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PROVO — The promoters of a Halloween party held on the west side of Utah Lake that drew thousands of people — the majority of them ignoring COVID-19 safety guidelines by not wearing masks or social distancing — now face criminal charges.
Nine people were charged Friday in Utah County Justice Court with disobeying public health laws, a class B misdemeanor: Erik Scott Little, 27, of Sandy; James McReynolds, 23, of Lindon; Samuel Mark Nii, 22, of Orem; Daniel Edward Mortensen, 22, of Eden; Sadie Brooke Salisbury, 25, of Draper; Braden Abel Estrada, 26, of Sandy; Talifolaukovi Roger Foliaki, 28, of Pleasant Grove; Andrew Ivie, 23, of Midway; and Tanner Valerio, 26, of Bluffdale.
Little and Valerio are the co-founders of The Tribe Utah, the group that police say organized the mostly maskless gathering on Oct. 31 that drew an estimated 10,000 people. Nii is the co-owner of Young and Dumb LLC, another company that prosecutors say helped promote the event.
The party included a stage, a professional sound system and lights, and DJs.
For a month, the groups Utah Tonight and The Tribe Utah had advertised an event called "The Protest on Halloween," with the location of the event being announced on Halloween. As part of the promotion for the "full concert production," organizers posted on their flyers that "gatherings are essential for public health" and noted that by attending, "you assume all risks associated with COVID-19."
On Oct. 26, after their event had gained public attention, the groups announced that the party had been canceled and refunds would be given. In announcing the cancellation, Utah Tonight blamed those "in positions of power and authority, including the media, (who) have done nothing but intimidate, harass and seek to build consensus to shut this event down."
On Oct. 30, the Utah Department of Health designated Utah County as a "high transmission area. As such, individuals were required to wear face masks while in public settings within 6 feet of individuals from a separate household, and social gatherings were limited to 10 persons or less," the charges state. Larger social gatherings were allowed by permit only, which also "required each participant to wear a mask and practice physical distancing."
But on Oct. 31, the event happened anyway, without a permit.
The promoters while telling ticket holders that the event had been canceled, also stated, "Keep this on the dl, but a massive free underground party might still pull through. If it does, we will send you the info asap but we won't post about it anywhere, we can't let the haters win. We just can't," according to charging documents.
On Oct. 30, promoters sent out GPS coordinates "for the massive free underground party that was being held at a location near Utah Lake called 'The Knolls,'" the charges state.
The Utah County Sheriff's Office found out about the party when an ambulance had to be called to the scene for a woman who had fallen while crowd-surfing. There were also several crashes that night as the crowd tried to leave the area. One social media post showed a picture of a car that ended up on the top of another vehicle.
"A review of social media posts shows that there were thousands of people in attendance, who were not wearing masks, and who were not physically distancing. A stage had been set up, with sound systems, canopies, projector screen, lighting, lasers and DJ equipment," the charging documents state.
The others charged were found to be working on the stage equipment and also helped organize the event, according to the court documents. Investigators say Estrada was one of the DJs that evening.
In announcing the charges, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt on Monday talked about his role of balancing public health orders with the public's constitutional rights of free speech and assembly, or as Leavitt put it, those who believe "life needs to go on."
He said in the case to the party at The Knolls, "This is just the type of super spreader event that we're concerned about.
"We're not issuing charges just for the sake of issuing charges," he continued. "We're not here to charge 10,000 people for going to a party."
While the public has constitutional rights, they also have societal obligations, Leavitt said. And in this case, the organizers sought to profit off of a pandemic "all the while endangering not only those who were there, but countless others."
In addition to organizers and promoters facing charges, Leavitt said those who have attempted to obstruct the investigation that is still ongoing, could also be charged.
Also Monday, Leavitt and the Utah County Health Department announced $10,000 fines against The Tribe Utah, Young and Dumb, Little, Estrada, Nii and Valerio.
Leavitt said businesses that attempt to profit off of a pandemic by hosting events to protest rules against large gatherings and mask wearing "simply will not get a pass from my office."
"If they violate a state health order to this magnitude … this office will hold them accountable," he said.
During the online press conference, a man who identified himself as a friend of some of the event organizers asked Leavitt how they could be profiting if the event was free.
"There are more ways of profiting than monetary," Leavitt replied, while noting the groups received a lot of public attention on social media which arguably helped promote their businesses.
During Monday's announcement, Leavitt also talked about his own battle with COVID-19.
"COVID for me was a devastating and debilitating illness. Fortunately it didn't kill me," he said.
Leavitt said he contracted the novel coronavirus in March and was fighting the virus for most of April.
"I was flat in bed for approximately 18 days before I could even think of moving," he said.
Leavitt said he lost his ability to think or reason during those 18 days and continues to have lingering effects from his illness today.