The San Juan County sheriff said Wednesday he won’t file charges against the pilot of a drone that may have spooked a horse at Saturday’s skijoring competition in Silverton, causing the horse to run into a crowd and injure three spectators.
Sheriff Bruce Conrad said he reviewed the incident with the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and concluded the pilot’s actions don’t meet the criteria for criminal charges – at least not on a local or state level. Conrad said he will notify the Federal Aviation Administration of the incident so it can investigate and decide whether to pursue federal charges.
The pilot was identified as Durango resident Matt Crossett, who was working with Fastforward Media, LLC, a video production company in Durango, at the time of the incident.
Crossett did not return a phone call Wednesday seeking comment.
The incident occurred about 1:15 p.m. at the starting line of Silverton’s 8th annual Skijoring Race, a popular winter sport in this mountain town 50 miles north of Durango. Skiers hold onto a rope as a galloping horse pulls them through a series of gates and jumps. It takes about 20 seconds to travel the four blocks.
The drone, which sounded like a swarm of bees, was hovering overhead when rider Savannah McCarthy, 17, of Aztec, approached the starting line with her horse, Tank. The horse became agitated and darted to the left, where 5 to 10 spectators were gathered.
Several people scrambled to get out of the way, while others had no escape route and were knocked to the ground. A man received a scrape to the chin, a woman suffered a gash to the back of her head, and another woman suffered a hip injury that required extensive surgery, Conrad said.
Efforts to reach Savannah or her father, Tim McCarthy, were unsuccessful Wednesday. In a Facebook post, Tim McCarthy expressed condolences to those injured:
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to you. Please don’t blame the horse and rider. ... Savannah is devastated. The conditions were out of our hands. Again prayers for you and your family.”
Event organizer Pete Maisel did not return a phone call Wednesday seeking comment, and a woman who answered the phone for Silverton Skijoring declined to comment about drone use at the event or the sheriff’s decision not to file charges against the drone pilot.
The sheriff declined to name the three victims, saying he wants to check with the county attorney before releasing incident reports since no charges are being filed.
The victims’ identities and conditions were unavailable Wednesday.
Conrad reminded drone operators to obey the rules, including maintaining a line of sight with the drone, fly below 400 feet and not fly over crowds.
Crossett may have been in violation of one or more of these rules, Conrad said, but it is up to the FAA to decide.
Conrad said Crossett cooperated with the investigation, including letting Conrad view the drone footage.
He didn’t violate any local or state statutes, such as reckless endangerment, and he didn’t act intentionally or recklessly, Conrad said. He flew it over the race several times without incident, Conrad said.
“We’re just not finding any of the charges that might be criminal,” he said. “If he was 20 feet off the deck and in the horse’s face, then I think I would be charging reckless endangerment, but without that, if you read the wording of the elements of the crime, it’s just not there, and the DA agreed with me on that.”
Conrad said Crossett was not licensed and the machine wasn’t registered, which could lead to penalties with the FAA. Efforts to confirm with the FAA whether Crossett had a commercial license or registered the drone were unsuccessful Wednesday afternoon.
Conrad said Silverton Skijoring plans to make changes next year, including quarantining the starting line to protect skiers and the public, and having horses funneled through chutes near the start.
Laurie Sigillito, owner of Fastforward Media, said Crossett was gathering footage for a proposed national production featuring skijoring as a sport.
“We employed a drone to capture a birds-eye view of the action, as we have at other skijoring events this winter without incident,” she wrote in a statement to the Herald.
Data and footage from the drone indicate the drone was hovering at 86 feet above the ground at the time of the incident. Fastforward will release footage of the incident after all investigations have been completed, Sigillito said.
“Until we have had further opportunity to examine all the footage and reconstruct the steps leading up to the accident, public statements speculating that the drone was the sole cause of the accident are premature,” she wrote in her statement.
Fastforward Media, which produces a variety of video projects, including Durango TV News, will no longer use drones to tape skijoring events, she said.
Crossett is on the board of directors of Skijoring America, which seeks to promote and market the sport. According to a short biography on its website, Crossett produced and directed “Ice Cowboys,” a 2015 documentary exploring the sport of skijoring.