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Bill seeks change in oversight of Utah's strike force on immigrant crime

Published February 13, 2014 10:17 pm

Lawmakers consider a proposal to transfer it from the A.G.'s office to the Department of Public Safety.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A man suspected of sexually assaulting young immigrant boys and forcing them to distribute drugs was booked this week into the Salt Lake County jail.

In a case that spotlights the state's immigrant-crimes task force — even as legislators debate its future — Victor Rax, 42, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of human trafficking, distributing controlled substances, child endangerment and sexual activity with a minor, according to jail statements.

Rax has long been under investigation by multiple agencies, who say he has targeted teenage immigrant boys for sexual abuse and coerced them to deliver drugs in their high schools by threatening their families, who live in Utah illegally, said Ken Wallentine, chief of law enforcement for the Utah attorney general's office and investigator for the office's SECURE Strike Force on immigrant crime.

Three victims have come forward: a 15-year-old who was 14 when the abuse began, an 18-year-old who was 16 when the abuse started, and a 17-year-old, jail documents state. They have been given meth, cocaine, marijuana and spice, police wrote.

"He's been able to intimidate and threaten victims," Wallentine said Thursday. "He says, 'I own you; I own your families.' "

In recent years, one agency — Wallentine wouldn't say which — was ready to charge Rax when the victim backed out. Officers even threatened to deport the victim if he did not testify, and still he refused, fearing for his family.

"He said, 'Deport me to hell,' " Wallentine said.

This time, the task force has set up a number of protections for the victims, though Wallentine would not describe them.

The task force also took a more sensitive approach to the victims' immigration status, Wallentine said. When it was created in 2009, officers who were handpicked for cultural sensitivity and language skills began building relationships in immigrant communities, contacting religious leaders and amassing a track record of honoring promises to not arrest or deport witnesses who cooperate, Wallentine said.

One of those clerics happened to be the minister of one of the victims in this week's arrest and persuaded the boy to go to the task force.

"A seed planted four years ago led to the fruition of this case," Wallentine said. "[Without those relationships] you don't get to a point where someone trusts you to talk about Victor Rax."

Officers arrested Rax in his car Tuesday near 4100 South and 900 West, Wallentine said. One of the victims was with Rax at the time, and another told police he had been given two pounds of marijuana to take to high school the next day.

Wallentine was among several law enforcement officers who joined Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and a number of legislators at a news conference to discuss the strike force's successes — 200 prosecutions in cases involving drugs, forgery, fraud, piracy and human trafficking, according to strike force prosecutor Greg Ferbrache.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are debating a bill to transfer the strike force from the attorney general's office to the Department of Public Safety.

Rep. Richard Greenwood, R-Roy, sponsor of HB100, said the current organization opens the state to accusations of conflicts of interest.

"When you have the investigators and prosecutors in the same office serving the same boss, I think there could be a perception among the people we serve ... that there's not a good check and balance."

For instance, a suspect could claim he is being targeted because of a personal conflict with the attorney general, said Greenwood, who is a retired state trooper.

"They have not been doing anything wrong at all," he said of the strike force. "But it's a public policy issue. I think it's more transparent."

Ferbrache said keeping investigative and prosecutorial functions together is a major factor in the strike force's success. In particular, it enables the unit to make guarantees to cooperative witnesses that they will not be punished for working with law enforcement — an important promise in the Rax case, since the victims technically have committed drug crimes.

"We're having this conversation not when a case is filed, but when victims are identified," Ferbrache said.

But Greenwood said there is nothing stopping police and prosecutors from making those arrangements if the strike force moves to DPS.

Reyes said his office also is uniquely equipped to handle the types of cases the strike force undertakes, which can range from sex crimes to digital crimes to crimes involving multiple locations and jurisdictions.

"It makes the most sense [to keep it in the attorney general's office]," Reyes said, "given the complexity and types of cases."

But Greenwood noted that most strike force work is done by staff within the attorney general's office, and moving to DPS could enable more participation by local and federal officers.

The Utah Chiefs of Police Association has opposed HB100, and in a letter this week asked Gov. Gary Herbert to withhold support until local agencies can weigh in.

"The SECURE Strike Force has been great to work with local law enforcement and we believe a move of this kind without any discussion among police chiefs is a huge political and law enforcement flaw," wrote association President Wade Carpenter, Park City police chief.

State Rep. Brad Dee, who sponsored the law creating the strike force in 2009, said criminal cases involving undocumented immigrants previously were divisive.

"The vision was ... we could be more cooperative across the state," said the Ogden Republican.

Wallantine said the strike force has lessened "tension in our immigration dialogue" by keeping law enforcement focused on building community trust to prosecute the most damaging criminals.

Greenwood said that approach would not change under DPS.

"The relationships will continue to be there. It's just the coordination of the task force that's transferred," he said. "These are professional people we're talking about, whether in the DPS or the attorney general's office."

ealberty@sltrib.com