In the fall of 2013, Trever Rawson had recently earned a bachelor's degree in information systems and was looking forward to starting a new job in Salt Lake City. Between the upcoming move to Utah and his impending marriage, he was the happiest family members had seen him in a long time.
Then tragedy struck. Rawson's life was taken during a reckless act that Judge Jeff Herron summed up as "one of the most stupid things I have ever seen."
Rawson, 34, was riding his motorcycle on Highway 92, en route to his parents' house in Hotchkiss, as the sun was setting on Oct. 12, 2013. At the same time, Mark Valdez, Kevin Keener and Valdez's nephew were attempting to retrieve an elk they'd shot on a hillside adjoining the highway in rural Montrose County. They attached one end of a chain to Valdez's truck and the other to the elk. Valdez drove his truck across the highway, stringing the rope across both lanes of travel about five and a half feet off the ground. Rawson struck the rope, making contact with his chest and helmet, causing a severed spinal cord and his death.
Initially, Valdez and Keener left the scene, then claimed Rawson "just crashed," and that they did not see anything. After an intensive investigation involving the Colorado State Patrol, wildlife officers and the district attorney's office, a grand jury handed down lengthy indictments against both Valdez and Keener in April 2014.
As the judicial process slowly moved forward, numerous counts were dropped and the men were allowed to enter into plea agreements, over strenuous objections from Rawson's family. Sentencing took place last week in Montrose District Court.
Joint sentencing hearings are unusual, Judge Herron noted, but meant Rawson's family members had to speak just once.
His mother, Kathy Diderecksen, said Trever's death may be the only one on record but there was another -- hers. When Trever was overdue, she and her parents went looking for him and came across the accident scene south of Crawford. She recognized the motorcycle; she recognized the helmet. She was told the "deceased" had been taken to Delta. "The word deceased was like fire in my ears," she said. No, her body did not die, but her mind, spirit and soul were taken that night. "Even saying goodbye was taken from me," she said.
Her son was "left on the side of the road like a piece of garbage." The two defendants lied from the moment the accident took place, and they did not attempt to render aid. They should not be rewarded [with light sentences] for the misery they've inflicted, she told Judge Herron.
"Trever was needed here," she said. "He had a future and loved ones who depended on him ... he was not perfect but the world has truly lost a wonderful and beautiful human being."
Harvey Didericksen referred to the "822 days lived in hell" since Trever was killed. To let Valdez and Keener plead to lesser charges ... there's no justice, he said.
Trever's two brothers, Grady and Robert, testified how the defendants' actions have crippled an entire family, including a relationship with Trever's young daughter, who now lives in Florida with her mother.
During the hearing, district attorney Dan Hotsenpiller exercised his right to present evidence from investigators with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado State Patrol.
Tammy Stroup, the chief investigator in the district attorney's office, reviewed portions of the grand jury transcript which included testimony from Valdez's nephew. Although he was only 16 years old at the time, Fidel Olivas recognized the plan to retrieve the elk was "preposterous" and defied common sense. He also told the grand jury that the night before the hunt both men had consumed beer and hard alcohol, and had been smoking marijuana, all of which they also provided to him.
Stroup also attended the autopsy performed by Dr. Michael Benziger, and relayed his findings along with Dr. Benziger's observation that Rawson's death would have been instantaneous. The cause of death: multiple traumatic injuries.
Valdez pleaded guilty to manslaughter (reckless) and transfer or alteration of a hunting/fishing license. Keener pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and willful destruction of big game wildlife.
In addressing an appropriate sentence, Hotsenpiller referred to intent and the degree of harm, first as it related to Valdez, then Keener.
Valdez, he said, consciously disregarded the risk of the plan, even after abandoning it once after a car came along. With the rope once again stretched across the highway, the sound of an approaching motorcycle could be heard. According to the grand jury indictment, Valdez saw Rawson coming. He leaned out the window and began waving his arms, trying to get Rawson to stop.
After Rawson was lifted up off his motorcycle and his body landed on the highway, Valdez told Fidel Olivas to help him unhook everything and not to say anything to anyone.
Hotsenpiller urged the judge to consider the extent, scope and duration of Valdez's reckless conduct; the involvement of the juvenile, who was exposed to horrific trauma; failure to render aid or provide humane treatment; the destruction and hiding of evidence; and the permanent and devastating repercussions for multiple victims.
Defense attorney Michael Vaughn contended Valdez cooperated with authorities from the beginning. As mitigating factors, he said Valdez recognizes the consequences of his actions, has little in the way of a criminal history, and is unlikely to find himself in a similar situation. "Mr. Valdez realizes he will spend time in the Department of Corrections, but he does not deserve the maximum punishment."
"Nothing I can say will make things better for the Rawson family," Valdez said when given an opportunity to address the family. "I think about Mr. Rawson constantly, as soon as I wake up every day, and go to bed at night. I do pray you and Mr. Rawson find peace."
For the benefit of the family and the defendants, Judge Herron voiced his thoughts as he weighed the factors in determining Valdez's sentence. Most troubling, he said, was the fact that the first attempt to pull the elk off the hill was abandoned when a car came by. That should have been fair warning they were engaging in a dangerous activity, the judge said. Also "galling" was that Valdez chose to lie about the accident. "It took a 16-year-old to tell the truth and be honest when you wouldn't be," he told Valdez.
Having read the legal description of "reckless," he said Valdez's actions fit "absolutely perfectly."
He sentenced Valdez to six years in prison, with a mandatory three-year term of parole, plus restitution of $3,135 and a $500 fine for the hunting license violation.
Because Valdez is undergoing physical therapy for a work-related injury, Vaughn asked the judge to delay the start of Valdez's sentence until May 1. He declined, and Valdez was immediately taken into custody. He will receive four days' credit for presentence confinement.
In Keener's case, public defender Valerie Cole successfully made the case that Keener was on the brush-covered hillside with the elk and could not see what was taking place on the roadway. "It's important for the court to understand the different roles of the two men," Cole said. She suggested the judge consider a suspended DOC sentence that would allow Keener to perform some type of public service in memory of Trever, at the direction of his family.
Keener also addressed the family, issuing a tearful "I'm sorry."
Judge Herron took the opportunity to ask Keener several questions, and those answers underscored the defendants' lack of honesty when questioned by law enforcement. In the end, Judge Herron said he was convinced Keener's view was screened by the thick oak brush, he was not aware that Valdez's plan involved stretching a rope across the highway, or that the operation was suspended once due to a passing vehicle. The judge sentenced Keener to two years in prison, the midpoint of the presumptive sentencing range. "I am not imposing the maximum in part because you told the truth today," he told Keener.
Keener received credit for one day of presentence confinement and was immediately taken into custody.