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Controversial judge agrees to retire; pending complaints will be dismissed

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 6:01 p.m. MDT

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Elaine Damron-Peltekian got a call Monday that left her with mixed feelings.

For more than two years, her family had been embroiled in a campaign against Saratoga Springs Justice Court Judge Keith Stoney. They battled him in court, on ballots and in front of the state Legislature.

They were preparing for a hearing next month on complaints she and her son Ryan filed with the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission.

But on Monday, she was told that an agreement has been reached between the conduct commission and the judge. Stoney will retire on Dec. 31. Investigations into any pending complaints — the agreement only states that there are one or more — will be suspended. After his retirement, the complaints will be dismissed.

"I just felt like justice really hasn't been served," Damron-Peltekian said. "Although we were successful in taking down a judge, he just gets to step down and retire and collect his pension from taxpayers. But he really hasn't been disciplined."

According to the agreement, which was signed Sept. 11 but made public on Monday, Stoney will retire from the bench and seek no future judicial appointments. Stoney, who presides over justice courts in Saratoga Springs and West Valley City, did not respond to a request for comment.

"The negotiations that culminated in the written agreement commenced before (Stoney) announced his retirement," said Colin Winchester, executive director of the Judicial Conduct Commission.

Damron-Peltekian's life, and those of her family members, crossed with Stoney's in 2010 after Ed and Elaine Peltekian left Ryan Peltekian's dog in the care of Ed's sister-in-law, Ann Bieker. The dog got loose and Bieker, Ed Peltekian and Ryan Peltekian were ordered to appear before Stoney in Saratoga Springs Justice Court on misdemeanor charges related to the incident.

On Aug. 27, 2010, Damron-Peltekian was in Stoney's courtroom in support of her son, who was asking that his charges be dismissed, when a court volunteer noticed that Damron was recording the court proceedings on her cellphone and notified a security officer, according to a ruling written by 4th District Judge Claudia Laycock. The officer informed her she couldn't have her phone out. Damron pushed stop and stored the phone in her purse.

The woman pulled it out again three minutes later, but stored it again when the officer approached.

Soon after, the hearing was halted when prosecutor Lindsay Jarvis told the judge she had been informed someone was recording the proceedings. Stoney ordered the officer to take Damron-Peltekian's cellphone and place her into custody, Laycock wrote.

The woman was handcuffed for an hour until she was brought back into Stoney's courtroom where she admitted she had recorded the hearing, but only once and not after she was told it was prohibited. Other witnesses spoke to the judge "informally without being sworn in" and said they had seen Damron-Peltekian make two recordings. The phone was never brought into the courtroom to check for recordings, Laycock found.

Stoney ruled that Damron-Peltekian was in contempt of court and sentenced her to five days in jail, but suspended all but 24 hours of the sentence. The woman was immediately taken to the Utah County Jail in handcuffs where she spent 24 hours in custody.

"I was completely stunned and in disbelief that they would think I'm such a bad person and such a criminal that they would have to put me in jail," she said. "I didn't put my phone away immediately and all hell broke loose. ... It was just ridiculous. We felt like we were in a different country with a tyrant for a judge."

It was later determined that there was only one, 19-minute recording on Damron's phone.

Laycock later vacated the contempt conviction and said Stoney's testimony in her courtroom, including his assertion that he had seen Damron-Peltekian make a second recording, "lacked credibility." Laycock called Stoney's mistake that day "egregious" and its consequences "severe."

The prosecutor who handled the cases resigned. The family testified before the Legislature and a new law was enacted requiring all justice courts in the state to have recording systems. All the charges stemming from the dog incident were eventually dismissed. Damron-Peltekian's conviction was vacated.

"It's because we were fighting back," she said. "Most people don't have the time and resources to fight back. But we're not the only ones who have been abused in his courtroom. ... I just didn't want this to happen to anyone else."

The conduct commission also reprimanded Stoney for another incident, saying he intentionally issued a $10,000 cash-only warrant against a woman for a minor traffic violation in 2009 because he believed she had mistreated his clerks. A clerk who issued the warrant called it "overkill" and believed Stoney wanted to "make a point," according to court documents.

Stoney said he most likely meant to issue a $100 warrant and made a mistake. He challenged the commission's reprimand before the Utah Supreme Court in June. The high court has not yet issued a ruling.

Damron-Peltekian said her family moved to Utah from Southern California to get away from crime and have a quiet life. What happened in Saratoga Springs left them disappointed in the city and its leadership. They have since relocated to Sandy.

"It changed the way I view the system," she said. "There is corruption. We thought we would go in there and tell the truth and everything would be fine and that's not what happened. But, on the other hand, justice did prevail when it went into higher courts."

The Peltekians' attorney, Jerry Salcido, said neither he nor his clients were party to the agreement and that it was not expected. Ryan Peltekian said he felt the agreement was the product of an unjust "back door meeting."

"I guess my thoughts on the whole matter is that the JCC is letting Stoney off the hook, basically," Ryan Peltekian said. "The JCC is not there to make sure judges retire, the JCC is there to look at complaints and make sure everything is kosher with the way judges are operating."

He, too, said he feels disillusioned by both the justice system and the Saratoga Springs government. And while he is glad Stoney will no longer be on the bench, he was unhappy with the way the complaints were resolved.

"I would have hoped to have seen my complaint investigated properly," he said. "Whatever was found would be heard by everybody, the truth would come out. They're covering up the truth. They're protecting their backsides and they're protecting Judge Stoney."

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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