The owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area was sentenced Tuesday to probation, a fine and community service – but no jail time – for conducting avalanche and search-and-rescue training last winter in an unauthorized area of national forest.
During the activity in February and March around Wolf Creek Pass, a ski patroller died.
U.S. Federal District Court Magistrate David West imposed stiffer punishment on Randall Davey Pitcher than requested by Assistant U.S. Attorney James Candelaria.
Candelaria recommended no probation.
The federal government was involved because Pitcher’s activities took place on U.S. Forest Service land.
Pitcher, 52, faced five charges involving conducting avalanche training for Wolf Creek ski patrollers from 5 to 15 miles outside ski area boundaries.
On March 8, ski patroller Colin Drew Sutton, 38, during training, was swept away by an avalanche near Conejos Peak about 15 miles from the ski area. He was pulled out by other patrollers and airlifted to Mercy Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Candelaria said Sutton was not a direct victim of Pitcher’s unauthorized activity. The charges involved unauthorized training. The tragedy would have occurred whether Pitcher had a permit or not, Candelaria said.
A repetition of the incident is unlikely, Candelaria said. Pitcher will carry the burden of Sutton’s death for life, he said.
Pitcher told the court he accepts responsibility for conducting training activities without a permit. He said steps have been taken to assure a sound working relationship with authorities involved in search-and-rescue.
“I understand clearly this can’t happen again,” Pitcher said during the court hearing.
In a statement issued later Tuesday, Pitcher said: “We take this very seriously and look forward to continuing this very important work with the formal approval of the appropriate agencies. I feel it’s very important to pass on what I’ve learned and to facilitate the training for (Wolf Creek Ski Area’s) dedicated staff and assist other agencies when called upon.”
Sutton’s family members declined comment when court adjourned.
West said the relationship among all parties involved in search-and-rescue is too informal. A handshake isn’t enough, West said.
“There is no question that the passing of Colin Sutton is a tragedy,” West said. “It isn’t fair that parents outlive their children.”
The case is limited to working without authorization, West said. It isn’t a civil lawsuit, a criminal prosecution or an Occupational Safety and Health Administration violation, he said.
West imposed a $5,000 fine on Pitcher, put him on five years of supervised probation and ordered him to complete 500 hours of community service involving search-and-rescue with Archuleta and Mineral counties and the Forest Service.
The community service requires 100 hours a year under supervision of the Forest Service.
West rejected the request of Pitcher’s Denver attorney, Frederic Winocur, that probation be unsupervised.
The status of supervised probation could change, West said, but he wants to make sure it is solidly in place and effective first.