EDWARDS — It’s against the law for teenagers to drink, said Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy, and 26 teens learned that lesson the hard way when they were cited as police broke up a huge party north of Wolcott.
Kids from local high schools and as far away as Denver and Steamboat Springs were among approximately 150 people at an outdoor party celebrating their high school graduations. An Eagle County sheriff’s deputy counted between 60-70 cars parked along both sides of a dirt road leading up to Horse Mountain Ranch.
Hoy and Deputy Jake Best, who wrote the citations, met with almost 50 people last week to talk it over.
A few parents were upset that a minor-in-possession charge could diminish their children’s athletic eligibility and scholarship potential. A few others said the kids were just blowing off steam following their high school graduations.
But the crowd was largely supportive, and Hoy stood his ground.
“There’s an attitude in our community that this is a rite of passage, part of growing up in a mountain town. But at the core of it, it’s against the law,” Hoy said. “Some adults and parents will turn a blind eye because they think it’s OK. Frankly, it’s not OK.”
A lie for the right reason?
Hoy agreed that the officers lied when they told the kids that if they came out of the woods, they would not get an MIP.
“That was a lie,” Hoy said, “but it was worth it because it saved lives and kept kids safe.”
A few parents and some kids insisted that it violated the trust between law enforcement and the “Battle Mountain parent community.”
The kids came back in good faith after they were lied to, one father said.
“It creates an underlying current of mistrust among the parents and their kids,” he said.
One of the kids said the Sheriff’s Office would be hard pressed to rebuild that trust.
“The actions taken by deputy Best that evening were wisely proactive,” said district attorney Bruce Brown.
Hoy had his own questions.
“Parties like this don’t start when they start sending text messages around, it starts when they get alcohol,” Hoy said. “I want to know where kids got enough booze to stock a liquor store. Does anyone want to volunteer that information?”
Hoy looked at the crowd and waited. The Battle Mountain High School auditorium was silent as a tomb, although several parents raised their hands when Hoy asked if they, too, wanted to know.
“I’d rather have you get a call from your son or daughter trying to explain an MIP, than have to answer a knock on your door at 3 in the morning saying, ‘We need to have a talk,’” Hoy said. “I am proud of my officers and the work they do with kids. We will continue to do exactly what we are doing.”
The notion of “victimization” is simple refusal to take responsibility, said Remy Lovett, class president of Battle Mountain’s Class of 2013.
“If people were so concerned with the safety of future camping parties, they would recognize the reasons behind the authorities’ efforts and (if caught or written up with an MIP) accept responsibility for participating in an illegal activity,” Lovett said.
Lovett pointed out a few facts: The intoxicated kids were about 50 yards from cliffs; that they were, quite literally, playing with fire; and that the community contributed $40,000 to Project Graduation, a national program dedicated to keeping kids safe and alcohol free on graduation night. Many of the same kids who attended Project Graduation waited a day, then went drinking at this party north of Wolcott.
“I cannot believe people are upset that their children were lied to, or that they have to pay a $50 fine or that they won’t be eligible for football,” said Barb Shierkolk with the Victim Impact Panel.
Shierkolk illustrated one of the many dangers of teen drinking, telling the crowd a story about a girl who was raped by a friend on the way home from a similar party.
What happened that night
Eagle County Sheriff’s Deputy Jake Best was patrolling Highway 131 north of Wolcott late at night on May 26, Memorial Day weekend.
He said he spotted several impaired drivers. Then the pattern changed, and he started seeing younger kids in the vicinity of Horse Mountain Ranch.
“We stopped some of them to warn them that if they were going to an underage party, there would be law enforcement involved,” Best said. “They kept saying there was no such party.”
It all hit the fan when Best stopped a guy who had an outstanding warrant for a sex offense. Best decided to investigate, along with a trooper from the Colorado State Patrol and an officer from the Bureau of Land Management.
They soon saw huge campfires and lots of cars with their headlights shining. They counted 60-70 cars parked in the area, Best said.
Best stepped out of a clearly marked Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle and walked over to the crowd. Some weren’t seeing clearly enough to recognize him as a law enforcement officer, even though he had driven up in a police car and was standing there in his full uniform.
It didn’t take them long to figure it out, and when they did kids scattered in every direction.
“It was like cockroaches when you hit the lights,” Best said.
He ordered them to stop, as did a Colorado State Trooper and Bureau of Land Management officer.
One kid drove off across the sagebrush hillside and high-centered his truck. He fled on foot, running away from the BLM officer. Eluding a federal officer will cost him at least $1,000 in fines, Hoy said.
Another kid wrapped a chain around a tree, hooked it to his truck and yanked it out of the ground so he and his buddies could drag it into the fire and burn it. His fine is $500.
“We live in a semi-arid environment and are in a drought. They had three bonfires and one kid was going to drag a pinyon tree into the fire,” Hoy said. “It could have been a catastrophe.”
Since 2011, the Sheriff’s Office has issued summonses to 287 kids for minor in possession.
“That’s 287 potential lives they saved, who did not get into an accident,” Hoy said.
There’s a $250 fine for the first offense, $500 for the second, and jail and fines for the third offense.
Members of the District Attorney’s Office mostly listened during Friday’s exchange, and will decide how these kids should be handled in court, said District Attorney Bruce Brown.
Prosecutors won’t be punitive, but there is a price to be paid, Brown said.
The cited kids must go to court, think for an extended period about their actions and consequence, and possibly attend a program on the ills of drinking.
“The option of looking the other way, without citing and requiring some education aimed at correcting behavior that leads to bigger problems, is not viable,” Brown said
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There’s an attitude in our community that this is a rite of passage, part of growing up in a mountain town. But at the core of it, it’s against the law.”
Eagle County Sheriff