SALT LAKE CITY — A judge has cleared the way to a trial for three men accused of gang raping a 9-year-old Vernal girl while her mother did drugs in another room.
Third District Judge Randall Skanchy declined to toss the charges against the three men on Tuesday, just after their attorneys argued that he should throw out the case. The attorneys claimed an investigator had improperly cozied up to potential jurors, that it has taken too long to bring the case to trial and that there is no DNA evidence to support the charges.
Larson Rondeau, 38, Randall Flatlip, 28, and Jerry Flatlip, 31, have been held in jail for two years on the allegations. The three appeared in court in Salt Lake County Jail jumpsuits Tuesday.
The men sat quietly as their attorneys told the judge the case should never have moved to Salt Lake City after three dozen jurors were no-shows in Summit County last year. The lawyers said other, speedier remedies could have forced a faster conclusion.
"We're engaging in a little Monday morning quarterbacking, and I'm not inclined to do that," the judge replied.
A year ago, a different judge in Vernal moved the trial to Summit County after the men's attorneys argued that public outcry in sparsely populated Uintah County would make it impossible to seat an impartial jury.
Once the case was in Summit County, an employee in the Uintah County prosecutor's office tried to tamper with the new jury, Randall Flatlip's defense attorney Loni DeLand argued Tuesday.
The Uintah County investigator attempted to sway potential jurors and get them to like him when he struck up conversations with them in the lobby outside the Summit courtroom in December 2017, chatting about his family and saying he believed the judge in the case was good, DeLand argued. He identified the investigator as Jayson Chamberlain, who is on paid administrative leave while the Utah State Bureau of Investigation probes his conduct, according Uintah County Attorney Mark Thomas.
One potential juror was dismayed when the learned of the man's job in the prosecutor's office, and so reported the alleged misconduct to the Utah Attorney General's Office, as well as to DeLand and Rondeau's defense attorney, Clint Hendricks, DeLand alleged.
But as jury selection got underway prior to the scheduled trial, 36 potential jurors failed to appear. A mistrial was declared and the case was moved to Salt Lake City.
"I don't think there's any question that what this investigator was doing was improper," DeLand said. But Skanchy suggested he wouldn't delve into the matter and noted the outside investigation was still pending.
Publicly listed phone numbers for Chamberlain were out of service Tuesday and Thomas said he could not recall the name of Chamberlain's attorney.
The men are each charged with rape of a child and sodomy on a child, first-degree felonies.
In a video interview played in a preliminary court hearing in Vernal in October 2016, the girl described how the men woke her on Easter Sunday that year while she slept on a couch. They took her to a bedroom, held down her limbs and each sexually assaulted her, she said. The court decided there was enough evidence for a trial.
But a sexual assault kit was later tested three times and no DNA matching the defendants turned up the girl's body or underwear, defense attorney Bryan Sidwell noted Tuesday, adding that she also had no bruises.
"Now, based on what we know, her testimony is not believable," said Sidwell, who represents Jerry Flatlip.
An eight-day jury trial is set to begin May 2.Comment on this story
Skanchy denied bail in the case in January for Rondeau and Jerry Flatlip, citing the nature of the charges and the fact that the men, members of the Crow Nation, were requesting to live on the tribe's Montana reservation, which isn't subject to Utah's subpoena powers.
Randall Flatlip did not ask to be released from jail. Following his arrest in the rape investigation, Flatlip was charged in a separate case with 74 counts of exploitation of a child, second-degree felonies, for allegedly accessing images of children days before police said he took part in raping the girl.