Last year, the Fifth Judicial District DA's Office criminally charged two snowboarders — Lakewood's Tyler DeWitt, 39, and Vail's Evan Hannibal, 26 — with triggering an avalanche that caused slabs of snow to pour onto an Interstate 70 loop road near the Eisenhower Tunnel on March 25, 2020. The punishment sought by prosecutors included payment of the $168,000 that the State of Colorado is said to have spent on the cleanup.
But the snowboarders are now off the hook for the money. On May 18, prosecutors announced that in exchange for DeWitt and Hannibal pleading guilty to reckless endangerment, a Class 3 misdemeanor, they would not seek restitution.
Attorney Jason Flores-Williams was shocked by the accusations against DeWitt and Hannibal, and offered to represent them pro bono. In response to Westword's query about the case's resolution, he sent a copy of the plea agreement in an email with the subject line "Dropped from $168,000 to $0."
Back in December, Flores-Williams was more expansive. He saw his efforts on the snowboarders' behalf as "defending the backcountry," he said. "It's not going to do anybody any good if they think, 'I'm going to the mountains, I'm going to have this incredible day,' but when they hike up to this place and something happens that's completely out of their control, a prosecutor is going to come after them for $168,000 — which would bankrupt these guys. They're not rich people."
Hannibal and DeWitt, like many nature lovers, "have a different philosophy — a respect and reverence for the mountains," he added. "They really prize responsible and ethical freedom and things that are much greater than any of us, like the mountains. So coming after them the way they are sends a very chilling message that could destroy a beautiful way of life in the Mountain West."
Flores-Williams described DeWitt and Hannibal as expert outdoorsmen who'd earned numerous certifications in snow sciences and avalanche preparedness. They'd carefully assessed the avalanche risk in the area they entered, he said, "openly discussing everything among themselves in a totally conscientious way." Then, after the avalanche took place, they "went into professional mode and called 911. The Summit County Sheriff came to them, and in the spirit of mountain culture in which this could have happened to anyone, they shared data in a full discussion with him, because that's what you do in this kind of a situation. They were above and beyond ethical. And the sheriff told them — this is all on the record — 'You guys haven't broken any laws, and we really appreciate the professional way you handled this.'"
Beyond that, DeWitt and Hannibal voluntarily provided video to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a state office that subsequently provided the footage to prosecutors — who used it against them.
The DA's office announcement about the agreement confirms that prosecutors "will not seek restitution, but will ask the Court to order both Defendants to perform community service in addition to pleading guilty." Their next court date is at 9 a.m. on June 7, when they will enter their plea and be sentenced.
In the meantime, the Colorado Avalanche Center has issued the following statement: "CAIC’s goal throughout this criminal justice proceeding was to ensure our ability to educate, interact with, and support the public regarding avalanche safety. We will continue to help people understand and avoid avalanches. We hope that everyone in Colorado has the opportunity to enjoy backcountry recreation on public lands and considers how their actions could affect other people before they go into avalanche terrain."
Click to read the DeWitt and Hannibal plea agreement.