Lesh sentenced to $10,000 fine, 160 hours of public service

Rogue snowmobiler plans to appeal conviction of petty offenses

David Lesh enters the federal courthouse in Grand Junction during his trial in August. Lesh was found guilty of illegally riding his snowmobile at Keystone Resort in April 2020.
McKenzie Lange/Grand Junction Sentinel archive

A federal judge sentenced self-styled bad boy David Lesh to $10,000 in fines and 160 hours of useful public service Wednesday for his conviction on two petty offenses for illegally riding a snowmobile at a Keystone terrain park in April 2020.

Judge Gordon Gallagher put the sentence on hold for 14 days to see if Lesh carries through on a vow to appeal the conviction. If his attorney files a notice of appeal within two weeks, Gallagher said, the sentence will be stayed longer to let the court process play out.

U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers cited Lesh for entering Keystone ski area while it was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and jumping his snowmobile over features in a terrain park. He was also cited for posting images of his tricks on social media to benefit his business. Use of national forest for commercial gain is prohibited without a permit. He was found guilty 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 am loath to incarcerate somebody for a petty offense of this nature,” Gallagher said, noting that outbreaks of COVID-19 at some detention facilities made jail time particularly harsh. “That just would not appear to be a just sentence to me. I do believe that there needs to be a deterrent (connected) to this for both 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 the White River National Forest and the other half can be spent on causes of Lesh’s choice, Gallagher said.

Lesh has been a thorn in the side of the White River staff for a couple of years. He was accused of riding his snowmobile in a closed area of Independence Pass on July 3, 2019. Lesh reached a plea deal in June 2020 that required him to pay a $500 fine and perform 50 hours of useful public service for that infraction.

While waiting for that case to be resolved, Lesh stoked public ire by posting pictures of himself allegedly walking on a log in Hanging Lake and defecating in Maroon Lake. No charges were pursued because federal authorities suspected the pictures were faked. Lesh acknowledged in an interview with The New Yorker that he egged on authorities with the doctored images.

Lesh opposed the charges for the Keystone ski area incident but was convicted after a one-day trial held before the judge, not a jury.

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

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

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

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

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

Hautzinger said he could not in good conscience recommend incarceration.

“I do think there has been a pattern of, contempt may be too strong of word, but certainly disregard for authority, for the government, for the Forest Service and for the court’s orders,” he said. “I think there needs to be some punitive sanctions for that, which is why I’m asking for the maximum fine and a significant number of hours of public service.”

He also sought a six-month ban of Lesh from national forest lands. Lesh was ordered by Gallagher more than one year ago to stay off national forest lands during the resolution of the case. Gallagher declined Wednesday to extend the ban.

“When Mr. Lesh goes out and intentionally portrays a bad boy image to the public, that’s what the public is going to think about.” — U.S. Judge Gordon Gallagher

Barry Weisz, the third attorney to represent Lesh during his court cases, portrayed his client as someone not easily understood. While Lesh is a “provocateur,” he is also personally involved in animal rescue and efforts to motivate kids to pursue their interests in aviation, according to Weisz. He submitted a package of letters of reference for Lesh that included comments from a doctor, the CEO of a nonprofit organization and an ex-county judge from the Colorado Springs area.

Weisz lobbied for leniency in the sentence despite calls otherwise from the public via social media.

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

He claimed Lesh has received death threats and people have sent him packages of excrement that were delivered to Lesh’s Denver office.

Weisz said a fine could be appropriate, but that Lesh is already voluntarily performing community service, so more wasn’t necessary. He also objected to Hautzinger’s suggestion that Lesh should be further banned from national forest lands. Weisz said Lesh needs time in the backcountry on a personal level and to promote his business.

“This is not the crime of the century. These are petty offenses,” Weisz said.

In his ruling, Gallagher said Lesh is somewhat of an “enigma.” The character references portray him as a good person and the judge said he doesn’t doubt that is true.

“But at the same time that is not the image, at least in many of his postings, that Mr. Lesh has portrayed in public,” Gallagher said. “And when Mr. Lesh goes out and intentionally portrays a bad boy image to the public, that’s what the public is going to think about.”

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

Lesh fired the attorney who represented him in the one-day trial in August. Documents filed in court said he is working with the Washington, D.C.-based New Civil Liberties Alliance on an appeal of the Keystone conviction.