Public service

Lesh fined $10,000, 160 hours of public service

David Lesh enters the Grand Junction federal courthouse during his trial in August. Lesh was convicted of illegally operating his snowmobile at Keystone Resort in April 2020.
McKenzie Lange/Grand Junction Sentinel Archives

A federal judge sentenced so-called bad boy David Lesh to a $10,000 fine and 160 hours of meaningful public service on Wednesday, Jan. 12, for his two misdemeanor convictions for illegally operating a snowmobile in a terrain park Keystone in April 2020.

Judge Gordon Gallagher suspended the sentence for 14 days to see if Lesh abides by his vow to appeal the conviction. If his lawyer files a notice of appeal within two weeks, Gallagher said, the sentence will be suspended longer to let the legal process unfold.

US Forest Service law enforcement officers cited Lesh for entering Keystone Resort while it was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and jumping his snowmobile over features of a terrain park . He was also cited for posting images of his tricks on social media to benefit his business. Use of the state forest for commercial purposes is prohibited without a permit. It was convicted in October after a one-day trial in August.

Gallagher noted that some members of the public wrote letters encouraging him to put Lesh behind bars.

“I’m loath to incarcerate someone for a minor offense of this nature,” Gallagher said, noting that COVID-19 outbreaks in some detention centers made jail sentences particularly harsh. “That wouldn’t seem like a fair sentence to me. I believe there has to be a deterrent (tied) to this both for Mr. Lesh and for the public and because it speaks to the public.

Half of the 160 hours of useful public service must be served with White River National Forest and the other half can be donated to causes Lesh chooses, Gallagher said.

Lesh has been a thorn in the side of White River staff for a few years. He was charged with driving his snowmobile through a closed area of ​​Independence Pass on July 3, 2019. Lesh entered into a plea agreement in June 2020 which required him to pay a fine of $500 and perform 50 hours of useful public service for this violation.

While waiting for this case to be resolved, Lesh stoked public anger by posting photos of him allegedly stepping on a log at Hanging Lake and defecating at Maroon Lake. No charges were laid because federal authorities suspected the the photos were faked. Lesh admitted in an interview with The New Yorker that he encouraged authorities with the doctored footage.

Lesh opposed charges for the Keystone incident but was found guilty after a day-long trial held before the judge, not a jury.

The prosecutor handling the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Hautzinger, sought the fines of $5,000, the highest possible amount in the case, and a “significant amount” of public service.

“There is a need, I believe, to deter Mr. Lesh and others from behaving in this way,” Hautzinger said.

He noted that Lesh’s lawyer at the trial accused the government of persecuting Lesh because officials believed he was a “bad person.” He said that was not the case.

“I don’t think he’s a bad person. I think he made some bad decisions,” Hautzinger said. “It’s a case that kind of pushed us all into a corner and gave me no choice but to sue and the judge no choice but to draw the conclusions he did.”

Hautzinger said he had never had a case in 34 years as a prosecutor that had come under such scrutiny for such minor offenses. Misdemeanors in the federal court system are similar to misdemeanors in state courts. He said he received numerous letters from members of the public, “most demanding that Mr. Lesh be locked up for as long as possible.”

Hautzinger said he could not in good conscience recommend incarceration.

“I think there has been a pattern, contempt is perhaps too strong a word, but certainly contempt for authority, for government, for the forest service and for court orders,” a- he declared. “I think there must be punitive penalties for this, which is why I’m asking for the maximum fine and a significant number of hours of public service.”

He also called for a six-month ban on Lesh from national forest lands. Lesh was ordered by Gallagher more than a year ago to stay off National Forest Lands while the case is resolved. Gallagher declined Wednesday to extend the ban.

Barry Weisz, the third attorney to represent Lesh at his trials, portrayed his client as difficult to understand.

Although Lesh is a “provocateur,” he is also personally involved in animal rescue and efforts to motivate children to pursue their interests in aviation, according to Weisz. He submitted a set of reference letters for Lesh that included comments from a doctor, the CEO of a nonprofit organization and a former Colorado Springs-area county judge.

Weisz pressed for leniency in the sentence despite calls to the contrary from the public via social media.

“Mr. Lesh has endured a lot of hatred from the public because of this case,” Weisz said.

He claimed that Lesh had received death threats and that people had sent him packages of feces which were delivered to Lesh’s office in Denver.

Weisz said a fine might be appropriate, but Lesh already does community service voluntarily, so more was not needed. He also objected to Hautzinger’s suggestion that Lesh should be further banned from national forest lands. Weisz said Lesh needed time in the backcountry on a personal level and to promote his business.

“It’s not the crime of the century. These are petty crimes,” Weisz said.

Gallagher said Lesh’s actions in Keystone and his postings about those activities encouraged people to engage in illegal and possibly dangerous activities.

Lesh fired the attorney who represented him at the one-day trial in August. Court filings indicate he works with the Washington, D.C.-based New Civil Liberties Alliance on appeal of the Keystone conviction.