POSTED: 05:04 a.m. HST, Oct 25, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 05:07 a.m. HST, Oct 25, 2012
SALT LAKE CITY » Tea party activist Gregory Peterson once hosted some of Utah's biggest Republican names at a barbecue at his Wasatch County cabin. Among them were U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Gov. Gary Herbert and Mia Love, the up-and-coming mayor of Saratoga Springs who is locked in a dead heat to unseat six-term Congressman Jim Matheson.
Peterson was a regular at GOP functions as the creator of the Rocky Mountain Conservatives group. He held fundraisers and even organized a debate between two GOP candidates for Utah attorney general.
It all came crashing down in July, when he was charged with sexually assaulting women at the cabin. On Tuesday, he was found dead there in what authorities called an apparent suicide.
Cara Tangaro, one of his attorneys, said she had spent many hours with Peterson on his criminal case.
"He's always maintained his innocence, and we felt like he was excited to be out and to be able to work with us on preparing his case," she said. "Quite frankly, this is the last thing we expected."
Peterson pleaded not guilty to 23 felony charges, including assault, rape and kidnapping. In August, four women from Salt Lake City and one from Wasatch County testified at a preliminary hearing that he had sexually assaulted them.
Some said they had met him on Mormon dating websites and at church functions.
Peterson was jailed after his arrest in July and held until posting $2 million bail on Oct. 19. He was due back in court on Nov. 2.
Tangaro said he had been elated on his first night out of jail.
But just four days later, two bail bond agents were dispatched to the cabin to check on him because his ankle monitor was not responding. Wasatch County Chief Deputy Jared Rigby confirmed that Peterson was found with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Peterson, a certified public accountant and the owner of Peterson Wealth Management, had been a fixture at Utah Republican gatherings.
Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright declined to comment Wednesday on his death, saying Peterson had no official role with the party.
Lynn Robertson, a victim's advocate for Wasatch County, said she notified one of the alleged victims of his death.
"We were all kind of speechless at that point. It just happened so quickly," Robertson said.
Tangaro said Peterson had a master's degree, a good job and good reputation, but his ties to the Republican Party seemed to fuel media coverage of his arrest. He worried he might not be able to overcome that coverage, she said.
"As his legal team, we were very much looking forward to putting this case in front of a jury, and when a jury got to hear his side of the story, we definitely felt like an acquittal was a possibility," she said. "We're frustrated that this is how it ended, and we're sad that this is how it ended. I don't know why Greg did what he did. Only he knows that."