Rainbow Family Gathering putting big strain on jail, courts in Wasatch County

Published: Wednesday, July 2 2014 3:05 p.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, July 2 2014 6:44 p.m. MDT

Thousands of Rainbow Family members are in Wasatch County. The gathering has resources stretched to the limit. The Wasatch County Jail can hold only 100 inmates, and right now about 40 of the beds are taken by Rainbow Family members.

Derek Petersen, Deseret News

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HEBER CITY — The numbers are increasing by the day, and the arrival of thousands of Rainbow family members in Wasatch County has resources stretched to the limit.

There are now more than 6,000 people at the site where the annual gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light is being held 15 miles east of Heber City, according to Kathy Jo Pollock, spokeswoman for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. That number is expected to climb to about 10,000 by Friday, when the counterculture congregation will hold its main event.

The Wasatch County Sheriff's Office said its jail is already essentially maxed out. The facility can hold 100 prisoners. In recent days about 40 of those beds have been occupied by Rainbow family members, Chief Deputy Jared Rigby said.

A copy of the jail's booking log, obtained by the Deseret News through a public records request, details Rainbow family arrests for offenses ranging from attempted murder to public intoxication. Arrests for investigation of drug possession and drug distribution are the offenses most frequently listed.

"We are seeing the whole gamut," deputy Wasatch County attorney Mckay King said. "We've seen LSD, illegal mushrooms and marijuana extract, which is a felony."

Rigby said sheriff's office employees are working nonstop, even canceling vacations. One deputy recently got married and had to cancel his honeymoon to stay and work overtime, the chief deputy said.

"They end up working a lot of hours, six days a week,” Rigby said, “not only the patrol guys, but everyone in the jail, the dispatchers, the Forest Service."

In previous years, law enforcement agencies in areas visited by the Rainbow family have reported going over budget due to the need to staff extra shifts and provide additional services. Taxpayers usually foot the bill because the sheriff’s office is not anticipating much relief, Rigby said.

"The costs have been $100,000 (in previous years),” Rigby said. “We're not there yet, but we're fast approaching those significant numbers."

A federal magistrate traveled to the Uinta National Forest on Tuesday, holding court for a second time near the site of the Rainbow Family Gathering. Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah, said 51 cases were on the docket stemming from citations issued by U.S. Forest Service rangers.

To help ease the situation in the jail, 4th District Court held a special session Monday to handle more than a dozen cases involving Rainbow family members. A number of misdemeanor cases have also been filed in Wasatch County and Heber City justice courts.

Many of the defendants in the district court cases pleaded guilty to reduced charges during their initial court appearances, after consulting with a public defender.

"The ones that we've resolved we were able to take care of because they were the (drug) possession-only crimes, and we were able to give reasonable offers and those were accepted," King said about the process that condensed what could be months of court hearings into a single appearance before the judge.

Judge Steven Hansen imposed sentences of court probation and a fine in the cases where guilty pleas were entered. As a condition of release from the jail, the defendants were restricted from using illegal drugs or taking part "in group gatherings where drugs are being used," court records show.

Defense attorney Chris VanCampen, who was appointed to represent some of the defendants who pleaded guilty, said the sheer volume of the cases the court is handling due to the Rainbow Family Gathering is reminiscent of another major event in Utah's past.

"The only thing we've seen like this, or that I've seen like this, was when we had the Olympics," VanCampen said, "but that wasn't confined to just one jurisdiction."

While there was a spike in court filings during the 2002 Winter Olympics, there were also millions of dollars in tourism revenues that flowed into Wasatch County and the rest of the state. So far, the Rainbow family's visit hasn't packed much of a positive economic punch, Rigby said.

"They hold themselves out that this event is going to bring a big economic boom to the area," he said. "We haven't seen that, at least not yet."

Contributing: Haley Smith

Email: gliesik@deseretnews.com, Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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