Judge questions whether sex abuse was 'invited,' orders probation for jailer

Victim, advocate say such comments are why women don't always report sex crimes

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 25 2014 9:35 p.m. MST

Debbie Hatch poses for a photo in her home in Tooele, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Christopher Epperson, a former jailer, was sentenced to probation for inappropriately touching Hatch and another woman when they were inmates at the Wasatch County Jail. She believes the sentence was too lenient and that the judge basically told her she "deserved what I got."

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Deborah Hatch said she was only looking for one thing when she attended last week's sentencing hearing for a former Wasatch County jailer who physically abused her and another woman while they were inmates.

"I just wanted closure," she said. "I wanted my daughters to see that if you stand up and do what's right, then you're going to be taken care of."

Instead, she said she was basically told that as a jail inmate, she was a second-class citizen who "deserved what I got" when Christopher Stein Epperson touched her inappropriately.

"I just feel like I kind of just got … told I was the worst and I wasn't innocent and I feel like I was being told that I deserved what I got," she said Tuesday. "It was a different situation because we were inmates.

"We got that (message) from the judge."

According to a court transcript of the hearing obtained by the Deseret News, U.S. District Judge David Sam repeatedly questioned Hatch's credibility and that of the other victim before sentencing him to probation and eight months of home confinement.

Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of four years in prison.

"As I said previously, this case is just fraught with 'she said, he said.' It's fraught with the possibility of conduct that was lured, encouraged and invited," Sam said.

Holly Mullen, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center, said she was surprised to hear such comments from a judge. She said dismissing a sexual assault as a "she said, he said" conundrum is part of the reason such crimes are so under-reported.

"For many years now there's really only been about a 10 percent reporting rate of sexual crimes," Mullen said. "There's a very strong culture that exists … that (says) this is just going to be too difficult to prove. (Prosecutors) will tell victims, 'I'm sorry. I'm not saying this didn't happen to you, but we can't make a case,' and it does have a chilling effect."

Epperson pleaded guilty to two counts of deprivation of rights under color of law in connection with his job as a deputy sheriff. Color of law means the person is using lawful authority bestowed by a local, state or federal agency.

The man admitted that he touched the bare breasts of two female inmates and that he touched the genital area of one of them, according to court documents. But his attorney, Steven Killpack, contends that his client only pleaded guilty to simple assault and that his actions were merely due to a lack of training.

"He always agreed that he could have and should have acted more prudently when he enforced the jail rules there with these inmates, but they had accused him of actions beyond that," Killpack said. "They had accused him of sexual misconduct and he has always denied that and he denied it in his plea."

Hatch said Epperson was the one who booked her into the Wasatch County Jail in March of 2010. She said fairly early on he began making comments about her body and giving her directions about what clothing she could wear. He would later touch her inappropriately and order her to show him her chest while he took pictures, she said.

"It was instantly aggressive and shocking," she said, but added that her complaints to others in the jail fell on deaf ears.

Hatch said Epperson urged her to keep quiet and threatened her visits with her daughters.

"He would tell me not to say anything," she recalled. "He said, 'Don't say anything, because I'm going to deny it and who's going to believe you? You're an inmate and I'm a deputy."

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