SALT LAKE CITY — A little over a year ago, Darin "Ace" Thomas' world was unexpectedly turned upside down.
The Roosevelt man, who had worked in the Duchesne County School District for more than two decades and will turn 50 next week, was accused of offering a woman money for sex, and encouraging that woman to find juvenile girls to also participate, according to police and prosecutors.
On April 29, the last of the six criminal charges against Thomas was dropped.
But the damage had already been done.
"My whole life is destroyed over a false accusation,” he told the Deseret News. "It’s so frustrating to get your life pulled out from under you over somebody making stuff up."
Now as Thomas works to regain what he has lost, he is also planning a lawsuit against those whose false claims resulted in jail time, lost wages and a damaged reputation.
"People hear this horrible stuff, they want to jump on this kind of stuff,” he said. "It’s destroyed my life. It’s taken everything from me."
On May 4, 2018, Thomas was charged in 8th District Court with five felonies: conspiracy to commit rape of a child, conspiracy to commit sodomy on a child, conspiracy to have unlawful sexual activity with a minor and two counts of attempted sexual exploitation of a minor, as well as a misdemeanor charge of patronizing a prostitute.
An undercover officer from the Vernal Police Department used the cellphone of a woman whom Thomas had been accused of propositioning, and then posed as that woman. The charges state that Thomas allegedly offered the woman $100 for sex and that he wanted to have sex with two girls, ages 13 and 16.
Thomas said after he was arrested, he spent 11 days in jail, including five in solitary confinement.
But on Jan. 30, all the felony charges against Thomas were dismissed. All that remained was the charge of sexual solicitation.
According to Thomas, at that point, his attorney advised him that he would likely have to plead guilty to that count. But Thomas remained steadfast and said no.
"I told them from the get-go, I knew I did nothing wrong,” he said.
Thomas hired a new attorney, James Lewis, to fight the misdemeanor.
"We were a little bit perplexed about why they decided to proceed with that misdemeanor. So we got ready for trial and then found out late in the evening before trial that their so-called ‘key witness’ would not be appearing at the trial. And so that case was dismissed the next morning,” he said.
The "key witness," according to both Thomas and Lewis, was the woman who claimed she was being solicited by Thomas.
On April 24, the prosecutor made a motion for the case to be dismissed "stating a witness that is critical to his case was not served with the subpoena," according to court records.
Lewis said the two officers who were also expected to take the witness stand, each blamed the other for not serving the subpoena, though he also noted it was "kind of surprising they didn't figure that out until the night before the trial."
Thomas and Lewis believe the woman was making up accusations and throwing out names to police in an effort to avoid her own pending prison sentence.
"The police officers believed it hook, line and sinker, and actually participated in this so-called ‘sting’ where they didn’t really get any solid evidence but nevertheless proceeded with bringing these charges. If you want my personal view, I think it was highly inappropriate how the case was handled from beginning to end,” Lewis said. "I don’t think the case should have ever been brought. I think it was wholly lacking in adequate evidence to back up the charges."
Lewis said after he became Thomas' lawyer, he was able to get his client's seized electronic devices back. On one phone, he said there was a long text conversation between Thomas and the woman that was clearly exculpatory evidence.
"There was no money for sex component whatsoever,” he said.
"Not one thing of any evidence of any impropriety at all was ever found on any of my devices. And I’ve kept every phone for the last 20 years. So they had everything from my whole life, and they did not find one (piece of evidence),” Thomas added.
Thomas said he is now in the process of talking to the school district about getting his job back. He said he is thankful for people like Lewis.
"I cannot say enough good about that man. He is just an honest man, and I didn’t think there was an honest attorney left in this world,” Thomas said.
"You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but this world is not that way anymore. You are guilty the second you’re charged. And you’re fighting for your life. And no matter what the circumstances, you are not innocent."