The following story was written by Eric S. Peterson of The Utah Investigative Journalism Project and published in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Prosecutors filed 10 felony charges Wednesday against Tyler Agustin Jex, a former teaching aide for deaf children in Utah, alleging he raped and sexually assaulted multiple students.
It has been a long time coming for parents of alleged abuse victims who for years have been wondering if they were being ignored and abandoned.
The only case to move forward before these new charges involved an accusation that he solicited sex from an underage girl. On July 11, Jex stood awkwardly before 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton. With his rail-thin frame, large glasses and tousled dark hair, the 28-year-old looked more like a high school student who had wandered mistakenly into the West Jordan courtroom.
Jamie Greenwood, who sat in the gallery that day for what turned out to be a procedural hearing that was continued, said she knew what Jex was capable of. She said he began sexually abusing her deaf daughter in 2012 at the Jean Massieu School of the Deaf in Salt Lake City.
Jex, a student teaching aide at the time, repeatedly lured her then 11-year-old daughter into a bathroom to grope her and then paid her to keep it quiet, she — and now prosecutors — allege. Greenwood and other families have been asking for years how such a man could slip past so many authorities for so long.
Greenwood challenges the Utah Deaf and Blind School for not believing her daughter, she also questioned a state law that will not allow her, the mother of a victim to access the Division of Child and Family Services investigation report into the abuse — a report that actually determined the abuse took place. Under state law only the alleged abuser, Jex, can see those documents.
David and Daniela Malepeai are baffled why it was that even though they had Jex’s Facebook messages allegedly admitting to having abused their deaf and developmentally disabled daughter that charges weren’t brought against him.
Ginnette Jenkins, meanwhile, wondered if something had been done when she alleges Jex abused her daughter in 2012 at the Deaf and Blind School, would that have halted the stalking and terrorizing of her daughter even as recently as the spring of 2019?
To be clear, Jex has not been convicted of any sexual crimes against minors. And his attorney, Ed Brass, said Thursday that “Mr. Jex maintains his innocence.”
The school has also denied that it ignored any complaints from Greenwood’s daughter.
Last month, The Utah Investigative Journalism Project sent a detailed list of victim allegations to the Salt Lake District Attorney’s Office. Spokesperson Ben Haynes would only say that “We are aware of the allegations and we are investigating.”
On Wednesday, prosecutors filed the 10 new felony charges against Jex, alleging he assaulted three victims on multiple occasions. A $500,000 warrant was issued against him.
Like any parent, Jamie Greenwood is in awe of her daughter. It’s not just pride, it’s also disbelief at how she has overcome so much. Her daughter has shouldered being deaf along with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and autism.
Nevertheless, her mom said her now teenage girl is a ray of light, excited to meet people and show off her cats and her service dog. She’ll teach anyone sign language with patience and enthusiasm. So far the only emotional scarring her mother has noticed is the persistent nightmares.
“And she still is just an amazing kid,” Greenwood said.
Back in the summer of 2013, she said her daughter’s light had seemed dim, and she didn’t know why. She was acting out and irritable and the behavior boiled over into her threatening her mother with a knife. She was taken into Primary Children’s Medical Center for a mental health evaluation when she finally told her mother everything that had been happening to her, alleging that Jex, then 22, had since the fall of 2012 been molesting her in the bathroom of the JMS School of the Deaf.
Greenwood’s pain only worsened when her daughter told her that she had complained to her teacher in the spring of 2013 and that, instead of believing her, the teacher punished her for telling lies by forcing her to sit on a bench during recess, where she was only allowed to watch other kids play.
“Nobody believed her, and nobody did anything about it,” Greenwood said.
In a statement provided by Tamara Flint, a spokeswoman for the Utah Schools of the Deaf and Blind, the school denied that complaints about Jex were ever ignored and that the first the school staff heard about it was when police brought the complaint to their attention.
“The school administration responded immediately and out of an abundance of caution an employee was escorted off campus that same day. This employee has never returned to our school. During the course of the ensuing investigation, JMS personnel fully cooperated with the investigating authorities,” the statement said.
The Division of Child and Family Services investigated the complaints and on July 26, 2013, made a supported finding of abuse or neglect against Jex. But Jex petitioned the court to reverse the finding. Through his lawyer, he argued that he was in plain view of other students and teachers and could not have molested any students, and that the bathroom where the assaults were alleged to have happened was too far from their classes and he would have been noticed if he had been gone with students for that long.
The hearing was moved to juvenile court and records were sealed. Greenwood said that both her daughter and a friend of hers were too afraid to testify against Jex and so the DCFS determination was reversed.
Only in 2019 with the help of a reporter did Greenwood learn that even as the mother of the victim in the case, she was not allowed access to the DCFS investigation files into Jex.
“I’m absolutely furious about that,” Greenwood said. “It’s my daughter’s case. She was the one molested and it’s not fair that the molester can have the copies of what happened and the person he molested cannot — it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
State law previously allowed such records to be available to family of abuse victims, even if the allegation was reversed in court. That changed in 2008 when Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, pushed a bill arguing that abuse complaints that were found to be “unsupported, unsubstantiated or without merit” could not be used in divorce proceedings.
“They should not be used in very tense situations, such as custodial battles,” Davis said of the records at that time.
A simple life
David Malepeai, sitting with his wife Daniela in the modest living room of their West Valley home considered his daughter, who was happily drawing in the adjacent kitchen. When asked what life is like for her being both deaf and developmentally disabled, his answer was “simple.”
“You simplify everything for her because unfortunately that’s the life she lives — it’s simplicity. Nothing complex,” David said. Though she is now in her early 20s, she still is very much a child in love with drawing, stuffed animals and superheroes.
At 4 months old, their daughter developed meningitis, and a high fever that caused her to lose her hearing and to become developmentally disabled. While she has always been cheery, she has also always struggled to look after herself.
In December 2013, the couple had to have a conversation with their daughter about looking at inappropriate images on the internet. Their daughter had turned 18 in September of that year and the couple felt a stern conversation was warranted. But after that they took a closer look at her tablet and found Facebook messages they said were from Jex. The messages had asked their daughter if she remembered the times they were together on the bus and he put his hand under her shirt and groped her breasts. The messages then said he wanted to do more of that and wanted to get her phone number and address.
The daughter’s responses showed her lack of comprehension as she could only respond with parts of her phone number and in other spots just responded with smiley face emojis.
The couple reached out to the police and provided them the messages. Their daughter was then interviewed by a detective with an interpreter and victim’s advocate, but the couple were told their daughter couldn’t corroborate the details Jex spelled out in the messages.
The couple was frustrated. They worried that the lecture they gave their daughter about looking at inappropriate images made her afraid to talk about a man touching her. They also were frustrated the police only did one interview when they knew how hard it was for their daughter to talk about such things.
“She doesn’t talk for herself,” Daniela Malepeai said. Later with the help of a counselor who spent multiple sessions with the daughter, she was able to describe everything Jex allegedly did to her.
Their frustration peaked, however, when detectives told them the Facebook messages wouldn’t be enough because Jex could always say he didn’t send them. Their only consolation came when the detective told them that there was another allegation against him that he would be charged for.
For Aaron Kinikini, a lawyer for the Disability Law Center it’s a common but unfortunate trend nationally and locally that police struggle with interacting with the deaf community, not just because of the language barrier but also because the deaf consider themselves a cultural group. Weighing these factors with child sex abuse investigation should warrant more time and care than just one interview.
“There’s the language barrier but also there’s really subtle cultural cues,” Kinikini said. “A child sex-abuse victim interview is already incredibly difficult, but child sex-abuse victims that are hearing impaired — that is a very touchy thing to deal with.”
The JMS school simply told the couple that Jex was no longer employed there and would no longer be allowed on school grounds.
Ginnette Jenkins, takes issue with that claim. Her daughter only this summer admitted to her mother that she had allegedly been victimized by Jex as well, going back to 2012 when she was 11.
Jenkins said her daughter told her that she was raped in the school bathroom and was given money afterward to silence her — money that she threw in the garbage out of shame.
According to one of the newly filed charges, in the police interview with Jenkins’ daughter, she said that Jex had pulled her forcefully to the floor of the bathroom, causing her to hit her head on the floor, before he then raped her.
Jenkins said though that unbeknownst to her, Jex allegedly stalked her for years after. She said that he began showing up at a deaf Latter-day Saint ward her daughter attended in Taylorsville and tried to grab her there. Even as recently as May 2019, she alleged that Jex showed up at a school dance her daughter was attending and tried to pull her into a bathroom and ripped her dress in the process.
“How many more kids are going to go through this?” Jenkins asked.
A statement issued Thursday by Joel Coleman, superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, said its students are safe and under a constant watch by multiple adults.
“Due to the unique needs of our students, the schools and programs have policies, procedures, and controls in place that provide the safest possible environment for our students,” Coleman said.
We are aware
Jenkins’ daughter and Jamie’s daughter were friends, but the Malepeais never knew of Jenkins and Greenwood. These families now are bound by a shared accusation against Jex and a common frustration at how, over the years, he has been investigated — or not.
A police report regarding the Malepeais’ complaint even had a detective writing “I found a similar accusation against Tyler,” though for some reason this did not result in the case being linked to the one involving Greenwood’s daughter.
While the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind said it has worked with authorities investigating Jex, the Malepeais were never told by the school to reach out to investigators looking into Greenwood’s case, nor given contact information for the DCFS investigators.
While the new charges account for the alleged crimes against Greenwood’s daughter and Jenkins’ daughter, the charges do not reference the allegations made by the Malepeais, leaving the family to wonder if there will ever be justice for their daughter.