The Utah County Attorney’s Office announced Monday it has filed criminal charges against the alleged organizers of a Halloween dance party near Utah Lake that appeared to violate state health guidelines related to COVID-19.
During a press conference, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt announced his office filed class B misdemeanor “violation of state public health” charges in Utah County Justice Court against: Samuel Nii of Orem, Talifolaukovi Foliaki of Pleasant Grove, James McReynolds of Lindon, Erik Little of Sandy, Branden Estrada of Sandy, Andrew Ivie of Midway, Tanner Valerio of Bluffdale, Daniel Mortenson of Eden and Sadie Salisbury of Draper.
Additionally, the Utah County Health Department issued violations of a public health order, carrying civil penalties of $10,000, to Nii, Estrada, Little and Valerio, as well as The Tribe Utah and Young/Dumb, which are both Provo-based event companies.
“Our estimates of nearly 10,000 people at this event represent a real danger to the health of our county, especially its more vulnerable population,” the Utah County attorney said.
Leavitt added that the investigation, which involves federal agencies, is developing and ongoing.
In the weeks leading up to the party, Little and Valerio, co-owners of The Tribe Utah, advertised the party on social media as the “biggest party in Utah this year,” according to charging documents.
Nii, who is co-owner along with Kwaku El of Young/Dumb, an event company that held multiple indoor dance parties in Utah County in the summer of 2020, reportedly promoted the party on his private account.
On Oct. 14, a Utah County Health Department director contacted Little and Valerio about “complaints they had received about the party,” Little stated he was aware of Gov. Gary Herbert’s recently implemented COVID-19 restrictions regarding wearing masks and social distancing.
About two weeks later, “Utah Tonight,” an Instagram page created by Little to promote the party, posted that the party had been canceled “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,” the page posted, according to charging documents.
On Oct. 31, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office received a complaint about the party and responded to a 911 call about a “female attending the party” that had been injured and “required medical attention.” The deputies and emergency personnel “had difficulty getting to the female because of the massive number of people and cars.”
According to prosecutors, 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.”
Additionally, a stage had been set up “with sound systems, canopies, (a) projector screen, lighting, lasers, and DJ equipment.”
The deputies who responded observed the defendants “working on the equipment on the stage” and identified them “as the event organizers.”
“Through social media, investigators were able to corroborate that all nine individuals were involved in promoting and putting on the event,” prosecutors wrote.
During the press conference Monday, Leavitt, who tested positive for the coronavirus in April and described it as the “all-time sickest I have been in my life,” talked about the role of law enforcement during the pandemic, noting that “government does not have the ability in many instances to enforce things like mask ordinances, to keep people from congregating in small groups.”
“And so, philosophically, while I understand the absolute right that we as Americans have to gather with each other, and also to be involved in a society where we don’t have to have masks, I also understand that we’re in the middle of a pandemic that requires that we take safety measures and that we take precautions,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt added that while Utah has many businesses that “have reinvented themselves and found ways to help people during this pandemic, we have also seen business enterprises which have sought to profit off of the pandemic in ways that damage us as a society.”
“One such type business are event businesses who profit from gathering people together during a pandemic for the purpose of protesting the pandemic and for the purpose of maintaining their rights of free speech, all the while endangering not only those who were there, but countless other people who will never know that they were infected from COVID because of an event,” the county attorney said.