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James Young, Deseret News
Provo Police Chief John King

PROVO — Provo city officials learned about complaints of sexual misconduct by former Police Chief John King more than a year before a rape allegation brought about King’s resignation, according to a new lawsuit and interviews with those close to the case.

City Council members told the Deseret News that they held a closed-door meeting about King’s conduct in late 2015 or early 2016. The lawsuit alleges that Congressman John Curtis, then Provo’s mayor, chilled reporting by telling police department supervisors in fall 2014 that “he did not want to receive any more complaints about Chief King.”

"Chief King was going to remain chief of the department as long as Curtis was in office and there was nothing the supervisors could do about it,” reads the complaint, filed Tuesday in 4th District Court.

In a statement, Curtis said that the allegations about King are "appalling," that he "strongly condemns" King's reported actions, and that the women who have come forward "have my full support."

"Despite what's being inaccurately reported, I would never shield or protect a predator or abuser," he said in the statement. "I have a history of doing the exact opposite, and I'm confident as the legal process unfolds, the details will show I acted responsibly given the information I had at the time."

The five women plaintiffs seek an undefined amount in excess of $600,000 compensation, as well as new measures to prevent sexual misconduct from occurring in Provo city government.

King was hired to lead Provo’s police department in November 2013, even after he abruptly resigned from two high-profile posts in his native Maryland. The new allegations allege Provo leaders not only failed to uncover the circumstances of those resignations but then responded ineffectively to signs that King’s alleged pattern of sexual misconduct was continuing.

King’s accusers describe the chief's conduct as ranging from leering at their breasts and inappropriate comments to unsolicited touching, groping and one allegation of rape.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Provo Police Chief John King speaks during a roundtable discussion about hate crimes at the Utah Law and Justice Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill declined to bring charges after Unified police investigated the rape allegation last year. King, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, didn’t respond to phone and email requests for comment.

In interviews with the Deseret News, one plaintiff described the pain of feeling that Curtis had sided with her alleged assailant in announcing that he had resigned in March 2017 for family reasons, not rape allegations. In an email obtained by the Deseret News through a records request, King thanked Curtis after a March news conference in which Curtis said that he didn't know of "a single policy that was broken": “You did your best to protect me," King wrote.

Another plaintiff who reported King for sexual misconduct less than a year after he became chief told the Deseret News that if city officials had only believed her, and taken her complaint seriously, “the attacks against the other women could have been prevented.”

Curtis said in a statement that his "heart aches to think that there may have possibly been something I could have done to help them avoid the pain and trauma they have courageously faced."

But as mayor, he said, he only received two complaints about King's conduct, and he "took both very seriously" and "immediately took the appropriate actions to ensure that any misconduct would be addressed immediately." He asked King to resign after the second complaint, he said.

"At the time, with all the facts that I had, I believe I did the best I could and followed the protocols established by the City of Provo acting on the advice of the city attorney and human resources."

He added: "As a mayor and now a member of Congress I am fully committed to doing my best to be transparent and accessible."

Warning signs

City Councilman Gary Winterton was on the seven-member citizen hiring committee who interviewed finalists in 2013 to replace Rick Gregory, who resigned that summer citing family reasons, and said King was an “outstanding” interviewee.

King had been chief in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., from 2007 to 2010, before briefly leading the education and training division at Baltimore’s police department and then overseeing the police academy at Hagerstown Community College.

When King was asked why he had so abruptly left his job in Baltimore, Winterton said King told them, simply, “There were conflicts with people.”

In fact, a Baltimore County police report shows that a female subordinate had accused King of sexual assault just a week before a Baltimore Sun report said King was escorted from his office.

She told investigators that King had shared with her an inappropriate dream involving the two of them, then used his hand to sexually assault her while she was in King’s police car. The Maryland State’s Attorney’s Office declined to bring charges, but the woman later received a monetary settlement, according to the complaint. That was just 36 days before he was chosen as Provo’s new chief.

King had earlier resigned as Gaithersburg’s chief after a January 2010 closed session of the City Council to discuss a “personnel matter,” leading to a write-up in the local Town Courier that quoted one resident’s description of King’s departure as “suspicious.”

More than a half-dozen Gaithersburg officials contacted by the Deseret News have either declined requests for comment or not responded.

James Young, Deseret News
Provo Police Chief John King

Citygate Associates, a California firm, was hired by Provo to screen candidates and didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

Curtis said in a statement that Citygate's screening included a background check, psychiatric evaluation and a polygraph test.

"I personally called his references, and even went as far as to contact references independent of the references that King provided on his application," Curtis said. "I was never told any information that would have made me suspect that he was a serial sexual offender."

Winterton told the Deseret News that he and others didn’t feel they needed to grill King about the previous resignations because “I can’t imagine that those questions weren’t asked by the investigators.”

“If we would have had any clue that there was any sexual misconduct, there was no way that we would even have considered him."

Red flags

After King started as Provo's chief, according to the complaint, he became a regular at the department’s dispatch center. Soon, he gained a reputation for standing behind dispatchers' chairs and staring down their shirts. They began to take preventative measures, like covering up or standing so he couldn’t peer downward at them.

“We were kind of incredulous that he would do that, especially when all of us were there,” said one of two plaintiffs who worked at the dispatch center during an interview with the Deseret News. She said King brazenly referred to her breasts as “puppies” in front of her colleagues, and told her — in an echo of the Baltimore allegations — that he’d had a dream about her. The Deseret News has agreed not to name possible victims of sexual assault or harassment.

She said it was King’s alleged continued harassment that led her to accept a job in the private sector in July 2014, despite having enjoyed her job as a dispatcher. When she gave her notice, she said, she informed her supervisor that she planned to file a complaint against King, and described King’s behavior in an exit interview with a Provo police lieutenant.

She said the lieutenant responded that what she described amounted to an “icky feeling.” When she persisted, though, she said he agreed to pass the word to human resources. There, a staffer eventually told her over the phone that Curtis had given King a “heads up.”

“I don’t know, really, what exactly that meant,” she said. It was the last she ever heard from human resources, she said, despite having never been asked to formally document the alleged behavior.

The Deseret News has requested all complaints related to King’s conduct as Provo’s chief. Provo has yet to supply responsive documents, though city officials have told the Deseret News that they are processing a high volume of records requests related to both King and other matters.

Curtis said in a statement that the only complaint he received from a dispatcher was that she "did not like the way that [John King] looked at me."

"I never once questioned the truthfulness of her allegation, and I insisted that this matter was promptly handed by Provo City's human resources team," Curtis said. "Chief King was given restrictions concerning where he could go in the dispatch center and prohibited from going near this employee or others at the dispatch center."

The woman who filed the 2014 complaint said Monday that if anything ever came of it, she was never told about it.

In the lawsuit, a dispatch supervisor and fellow plaintiff was soon after visited by King, who said he had been told that he leered at the breasts of female subordinates. He asked her, rhetorically, if she agreed. The lawsuit says the effect was to chill further complaints.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Provo Mayor John Curtis addresses the media with information related to the departure of former Provo Police Chief John King at the Provo City Council Chamber on Thursday, March 16, 2017.

The lawsuit also alleges that at a police department meeting that fall, Curtis said, with King at his side, that "he did not want to receive any more complaints about Chief King."

"Mayor Curtis' message was loud and clear," the complaint reads. "Chief King's power was unlimited, his actions unchecked, and any complaints against him would be ignored."

The lawsuit says that a dispatcher who is not named as a plaintiff told plaintiffs' attorneys that when she asked her supervisor and two other department employees if she should complain about King’s actions in the dispatch center, they told her to “ride it out.”

Another dispatcher told plaintiffs’ attorneys that she had heard about the fate of the 2014 complaint and that, given that, she “didn’t see why she should risk her job just to file a complaint that no one would do anything about.”

Red flags, Part II

Sometime in late 2015 or early 2016, Provo’s City Council held a closed-door session about King’s conduct.

Former Provo Mayor and current Councilman George Stewart said a constituent had told him in late 2015, before Stewart took office, that King acted inappropriately toward a dispatcher.

The constituent was a parent of a police officer who they felt was terminated for unrelated reasons, and seemed to Stewart to have an “axe to grind.” But Stewart told Curtis about the constituent's complaint, and soon after, Curtis addressed the council in a private meeting.

Winterton declined to be specific but said Curtis “wanted to make sure the council was aware of it and that we had the opportunity to ask questions about it.” King was also brought in to answer questions, he said.

“What I remember is they said they are taking appropriate action for what had happened,” Winterton said. “None of us at the time really knew anything about the allegations.”

A dispatch supervisor alleges in the lawsuit that she also was verbally and physically harassed by King, for much of 2014. She said King would demand that she meet him in a nearby parking lot after her shift — in the middle of the night — while each sat in separate cars. Once, during a lunch break, he asked if she wanted to “go for a drive” before rubbing her leg.

Another longtime department employee alleges in the lawsuit that she was groped by King at a copy machine in March 2015. When she had neck and back surgeries in January 2016, she said, King demanded that she return to work earlier than planned because he “missed the scenery.” According to the lawsuit, she would retreat to a bathroom when she heard him coming.

And a nine-year police officer alleged that King groped her beneath her flak vest “on four or five occasions.”

But King only lost his job in 2017 after he was alleged to have raped a college student he met at a citizen advisory board meeting in 2016. The 59-year-old King has acknowledged having sex with the student but said the relationship was consensual.

Charges were never brought against King. An earlier demand for mediation sent to Provo by the plaintiffs' attorneys describes escalating sexual aggression, from sexually aggressive comments to touching to unwanted sex. On one occasion, it says, King drove his shoulder into the student's chest when she wouldn’t let him remove her pants.

The dispatcher who filed the complaint against King in 2014 said she was “furious” when she read the reports about the rape allegations, knowing that it might have been prevented if Provo had reacted differently to her complaint. “It brought me to tears.”

Winterton, who seemed to choke up as he spoke over the phone, had accompanied King on two ride-alongs and frequently saw him at Brigham Young football games. He was “just so friendly,” Winterton said.

“If those allegations prove to be true, it’s such a sad thing for the victims, and sad for Chief King, too.”

‘Betrayal’

She waited until King was on vacation.

Worried about repercussions while King was in town, the student who accused King of rape called Curtis’ secretary in February 2017, stressing the need to talk to Curtis before King returned.

Curtis called her soon after and was “quick to send me in the right direction, put me in contact with the people that I needed,” she said. He gave her his cellphone number in case she needed anything else. When Curtis was notified in early March 2017 that Gill wouldn’t press charges, Curtis asked for King’s resignation, anyway.

Said Curtis, in a statement: "I did not for one moment doubt her, and I took her allegation extremely seriously."

But then Provo announced that King was leaving for “family reasons.” A department spokesman told media “We’re out a good chief,” and Curtis sent an all-staff email repeating the “family” story (King’s mother is reportedly ill and living in Maryland).

A city flyer advertised “A Fond Farewell” in council chambers on March 15, and taxpayers spent more than $300 for two cookie trays, two dessert trays, large fruit and vegetable trays and Diet Coke. Attendees showered praise on King only to learn, from media reports breaking at the time, that they had been deceived.

For the woman who filed the rape report, it was an “almost a heartbroken kind of offended,” she told the Deseret News.

Curtis was “my one saving grace, the person who believed in me and who could do the most to help me and to move this forward,” she said, and he “was being deceptive to the press and covering for a man that I expressed to be dangerous.”

Curtis said at a March 16 news conference that there was a “very, very high bar” for the conduct of public officials and that “the place where it becomes inappropriate is very, very fuzzy,” adding that he knew “not of a single policy that was broken” by King. She had to turn it off.

“It was the betrayal, in that I had spoken to him,” she said. “He had heard my voice as I, trembling and possibly in tears, told him something very personal and very scary, and a few days later, it was disrespected publicly.”

King sent Curtis a March 17 email thanking him for his support: “You did your best to protect me at the press conference,” he said. “I am deeply sorry for putting you in this terrible position.”

The same day, Curtis emailed current chief of staff and former deputy mayor Corey Norman to describe a “growing feeling of unrest” that some residents and media had felt misled.

“I don’t want another story from the media but I don’t think I can rest well until I’ve laid it all out there,” he said.

Norman replied that it was “the only aspect of this that’s bothered me also. He defined the terms of his departure as far as setting the narrative and makes you look responsive [sic].”

Changes

Provo officials earlier this month referred the new allegations about King to the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, but a spokesman for the sheriff’s office said Monday that it has declined to investigate for undisclosed reasons.

The Deseret News first published this story Tuesday without comment from Curtis, who released two statements later in the day. In a second statement, Curtis took issue with the story and implored constituents "to not make a judgment of me based solely on misconstrued or false facts reported."

The Deseret News had reached out to arrange comment from Curtis multiple times, beginning March 2 and continuing through the minutes before the lawsuit was filed Tuesday morning. On Monday morning, the central allegations made in the complaint and reporting from this story were sent to Curtis' office in advance, for comment.

Provo announced Tuesday that it retained Heather White, head of the Governmental Law Group at Snow Christensen & Martineau, to represent the city.

New Mayor Michelle Kaufusi, the first woman to hold the office in the city's history, said she will leave the case in the hands of the lawyers, “whether it goes one way or another or a little bit of both.”

“It’s not who we are,” she said. “We’re a new chief, new mayor. That all happened with the past administration, and it’s going to work itself out."

On Feb. 7, Kaufusi said she invited all women in the city’s police and fire departments to a meeting in the council chambers, where they heard from new Chief Rich Ferguson, among others. Then Kaufusi asked all the men to leave the room, closed the door, and sat up on a table looking out at faces that were “a little bit leery,” she said.

She told the women that when she was 18, she experienced behavior that had made her uncomfortable, and that she hadn’t said anything to anybody. Ever.

“I consider myself a strong, independent woman,” she said. “Why was I so hesitant, and why didn’t I do anything, or say anything? … By showing that vulnerability to them, all the walls came tumbling down.”

Kaufusi spoke for about 30 minutes, ending to applause. Over the next few days, emails began to trickle in from women who felt inspired to share their feelings, Kaufusi said. Many of them don’t want to see perpetrators fired, necessarily, or thrown in jail.

“The sexual behavior, the main thing we want is we just want it to stop,” she said. “… Unless it’s significant, it’s more or less, ‘Just knock it off.’”

The plaintiffs are seeking more concrete measures.

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In addition to their request for monetary compensation, they asked for annual trainings for police department and mayor’s office employees, guidelines for harassment investigations with independent investigators from outside the department, a third-party hotline for people who have survived sexual assault, and guidelines for “the full and complete vetting” of chiefs and other supervisors.

It’s not just about King, or Provo, said the college student who accused King of rape.

“Provo is my city. I love Provo,” she said. “I don’t think that this problem is specifically a Provo problem. I think it happens nationwide. It happens all the time.”