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FOX 13 Investigates: Video raises questions about Utah Co. Attorney's adoption of Native American child

The video was entered into evidence as part of a human trafficking investigation into David Leavitt
Posted at 9:16 PM, Jun 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-28 00:47:59-04

The FOX 13 Investigates team has obtained a video of Utah County Attorney David Leavitt discussing his "strategy” to adopt a Native American baby, allegedly taking advantage of his political influence to overcome a federal law designed to protect Native American children from being adopted by non-Native families.

The video was recorded by a documentarian in 2020. It has since been submitted to Homeland Security Investigations as part of a criminal human trafficking investigation.

Watch the full video below. FOX 13 News has redacted the child's name for privacy reasons.

Full video: Utah County Attorney David Leavitt on adopting Native American child

The 17-minute clip first shows Leavitt expressing his struggle with the decision whether to pursue the adoption.

Leavitt went on to explain how he tried to broker a deal with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana, offering them the ability to export buffalo to Ukraine.

Although he is not blood-related to the child, the little girl was considered Leavitt’s step-foster-great niece.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘How in the world am I going to do this?’” Leavitt described. “Finally, this strategy comes into my head, and if you’ve got five minutes, I’ll tell you the story.”

The “strategy,” as Leavitt described, involved boarding a plane to Montana in 2017. Upon arrival, Leavitt said he walked onto the reservation for an unscheduled meeting with the president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

FOX 13 News has confirmed the tribal president at the time was Lawrence Jace Killsback.

“And I say to him, ‘I’m here for two reasons,’” Leavitt described. “I said, ‘I’m here to tell you the second reason first, but I’ll tell you the first reason second – but before I tell you the second reason, I’ll tell you a story.’”

Leavitt’s story touched on the importance of family. Then it highlighted his close friendship with former Ukranian president Victor Yuschenko.

“Victor and I have this goal of introducing buffalo into western Ukraine,” Leavitt recounted, “and you’re a sovereign nation, and you have a buffalo herd, and Ukraine is a sovereign nation, and it doesn’t have a buffalo herd, but it wants one, and so I’m here to see if we can form a bilateral agreement between the people of the Northern Cheyenne and the people of Ukraine to introduce buffalo to western Ukraine.”

“At that point, (Killsback) was all ears,” Leavitt continued. “And I said, ‘That’s the second reason why I’m here. The first reason why I’m here is this. We want to adopt one of your people.’”

Leavitt said Killsback gave his blessing, but Tribal Social Services did not.

“Tribal Social Services looked at us and said, ‘We’re not giving you this baby,’” Leavitt said. “I just said, ‘You know what? You are shameless.’ I just let her have it with both barrels... There’s such a prejudice in the Native community about a non-Native adopting a Native.”

As a last-ditch effort, Leavitt said he went back to the tribal president for help.

“(Killsback) said, ‘Listen, the Leavitts are friends of the tribe... They’re assets to the tribe for more than just this,’” Leavitt said. “I left, and five minutes later the phone rang and it was the social worker saying, ‘I think I’ve figured out a way to get this child to you.’”

Leavitt said he took home the child that same day in 2017.

Killsback declined to comment. At the time of the 2020 interview, he was in prison for fraud in an unrelated case.

Stephanie Benally, a Native American specialist for Utah Foster Care, said the adoption of any Native American child raises questions about the Indian Child Welfare Act.

“It’s best for the Native children to remain in Native communities,” Benally said. “Not every child needs to grow up in the city, green grass, white picket fence house.”

Benally explained the cultural and historical significance of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was passed in 1978 in order to protect Native American children from being adopted by outsiders.

“It’s federal legislation to protect the Native children and Native families to keep them together,” Benally said. “Prior to the act, 25-35 percent of Native children were removed from their home and placed in non-Native homes.”

When asked about the child’s relationship to Leavitt as a “step-foster-great niece,” Benally said that the designation of “family” is up to the tribe, even if not related by blood.

According to court documents obtained by FOX 13 News, the child’s biological mother willingly gave up her parental rights, but the biological father did not.

The court ultimately ruled in Leavitt’s favor, approving the adoption.

Linda F. Smith – a member of the Utah State Bar Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee and former ethics professor at the University of Utah – agreed to review the video.

“Let me put it this way: I would like our elected officials to be servants of the public, and not self-serving,” Smith said. “He was clearly politicking to get his way... It was a little smarmy way to talk somebody into letting you adopt a child that might otherwise be better raised by the tribe.”

Criminal investigation

Leavitt is the same county attorney who named himself as the subject of a ritualistic child sex abuse investigation. Last month, he held a press conference to announce he is not a murderer, a cannibal, or an abuser.

Then he accused Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith of playing politics shortly before the primary election.

The Utah County Sheriff’s Office did not name Leavitt as a subject, even after the press conference.

“This is not a politically motivated investigation,” the sheriff insisted at his own press conference. “We won’t be intimidated by Mr. Leavitt, by his attempts to derail our investigation... We do not discuss the names of victims, and we do not discuss the names of suspects.”

Noel Engels, a former analyst with Homeland Security Investigations, confirmed his team had been investigating sexual allegations against Leavitt for several years.

Then, in 2020, Engels received a copy of the video. HSI added the video to the case file, investigating Leavitt on suspicion of human trafficking.

“It’s literally our job to make sure children are safe,” Engels said. “Is it disturbing? Yeah, it is. You have to kind of separate that and not let emotions affect your investigation at all.”

Five months after receiving the video, documents show Engels and his team were removed from the case.

Engels has since filed a whistleblower complaint and received a letter from the United States Office of Special Counsel in response.

“You alleged that HSI improperly terminated an investigation into allegations involving current Utah County Attorney David O. Leavitt,” wrote attorney John U. Young. “We emphasize that, while (Office of Special Counsel) has found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing based on the information you submitted in support of your allegations, our referral to the Secretary for investigation is not a final determination that the allegations are substantiated.”

“This remains an open matter under investigation until the agency’s final report is forwarded to the President and Congress.”

FOX 13 News reached out to Leavitt for an explanation last week.

According to his spokesperson, “Mr. Leavitt would be happy to tell the entire story.”

More than 72 hours later, the spokesperson later clarified that Leavitt is not able to meet until after the primary election.

“Anything related to what you’ve brought up has no bearing on his performance as the Utah County Attorney and is not relevant,” she wrote.

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