gray. Gray now wants to prosecute the only two people who were eventually charged: Former therapist David Hamblin and his ex-wife, Roselle Stevenson.

But Hamblin’s defense attorney has theorized in court papers that the investigation was politically motivated. That contention, paired with an audio recording where a sheriff’s investigator can be heard telling Stevenson that the office was hoping to withhold certain evidence in Hamblin’s case, concerned 4th District Judge Roger W. Griffin enough that he agreed there could be a conflict of interest and ruled Utah County can’t handle the case.

Gray’s office tried to appeal Griffin’s decision, but the Utah Court of Appeals didn’t want to hear it. In a brief two-sentence order published earlier this month, the judges denied the county attorney’s petition asking for permission to bring arguments to their court.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeff Gray speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol on June 14, 2022, while he campaigning to become Utah County attorney.

That decision has thus far left Hamblin’s case — which has been offered to and rejected by other prosecutors — without anyone assigned to take it to trial.

And in an unusual twist, Gray may appear on a witness stand in July to try to convince a judge that he can fairly prosecute Hamblin.

Challenging the prosecution

Hamblin and his ex-wife had also been named in the statement that accused Leavitt. Hamblin currently faces felony charges in two counties: In Utah County, he and his ex-wife are accused of sexually abusing a girl in the 1980s who lived near them at the time, when Leavitt was the couple’s neighbor.

In Sanpete County, Hamblin is charged with allegedly sexually abusing a young boy who was his patient.

The charges in both counties were originally filed by Juab County Attorney Ryan Peters to avoid a conflict of interest — but he’s off the case now, following his appointment to become a juvenile court judge.

So Utah County tried to step in. But defense attorney Michael Petro argued Gray’s office shouldn’t be able to prosecute the allegation that Hamblin abused the Utah County girl, raising questions about “political tie-ins” between the investigation and the county attorney’s race.

Griffin, the judge in that case, noted during a December hearing that the Utah County sheriff had 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.

The judge then rejected Gray’s bid to take over the case, saying he found it difficult to envision how Hamblin would receive fair treatment if attorneys in his office were prosecuting.

Deputy Utah County Attorney Tim Taylor said his office was “disappointed” that the appeals court wouldn’t hear their attempt to overturn Griffin’s ruling.

Petro did not respond to a request for comment, but has said in a previous email that he would not speak publicly about a pending case and added: “Mr. Hamblin strongly denies the allegations against him and the court filings speak for themselves.”

It’s not clear if Utah County prosecutors can do anything else to try to stay on the case in front of Griffin. But Taylor said they’re not making any decisions about that case until after a hearing in late July in the Sanpete County case.

A second attempt

After Peters became a juvenile judge, the Utah County attorney’s office also tried to take over the Sanpete County case — which accuses Hamblin of abusing a former patient. Again, Hamblin’s attorney has asked the judge in that case to keep them out.

Gray is expected to testify during a July evidentiary hearing. Prosecutors say he’ll tell that judge he has no “personal animus” against Leavitt that would create such a conflict that his office could not take the case. Others from within his office are expected to testify as well.

In the Utah County case, the office has argued that since Gray is now the county attorney, there is no conflict of interest and its prosecutors should be allowed back in.

And if the judge didn’t allow Utah County to take over, a prosecutor wrote, there would be no one to do it.

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

He’s said in court records that it’s likely the defense would call Leavitt as a witness in Hamblin’s cases if they ever went to trial.

An attorney for Stevenson, Hamblin’s ex-wife, has made a similar motion to remove a Utah County prosecutor from her case due to a conflict of interest — but that is also on hold, until after the Sanpete judge makes his decision following the July hearing in Hamblin’s case.

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