Utah County attorney, sheriff trade angry barbs over sex abuse investigation
The ongoing tension between the Utah County sheriff and the Utah County attorney seemed to reach a boiling point on Wednesday with each side holding press conferences accusing the other of inappropriate conduct in their elected positions.
Utah County Attorney David Leavitt claims a vague press release issued Tuesday by Sheriff Mike Smith about an ongoing "ritualistic child sexual abuse and child sex trafficking" investigation is based on debunked claims from 10 years ago in which a "tragically mentally ill" woman made accusations that Leavitt and his wife were suspects in horrific crimes.
Leavitt, who is up for reelection this year, questions the timing of the press release — coming just a week before ballots are scheduled to be sent out to voters — and whether the release by Smith was politically motivated.
Leavitt is calling for an investigation into the matter and for Smith to resign as sheriff and his department spokesman, Sgt. Spencer Cannon, to be suspended, if Leavitt's allegations are true.
"I am calling upon Sheriff Mike Smith to open his office to an outside investigation where outside independent investigators are able to investigate and confirm or deny that documents from a debunked investigation from more than a decade ago were or were not used for political purposes in a Utah County attorney's race. And I call upon Mike Smith to suspend Sgt. Spencer Cannon pending that investigation to determine whether the Utah County Attorney's Office, that dismissed charges by my predecessor 12 years ago ... whether the Utah County Sheriff's Office is providing those types of documents to political opponents to be used for political purposes," he said.
Smith responded with his own press conference about 90 minutes later to address the allegations. He also noted that Leavitt's comments may have hurt his active criminal investigation.
"I will not be resigning and Spencer Cannon will not be disciplined for doing his job," Smith said. "We will continue to do our jobs. We won't be intimidated by Mr. Leavitt, by his attempts to derail our investigation."
The latest controversy started Tuesday when the sheriff's office released a brief statement that said it is looking for victims of ritualistic child sexual abuse as part of investigation involving several local agencies and the FBI that has been ongoing for over a year.
Based on their investigation, police believe that "other victims had previously reported similar forms of ritualistic sexual abuse and trafficking that occurred in Utah County, Juab County and Sanpete County during the time between 1990 and 2010," according to the sheriff's office. The sheriff's office provided few details about the investigation and declined to say who or what groups are being investigated or what kind of ritualistic abuse is occurring. Leavitt was not named in the press release.
Leavitt announced Wednesday that he believes the investigation, and the timing of its release, has ties to two past cases.
The first case involves Nicholas Rossi, 34, who was charged in January by Leavitt’s office with rape based on the results of an old, untested rape kit from 2008. Rossi, who is wanted in several states, moved away from the United States to avoid prosecution and even faked his own death at one point, according to news accounts. He was later found living under the alias Arthur Knight, who had been arrested and was being held in Scotland Yard, and was at the time was being treated for COVID-19. Rossi is currently awaiting extradition back to Utah.
The second case involves a woman who made claims against 15 to 20 Utahns of horrific crimes. One man, a therapist, was charged with sexually abusing the woman. But according to Leavitt, "because the evidence was so outlandish and so unbelievable" and because the woman's claims were "so outlandish and so ludicrous," the case was dismissed by his predecessor, former Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman, and the therapist's arrest and charging records were recently expunged.
But on Tuesday, Leavitt said he received a copy of a 151-page report that included the woman's statements from more than a decade ago. He said that's when he learned for the first time that he and and his wife were named as suspects in the case and were accused of cannibalizing and murdering young children.
Leavitt said at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, Rossi posted all 151 pages on his website. He said it is his understanding that Rossi got the documents from Cannon. Leavitt believes it is Rossi's way of getting back at him for filing criminal charges against him.
Now Leavitt is questioning the timing of the release of those documents and wants to know if Smith had anything to do with it.
"If this is a 25-year investigation, why is it occurring seven days before the ballots drop in my election? And if this is truly an investigation they've been having since 2021, and if there truly are federal agencies and state agencies who are participating in this, who are they? Let's name the agencies. Let's get them involved. Let's find out who it is," the county attorney said.
"The allegation that I am asserting is that the sheriff's office is using its position for political gain."
During his 40-minute press conference, in which he didn't read from any notes, Leavitt switched from being angry at the sheriff's office and members of the media to becoming emotional when he talked about his family, particularly his wife, who he said does not deserve to have her reputation and character brought into question. In addition to calling on the sheriff to resign if the allegations are true, he also called on the sheriff to apologize to his family.
"We are not suspects in an investigation, I am not a suspect in the investigation," Leavitt said, but also admitted he had never read through the case himself. He said he took the word of the previous administration.
"I don't know what they're investigating. But if it has anything to do with this therapist or the report of 25 years ago, then it is 100% false," Leavitt said. "If it can be demonstrated that the sheriff has used his office for political purposes — and there's no evidence of that that I can bring to court (currently) — but if an investigation can demonstrate it, then I'm saying the sheriff should resign."
Smith responded with his own press conference, disputing most of what Leavitt said.
"This is not a politically motivated investigation," the sheriff said.
Smith said he believes some aspects of the original case involving the woman and the therapist were investigated properly, and some weren't and deserve further investigation. He said several victims came forward a year ago. And since Tuesday's press release, about 20 more victims or people who know victims have contacted the sheriff's office.
"We believe, I believe, that Leavitt is using his authority and his pulpit to bully, distract and mischaracterize the facts of an ongoing investigation," Smith said.
The sheriff took issue with Leavitt bringing up claims of cannibalism and child murder, stating the current investigation has to do with child sex abuse only. Smith also took exception to Leavitt calling the alleged victim from the previous case a "tragically mentally ill" woman, something he repeated several times.
"I take exception to any victim who comes forward and is characterized as 'tragically mentally ill.' How dare you! These are victims of crime who have mustered the courage to come forward. And this is what we call them is mentally ill, our victims of crime? How dare you! They should not be shamed or intimidated for coming forward," Smith said.
"I'd throw that right back in his face. That is an unfair and unprofessional statement. And honestly, coming from a county attorney, to put that out to people who come forward even if you've been victimized to a point that it is tragically sickening, that you're just going to labeled as mentally ill? That's disturbing."
The sheriff said he believes Leavitt said some things during his press conference that were "alarming" and "contradictory." He also believes Leavitt's comments could potentially hurt his office's ongoing investigation. While Smith declined to release more information about the investigation, he confirmed it is bigger than just the therapist who was accused of misconduct.
As for the release of documents, Smith said nothing was released by Cannon or anyone in his office. Whether those who obtained the 151-page report did so through a government open records request, he said he didn't know.
"This office hasn't released any documents, nothing has come out of the sheriff's office," he said.
When asked if he would call on Leavitt to resign just as the county attorney had called on him to do, Smith replied, "I'm not going to play that game. I'm going to do my job, the job the people elected me to do.
"And I'm not going to stoop to kindergarten games with him."