Just 20 minutes before the cake was to be cut at his going-away party, news broke that the Provo police chief had resigned over rape allegations—not to care for his ailing mother. Even so, the festivities went on as planned.
The news may have come as a shock to the top cop’s colleagues, but not to the man who’d planned the party, then-Provo Mayor John Curtis, according to a federal lawsuit. Two months earlier, a 24-year-old college student volunteering at the Utah department had called Curtis, who is now a congressman, to accuse the city’s police chief, John King, of raping her on four separate occasions, the lawsuit alleges.
After that January 2017 call, Curtis allegedly concocted a cover story for King, telling the public he was leaving to care for his “sick mother.” He then planned the chief’s March 2017 going-away party himself, the lawsuit says.
The college student’s accusations were bolstered nearly one year later by four other women who joined her in filing a federal lawsuit that claims the chief routinely harassed and assaulted the women around him since joining the department in 2014.
The five women, who have demanded a jury trial, filed the case in state court in March, seeking compensatory and punitive damages of at least $300,000. They also asked for the city to update its policies and implement harassment training for workers. The case was transferred to U.S. District Court on April 3.
On Thursday, city officials fought back by submitting a formal response in federal court, accusing the women of making allegations that are “inconsistent with what actually occurred.” The city’s attorney, Heather White, reportedly said in a press conference that Provo “does not have a culture of harassment or discrimination” and “has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”
White even went so far as to claim the women “unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventative or corrective opportunities the city provided.”
(King, who has “unequivocally” denied all of the allegations in the lawsuit, moved back to Maryland after he left the department.)
The scenic, lakeside city of Provo is a 45-minute drive from Salt Lake City and the home of Brigham Young University. Leaves were changing to bright orange and red in the autumn of 2014, when Curtis called a “supervisor-only” meeting at the police department to bat down “numerous” complaints about the chief, including allegations of sexual harassment, according to the lawsuit.
The mayor told those in attendance that he “did not want to receive any more complaints” about the chief, who would remain in his post and that “there was nothing the supervisors could do about it,” the complaint alleges.
The message at the mayor’s meeting with supervisors “was loud and clear,” according to the lawsuit: “Chief King’s power was unlimited, his actions unchecked, and any complaints against him would be ignored.” Provo officials thus placed the 56-year-old King “in a unique position of authority and power,” which he “exploited” for three years, the lawsuit claims.
Curtis has since said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, that the contents of that 2014 meeting have been misconstrued. “I have not and would never knowingly do anything to shield any individual who acted inappropriately with respect to sexual harassment,” he also told the paper, which was first to report on the scandal.
Provo attorney White refuted the lawsuit’s assertions at the Thursday press conference, according to the Tribune, noting that city officials were informed of three separate misconduct allegations involving King, but that “each time they responded swiftly and appropriately.” White also reportedly said the mayor referred the rape allegations to the appropriate authorities and ultimately asked King to resign while the investigation was completed, though criminal charges were never filed.
King was hired in Provo after a previous string of unhappy exits, according to the lawsuit. He had allegedly resigned from at least one position at a police department in Maryland over “personnel matters.” In 2012, King left the Baltimore Police Department, where he was terminated for “misconduct with a subordinate,” according to the complaint. That case resulted in a $24,000 settlement, according to the Tribune.
“That’s very disturbing to know,” Curtis later told the newspaper, upon learning of the previous allegations. “That clearly would have been a deal breaker.”
A “short time into his tenure” at Provo, King began “engaging in inappropriate conduct with employees,” including cases where he “would stand uncomfortably close behind dispatchers, who were all female, touch their shoulders, look down their shirts, and stare at their breasts,” the lawsuit claims.
King allegedly told one 28-year-old dispatcher that he “had a dream about her” and made a comment about her breasts, calling them “puppies.” His “pattern of harassment and humiliation” of the dispatcher continued at other events and at work, according to the complaint. She eventually quit her job and allegedly made a complaint against him during her exit interview in July 2014.
Other female employees at the department agreed that he “tended to leer at and hover over female employees, that he touched them inappropriately, and that he regularly invaded their personal space in a manner that made them feel uncomfortable,” the lawsuit alleges.
In 2015, one employee was helping him at a copy machine when King allegedly “reached his arm around her and firmly groped her right breast and pulled her closer to him three times as he said, ‘good job.’”
“King’s look and demeanor was aggressive and left [her] feeling intimidated and without recourse,” the complaint claims. “His advances reached a point where [she] would hide in her office or the bathroom if she heard Chief King coming toward her office.”
He made a habit of visiting the dispatch center during one woman’s graveyard shift, where he would “stare at her breasts, comment on how attractive she looked, and touch her without her consent,” according to the complaint. Dispatchers said in the lawsuit that they would “stand up” or “cover up” in order to avoid his unwelcome looks and touches.
One day, King met with the colleague in his office, and, while he “rubbed [her] back and stared at her breasts, he said that some female employees had complained of his leering at their breasts, and then asked whether [she] agreed with those complaints,” the lawsuit alleges.
To her, it was clear that “Provo was doing nothing with regard to complaints,” that none of them were kept confidential, and that “any complaint would lead to Chief King retaliating against the complainant,” according to the court documents.
King allegedly sexually assaulted another one of his police officers on “four or five separate occasions.” He groped her—even under her police vest—and stared at her breasts whenever she was in street clothes, according to the lawsuit.
More meetings were held in 2015 and 2016 about his behavior, but “none of these meetings resulted in the discipline or censure” of the chief, the court documents claim. He wasn’t ousted until several months later, after he’d developed an affinity for the 24-year-old college student who would eventually come forward to accuse him of rape. King had agreed to help the student with “research projects” at the department, the lawsuit claims, and in October 2016 she allegedly felt compelled to make it clear that she had no interest in a romantic or sexual relationship with him.
Even still, King continued to behave “in a sexually aggressive manner toward her,” the complaint claims, and then touched, kissed, and groped her without her consent on several occasions. He raped her four separate times, according to the complaint.
When King went on vacation in January 2017, the student finally “felt she had a window of safety to report him” and called the mayor directly. Curtis placed the chief on administrative leave and then allegedly “tried to sweep [his] misconduct under the rug,” telling “the department that chief King had taken administrative leave to care for his sick mother.”
Curtis demanded the chief’s resignation in secret, telling “everyone” that the chief’s departure was about his mother’s illness, according to the lawsuit. Then he allegedly planned the going-away party.
Despite the news about King’s allegations, “the party still went forward as planned,” the complaint claims.
Last year, in a news conference announcing the chief’s departure, Curtis reportedly said the former chief was a “deep friend.”
Afterward, in an email, King told Curtis: “You did your best to protect me.”