SANDY — For 3 ½ years, former Escalante Police Chief Kevin Worlton was a criminal defendant.
He is now breathing a sigh of relief that the felony charges against him were dismissed last month. He is anxious to put the matter behind him, though prosecutors say they hope that his police officer certification is revoked.
Worlton was not only the former police chief in Escalante, a small town of about 800 people in Garfield County, he was the city's only officer.
"The drug issue, really, I was hired to clean up the drugs in Escalante. That was one of the main things,” he said during an interview Wednesday in Sandy. “There was a drug problem and there were drug dealers down there, and I arrested them and did what I was supposed to do.”
Worlton has experience working drug cases as a law enforcement officer. During his 20 years or so in law enforcement, he spent time on the Metro Narcotics Task Force along the Wasatch Front.
“I wanted to help people, and throughout my career, I’ve been able to help a lot of people and make a difference,” he said. That’s a big reason why he said he was hired in Escalante, to help make a difference.
However, what he did while investigating a drug case in 2014 ended up costing him his job. And since he was the only police officer in Escalante, the department was disbanded.
"It was very tough. When I first found out I was being charged, it was hard,” he said as his eyes started to water. “I had to be booked into jail, and that's something no cop wants to go through."
Worlton was ordered to stand trial in 6th District Court on two second-degree felony counts of making false or inconsistent material statements in May 2016.
An investigation by the Utah Attorney General's Office alleged Worlton made false statements about whether he notified a woman he was questioning in a Dec. 17, 2014, drug investigation of her Miranda rights before using the confession to obtain a search warrant to investigate five others and to later arrest her.
In the probable cause statement Worlton filed to make the arrest, he said the woman he spoke with was "not in custody and free to leave the residence," indicating she had been read her Miranda rights, according to court documents. A video recording confirmed she had not, charges state.
While serving the search warrant, Worlton questioned a woman and later reported she implicated herself and two others in the exchange of marijuana, charges state. But investigators say a recording of that exchange shows she told Worlton she had "no clue" about possible drug activity.
Six people were arrested in the investigation, four of whom pleaded guilty on Dec. 23, 2014, to charges ranging from first-degree felonies to class B misdemeanors. However, a report about the arrests wasn't written until four days after they entered their pleas.
That case was later dismissed.
According to court documents at the time, Worlton also failed to keep his arrest and warrant reports “organized and usable,” which led to questions about how he obtained search warrants for his investigations.
"Something like a paperwork issue, it should've been handled administratively — not a criminal something that's going to impact your life,” he said.
For 3 ½ years, the case against Worlton made its way through the court system until last month when the attorney general's office dismissed its case against him.
"In my opinion, they just rushed to charge,” said Bret Rawson, Worlton’s attorney as well as the attorney for members of the Fraternal Order of Police. “There was scrutiny over paperwork. And certainly the paperwork issues needed to be resolved, but not with criminal charges.”
Worlton's attorney feels the attorney general's office should never have filed criminal charges for an incident that he considers minor.
“He needs support. He doesn’t need charges. If there is concern about a clerical error, let’s send him the training or the support he needs,” Rawson said.
Worlton has claimed his innocence all along.
“They filed this hoping I was going to accept a plea deal,” Worlton said. “They know you don’t have the money to fight this. I was fortunate because I had the FOP and the attorney package that I didn’t have to put hundreds of thousands of dollars out, which I would have never recouped.
“I would have had to accept a plea deal and have this mark on my record for life and they know that. They know you can’t, unless you’re a millionaire, you can’t fight these charges. It’s just terrible.”
Rawson said he’s happy Worlton decided to keep fighting the charges against him. “A lot of people who are innocent give up because they’re just facing a daunting task of having to defend themselves,” he said.
Even though the case has been dismissed and Worlton is no longer facing charges, he feels the damage has already been done. Not only because the police department was disbanded but because his reputation has been ruined.
"Any law enforcement job that I try to apply for, especially as a chief of police, this will always pull up on the internet,” he said. “People will always be able to run my name and be able to find out that I was charged."
As for why the prosecutors decided to dismiss the case, Utah attorney general's chief criminal deputy Spencer Austin said in a statement, in part:
“The attorney general’s office was prepared to try the matter, however, the city of Escalante requested we not go forward unless we were sure of a conviction. The city was concerned that if there was an acquittal in the matter and they were required to pay the defendant's legal costs, pursuant to statute, it would conceivably bankrupt the city.
"Based in part on the city’s concern, the attorney general’s office dismissed the criminal matter and referred the case to Peace Officers Standards and Training for further action. The former chief of Escalante was in no way 'cleared' of all charges. It is the desire of the A.G.'s office that the former chief lose his certification as a peace officer permanently.”
Worlton isn’t sure what he’s going to do from here. He’s just looking forward to putting this all behind him.
“I’m happy,” he said. “I’m really happy right now that we came out the other side. It’s a huge relief.”