ST. GEORGE – Hugs, smiles and sighs of relief filled the 5th district courthouse as Judge Wallence Lee dismissed criminal charges against Springdale’s town manager and police chief Wednesday.
In February, the Utah Attorney General’s office charged Police Chief Kurt Wright and Town Manager Richard Wixom with failing to turn over public money, a class C felony. The charges stem from a practice of accepting cash from foreign tourists to nearby Zion National Park. The money was payment for traffic violations and meant for the Hurricane Justice court, but a state audit revealed the town was keeping it all.
Judge Lee ruled there wasn’t enough cause for Wright and Wixom to stand trial for the allegations.
“It’s been a thousand pounds lifted off my shoulders,” said Wright as he left the courtroom Wednesday. “Thank God it’s over and we can get back to business and get our community back together.”
The practice of officers collecting cash began in 2006. Prosecutors argued Wright and Wixom encouraged the practice and were instrumental in it becoming a part of town policy. Defense attorneys for Wright and Wixom argued no one informed the town on a state level the process was illegal, and when they did in 2011, the practice was immediately terminated.
During a state audit of town records for 2009-2011, auditors discovered more than $33,000 in cash payments were received and never remitted to the justice court. Town officials immediately remitted payment to the justice court when the error was found, but prosecutors said the act of keeping the money in the first place constituted criminal charges.
Judge Lee ultimately sided with the defense attorneys.
"I don’t think anyone involved committed any crime or were involved in any criminal conduct,” said Doug Terry, Wright’s attorney. “Just because a mistake is made, just because a procedure is ill-advised and not followed, doesn’t mean someone has committed a crime, and I don’t think it would have been appropriate to charge anyone in this case with a crime.”
Close to a dozen citizens from Springdale filled the courtroom to show support for Wright and Wixom. Springdale Mayor Pro Tem Kathy LaFave said the town council has always supported Wright and Wixom, allowing them to keep their jobs during the court proceedings.
“We have always felt very confident that in the end that these two individuals will be proven innocent we’re just sorry it’s gone this far,” said LaFave.
Springdale has a population of only about 500 residents, but because of it’s proximity to Zion National Park, it hosts close to three million visitors every year.