Clear Creek coroner: Loveland Ski Area ski patrol mishandled dead skier’s body
There wasn’t much to see by the time a Clear Creek County sheriff’s deputy arrived on the scene of a skier death at Loveland Ski Area on the morning of March 24.
Earlier that day, however, snowboarder Mary Radke witnessed a sight that shook her to the core.
Radke was one of the first to come upon the body of 35-year-old Cole Barker, of Silver Plume, near the bottom of a run off the Lift 8 chair. He had collided with a tree, which appeared to have broken his neck, she said. Radke also said ski patrol arrived about 10 minutes later, which contradicts the account of a speedy response offered in a Loveland news release. By then, it was too late for any life-saving measures for Barker, who according to his father, was a part-time snowcat operator at Loveland.
At 10:38 a.m., ski patrol called the sheriff’s office. At 10:54 a.m., a ski patroller pronounced Barker dead. Then — before investigators had arrived on the scene and without even closing down the run — ski patrollers shuttled Barker’s body down the hill and began cleaning up the gruesome scene.
“They started dragging him away, and began taking snow and throwing it on the trees to cover up the blood,” said Radke, who lives in Denver. “It was just really crazy. It was like it never happened 20 minutes later.”
Colorado law prohibits moving a dead body from the scene of the accident without the authority of the coroner. But when the deputy arrived, the area had been cleared of evidence that significantly contributes to a death investigation. That’s according to Clear Creek County Coroner Chris Hegmann.
“There wasn’t much of a scene by the time we got there,” explained Hegmann, who was disturbed that the body had not been kept at the site of the accident. “The body is not supposed to be moved. It is in the statute.”
Hegmann, who served as deputy coroner for 15 years before taking the top spot in January, said he’s never before experienced such a spoiled environment for a death investigation. Rather than preserving the scene and analyzing all potential factors that led to the death, he and the sheriff’s office were then forced to rely on photographs and information from ski patrol, which conducts its own separate investigation.
“It’s the first time it’s happened,” he said. “I’ll definitely be discussing protocols with their ski patrol director.”
A spokesman for the sheriff’s office also stated he was unclear on why ski patrol had relocated Barker’s remains to another location.
“I don’t know why,” said Clear Creek sheriff’s deputy Paul Osckel, acknowledging the importance of leaving a scene untouched in the course of an investigation. “Maybe it was a safety issue. Ski patrol would have to offer more insight into why they felt the need to move the body.”
Barker’s wife, Allison, was notified Friday morning that her husband had been in a bad skiing accident and to get to the ski area. Barker’s father, Ron Barker, said he’s yet to receive a call from Loveland Ski Area beyond an initial discussion with a ski patroller the day of the incident.
“I called the ski patrol and whomever I talked to, they said, ‘Well, we don’t know of any accidents that have taken place on the mountain,’” said the Mount Vernon, Texas, resident. “Of course they did. Later when I talked to the coroner, he was really upset. He was thinking, ‘This isn’t right.’”
Contacted by the Daily, a Loveland representative would neither confirm nor deny the ski patrol’s treatment of Barker’s body, or its final resting place.
“We are fully cooperating with the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office and their investigation,” spokesman John Sellers wrote by email. “Our sympathies go out to the family and friends of the young man.”
When a person suffers a critical ski-related injury at a resort, it is permissible and common practice for ski patrol to transport the individual down to higher-level medical care at the base. However, moving the body once the person has been pronounced dead is forbidden under law without direction from the coroner.
Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown, who oversees Clear Creek, Summit and three other counties, was still in the process of sifting through the facts Wednesday evening. He said the sheriff’s office had reached out to a deputy from his office and that there is an open investigation into the incident. The results of an autopsy are due Thursday.
“I know Cole was a perfect skier and had a helmet on,” said Ron Barker, who was in the midst of writing his son’s eulogy. “He was a mountain man. And he was a good kid, a damn good kid.”