Wolf Creek CEO sentenced in federal court

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Wolf Creek Ski Area President and CEO Randall D. “Davey” Pitcher was sentenced in federal court Tuesday afternoon after pleading guilty to conducting work in the national forest without a permit in November.

On Nov. 24, Pitcher pleaded guilty to conducting work in the national forest without a permit as part of a plea agreement in which four other charges against Pitcher were dropped.

Tuesday, Pitcher was sentenced in Durango by U.S. Magistrate Judge David L. West to five years of supervised probation, including 500 hours of community service, and was fined $5,000.

Pitcher’s community service is to be split over the five years of probation, 100 hours per year for each of the five years, with that community service to be served with the sheriff’s departments in Archuleta, Hinsdale and Mineral counties, as well as with the U.S. Forest Service.

The sentence was announced Tuesday afternoon by U.S. Attorney John Walsh and U.S. Forest Service Special Agent in Charge Laura Mark.

According to the stipulated facts contained in the plea agreement, on Feb. 11, March 3 and March 4, Pitcher hired a commercial helicopter service to transport himself and his Wolf Creek Ski Area employees onto 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, Tuesday’s press release stated.

On March 4, an avalanche near Conejos Peak and south of Platoro Reservoir (on national forest land in Conejos County) killed ski patroller Colin Sutton.

“The permitting process for those working in the Forest serves many important functions, including protecting those doing the work as well as those who may be in the area,” said Walsh. “In this instance, the defendant was engaged in avalanche mitigation and response training. That activity is inherently dangerous, thus amplifying the need for a permit. Thanks to the investigative work of the U.S. Forest Service, Mr. Pitcher was held accountable for failing to obtain the necessary authorization before conducting the activities. Such failure in this instance led to serious consequences.”

“The Forest Service takes permitting for services seriously on National Forest System lands because it is an integral part of managing for public safety and resource protection,” said Mark. “We feel that the sentence in this case adequately reflects the serious nature of this matter.”

Too, Martha Williamson, district ranger for the Divide Ranger District of the Rio Grande National Forest, commented, stating, “The permitting process is an important part of managing National Forest System lands and when people fail to engage in the permitting process they may become subject to criminal charges.”

This case was investigated by the U.S. Forest Service and prosecuted by Durango Branch Office Chief James Candelaria.

Pitcher previously pleaded not guilty to the five charges.

After the sentencing, Wolf Creek Ski Area released the following statement, which sheds additional light into the community service provision of the sentence:

“Earlier today, Federal Magistrate Judge David West sentenced Randall Davey Pitcher, President and CEO of Wolf Creek Ski Area, to pay a $5,000 fine for failure to obtain a permit from the United States Forest Service before engaging in avalanche and search-and-rescue training outside the boundary of the ski area. The training involved members of the Wolf Creek Ski Patrol, who often serve as first responders in emergency situations. At the time the training occurred, Mr. Pitcher acknowledges that it was ultimately his responsibility to obtain a formal written permit before conducting these activities in National Forest lands. The Court acknowledged the value of the public service provided by Mr. Pitcher and Wolf Creek Ski Patrol, and the need for multiple agencies to work closely together in order to effectuate backcountry rescues. In addition to the fine, the Court ordered that, going forward, any future search and rescue activities be pursuant to formalized agreements and that Mr. Pitcher continue to provide at least 100 hours per year of search and rescue training and services, as he has in years past, with Archuleta County, Mineral County and the Forest Service. The Court made these conditions of Mr. Pitcher’s probation for a period of 5 years, which may be converted to unsupervised probation once certain procedures are coordinated.  Mr. Pitcher respects the Court’s sentence, and is committed to working closely with the Forest Service and the other agencies as ordered by the Court, to ensure these services are provided to the public in the safest manner possible.”

The statement quotes Pitcher, stating, “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 WCSA’s dedicated staff and assist other agencies when called upon.”

Charges

According to the U.S. District Court violation notices, Pitcher was originally charged with five counts, detailed below.

• Two of the charges stemmed from alleged offenses in the Silver Peak area on Feb. 11.

Those charges were: 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 stemmed from March 3: Conducting a work activity on national forest system land without authorization and using an explosive.

The charges were 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 stemmed from March 4, the day of the fatal avalanche, and is for conducting a work activity on national forest system land without authorization.

OSHA citations

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.