HEBER CITY — Greg Peterson, a businessman and GOP activist charged with raping or abusing five women, was found dead Tuesday from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at the cabin where many of his alleged assaults took place.
His death comes just four days after his release from the Salt Lake County Jail after he met his $2 million dollar bail requirement with the help of a bail bonding company.
"This has been a tragedy of a case from the beginning and there's been nothing good about this case all the way through," Wasatch County Attorney Scott Sweat said Tuesday night.
Peterson, 37, had been ordered to stand trial on 25 charges, including 10 counts of forcible sexual abuse, seven counts of object rape, three counts of rape, and one count each of aggravated kidnapping, forcible sodomy, burglary and sexual battery. A preliminary hearing was also scheduled in Wasatch County on a separate but similar case involving a woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted by Peterson.
As part of his deal with All Out Bail Bonds, Peterson was required to wear an ankle monitor so the bail bonding company could track his movement. Bail bondsmen had been trying to get in touch with Peterson earlier in the day so they could visit him and recharge his monitor, said Wasatch County Sheriff Todd Bonner.
"They had been trying to make contact with him, was unsuccessful in doing so. So they had made contact with his attorney, and she had not, from what I understand, had not spoken to him or knew of anything that was going on with him," Bonner said.
Peterson's attorney had also sent a text to her client earlier Tuesday to notify him of a new bail hearing requested by Wasatch County in their case, Bonner said. He did not reply to her text. Bonner said the bondsmen did notice activity on Peterson's ankle monitor earlier in the afternoon. It showed he was walking around outside his cabin.
Two bail bondsmen eventually went to Peterson's Heber City cabin at 10160 E. Ridge Pines, about 5 p.m.
"They did walk around the residence, all the lights were out. They noticed a door was unlocked and entered. Both of them were yelling his name as they were going throughout the home. No answer. They did find him … in an upstairs bedroom, appeared to be deceased," the sheriff said.
About 30 minutes later, two of Bonner's deputies who knew Peterson went to the cabin and positively identified him.
"We are shocked and saddened by Greg's untimely and unforeseen death," Peterson's attorneys, Jerry Salcido & Cara Tangaro said in a prepared statement released Tuesday night.
"Greg always maintained his innocence and was confidant that had a jury been presented with the entire case, he would have been acquitted. Greg felt an enormous pressure from the media and their one-sided and inaccurate reporting of this case which villianized him from day one," the statement said.
Following the discovery of Peterson's body, Bonner said he contacted Peterson's mother, who was out of state, to notify her of her son's death.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his office called the women who testified against Peterson in a preliminary hearing to tell them of his death.
"From the moment that he had bailed out ... we were staying in contact with all of our victims," he said. "When the victims were contacted, they went through a full range of emotions from relief to actually just stopping what they were doing and trying to get composure of what was going on."
"I can't speak to whether he should have been let out or not. We'd asked for a $2 million bail for a reason. But he made bail and he was out there," Gill said. "Making bail is a constitutional right."
Lorie Hobbs, with the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic, represented two of Peterson's alleged victims. She said one of them was scared when she learned Peterson had posted bail last week. She was shocked Tuesday when she received word of his death.
"Although she did say that her belief is he probably planned it before he left, that he knew what he was going to do when he got out," Hobbs said.
The criminal cases against Peterson will now be dropped. Hobbs said her clients are happy they at least were able to testify against the man they said attacked them, during a preliminary hearing in August.
"They did get to tell their story. They had some cross-examination at that point, so they got a hint of how difficult a trial might be. But now, they're not going to have to go through that process, which is really going to be a good thing for the victims," she said.
Hobbs said the Peterson case was particularly troubling.
"He picked his victims well. He picked people he was able to manipulate for whatever reason. He could just see, I don't know if weakness is the right word, but he could see cracks in people, and he could take advantage of those," she said.
Planning his suicide
Salt Lake County Jail spokeswoman Cammie Skogg said Peterson did not show signs of mental illness or risk for self-harm during intake screenings or prior to his release last week. But a longtime acquaintance of Peterson's said he first began contemplating suicide in 2011.
Scott Morris, who first met Peterson while both were serving LDS missions in Venezuela, said Peterson contacted him after he was arrested last year and was first accused of a sexual assault. Peterson asked him to help his mother coordinate his bail payment.
“He told me ... ‘If this ever happens again, I would rather die a free man than be kept like an animal in a cage,’” Morris said Tuesday.
He said he felt uneasy about Peterson’s words and thought, “I think he actually means what he’s saying.” No charges followed that initial arrest in Wasatch County.
Morris said Peterson then adopted a new saying for when times were hard: “It’s better than jail.”
Morris said he is not convinced that Peterson's suicide is an admission of any guilt:
“I think the thought of the possibility that he could face that much time in jail probably weighed heavy on his mind. But it was not, ‘I’m guilty, I’m going to go to jail, I’m going to kill myself instead.'”
Hristo Belchev used to live and work with Peterson. In an email to the Deseret News Tuesday night, he wrote: "I am in shock. ... Most of all I feel for his family who does not deserve to be going through this. What a horrible turn of events. ... He should have never been let out of jail."
In 2004, Belchev filed a complaint with BYU while working for Peterson at Satcom as a satellite dish installer. Belchev, a Bulgarian native, claimed Peterson used threats, intimidation and manipulation against him.
Peterson did have multiple weapons inside his cabin. It was unknown Tuesday whether he had any weapons restrictions as a condition for his bail.
Peterson was charged with raping, kidnapping or assaulting women he met on LDS dating websites or at church functions. Several women claim he took them to that cabin and intimidated or threatened them.
A decision to uphold Peterson's $2 million bail was recently made by 3rd District Judge Katherine Bernards-Goodman after she noted additional information about Peterson revealed during his preliminary hearing that concerned her, including:
• Peterson told one woman he is accused of sexually assaulting that he "had connections to 'make a person disappear.'"
• He told another woman that he "was a powerful politician and (she) believed he would use his power against her." He also told that same woman he would get access to her medical records and find out everything about her.
• If the same alleged victim told anyone what had happened to her, he would make her "disappear" as well.
• Peterson attempted to gain trust of all his alleged victims by discussing his membership in the LDS Church and would show off his temple recommend
Peterson earned a bachelor's degree in international studies in 1999 from BYU, an MBA in 2002, and founded three businesses in a little more than a decade.
He parlayed that success into conservative activism in the Republican party, until the allegations came to light in July of 2012. In the wake of longtime Republican Sen. Bob Bennett's loss in the primaries, Utah conservatives had turned to fresh faces for fundraising efforts, among them Peterson. He was rubbing elbows with many of Utah's top GOP brass by hosting an annual fundraiser at his impressive five-bedroom, five-bathroom cabin in Heber City.
Some of those politicians who attended his fundraisers included Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Gov. Gary Herbert and 4th District congressional candidate Mia Love.
Friends said he would sign many of his letters and emails with the tagline "Future President of the United States." He was a man who friends said could be sincere, but also had a good sense of humor and could easily make people laugh. But they also said Peterson had a dark side.
He could “go from zero to freak show in 60 seconds," said a former business partner who spoke earlier this year on condition of anonymity.
Court documents, investigative reports and interviews with former friends, business associates and women he either dated or sought to date painted a portrait of a man who was also aggressive, arrogant and had a short fuse.
At the time of his death, he was charged with assaulting five women.
• On March 26, 2011, a woman told police she met Peterson at a church function in Draper and agreed to go to a movie with him. As he drove, she said he went in a different direction and told her he was taking her to his cabin. When she told him to turn around, police say he told her he had a concealed weapons permit and pointed to the car's console.
During the drive, prosecutors say Peterson forced the woman to commit lewd acts and "smacked her across the face" for not doing one correctly. He was also accused of pointing out loaded weapons in the room of the cabin where he allegedly raped her and held her overnight.
• On July 2, 2011, Peterson arranged a date with a woman he'd met online. She said he drove her from Sandy to his Heber cabin against her will. She testified that Peterson told her he was a "powerful politician," threatened to have her deported because of an expired visa if she didn't cooperate with him. She said he also showed her a box where he said he kept a gun.
Police say he held her overnight and sexually assaulted her. The next day he took her to his mother's house in Cache County, where she was allegedly held hostage for two days and repeatedly assaulted.
• A third woman said she met Peterson online and went on a lunch date with him on Dec. 11, 2011. When he arrived at her West Jordan residence, she said he grabbed her and sexually assaulted her.
• On April 21, 2012, a fourth woman who met Peterson online also had a lunch date with him. She said Peterson pushed her into the bedroom of her Salt Lake home and sexually abused her.
• In the spring of 2012, a fifth woman told police Peterson took her to his cabin for lunch and invited her upstairs to watch a movie. Prosecutors say he began kissing the woman and forced her to touch him. She pulled away and "stood up, putting her hand on the holster of her gun" and told him he needed to take her home, according to charges. Police say he then returned her to Utah County.
Contributing: Alex Cabrero, McKenzie Romero.