Eric's Law Author: We Care More About Saving Dogs Than Letting People Die

A Facebook photo of the late Eric Ashby.
A Facebook photo of the late Eric Ashby. Facebook
Late last month, as we've reported, the Fremont County coroner's office identified human remains found on the Arkansas River in July 2017 as Eric Ashby, a rafter who vanished while searching for New Mexico author Forrest Fenn's $2 million treasure the previous month. Ashby is the namesake of Eric's Law, a piece of legislation that would require individuals to tell authorities when they witness someone in life-threatening situations, as four people believed to have been with Ashby at the time he went missing apparently didn't do. But while bill sponsor Representative Jim Wilson, whose district includes Fremont County, sees the need for such a law as obvious, he acknowledges that the idea has received some serious pushback despite the tragic circumstances of Ashby's death.

"It's certainly prompting a lot of conversation," Wilson says of the legislation, which is formally known as HB18-1059; it's accessible below. "There are people who love it and people who hate it."

Among those who pushed most energetically to bring Ashby's disappearance to the public's attention last year was Colorado Springs' Dave Gambrell, who expressed frustration with the investigation into Ashby's disappearance by the Fremont County Sheriff's Office for a July 25, 2017, post that revealed the tie to a search for Fenn's hidden riches. Moreover, Gambrell believed the four people who were thought to have been with Ashby when he vanished on June 28 were guilty of "gross negligence" for not telling authorities about what happened for more than a week.

Allison Bennett, a friend of Ashby's when he was living in Tennessee, felt the same way and began energetically advocating for an Eric's Law in her state by way of a petition. To date, Bennett's proposal has attracted just shy of 5,000 signatures. However, a Colorado version of the petition promoted by Salida's Misty Morris proved much more popular, zooming past 60,000 signatures on

click to enlarge
Jim Wilson represents Colorado District 60, which includes Fremont County.
Turns out Morris is a friend of Wilson's daughter, and after she pitched him on the concept, the two of them began working together to shape a bill.

As Wilson points out, "Colorado already has a good Samaritan law," which states that "any person licensed as a physician and surgeon under the laws of the state of Colorado, or any other person, who in good faith renders emergency care or emergency assistance to a person not presently his patient without compensation at the place of an emergency or accident, including a health care institution...shall not be liable for any civil damages for acts or omissions made in good faith as a result of the rendering of such emergency care or emergency assistance during the emergency, unless the acts or omissions were grossly negligent or willful and wanton."

However, Wilson continues, "it seems to me that in our society nationwide, there's this fascination with watching what's happening and not doing something about it. Whether you're talking about a young man in Florida who drowned while teens were taunting him and taking video or someone like Eric, who was obviously in difficulty but nobody with him thought to report it, I think it's time to stop worrying so much about litigation if we get involved. To put it simply, we need to have some laws that protect people at least as much as we protect pets. It seems we're passing more and more laws to protect animals, but we're ignoring the human side."

He adds: "As a conservative Republican, I hate to feel like we need to pass a law to get people to do the right thing. But by the same token, I think we're not doing the right things as human beings" in cases like Ashby's.

Another Facebook photo of Eric Ashby.
As a result, Wilson authored HB18-1059, whose summary describes it like so: "The bill establishes a crime if a person knows or should know that another person is in need of emergency assistance and fails to call 911 or use another means to summon assistance." The penalty for failing to contact police, the fire department or an ambulance to help someone in need of emergency assistance who survives is a Class 1 misdemeanor, and a Class 6 felony should the individual perish.

The measure quickly garnered support from an organization representing emergency medical technicians in the state, Wilson says — "but some of the attorneys don't like it because they get caught up in all the legalese. They say this is going to be hard to prosecute, and I've also heard the excuse that the bill will make people even more afraid to get involved — and those are the people we depend on as witnesses in these cases."

After digesting this criticism, Wilson asked that the bill "be delayed for a couple of weeks, so we can hear a little more information. ... We've been talking about using the term 'immediate threat' instead of just 'threat.' To me, it's very difficult to look someone in the eye and say, 'I don't think it's the right thing to require someone to report that your child is floating down the river,' especially if they're not floating so well. But we're trying to do some wordsmithing to make the language a little more palatable."

What's most important to Wilson is that "we start moving in the right direction. We can't become so uninvolved to where people can be raped and no one does anything but record it, or they can die or get stabbed and the people feel like, 'I just don't want to get involved.' With Eric, there was no crime, but if your dog suffocates in your car in the parking lot of a Walmart, you're going to be in jail. And that's just wrong."

Click to read the current version of HB18-1059, Eric's Law.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts