Robert Gehrke sorts out the calculated political hit happening in the Utah County attorney race

The timing and events surrounding the new sex abuse allegations in Utah County smells like politics.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah County Attorney David Leavitt holds a press conference in Provo on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, where he called for Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith to resign, alleging his office is being used for “political purposes.”

Who would have ever thought the race for Utah County attorney would produce one of the most bizarre and seedy political dramas the state has ever seen — including the absolute surreal denials by candidate David Leavitt that he is a cannibal?

Along the way it has bad blood between Leavitt and Sheriff Mike Smith, the potential of a “Satanic Panic”-style sex cult, accusations of political dirty tricks and meddling by a man believed to be an accused rapist who supposedly faked his own death and fled to Scotland.

And there is still more than a week left until they start counting the votes.

So let’s see if we can unravel this race and perhaps provide some context to what is actually going on:

On May 31, Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith triggered the political avalanche by announcing that his office had, since April 2021, been conducting an investigation into allegations of ritualistic sexual abuse in Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Weeks before, though, it was rumored that an announcement was coming that would create chaos in the county attorney’s race.

A political operative I spoke with last week called Leavitt before the investigation was announced and warned him of what he’d heard. The tactics simply didn’t sit well with the politico. Utah newsrooms had already been tipped off to the existence of a 150-page — uncorroborated and unverified — victim statement given to Provo Police years ago that mentions Leavitt as part of a ritualistic sex abuse, murder and cannibalism cult.

Perhaps the most bizarre coordination is that hours after the sheriff’s announcement, an individual calling himself Arthur Knight was publicly pointing the finger at Leavitt as a subject of the investigation. Utah County prosecutors allege Knight is actually a man named Nicolas Rossi, who was accused of a rape in Utah County but faked his death and fled to Scotland.

Really, I’m not making this up.

The point being that there appears to have been a concerted effort, not just to disseminate information about an investigation by the sheriff’s department, but to drop a nuclear bomb in the middle of the county attorney’s race — conveniently right as voters were about to receive their ballots.

Leavitt didn’t help himself any when he called a surreal news conference where he denied he was a sex abuser or cannibal — something none of us ever thought we would see in Utah politics. But by that time, Rossi and the media were already clued into the victim statement.

The county attorney made it worse when he referred to the accuser as “tragically mentally ill.” That was a misstep because it could send a chilling message to people with valid claims of abuse and because it stigmatizes mental illness.

Surely there has been sex abuse in Utah County in the last 20 years, perhaps ritualistic abuse in some instances. Having read this report, though, the allegations are so horrific, so frequent and so outlandish against so many people that it’s hard to believe they could be true.

Specifically, as it pertains to Leavitt, the victim statement alleges he would supposedly procure polygamist children that would be raped, sacrificed, dismembered and eaten.

There are allegations against other named individuals claiming countless rapes by many different people — multiple times in a week. It claims they committed numerous murders, kept human body parts in freezers, toted a head around like a trophy and had a dungeon with dangling corpses in a couple’s home.

None of the claims, some dating back 25 to 30 years, are provable today, and nor can they be definitively disproved.

Obviously the sheriff’s investigation won’t be done before the June 28 primary. At this point, 14 months after the probe was opened, investigators have not sought any subpoenas for communications, documents or physical evidence, according to Leavitt and verified by court records.

So the smear will remain out there and given more life.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former House Speaker Greg Hughes speaks during a press conference at the Captiol Tuesday, June 14, 2022, to discuss the need to replace the current Utah County incumbent Attorney David Leavitt.

A new website, TheLeavittFactor.com, now features clips from Leavitt’s news conference that say Leavitt “seems to know more than he says” and “implies the accused actually did something” — a clever innuendo giving the claims credence.

The page was created by Utahns For Safer Communities, a PAC created shortly before Smith announced the investigation. Its officers are former House Speaker Greg Hughes, a lobbyist for the Utah Sheriffs Association, and Scott Burns, the association’s executive director.

The first donations started coming in the day after the investigation was announced. Donors include Hughes and his lobbying partners, Burns, Rep. Mike Schultz, and the Duchesne and Garfield county sheriffs.

At a news conference Tuesday, Hughes denied that he coordinated with Smith on the announcement of the sex abuse investigation. And in fairness to the PAC, there are numerous other issues raised about Leavitt’s tenure.

And many of them are legitimate criticisms. There are reasons Utah County voters might not want Leavitt as their county attorney, whether because of his opposition to the death penalty or maybe because he pleads out too many cases and disbanded the Special Victims Unit.

But legitimate policy disagreements are overshadowed now by the salacious and unsubstantiated abuse claims. And while we can’t connect some of the dots, it appears it was a calculated, premeditated political hit — the timing of the sheriff’s news release, the whisper campaign and tips to reporters, the interactions between law enforcement and a fugitive and now the formation of the new PAC.

If it’s successful, it will set a new precedent for how far candidates can stoop to smear their opponents. And voters in Utah County — and all of Utah — deserve better than this kind of innuendo and character assassination.