Aspen wrong-way driver on Highway 82 pleads insanity |

Aspen wrong-way driver on Highway 82 pleads insanity

A Thornton man who drove the wrong way down Highway 82 in March pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity Tuesday after a district judge found probable cause to charge him in connection with the case. John Reno, 45, will face four counts of menacing and one count of vehicular eluding, according to the ruling Tuesday by District Judge Chris Seldin. All are felonies.

“It’s only by the grace of enormously good fortune that Mr. Reno is alive today,” Seldin said. “It’s really just a miracle that nobody was seriously injured that day.”

Scott Troxell, Reno’s public defender, entered the not guilty by reason of insanity plea after Seldin’s ruling. After noting Reno’s history with bipolar disorder in a court hearing last week, Troxell said then that he’d likely enter the plea if the judge found probable cause to proceed with the charges Tuesday.

Reno was arrested March 14 after allegedly driving downvalley in the upvalley lanes of Highway 82 at least twice, narrowly missing a pedestrian near Buttermilk and nearly crashing into a sheriff’s deputy and other motorists, according to law enforcement sources.

Detective Brad Gibson of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office testified Tuesday that he was driving upvalley on Highway 82 about 8 a.m. that day on his way to work. About 200 yards downvalley of the Aspen Business Center stoplight, he saw Reno’s SUV come “crashing across” the highway’s concrete, snow-covered center barrier going about 50 mph, and into the upvalley traffic lanes.

It had been snowing and the roads were icy and slippery at the time, so Gibson said he initially thought he was witnessing an accident and turned on the emergency lights in his marked sheriff’s SUV. But instead of stopping, Reno’s SUV accelerated toward him in his lane, Gibson said.

Gibson estimated the SUV was going 80 mph when it changed into the other lane and sped past him. The vehicle missed his by a matter of feet, he said.

“I was very concerned,” Gibson testified Tuesday. “If he’d hit me head-on at 80 mph, I would have been at least seriously injured.”

Fortunately, a pack of cars that were previously behind Gibson had all been stopped at the Brush Creek Road stoplight downvalley of the Aspen Business Center, so Gibson was all alone on the usually busy road at the time, he said.

As quickly as possible on the slick road, Gibson drove to the ABC light, turned around and headed downvalley on the proper side of the road. But by the time he reached an area just past the west end of the airport runway, he saw Reno’s SUV crashed in the snow and up against a guardrail in the middle of the highway.

Reno made several nonsensical statements after Gibson arrived on scene, and it later took four police officers to arrest him, Gibson said.

Reno also apparently drove the wrong way down Highway 82 before Gibson saw him cross the road, Gibson said. An upvalley driver waiting for the light at Owl Creek Road later told Gibson he honked at a pedestrian crossing Highway 82 toward Buttermilk just in time for the woman to avoid being struck, he said. The woman missed being hit by inches, Gibson said.

Another upvalley driver coming out of Shale Bluffs said the SUV passed him going 60 mph on the road’s left median, while a third driver in the same area said he had to change lanes to avoid being hit, Gibson testified.

Gibson said he initially thought Reno was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, though tests later revealed no intoxicants in his system at the time of the crash.

Pleading not guilty by reason of insanity opens up a lengthy legal process that involves being examined at the state’s psychiatric hospital in Pueblo. Such examinations generally take months to schedule coupled with more months waiting for the examination report.