New details: Dead male at Glenwood Caverns was a Roaring Fork High School graduate

Death believed by suicide, Garfield County Sheriff's Office says

The Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.
Cass Ballard/Post Independent

A male discovered dead at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park on Saturday had weaponry, ammunition and explosives on him, according to details released from the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.

Carbondale resident Diego Barajas Medina, 20, was found dead at the Glenwood amusement park shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday. The death, which park officials suspected as a suicide, prompted an investigation by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office said Medina was found in the women’s restroom prior to the park opening to the public and the death was not related to any of the rides or exhibits at the park. A Monday news release from the Garfield County Coroner revealed that Medina was found with a suspected self-inflicted gunshot wound of the head and that there were possible explosives near him.

“At this time, both law enforcement and coroner’s office investigators secured the area and waited for the Grand Junction Bomb Squad to make the scene safe,” the release states. “On October 29, 2023 at approximately 4:30 p.m., the scene was deemed safe and the coroner’s office was able to recover the decedent.”

Based on a preliminary investigation it appeared that Medina illegally entered the park after hours, when no employees or patrons were present. He is believed to have driven through a service road to enter the park, according to Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario.

“He was dressed in black colored tactical clothing, bearing patches and emblems that gave the appearance of being associated with law enforcement,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a Monday statement. “The suspect had been heavily armed with a semi-automatic rifle and semi-automatic handgun and multiple, loaded magazines for both weapons. He was wearing body armor and what appeared to be a ballistic helmet. Additionally multiple improvised explosive devices, (IEDs), were discovered with the suspect and in a vehicle associated with the suspect.”

The Garfield County Coroner’s office is in the process of conducting an autopsy, though the sheriff said they believe the death was a suicide. Medina appears to have shot himself with a gun in the corner of a women’s restroom in the park, with writing on the wall next to him reading, “I am not a killer, I just wanted to get into the caves,” Vallario said during a Monday press conference.

Smaller text underneath the phrase has not yet been identified, and it is not certain what was used to write out the message, or whether the man was the one to write it, Vallario noted.

The Garfield County Sheriff revealed that the two guns found on Medina’s body, the AR-style rifle and the semi-automatic handgun, both appear to be ghost guns, meaning that they were not purchased over the counter. Ghost guns are untraceable firearms that are purchased as “ghost gun kits” and built without a background check, making them easier to obtain than regulated firearms.

A search of the man’s person, room, and home did not reveal any motive for his actions, nor do the police believe the man had any criminal history at this time. Vallario said the man went to high school in Carbondale, and that the response team is working with the man’s mother and brother, whom the man lived with, to figure out the full story.

“Although he was very highly prepared, very highly weaponized, he chose not to take advantage of any of that, whatever his preparation was. He chose instead, as we believe at this point, to commit suicide,” Vallario said. “We are, to say the least, extremely lucky that he did not fulfill whatever plan he may have intentioned. It could have caused … a devastating impact on his community, potential for many, many people to be killed and injured. And again, for whatever reason that we may never know, he chose not to take that path. And certainly we all breathe a sigh of relief from that.”

At the request of the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, the Grand Junction Bomb Squad responded to the scene and with their expertise were able to render the devices safe, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The Sheriff’s Office confirmed on Monday that only some of the explosive devices found on the man were real; they found fake military-style grenades, as well as some fake explosives. The bomb squad carried out controlled detonation of the bombs, according to the sheriff. Vallario also said during the Monday press conference that he does not believe the explosives were obtained legally.

“The Glenwood Adventure Caverns property was then swept by members of the bomb squad as well as operators from the Garfield County All Hazard Response Team (AHRT) to ensure no other (improvised explosive devices) had been planted around the park or rides. Our investigation has so far indicated that nobody in the public was at risk; it would appear that the suspect’s actions were limited to the property of the Glenwood Caverns,” the Sheriff’s Office said in the statement. “The initial two days of the investigation have been carried out in a slow, methodical manner in order to search the property, as well as the suspect’s residence to ensure the safety of the public and to begin to determine the extent of his criminal activity. The safety of the public, bomb disposal personnel, law enforcement and other first responders was the priority as well as making sure the Caverns were safe to reopen.”

A preliminary investigation indicates that the male trespassed on park property, which is surrounded by state-owned public land, outside park hours, Glenwood Caverns said in a Monday afternoon statement. No employees or guests were on the property at the time.

“This very sad and tragic incident reminds us how much our Glenwood Springs community means to us,” said General Manager Nancy Heard. “We appreciate the swift action and thorough work of the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department and Coroner’s Office, as well as the Garfield County All Hazard Response Team and other authorities assisting in the investigation, working together to ensure the park is safe to reopen. Thank you for all you do.”

To keep guests, team members and assets safe, multiple security programs are in place, including an extensive network of security cameras, alarms, fencing, gates and posted signage, the Caverns said.

“Lock-out protocols provide protection for engineering, ride operation and ride restricted areas, as well as sensitive buildings,” the Caverns said in the statement. “The incident on Oct. 28 did not take place in any of these areas and was not related to any rides or attractions.”

The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office wishes to thank the employees and maintenance staff of the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park for their patience and ongoing assistance with this investigation. “(The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office) would also like to extend our thanks to the Grand Junction Bomb Squad, Garfield County All Hazard Response Team, the Carbondale Police Department, the Garfield County Coroner, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for their assistance in this ongoing investigation,” the Sheriff’s Office said.

The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office is working with the FBI for this investigation and will hold additional press conferences as more information becomes available.

“There is much more we do not know right now that we do know,” Vallario said. “The FBI and others will be helping us. We’ll be going through his phone, we’ll be going through his social media, we’ll be talking with family, friends, classmates, schoolteachers, in order to find out what caused this person to do what he did, what caused him to take these steps and what caused him, again, to change his mind and take his own life instead.”

The Roaring Fork School District confirmed on Monday night that Medina graduated from Roaring Fork High School in 2021.

The district said it is unable to provide any additional details about Medina, nor is it privy to details of the incident’s ongoing investigation. It asks “the public and community respect the family’s privacy during this challenging time.”

“In our small communities, everyone is connected. This tragedy will impact our school community significantly. We are responding to the news of this incident by providing wrap around support services to students, staff and families in need,” RFSD Superintendent Dr. Anna Cole said in a statement. “In the Roaring Fork Schools, the safety of our students and staff is our top priority. We are deeply committed to investing in and implementing best practices in school safety. This includes prevention education, community collaboration, crisis response drills, and secure schools and facilities.”

The Aspen Times will update this story when more information becomes available.