The recent arrest of Robert Mears for allegedly attacking a ranger while under the influence of LSD isn't an everyday occurrence at Rocky Mountain National Park. But officials confirm that drug-related incidents in general have been on the rise at RMNP, the fourth-most-visited national park in the country.
"There's been an increase in violations related to drug use," says Mark Pita, the park's chief ranger. "Things like driving under the influence not just of alcohol, but of marijuana in some cases, as well. Marijuana possession has gone up dramatically, and we've definitely had an increase of problems in general. We haven't been overtaken by it, but it's another thing we have to deal with."
Use of hallucinogens or cannabis by hikers on state and federal lands in Colorado isn't a new phenomenon. In May 2013, for example, a CU Boulder student's Chautauqua Park rescue after a mushroom-fueled strip tease went national. In October 2014, a man barely survived a Flatirons fall while on a psychoactive substance. And that's not to mention a controversial August 2014 outing to summit Mt. Bierstadt, a class 2 fourteener, that was promoted on Reddit as a "hash hike."
Even so, the Mears matter still stands out thanks to the bizarre events outlined in a criminal complaint accessible below.
At around 7:35 p.m. on Sunday, September 10, according to the document, Ranger Jim Caretti responded to a call about a vehicle partially blocking the roadway on Highway 34 between the Onahu and Green Mountain trailheads at the park. The person who alerted authorities to the situation said a man inside the ride was having "some type of episode."
Upon his arrival, the complaint's narrative continues, Caretti found Mears sitting in the passenger side of the vehicle cursing and screaming while pounding the windshield and the passenger-side front window with his fists.
Caretti had just radioed for an ambulance when Mears exited the vehicle and began running down the middle of Highway 34, flailing his arms and yelling. Then he abruptly stopped after fifty yards or so and pivoted toward Caretti. "I'll kill you, motherfucker," he's quoted as saying.
This line prompted Caretti to draw his Taser, but it didn't fire properly. So when Mears came within arm's length, holding his fists in a fighting stance, the ranger took an old-fashioned approach: He punched Mears in the face, then struck him with his baton across the leg, the report notes.
What followed is described as something of a wrestling match, with Caretti trying to cuff Mears as the man kicked and spit at him. It took help from another ranger to finally get him loaded into an RMNP vehicle and, later, an ambulance that transported him to a medical facility in nearby Grand Lake.
As for why Mears freaked out, that information was provided by his companion, who was located a short time later. The unnamed man said the two of them had been hiking along the Colorado River Trail when Mears told him that he'd taken LSD. During the drive that followed their jaunt, Mears is said to have started hitting the driver in the shoulder — and after calming down for a few minutes, he began pummeling his pal again before putting him in a chokehold while they were still moving. After the driver stopped the vehicle, the grappling moved to the back seat and got so out of control that he finally spritzed Mears with some pepper spray from his backpack, jumped outside and flagged down a passing motorist for help.
Mears was held on suspicion of assaulting, resisting or impeding a federal officer, and the filing of the case in United States District Court is important. As pointed out by Rocky Mountain National Park public-information officer Kyle Patterson, who provided details about the tragic RMNP climbing death of Henry Gholz on September 30, "We're exclusively under federal jurisdiction at Rocky."
As such, possession of marijuana at RMNP remains a crime even in Colorado, where limited recreational sales and possession became legal in January 2014. Chief Ranger Pita believes this distinction should be pretty well understood by Coloradans, but "perhaps there might be a little more ignorance of that from out-of-state people, maybe not knowing the nuances of that." But in general, he goes on, "there are a lot of restrictions on marijuana even outside of federal property, like at airports. And people need to know what those are."
Adds Patterson: "It's hard to know how many people don't know the rules and how many people don't care. It's hard to quantify which is which."
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Whatever the case, law enforcers at the park are dealing with marijuana as both a primary offense — such as smoking it at a campground around other people, which would likely violate public-consumption laws on non-federal property, too — or in association with other actions. For example, Patterson says, "there might be a situation where people are illegally camping or have illegal campfires, and they're also in possession of marijuana." She's not suggesting that most illegal campers also have marijuana with them, she stresses: "It's just that these things can vary greatly. They cross all gamuts."
Other drug use has resulted in what Pita describes as "behavioral emergencies, where people put themselves into jeopardy and where rangers have had to intervene and, I think ultimately, save their lives. These are things that have taken place for decades, but the more extreme situations have been happening with a bit more frequency than they used to."
One reason for that could be sheer volume. "We've seen a 40 percent increase in visitation in the last four years," Patterson says. "Most of those people are loving their national park, just enjoying it. But a percentage of society is going to bring some of their habits and issues with them, whether it's pertaining to domestic violence in a campground or controlled-substance use."
Patterson outlined some of these problematic behaviors in our August 2016 post headlined "Parking Lot Rage, Human Waste & Other Issues at Rocky Mountain National Park" — but Mears appears to have written a new chapter. Click to view the Robert Mears criminal complaint.