Justin Burns's Alleged Killer, Guy Pohto, Charged, Sued Over Tragic Hunting Death

Update: Last month, we told you about the tragic death of Justin Burns, a fourteen-year-old from Palisade killed during a hunting trip on Colorado's Grand Mesa with his father; see our previous coverage below.

In the weeks that followed, the person who killed Burns — Guy Pohto, a 59-year-old from Minnesota — was charged with reckless manslaughter and carelessly hunting wildlife.

Pohto appeared at a Grand Junction court hearing in the case yesterday, where he faced more than just the criminal accusations filed against him.

Upon his arrival, he was also served with a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Burns's heartbroken parents.

Burns's online obituary provides a loving portrait of a teen gone far too soon and reveals a previous tragedy involving his sister. It reads in part:
Justin was an avid outdoorsman who loved nothing more than spending his time in the mountains with nature and his family. He loved hunting, hiking, camping, fishing, and 4-wheeling. He took pride in being a good hunter and marksman and was diligent about safety and protocol.

Those who personally knew Justin knew he had a shy and quiet demeanor, but everyone who came in contact with him were forever touched by his compassion and loyalty. Justin's smile lit up the room, and he included everyone in his circle of friends. To know Justin was to feel acceptance. He loved deeply and completely. His family, God, and friends were always his priority. When recently asked if he is always trying to get away from his siblings, he became very serious and said, "No, I could not live without them". He cherished his brother and sister above all.

Throughout his youth Justin participated in many activities including soccer, basketball, and baseball. When he entered middle school he found his true calling in music. He gravitated to the tuba and bass guitar, and set out to perfect his craft. He became in band, what he was in life, the pulse that quietly led others in the right direction. This summer Justin got the opportunity to become part of the Palisade High School marching band. He immediately found a home as a "souse" in the sousaphone section. He conquered the challenge of hauling that 30-pound sousaphone around. He was proud to be part of that group and was looking forward with great excitement to their first competition next week. Justin was enjoying the high school life with good friends, enriching activities, and lots of studying as he was even enjoying the classes he took. Life was good!

Justin is survived by his parents, Cory and Karla Burns of Palisade; his brother and sister, Teagan and Lilliana; grandparents, Jeff and JoAnn Carpenter of Palisade, and Larry and MaryAnn Burns of Lake City; three aunts, Kristin Carpenter and Kelsey Carpenter, both of Palisade, and Katie (Matt) Himes of Mesa, CO; many uncles, aunts, and cousins; his family in the band; and all of his friends. Justin is preceded in death by his beloved sister, Hannah Rose, whom he will forever hold as they both live in our hearts. 
The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel portrays Pohto (who was cited for driving after revocation earlier this year) as being confused by the proceedings. But the lawsuit filed against him is very straight-forward.

The document accuses him of  “pointing his firearm toward plaintiffs’ minor son and discharging it without exercising reasonable care to correctly identify the target," adding that  “Defendant’s conduct in causing the death of Plaintiffs’ son was so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, that a reasonable member of the community would regard the conduct as atrocious, going beyond all possible bounds of decency and utterly intolerable in a civilized community."

Continue for our previous coverage.

Original post, 9:30 a.m. September 15: In recent days, we celebrated the eight best bike trails in Colorado's national forests as chosen by USDA Forest Service personnel — two of which are located on the Grand Mesa, one of the most spectacular spots in the state.

I know this from personal experience: As noted in the previous post, my family has a cabin on the Grand Mesa. We recently spent Labor Day weekend there, and during hikes, we'd occasionally hear gunfire — a reminder that hunting season was underway.

Now, a hunting-related tragedy has taken place in this bucolic location. Justin Burns, fourteen, was shot and killed while on a family hunting trip — and the Mesa County Sheriff's Office confirms that the incident is being investigated as a homicide.

This decision doesn't necessarily mean that criminal activity was involved. As an MCSO release points out, homicide simply means that "the death of a person was caused by the action of another." An investigation will determine if negligence played a part in what happened, or if it was simply a terrible, unavoidable accident.

At around 8:30 a.m. Sunday, September 13, according to the sheriff's office, the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center, which handles emergency dispatch in the area, received a call about a possible hunter shot near the Big Creek campground, located near Big Creek Reservoir; the closest communities are Paonia and Delta.

MCSO deputies responded to the scene, as did the Collbran marshall and personnel from the Plateau Valley Fire Department. There, they found a teenager subsequently identified as Burns. The Mesa County coroner's office concluded that he died from a gunshot wound to the chest.

Yesterday, in a followup report, the MCSO revealed that Burns had been bow-hunting with his father when he was shot.

The office notes that the "suspected shooter" has been identified by investigators and adds that "it is currently archery and muzzleloader season for various big game, and bear rifle season in many areas across the state."

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reveals that the shooter is not a local resident and isn't related to Burns, who was a freshman at Palisade High School; Palisade is a community not far from Grand Junction.

Burns is described as an athlete with an interest in music. He played bass guitar, as well as marching tuba or sousaphone with the school's band. Members of that ensemble and the student body as a whole are said to have been shocked by his death — and understandably so.

In the meantime, the investigation is ongoing.

Our sincere condolences to the friends, family and loved ones of Justin Burns.

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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