A Cache Valley woman who claims she was raped by a USU piano professor when she was an underage girl has dropped her lawsuit against him due to a recent Utah Supreme Court ruling on the statute of limitations.
But ask Jaime Caliendo whether R. Dennis Hirst — who was never charged and has maintained that he is innocent — should be held accountable and the answer is yes.
“On principle, survivors of sex crimes who must live forever with the consequences of a perpetrator’s destructive actions should have the right to pursue legal resolution at any time,” Caliendo wrote in an email to a reporter.
Caliendo was seeking damages stemming from sexual assault, battery and emotional distress.
On advice of counsel, Caliendo filed a motion to dismiss the case without prejudice with the hope that if Utah law changes, she would have the option of reviving her claims against Hirst. Caliendo was advised that if 1st District Court Judge Brian Cannell ever dismissed the case with prejudice — as Hirst once wanted — she would never be able to pursue suit against the piano professor no matter how the law might change in the future.
Cannell affixed the seal of the state onto Caliendo’s motion for dismissal on Wednesday.
Hirst’s attorney in the case, Herm Olsen, told a reporter he had reached out to his client for comment, but did not immediately hear back.
Caliendo had originally moved for dismissal in July, but Hirst challenged it, setting the stage for a hearing on Aug. 12. Then, this past week, without explanation, Hirst dropped his motion, leaving Caliendo’s the only one for the judge to consider.
Now, Caliendo and others with potential sexual abuse legal claims are watching and waiting to see if the Utah Constitution is ever amended to allow lawsuits even if an older statue of limitations has already expired.
It is believed that back in 1994 — when Caliendo’s alleged rape took place — the statute of limitations was four years after the person’s 18th birthday if they were a minor at the time of the incident. Caliendo turned 18 in 1994, so she was not able to pursue charges against Hirst after 1998.
In 2016, an amendment was made to state code, allowing a victim of child sex abuse to bring a civil action against a perpetrator within 35 years of the victim’s 18th birthday, or within three years of that legislation, whichever is longer.
The state Supreme Court ruled in June, however, that lawmakers are “constitutionally prohibited from retroactively reviving a time-barred claim.”
The June high court decision stemmed from examining Mitchell v. Roberts. The case centered on a woman named Terry Mitchell, who claimed she was able to revive her sexual abuse case against retired federal judge Richard Roberts thanks to the new, longer statue of limitations enacted in 2016. But the high court ruled that Mitchell — who says that Roberts sexually abused her back in 1981 during a pending criminal trial in which Mitchell was a witness — could not do so.
With such a ruling, Caliendo felt that her case could no longer go forward, at least not until the Utah Constitution is amended to allow it. Caliendo said she stands at the ready if lawmakers are successful on that front.
“At this point, it’s difficult to say how I’ll feel in the future if the Utah constitution is amended,” she wrote to a reporter when asked if she would sue Hirst again. “But at present, I remain open to a peaceful resolution.”
Asked what she wanted to get out of the civil case, Caliendo said it has always been about “telling the truth and defending my reputation against false claims of a consensual relationship that never in fact existed.”
“I would have preferred to resolve this in a more peaceful manner. A simple and sincere apology would have helped significantly toward resolution,” Caliendo wrote. “But, telling the truth about my experience — both in the context of the civil complaint and USU’s Title IX investigation — has helped me reclaim my sense of worth as a human being. That can’t be bought, at any price.”
Asked how she felt about the whirlwind of the civil case, Caliendo began by saying she was “dismissed and discarded as a human being by the assault in 1994.” That’s the year she was a 17-year-old freshman studying piano at the university, while Hirst, 23, was a professor with USU’s Youth Conservatory.
The two knew each other socially and Caliendo visited Hirst’s apartment a few times.
On one of those occasions, according to the court record, Caliendo fell asleep while listening to music, only to be awakened by “a sharp, repeating pain” as Hirst sexually assaulted her “for what seemed like a long time.”
Logan Police received an assault report at the time, but without an attorney, Hirst refused to talk. Ultimately, after two failed attempts to speak with him, it appears the police investigation went cold.
“Decades of agony followed as aspects of my health and also my professional opportunities in music suffered,” Caliendo wrote recently. “I’m grateful to have had the help of excellent attorneys, and that the law allowed me the opportunity to file a civil complaint in 2018 in an attempt to hold him accountable for his actions.”
That fall, Caliendo sued Hirst for $300,000, and almost as soon as the suit was filed, USU took notice.
USU President Noelle Cockett announced in a public memo to the music department, where Hirst works, that a 4-6 week investigation into his conduct would commence and he had been ordered to work from home, where he has remained.
The Title IX investigation remains ongoing, and USU Spokesman Tim Vitale told The Herald Journal back in May that “the university does not discuss personnel actions that are not complete” and it will say something only “when the time is appropriate.”