Wolf Creek Ski Area President and CEO Randall “Davey” Pitcher, 52, pleaded guilty to conducting work in the forest without a permit in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge David L. West in Durango Monday, Nov. 24.
The plea deal, which was announced by U.S. Attorney John Walsh and U.S. Forest Service Special Agent in Charge Laura Mark on Monday, means that four other charges against Pitcher will be dropped.
The charges relate to the March 4 avalanche near Conejos Peak and south of Platoro Reservoir, on national forest land in Conejos County, that killed ski patroller Colin Sutton.
Following Monday’s plea, Pitcher is scheduled to be sentenced by West on Dec. 16 at 9 a.m. in Durango. He faces up to six months in federal prison, a fine of up to $5,000 or both.
A Monday press release from the Department of Justice explained, “According to the stipulated facts contained in the plea agreement, on February 11th, March 3rd, and March 4th, defendant Pitcher hired a commercial helicopter service to transport himself and his Wolf Creek Ski Area employees on to the Rio Grande National Forest for the purpose of engaging in avalanche training and search and rescue training. On all three occasions, Pitcher did not have a permit to conduct such work activities nor did he have the necessary authorization of the Forest Service to conduct such work activities.”
The case was investigated by the U.S. Forest Service and prosecuted by Durango Branch Office Chief James Candelaria, the press release noted.
Pitcher previously pleaded not guilty to the five charges.
Pitcher’s attorney, Fredric Winocur, of Ridley, McGreevy and Winocur, failed to comment on the matter by presstime Tuesday.
Following his previous not guilty pleas, Pitcher stated in an email to SUN staff, “I am taking this matter very seriously, but as this is a pending issue in the federal court system, I feel obliged to refer all comments to my attorney at this time.”
According to the U.S. District Court violation notices, Pitcher was originally charged with five counts, detailed below.
• Two of the charges stem from alleged offenses in the Silver Peak area on Feb. 11.
Those charges are: Conducting work activity on national forest system land without authorization and using an explosive (a violation of a regional order).
The statement for probable cause for the first charge relates it to the March 4 incident, stating, “USDA Forest Service Special Agent Brenda Schultz and Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Lynn Wubben investigated illegal work activity that eventually resulted in a fatality near the Conejos Peak area on the Rio Grande National Forest. Prior to the fatality incident, Randall Davey PITCHER conducted a work activity without authorization on National Forest Land. Specifically, PITCHER did aid, abet, counsel, command or induce conducting a work activity near the Silver Peak Area, location on the Rio Grande National Forest.”
The documentation continues to state that Pitcher paid a commercial helicopter company to deliver on-duty Wolf Creek employees to national forest lands to conduct avalanche training with ski patrollers and avalanche K-9s.
That work, the document states, took place approximately 5 air miles outside of the permitted boundary of Wolf Creek Ski Area, and noted that Pitcher did not have authorization from the Forest Service to conduct work in the area.
According to the statement of probable cause for the second charge stemming from Feb. 11, “On or about February 11, 2014 Randall Davey PITCHER did use handheld explosives, thrown from a helicopter to trigger avalanches near Silver Peak, location on the Rio Grande National Forest. The use of the … explosives was in conjunction with the unauthorized work activity (avalanche training for employees) conducted on or about February 11, 2014. PITCHER does not possess a National Forest permit to use explosives outside the boundaries of the Wolf Creek Ski Area.”
The statements of probable cause also note that recording of some or all of Pitcher’s statements admitting the violations to Forest Service employees exist.
• Two of the charges stem from March 3: Conducting a work activity on national forest system land without authorization and using an explosive.
The charges are similar to those associated with the activity on Feb. 11, but occurred in the area of Conejos Peak, which documentation states is 15 air miles outside of the Wolf Creek boundary.
The statement of probable cause for the work activity charge alleges that Pitcher paid a commercial helicopter company to deliver a friend and on-duty employees of Wolf Creek Ski Area to national forest lands for backcountry skiing and to conduct avalanche training.
The statement of probable cause for the use of explosives states that Pitcher used handheld explosives thrown from a helicopter to trigger avalanches near North Mountain and Conejos Peak in conjunction with the illegal work activity “on or about March 3-4, 2014.”
• The fifth charge stems from March 4, the day of the fatal avalanche, and is for conducting a work activity on national forest system land without authorization.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)cited the ski area with two “serious” violations relating to the avalanche.
The two OSHA violations against Wolf Creek Ski Area each come with a proposed penalty of $7,000 and stem from the March 4 avalanche.
The violations were issued on Aug. 26.
According to OSHA documentation on the first violation, “On or about March 4, 2014 and times prior, the employer failed to ensure employees working in remote areas needing emergency assistance had a means of effective and continuous communication to their base operations or outside emergency services to readily summon assistance when needed. This violation most recently occurred when an employee was caught in an avalanche and buried in the avalanche dam while conducting field work and his co-workers were not able to make positive contact with anyone to communicate their emergency in a timely manner.”
Documentation for the second violation states, “On or about March 4, 2014 and times prior, the employer failed to ensure employee safety in the work place. An employee was exposed to avalanche hazards in that adequate avalanche mitigation and evaluation was not conducted prior to allowing the employee to access an area of the mountain that was subject to avalanche.”