SOUTH SALT LAKE It's a case that has sparked strong emotions and debate over the rights of parents protecting their children versus vigilante justice gone too far.
And that's just the tip of the controversy.
When both sides enter a 3rd District courtroom Thursday for a scheduled preliminary hearing, each will present their cases regarding two charges of child kidnapping.
The complicated story began July 4, when police here arrested a man for allegedly kidnapping two children from the home of his next-door neighbor. David James "DJ" Bell was later charged with the child kidnapping as well as second-degree felony burglary for allegedly entering the children's home when he took them.
Police say the children were in Bell's house for five to 10 minutes, and they were not molested or physically harmed.
But the stories being told by each side about what happened that night are as different as night and day. The only points that all sides seem to agree on is that two children, ages 2 and 4, were found that morning in Bell's house, and that Bell and his partner, Dan Fair, subsequently were viciously beaten by the children's parents.
After that, there has been much disagreement over what charges were and were not filed. Just as controversial as the kidnapping charges was the Salt Lake County District Attorney's decision not to file felony assault charges against the parents of the children who delivered the fierce beating.
The answers to how the children ended up in Bell's house depend on whom you ask.
Both sides agree that on the night of July 3 extending into the morning hours of July 4, the parents of the young children were having a party at their house, near 400 East and 2900 South. For a while, Bell, who lives next door to the parents, attended the party.
"He was hanging out with us for four hours," said the children's mother, Tlulu Latu.
About 6:30 a.m., Latu said she went to check on the children inside the house and discovered they were missing, according to court documents. That's when she heard the children crying next door in Bell's residence. She rushed and found the children in Bell's bedroom.
Although court documents say Bell admitted in his post-Miranda statement that he "brought the children ... to his residence," friends, family members and Bell's attorney, Roger Kraft, say the children were not kidnapped and that, in fact, Bell was trying to help them.
Some friends say the children walked out of the house on their own and wandered over to Bell's carport when they saw an open door. Bell's mother said the children would routinely play in Bell's yard or driveway.
Kraft recently told the Deseret News he wanted to wait until the court hearing to reveal in detail how he believed the children ended up in Bell's house but said, "It was for legitimate purposes and not against their will."
Kraft said he has never defended someone so totally innocent of the crime of which they're accused as Bell.
Prosecutors, however, allege Bell went into the children's house and took the children.
What happened next is not disputed by either side. But whether it was legally justified has been a powder-keg debate.
A vicious beating
When Latu entered Bell's house, she got into a verbal argument with him that turned into a physical altercation, with Latu delivering punches to Bell, according to Kraft. There were five people in Bell's house, not including the children, at the time. Most were sleeping. Dan Fair was awakened by the commotion.
As Latu grabbed the two children and walked out the door, she turned to the men and told them, "You'd better lock your doors," according to Kraft.
Bell did lock his door, Kraft said. But it didn't matter. Moments later, five adults forced their way into Bell's home, kicking in the front door and smashing through windows.
Bell and Fair were beaten badly, with Fair getting the worst of it. The intruders threw a TV onto Fair's head. Fair's right eye socket was smashed. Blood was dripping all over his face by the time police arrived. Doctors had to use staples to repair his forehead.
Bell tried to escape by running out the door but was chased down and caught by angry relatives. The side of his head was repeatedly bashed against the concrete pavement. His neck was cut with shards of glass. Family members say the attackers also tried to cut off one of his toes.
Kraft said Bell now has permanent hearing loss because of the attack.
Both men were taken to the hospital. Fair remained there for three days and has had to return for follow-up surgeries. Bell was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail after he was released and bailed out on Aug. 8.
Friends and family members called the attack a hate crime. While Kraft said it would be "unfair" to say his client was beat up solely because he is gay, he believes the family of the children equated being gay with being a pedophile. And because the family assumed Bell was a pedophile, they attacked.
"The problem was they jumped to conclusions," Kraft said.
Bell was only charged with kidnapping and burglary and not with any crime associated with the children. Fair is not expected to be charged with any crime.
Still, Kraft said, according to the police report, the mother claimed "a pedophile kidnapped my children." Furthermore, during the course of the beatings, several comments about Bell and Fair's sexual orientation were made, Kraft said.
"Witnesses said they clearly heard anti-gay remarks," he said.
Because Bell is gay, Kraft believes the children's family treated the situation differently than they would have normally.
"If David had been in there with his wife, this would never have happened," he said. "It was a misperception that escalated into a hate crime."
Latu, however, disagrees.
"I would still beat the hell out of a man and wife," she told the Deseret News.
The issue for Latu was not that Bell and Fair are gay but that her children were in their house without her permission.
"Normal people do not take children out of homes," Latu said. "This is not a hate crime."
She admitted she "kind of feels bad" about the beating Fair took.
"He kind of got caught in the crossfire," Latu said. "We regret beating them up as badly as we did. I feel bad he got the worst of it."
But Latu is also concerned that more red flags didn't go off for Fair once he saw someone else's children in his house. Furthermore, she doesn't understand why Bell didn't try to return the children to their own home immediately if he found them wandering.
Since the attacks, Latu said, she and her family have felt public perception has turned against them.
"We're not the bad guys," she said. "That was our way of protecting the kids. We just want justice for what really happened."
Latu called the incident a "nightmare" and said her children still have trouble sleeping at night. The family wants to sell their house and move, even though Fair has already moved out and the house where the beatings and alleged kidnapping occurred is vacant.
Neither Bell's family nor the Latu family has been particularly pleased with the media coverage surrounding the situation, each claiming the stories being told by reporters are one-sided and slanted in favor of the other party.
No felony charges
On Aug. 6, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office announced it would not file felony charges against the family for the beatings of Bell and Fair. The case was forwarded to the South Salt Lake City Attorney's Office to be screened for possible misdemeanor charges. So far, no charges have been filed.
That decision outraged Bell's family. Carrie Bell, David's mother, said in a written statement that the decision "shows that apparently vigilante rule is OK in Utah, or at least Salt Lake City, because this just wouldn't fly elsewhere."
Complicating the matter even further was the fact the children were already safely removed from Bell's house and back in their own home when the beatings occurred.
Kraft said it would have been more understandable if the parents had broken into Bell's house and attacked the two after finding their children. But the fact the children were gone and safe meant any action after that should have been handled by police.
"We had a terrible, terrible crime committed against two individuals," he said. "This could have been avoided entirely if someone had stopped to ask a question ... if somebody had just taken a breath here instead of jumping to conclusions based on a bias."
Two local legal experts agreed it is a tough situation.
Former federal Judge Paul Cassell, a professor at the University of Utah, said the law does not allow a person "to go back and inflict your own pound of flesh on someone."
The law generally frowns upon vigilante justice, he said, and when addressing assault, officials give greater weight to the degree of injury than to a defendant's mental state.
But Cassell also noted that for felony charges, criminal intent must be proved, which is harder to do if the defendant claims he or she was acting in the heat of the moment.
Former BYU law professor and legal expert Marguerite Driessen agreed that under the law, "One person does not have the right to beat the snot out of somebody else."
But there is a provision called legally adequate provocation that takes into account people who are thrown into blind rages or act without thinking, she said.
"The law recognizes human frailty, and they know some things can push you to the edge," she said.
A common place this statute is used is in homicide cases, she said. If a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man and kills that man in a blind rage, sometimes he can get the charge reduced to manslaughter by arguing provocation, she said.
However, it's not considered self-defense or provocation if someone slaps your face with a glove and you respond by killing them, Driessen said.
Kraft does not believe the parents of the children were provoked.
"(Not filing felony charges) sends a message to the community that vigilante action without provocation will go unpunished," he said.
On the surface, without knowing all the facts, Driessen said it would seem there was no imminent sense of danger if the children had already been returned to their home.
"If the children were in the house crying, there would be no issue they could beat the snot out of whomever they thought was illegally holding them," she said.
But Driessen found it interesting that if the children were wandering around, why weren't they returned to their home right away after Bell found them? She said it's hard to jump to a conclusion when it doesn't seem like all the facts have been presented.
"Clearly you have a 'he said, she said' about what's going on," Driessen said.If the prosecution feels they can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt, based on the evidence and witnesses they have, that the parents were not justified in their attack, then they would likely not file charges, she said.
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