Prosecutors drop bid for $168K after destructive avalanche

DENVER (AP) — Prosecutors have dropped their bid for $168,000 in damages from two snowboarders who triggered a slide that buried a service road and destroyed an expensive avalanche mitigation system in Colorado’s backcountry.

Outdoor enthusiasts and avalanche prevention specialists were closely watching the case, which stoked concerns that other skiers and snowboarders would be deterred from coming forward to report slides out of fear of costly retribution.

Tyler DeWitt, 39, of Silverthorne; and Evan Hannibal, 26, of Vail, each will instead plead guilty June 7 to a misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment, defense attorney Jason Flores-Williams said Tuesday. The snowboarders also will have to complete 20 to 60 hours of community service as part of the plea deal.

“I’m not going to go out and do a victory dance when people end up being reasonable. … When people are willing to become reasonable, then you can actually have fair outcomes that don’t damage people or have national implications,” said Flores-Williams, who called the prosecutors’ initial restitution request obscene and unjust.

Summit County District Attorney Heidi McCollum did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Hannibal’s helmet cam captured the March 25, 2020, avalanche and the tense, profanity-laced exchange that followed as a wall of snow wider than a football field barreled downhill near the Continental Divide.

The experienced backcountry snowboarders weren’t injured, but the avalanche buried a service road in about 20 feet (6 meters) of snow and came dangerously close to Interstate 70, a major route for ski traffic.

As soon as they were safe, the two men called 911 to report the slide and spent two about hours at the scene describing what happened. They also shared the video and photos with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Hannibal described the interaction as cordial, but the snowboarders were shocked a few weeks later when they received word they were being criminally charged after the footage was handed over to law enforcement.

Investigators cited Hannibal’s video in an affidavit explaining the charge. Summit County sheriff’s Deputy Brian Metzger wrote that the footage shows the snowboarders making “several comments” expressing concern about the risks.

“The pair were clearly worried about avalanche conditions but proceeded down the path anyway,” Metzger wrote. “There was also a comment made about being in trouble if the cops show up.”

A report by the avalanche center also suggested the snowboarders might have misgauged the hazard on the slope.

The slide, which was about 400 feet (122 meters) wide and ran about 1,200 vertical feet (366 vertical meters), destroyed one of six O’Bellx avalanche mitigation units in the area.

The remotely operated devices are part of a statewide system controlled by the Colorado Department of Transportation. They ignite a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen that causes an explosion aimed at safely triggering avalanches.

As Hannibal’s and DeWitt’s case moved forward, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office joined those raising concerns about the message being sent by criminal charges. The office filed a motion to quash testimony from the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center — a state agency — and one of its avalanche forecasters.

The motion, which was denied, argued the testimony could have an “unintended adverse ‘chilling’ impact” on the avalanche center’s ability to collect photographs and videos from people involved in backcountry accidents because they fear the information could be used against them.

Flores-Williams said Tuesday he hopes the case will lead to protocols by which people can freely interact with the avalanche center, which uses the information to compile daily backcountry forecasts during the winter and to warn of possibly dangerous conditions.

“It was always our hope that at the end of all of this that the Colorado Avalanche Information Center remains that neutral, positive state agency that it is meant to be,” he said. “It was really unfortunate that they were brought in the way they were, but at the same time they need to be given real credit for bringing in the attorney general. And the attorney general needs to be given real credit for coming in and trying to keep them from becoming a partial state agency.”

Hannibal said that even though he won’t be on the hook to pay restitution, the mere filing of charges is enough to prevent people from reporting avalanches.

“That’s kind of inevitable,” he said. “But I do think that CAIC (the Colorado Avalanche Information Center) is put in a better position by coming to a plea deal here instead of being forced to testify against members of the backcountry and kind of putting them in between the state and the community.”