Getting off the hook in Moab

By Doug McMurdo • The Times-Independent

Did the Grand County justice system fail to recognize accused murderer Kevin Ray McAtlin was prone to extreme violence?

Absolutely not, said City of Moab Police Chief Jim Winder in a recent interview. But that doesn’t mean the system is running as efficiently as it could, said the chief.

McAtlin, 28, stands accused of first-degree murder in St. George. Police there believe he is the man who brutally killed 33-year-old Elizabeth Carter last spring and left her body in the bathtub of her apartment. He was arrested in Moab June 16, four days after a warrant was issued.

A technician at the Utah State Crime Lab analyzed a bloody fingerprint that investigators reportedly found on the back of a door at the victim’s apartment. It came back to McAtlin.

The crime was particularly savage. Autopsy results indicated Elizabeth Carter’s killer cut her throat. The back of her neck was slashed and she suffered no less than 16 puncture wounds to her neck and one to her shoulder.

The Times-Independent was told in a phone call McAtlin was charged after he “knifed” someone in Moab in a 2017 domestic violence incident that was never prosecuted.

According to the caller, Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald allegedly declined to prosecute because of a conflict between his office and at least one now-former Moab police officer.

Winder, whose tenure as chief began after the alleged incident, said he spoke with staff regarding the case, “because it came up after Mr. McAtlin was arrested for the St. George case.” Not only did Winder say the caller had incorrect information, he doubts if Fitzgerald ever “laid eyes” on the case.

“First of all, he (McAtlin) never stabbed anyone. It was a brandishing,” said Winder. “At first it looked like he wanted to hurt himself, then he attacked someone, but he did not stab (or otherwise hurt) them…We had arrested McAtlin on a charge of aggravated assault under domestic circumstances,” said Winder.

The case was reviewed by Deputy Emery County Attorney Brent Langston, who also is the Grand County Attorney Pro Tem. He is called upon to prosecute cases that pose a conflict for Fitzgerald’s office. Fitzgerald is stepping down from his post at the end of the year after eight years.

Langston in a letter to Winder said a review of the facts led him to believe he couldn’t support felony charges against McAtlin. The charges were reduced to a misdemeanor – and the case was ultimately dismissed in justice court without prosecution.

‘Compromised officers’

Fitzpatrick said some older cases that originated within the City of Moab were dismissed or dropped altogether due to credibility issues with four then-Moab Police officers who resigned or otherwise left the department following a series of investigations into what Fitzgerald characterized as “highly inappropriate behavior.”

He said he declined to handle “a bunch of cases” that he gave to Langston for real and perceived conflicts, and also because of the “hot political climate” in Moab during the investigations. McAtlin’s case was one of them, said Fitzgerald. The lame duck county prosecutor said he wouldn’t have been able to put those officers on the stand because of their behavior, which allegedly ranged from serious issues such as lying on the witness stand, to seriously poor judgment: Playing beer pong with juveniles.

“If officers were problematic, a case could be compromised. We can’t go to a jury with a compromised officer. We’ll lose.” Fitzgerald also said the officers falsified reports and failed to log in evidence. “I spent 50 percent of my time for a year and a half dealing with those officers,” he said.

Regarding McAtlin, Fitzgerald said there were roughly five cases of “brandishing a knife” that he was dealing with at the time. “They kind of all blend together in the back of my mind,” he said. A review of the file cleared up things, however, and Fitzgerald recalled he thought the case was overcharged when he asked Langston to take a look. Langston also felt the facts did not merit felony charges and kicked the case down to a lower Moab court, where a contract city prosecutor, Marcus Gilson, apparently considered the case not worth pursuing on any level.

Fitzgerald said one of the arresting officers had just returned to duty the prior day after being on paid administrative leave while under investigation.

A review of McAtlin’s criminal history – insofar as his time in the Moab area is concerned – is relatively minor. According to court records, he was convicted of misdemeanor DUI in 2011. He was charged but not prosecuted on the public disturbance charge in 2017, and he was subject to a temporary protective order for a six-month period in 2017. The details in support of that order are not part of the public record, but the woman who obtained it asked that it be canceled, which was granted in December.

Case mismanagement?

While Chief Winder doesn’t believe local authorities missed any signals that McAtlin was capable of the violence he allegedly committed in St. George, he said too many cases either go uncharged here or are too easily dismissed. Why that is, he said, could be a system breakdown rather the fault of any one entity.

“The dismissal rate in this town is outrageous,” he said. “Why is that? I don’t know. Is it law enforcement? The courts? Prosecutors? I don’t know, but from my perspective as an outsider coming here, the dismissals and declinations in Grand County seems out of whack. It’s very odd to me, regardless of whose fault it is – and it could very well be our fault.”

Winder, who was the Salt Lake County Sheriff for more than a decade, noted prosecutors might choose not to pursue a case if officers fail to properly write reports – complete with photographs and witness statements and other crucial information.

The failure, as he sees it, is a lack of process. He said he is accustomed to in-person screenings for all felony arrests. The detective presents the case file to prosecutors, who then break down the investigation by asking essential questions. “They just pick apart the case,” said Winder. “The goal is to work as a team to prepare these cases on behalf of the state and the victim and move it forward.”

Winder said his criticism is for “all parts” of the system. “There’s no finger-pointing. The need is for all of us to work together. It’s not just one entity. It’s a systems problem. Officers are frustrated. Victims are frustrated … In this county, the defendants are the ones who have the upper hand.”

Lt. Kim Neal of the Grand County Sheriff’s Office said he and Sheriff Steve White don’t believe there is an issue with the number of cases that get dismissed insofar as county investigations are concerned.

Fitzgerald agrees with Winder, to a point, and says there are myriad reasons for the high number of dismissals ¬– particularly for the police department. First is the large number of cases that have gone unprosecuted due to the officers who were in question, but there are other reasons, as well.

Witnesses “go south,” said Fitzgerald, especially in domestic violence cases.

The issue of witnesses in general poses a problem unique to Moab and other tourist destinations. Oftentimes, said Fitzgerald, the only witnesses to crimes are tourists from across the country and even the world. They might not want to travel to testify–a cost borne by taxpayers–and if they do, the cost of bringing them to Moab and providing them with food and lodging for a relatively minor misdemeanor case does not serve the public well.

Police reports are not always as strong as they could be, said Fitzgerald, who noted that having enough evidence to arrest someone does not mean there’s enough evidence to mount a successful prosecution. Fitzgerald said he will not bring a case to trial that he “cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The good news, he said, is that there is a new era in Moab, “with a new mayor and a new police chief. I’m glad the new chief is here. He has set the bar a lot higher than it ever was before.”