Abandoned wreckage of two Jeeps near Crystal irks Forest Service | VailDaily.com

Abandoned wreckage of two Jeeps near Crystal irks Forest Service

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

ASPEN — Patience is wearing thin at the U.S. Forest Service with owners of two vehicles that rolled into a pristine stretch of the Crystal River headwaters July 2 and haven't been removed.

The incident occurred after one Jeep was attempting to secure and tow another Jeep out of a precarious position, authorities said. Both vehicles ended up tumbling about 130 feet down to the water on what's known as the Lead King Loop.

The vehicles ended up in the North Fork of the Crystal River approximately 1.5 mile north or upstream of the town of Crystal on Forest Road 315.

Gunnison County Sheriff Rick Besecker said a deputy investigated the incident, but the department determined after consulting with the Colorado State Patrol that there was no traffic accident. Since no ticket was issued to either driver, Besecker didn't release their names. He said they were "brothers from the Denver area."

Pulled over the edge

The Sheriff's Office was alerted July 5 that two vehicles with "several" young adults who had allegedly been drinking heavily were involved in the incident, Besecker said.

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The deputy was able to reach the owners July 6. His report said he was told the vehicles were traveling on the rain slickened four-wheel-drive road late in the afternoon and into the evening. They came across another vehicle that was disabled and partially blocking the road. The driver of one of the Jeeps attempted to squeeze around the disabled vehicle but the left rear tire slid off the road.

A come-along tool was attached from the secure Jeep to the one hanging over the edge of the embankment in an effort to pull it to safety. During the maneuvering, the other rear tire slipped off the road, according to the report.

The parties employed a tow strap in addition to the come-along tool to try to pull the vehicle back onto the road but the effort was in vain. The vehicle in the precarious position toppled over the edge of the roadway and pulled the other Jeep in after it, the report said.

'Moderate' injuries and environmental damage

No one was in the vehicle that had partially slid off the road, the report said. The driver remained in the vehicle that was attempting to pull the other Jeep to safety. He "took a ride" down the slope, Besecker said. The man told the investigating deputy that he suffered "moderate" injuries to his knee and back.

The drivers told the deputy they weren't sure who to report the incident to so they didn't report it at all, according to Besecker.

The Gunnison County Sheriff's Office shared the results of its investigation with the White River National Forest.

"We're having trouble reaching the individuals, so we need them to contact us," said Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer. "We're committed to holding the vehicle owners responsible for removing the vehicles."

Given that no one was seriously injured, the primary concern is over various contaminants leaching into the water, Schroyer said.

"It didn't appear in either case that the gas tanks were ruptured," said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. However, oil, transmission fluid, battery acid and a variety of other liquids probably did or could get into the river, he said.

Fitzwilliams said he doesn't want to spend the limited funds of the White River National Forest on towing private vehicles that are abandoned.

"I hope they take responsibility," he said.

Riverbank strewn with trash

Christopher Mandrick, a law enforcement officer with the Forest Service, said he went to the site and waded into the river to see if he could retrieve information about the owners or insurance providers. He wasn't able to find any information in the Jeep that came to rest upright on its tires. The other vehicle was on its side and unstable in the swift flowing water, he said.

In addition to the two wrecked vehicles, the path of the rolling vehicles was strewn with beer cans, a bike rack and personal items, he said.

A part-time resident of Crystal provided The Aspen Times with pictures of the site. They were taken the day after the accident, but the site hasn't changed since then, the resident said.

Mandrick, who handles law enforcement issues in four ranger districts, said he hasn't been able to track down the drivers yet because of other pressing law enforcement issues. He was surprised the vehicle owners didn't take the initiative to contact the Forest Service with a plan to remove the wreckage now that it's been longer than three weeks.

"It's unfortunate that these guys haven't taken responsibility for their actions," he said. "It appears to be personal property abandoned in the forest."

The driver of a vehicle that slipped off the road on the approach to Montezuma Basin, southwest of Aspen, took responsibility for his actions and worked with his insurance carrier to arrange for the vehicle to be removed, Mandrick noted.

When asked if the White River National Forest would pursue charges against the parties in this latest incident if they didn't come forward, Mandrick said the first priority is to get the wreckage removed. No one wants to see the junked vehicles become a permanent part of the landscape, he said.

Mandrick noted that the Jeeps, a 1999 Cherokee and a 2000 Grand Cherokee, had street tires and weren't modified for backcountry travel. "That's rather advanced four-wheel-drive terrain," he said of the Lead King Loop.

It will likely require a "large dozer with a winch" to tow the vehicles up the bank or they will have to cut up the vehicles and remove them in pieces, Mandrick said.

scondon@aspentimes.com