Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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This week, the Steamboat Today reported on the Steamboat Springs Police Department’s failure to contact Galen Woelk, a key witness in the investigation of the March 17, 2011, death of Cooper Larsh. Larsh suffocated when he landed upside down in deep snow while skiing near the Alpine Slide on Howelsen Hill. On April 11, 2011, the Police Department concluded that Larsh died after he “intentionally entered a restricted/closed area.”
The finding that Larsh “intentionally” entered a closed area and the failure of the police to contact a significant witness who entered the closed area later the same day — in spite of repeated requests on April 6, 2011, by Larsh’s mother, Maureen Ryan, that the police contact Woelk — are at the heart of an internal police investigation of the Larsh case and a lawsuit that Ryan brought against the city of Steamboat Springs.
On Thursday, responding to concerns raised by the Steamboat Today about both the Larsh investigation and what steps are under way to improve investigations of this nature, Police Chief Joel Rae, who was not the police chief when Larsh died, stated:
“The Steamboat Springs Police Department did not contact Galen Woelk. The police department received clear communication from Ms. Ryan that Woelk informed her that he also skied in the same area on Howelsen Hill the same day as her son’s death. We conducted an internal investigation into this matter. The investigation sustained the concern and it is being dealt with internally.
“The police department consistently analyzes cases and incidents through lessons learned, debriefing cases, and case evaluation from internal and external sources. Changes and improvements are implemented through policy, awareness, supervisory oversight and training. We have taken a close look at this case with these considerations in mind, just as we do with every other major case.”
Rae’s acknowledgement that the police failed to contact Woelk is commendable and significant. It is commendable because Rae is forthrightly admitting to errors in the investigation. It is significant because the failure to interview Woelk led to the incorrect conclusion that Larsh “intentionally” entered a closed portion of the ski area and was unique in so doing.
In defending itself from the lawsuit brought by Larsh’s mother, the city repeatedly has argued that, “From when the alpine slide was first installed in 2000 until the accident giving rise to this case in 2011, the City was aware of only one skier entering the closed area, and no accidents ever occurred in the closed area.” But, had the police interviewed Woelk, the city would have known that on the day Larsh died, at least two other skiers — Woelk and his ski partner — entered the same closed area, believing it was an open run. Common sense dictates that if three skiers — out of only four or five members of the general public who skied that day — entered the closed area March 17, 2011, the city’s defense that only one other skier in 11 years entered that area is highly suspect.
Arguably, with the evidence the police did collect, it was impossible to conclude that Larsh intentionally entered a closed portion of the ski area. But without a doubt, had the police interviewed Woelk, not only would they have been unable to conclude that Larsh acted intentionally, they would have further examined whether the closed area was in compliance with the Ski Safety and Liability Act.
The police conclusion that Larsh acted intentionally led to a faulty portrayal in the media across the country of why Larsh died. That faulty conclusion and portrayal led Ryan to seek justice for her son. It’s why Ryan was testifying in the Colorado Legislature on Thursday about the ordeal the city is putting her through as it attempts to hide behind the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act even though the city’s potential liability is capped at $150,000.
It’s time for the city to admit that its claim that Larsh intentionally and uniquely entered a closed area is based on a badly tainted investigation.
It’s time for the city to apologize for the way it branded Larsh as being solely responsible for his own death.
It’s time for the city to provide the justice a mother is seeking for her son.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.