Investigation into 2011 skier death at Howelsen Hill failed to contact key witness
March 11, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Just three weeks after her 19-year-old son's death on the slopes of Howelsen Hill, Maureen Ryan pleaded by phone and by email for the Steamboat Springs Police Department's lead detective on the investigation to call another skier who had found himself in the area near the Alpine Slide on that same snowy March 17, 2011, evening.
But Ryan's pleas went unanswered, and former Detective Nick Bosick filed his last investigation report a couple of days later — and just before leaving on an extended vacation — concluding that Cooper Larsh's death was the result of his decision to intentionally ski into closed terrain on Howelsen Hill.
Now, two years after Larsh's death and in the midst of a wrongful death lawsuit between Ryan and the city of Steamboat Springs, the grieving mother's April 6, 2011, communication with Bosick about the existence of the second skier raises questions about the thoroughness of the police investigation and, potentially, the future course of the litigation.
Steamboat Springs' police chief acknowledged Monday he was unaware of any communication between Ryan and Bosick about another skier who made his way into the same terrain on the night Larsh died. Chief Joel Rae said his department is looking into the revelation.
City Manager Deb Hinsvark declined to comment Monday, saying she cannot discuss ongoing litigation.
The city has filed a notice to appeal a January district court ruling that rejected the city's motion to dismiss the case on grounds of governmental immunity. In her ruling, Routt County District Judge Shelley Hill determined that the circumstances at Howelsen Hill that led to Larsh's death constituted a "dangerous condition" that waives the city's claim of immunity. Judge Hill sided with Ryan and her attorneys by concluding that the area at the top of the Alpine Slide was not marked well enough, as the city claims it was.
A strange coincidence
Larsh had been skiing by himself when he was found head first in snow by the Alpine Slide about 90 minutes after his mother alerted Howelsen Hill Ski Area's ski patrol that he was missing. The subsequent investigations by both Steamboat Springs police and the Howelsen Hill ski patrol, with help from a veteran member of the Steamboat Ski Area's ski patrol, determined that Larsh had intentionally entered the closed terrain area near the Alpine Slide.
But another skier, a Wyoming attorney named Galen Woelk, has testified that he didn't duck any ropes or knowingly ski past any closed signs before he ended up in the same area where Larsh died. To the contrary, Woelk said he thought he correctly skied through an access gate leading to the terrain in question.
In a bizarre coincidence, Woelk knew Ryan and her husband, Mark Squillace, from his days at the University of Wyoming's law school, where Ryan and Squillace were professors. Woelk read about Larsh's death in the Steamboat Today the morning after the accident, but it wasn't until reading Larsh's obituary in the Laramie Boomerang newspaper a few days later that he realized the connection.
Eight days after Larsh's death, Woelk sent an email to Squillace offering his condolences and informing him that he too had been skiing Howelsen Hill that March 17, 2011, evening and that he'd be willing to talk about his experience with Larsh's family when the time was appropriate.
About two weeks after that, in emails obtained last week by the Steamboat Today, Ryan urged Bosick on April 6, 2011, to call Woelk and discuss his experience on Howelsen Hill that night. She had made the same request to Bosick by telephone earlier that same day.
"Galen Woelk is the person I told you about that had an experience in the same area in which Cooper died on the same day," Ryan wrote in an email to Bosick. She also included Woelk's phone number and a link to Larsh's obituary in the Boulder Daily Camera.
Bosick emailed back less than 20 minutes later, telling Ryan that "Cooper was indeed a remarkable young man" and to keep her "chin up!" because Larsh is "an Angel looking down upon you this very moment and for all days to come!"
Ryan responded 35 minutes later: "Thank you so much. All I ask is that you work hard to make sure it isn't easy for people to wander into the area in which you found Cooper without understanding what they are getting into. Please contact Galen (Woelk) before you go away on your trip."
"I can do that!!!" Bosick wrote back an hour later.
Bosick had previously told Ryan he was leaving town for about four weeks, beginning that weekend. He filed a supplemental investigation report a day or two after his April 6 communication with Ryan, but it never mentioned anything about Woelk. Instead, it concluded: "In summary, Cooper Larsh's death was the result of a single skier accident after he intentionally entered a restricted/closed area and upon experiencing a double heel boot release after skiing off an elevated snow covered wall, he was thrown head first into extremely deep snow where he ultimately succumbed due to positional asphyxia."
On Monday, Chief Rae said neither he nor Deputy Chief Bob DelValle, who was Bosick's supervisor at the time, knew about the emails or Woelk.
"I was unaware of any communication between Maureen Ryan and Nick Bosick specific to Galen Woelk," Rae said Monday. "I just learned about it within the last two days, and we're looking into it."
Woelk also confirmed Monday that he was never contacted by police during the investigation.
Bosick resigned from the police department in the summer of 2012 and moved from the area. However, he returned a short time later and was hired on as a patrol officer.
Bosick could not be reached for comment Monday.
Open or closed?
In a sworn affidavit filed in Routt County District Court, Woelk said it was snowing heavily on March 17, 2011. He and his friend — both of whom have years of experience on expert terrain ranging from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to the backcountry of Colorado and Wyoming — entered the area of Howelsen Hill where Larsh later was found, and he said they didn't have to duck any ropes to get there.
"I recall a closed sign and rope in the vicinity and lower down the slope, but specifically made sure that my point of entrance above that rope was not prohibited or prevented by a rope or closure sign," Woelk said in his affidavit.
"In fact, there was a rope line on our left as we came to the area, and its end point appeared to create a gate to the terrain and slope we sought access to. My presumption, from years of experience at ski areas, was that my entry point was permissible, since there was a gap that offered an access point to the slope."
Woelk and his friend traversed through the apparent gate and quickly encountered a large retaining wall. He said he went up and around the wall and arrived at an area near the top of a chairlift deck.
"Looking directly down the slope from on top of the chairlift deck, I observed a track in the snow from a previous skier. I made several turns downslope in the same vicinity of the prior skier's track," Woelk testified in the affidavit.
However, Woelk and his friend soon discovered the snow to be "hollow" and "rotten," and because they were in unfamiliar terrain in the dark, they skied out of the area by ducking a rope to re-enter a trail adjacent to Howelsen's Poma lift. He said he later asked a ski patroller about the area he had just skied and was told that he couldn't ski in that area. The ski patrol's own investigation of Larsh's death briefly mentions a couple of skiers who had asked that day about skiing "off piste." No other mention of them is made.
Woelk testified in Routt County District Court during the January hearings. Judge Hill sided with the city that a second set of ski tracks that were right next to the ones left by Larsh on his fatal trip down the mountain could not have been Woelk's. But Hill's ruling left no doubt that Woelk and his friend skied into the upper closure area near the Alpine Slide that day.
At the heart of Ryan's case is the argument that any reasonable skier could have reached the Alpine Slide area and assumed it was open ski terrain. Further, she argues that the lack of signs or ropes showed a failure on the city’s part to properly close the area per the Colorado Ski Safety Act.
The city maintains that the small stretch of closed area where Larsh allegedly entered the Alpine Slide terrain might not have been roped off, but that multiple structures and snow piles obstructed much of it. Additionally, skiers would have to sidestep or hike uphill to access the upper closure area. The city also says that in the 11-year period from the time the Alpine Slide was constructed to the time of Larsh's death, it is aware of only one skier ever having entered the area, and no injuries resulting from that instance.
Ryan has said her lawsuit is about justice for her only child and the safety of other skiers. Because of the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, the city is potentially liable for monetary damages of only $150,000. Ryan testified before state lawmakers last month in favor of a bill that would increase the damages cap for lawsuits against governmental entities.
"Some people wonder why I even sued, given the fact that pursuing a cause of action will likely cost more than the damages cap," Ryan told lawmakers. "First, I realized that this was the only way I would find out the truth about Cooper's death. Second, I thought the case was important for the safety of other skiers. And finally, even though Cooper is dead, I still owe him a duty as his mother to seek justice for what happened to him."