(KUTV) — The man accused of murdering University of Utah football player Aaron Lowe is still awaiting his day in court.
2News Investigates has spent months poring over court filings and obtaining court recordings that show Buk Muwat Buk has a history of lying about who he is and how old he is when encountered by law enforcement. At least two criminal defense attorneys used a document Buk’s stepmother reportedly obtained from his relatives in Sudan that threw the criminal process into a tailspin well before Buk was charged with Lowe’s murder. Buk came to the United States as a refugee in 2011. It wasn’t until he pleaded guilty to felony burglary in a 2019 case in West Valley City that he presented a birth certificate that cast everything about his age into serious doubt.
Buk Muwat Buk was captured on home surveillance cameras breaking into a home in West Valley City. Two men were seen by the resident who had a security system that allowed him to watch surveillance video on his phone. According to the police report, he saw the two men looking around the outside of his house and then jumping a fence in the back of his house so that they could get in through a back window.
The video shows they did just that and were dressed in hoodies, their identities concealed. It is not clear who the other person is, but Buk admitted to then West Valley City Police Detective Steve Jensen, the lead detective on the case, that he was at the home. The next day, that same resident saw Buk walking through his neighborhood wearing the same clothes he’d seen on the surveillance video. He called police.
Officer Martinez made contact with Buk, but though Buk gave him his name, he gave him the wrong birthdate. Detective Jensen came to assist Martinez and Buk was brought to the police station for questioning. According to the police report, Buk would not tell police who was with him but admitted he gained entry through a back window and had been confronted by a dog in the house. The resident told Jensen he could hear his dog yelping and screaming as if it was in pain. He later found a crutch in the bathroom that had dog fur all over it and appeared to be what had made the dog scream. A bag of tools was also missing. Buk was charged with burglary, a second-degree felony, animal cruelty, and for giving false information to law enforcement about his age. Buk was offered a plea deal from the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office. Detective Jensen thought Buk would be held accountable, but after Lowe’s murder, learned the burglary case had been dismissed due to a handwritten birth certificate from Africa that was injected into the court process.
Within less than two weeks, Buk signed the plea deal on March 4, 2019. Prosecutors agreed to dismiss counts 2 and 3, the false information to a police officer and animal cruelty charge. Buk signed the document listing his age as 18 and that he’d attended school through the 11th grade. His attorney Christopher J. Jones also signed, certifying that he had discussed the terms of the plea deal with his client and that he fully understood the meaning and the factual synopsis of Buk’s criminal conduct was correctly stated, accurate and true. Buk was to be placed on felony probation with Utah’s Adult Probation and Parole. A clause of the document warned Buk about the consequences of pleading guilty and the potential penalties as it relates to deportation:
“I understand that if I am not a United States citizen, my plea(s) today may, or even will, subject me to deportation under United States immigration laws and regulations, or otherwise adversely affect my immigration status, which may include permanently barring my re-entry into the United States.”
Buk was ordered to report to AP & P for an interview for a Pre-Sentence Investigation Report known as a PSI. This is where the guilty plea was turned on its face. Twenty-three days later, Buk reported to the Central Valley office. According to an AP & P memo written by Cami Ford to Judge Heather Brereton, “During the interview, Mr.Buk stated he is only 17-years old which caused concern because he would be considered a minor in the state of Utah if the information is correct,” Ford wrote.
The memo then indicates Buk showed a picture of what he stated was his birth certificate that indicated he was born on Nov. 19, 2001, which at the time, if legitimate, would have made him a juvenile. With no way to verify the authenticity of this document, "Notification of Birth" from the Republic of South Sudan, Ministry of Health, AP & P asked Judge Brereton for help. It’s important to note that Ford wrote that ICE representatives were contacted to determine Buk’s immigration status and were told that Buk is in this country legally on a “green card” and his date of birth is listed as Jan. 1, 1999.
2News Investigates obtained the court recording for sentencing in this case that was held on June 3, 2019. The hearing held in Judge Heather Brereton’s court focused on concerns as to whether Buk is an adult. Salt Lake County Assistant District Attorney Michael Palumbo was the prosecutor on the case.
“So, your honor I don’t have a definitive answer but I’ve had contact with Jonathan Stowers, he’s counsel to ICE, um, and he is doing some investigation to uh, uh, see if there’s anything else out there that would weigh in one way or the other. What he did tell me is that often times if an individual comes from a country as a refugee or does not have documentation at the time then they will often put in a default date of 1/1/ some year and that appears to be what happened in this case.”
2News Investigates found Buk’s birthdate on court records is consistently listed as being Jan. 1, 1999. That AP & P memo indicates ICE representatives confirmed that was the birthdate listed for Buk.
Palumbo went on to cite other cases against Buk that were dismissed for the same reason, including a 2017 case that was ultimately dismissed on June 23 of that year due to the defendant being a minor. Palumbo then told Judge Brereton, “And so I think the State is going to move to dismiss without prejudice on this case and um refile it in juvenile court.”
The judge asked if there were any objections, and Buk’s defense attorney Christopher J. Jones said, “None whatsoever your honor.” Judge Brereton dismissed the case based on the age of the defendant. The felony burglary case Buk had pleaded guilty to, and that Palumbo told the court he would refile in juvenile court, was not refiled. Tania Mashburn with the Utah State Courts confirmed there are no felony charges on Buk’s juvenile record. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill previously said he would investigate this matter regarding the dismissal of this case.
We reached out to Gill for a comment, but Gill said, “We cannot speak about the criminal history regarding this defendant due to the ongoing homicide case our office is prosecuting.” Palumbo no longer works for the DA’s office.
It’s not clear if any attempts were made to authenticate that purported birth certificate. So, we asked for an interview with Judge Brereton. She respectfully declined, but Mashburn granted an interview and said that a judge would not be the one to determine whether a birth certificate was authentic. In an email, she elaborated:
“The court is not in a position to force the prosecution of a case. If the prosecuting attorney makes a motion to dismiss a case, the case will almost certainly be dismissed. If it were otherwise, the judicial branch would be usurping an executive branch function. The court exists to resolve the dispute. If the party who filed the action in the first place (the prosecutor) indicates it does not wish to proceed, the court will respect that decision. This is true of nearly all cases where the party bringing the cause of action decides to no longer litigate the case, particularly where the other party isn't objecting to the dismissal. Think of a divorce case: a party files for divorce, then changes their mind and wants the case dismissed. Should the court tell that party "no" to the dismissal and insist that the divorce case proceed? It is similar in criminal cases (as well as nearly every other case type). Once a prosecutor makes a motion to dismiss, the court will respect that request.”
“As far as authenticating a birth certificate goes, the only time the court would wade into that is if the authenticity were being litigated by the parties (with one party advocating it was legitimate and another questioning that position) or if there were a statutory obligation for the court to make a review (like in the case of an adoption or guardianship, which are often unopposed, so the court plays a greater role in determining the sufficiency of the evidence).”
Kent Morgan is the former assistant chief of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office. He reviewed the materials and documentation in this case. For lack of a better word, he called the birth certificate issue an “underworld phenomenon.” He said foreign birth certificates like the one Buk presented should be investigated by law enforcement authorities, but admitted positively vetting this birth certificate and others is virtually impossible. “The idea that it could be fabricated at the will of some individual is pretty clear when you’re talking about third world countries,” Morgan said.
There’s a 26-step security screening process for refugees toward a path to arrival in the United States. According to Utah Workforce Services, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees conducts interviews and identifies and determines who among migrants fleeing violent situations qualify as a refugee. Applicants then register and UNHCR collects identifying information and documents such as name, date of birth and place of birth and biometrics which is usually an iris scan. Security screenings are conducted through the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of State, Department of Defense, National Counterterrorism Center, FBI and CIA.
Becky Wickstrom with the Utah Department of Workforce Services, Refugee Services Office said, “Refugees arrive with their federal documentation and, to obtain state identification, present the appropriate documents to the DMV and the social security office. The federal documentation includes a birthdate.” Wickstrom would not discuss specifics about the Buk case but provided the information for this report that confirms refugees arrive with federal documents in hand including a birthdate. To that end, criminal defense attorney Lance Talakai would use that in an attempt to argue for dismissal in four criminal cases against Buk.
The usage of that purported birth certificate from South Sudan didn’t end there. Attorney Lance Talakai with the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association represented Buk after the burglary case was dismissed. Talakai is currently one of three attorneys representing Buk in the murder case. On Nov. 20, 2019, Talakai brought up the Sudanese birth certificate and maintained that Buk is a juvenile because the government assigned him a birthdate that was not his. Court records show plenty of information about Buk’s arrival in Utah and who obtained that document but not specifically when. Talakai filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction in four separate criminal cases against Buk which included aggravated robbery, robbery, obstruction of justice, several charges of false personal information with intent to be another person and theft.
In each case, Talakai used the South Sudan birth certificate Buk presented, published articles about default birthdates for refugees easily found on Google searches which reflect a 1/1 and a given year as exhibits to make his argument. Ultimately, he withdrew his motion in one of the cases because they had reached a plea deal and by that time Buk was 18-years old.
Repeated emails to Talakai have gone unanswered and calls have not been returned. We asked Talakai why he used a document that was not vetted during the federal screening process when Buk achieved refugee status but have been unable to get a response.
We also contacted the Department of Homeland Security for answers about this case. We asked Public Affairs Officer, Maria Elena Upson if Buk was given a default birthdate of 1/1/1999 and what the protocol is when a refugee comes across a birth certificate after they’ve already been vetted and granted refugee status in the United States. After months searching for answers, Claire Nicholson, Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services/Department of Homeland Security sent us this email:
Due to privacy protections, USCIS does not comment on individual cases. For information about the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, we suggest that you reach out to the Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at PRMpress@state.gov. The Department of State administers the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and collects biographic and biometric information ahead of USCIS interaction with an refugee applicant. You can review the USRAP screening and vetting process here: https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-and-asylum/refugees/refugee-processing-and-security-screening. As that page notes:
USRAP screening includes both biometric and biographic checks, which occur at multiple stages throughout the process, including immediately after the preliminary Resettlement Support Center (RSC) interview, before a refugee’s departure to the United States, and on arrival in the U.S. at a port of entry. The screening of refugee applicants involves numerous biographic checks that are initiated by the RSCs and are reviewed and resolved by U.S. government agencies.