On Sept. 2, Victoria Schafer was shooting photographs of six high school seniors at a popular waterfall near a cliff called Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills State Park outside Logan, Ohio. Suddenly, a 74-pound log fell from above, striking Schafer and killing her instantly. She left behind a husband of 21 years and four teenage children.

An examination of the site after the accident made it clear the log had been thrown intentionally. Nearly a month later, investigators received a tip that led them to two 16-year-old boys. The boys have now been charged with reckless homicide.

That story, which appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Washington Post, brought up a wave of emotions for me. Twelve years ago my husband, Peter Absolon, was climbing in the Wind River Range, when a rock came tumbling down from above. The rock struck and killed him. Later it came out that the rock had been thrown — “trundled” — by a hiker, a 23-year-old man named Luke Rodolph.

Less than a week after Pete’s death the Fremont County attorney decided not to press charges against the rock thrower. When Ed Newell told me his decision he said he’d come to the conclusion that it would serve no purpose to send Rodolph to prison. Part of his job was determining what was best for society, and he said he wasn’t sure how society would benefit from Rodolph’s incarceration. Furthermore, he said, he wasn’t confident that he’d be able to convince a jury to convict Rodolph, since, and I quote here, “everybody throws rocks.”

Newell’s decision devastated me. I felt as if Rodolph was walking away — that his life mattered and Pete’s did not. I felt like Newell had condoned trundling, belittling its potential destruction and dismissing Rodolph’s responsibility for the death of my husband, my daughter’s father and a beloved member of the Lander community. I felt like Newell was letting Rodolph off because boys will be boys. I was shocked and surprised by how the intensity of those feelings came back when I read about Victoria Schafer’s death and the decision the county made to press charges against the two individuals responsible.

Some people felt Newell made the right call. They believed Rodolph had suffered enough. In fact, I still hear that Rodolph must feel terrible and that it must be hard for him to live with the knowledge that he’d killed a man. But in my mind Rodolph walked away. I’ve never heard from him, never had an in-person or written apology and never seen anything in his behavior that indicates his remorse besides his statements to the press at the time. Those statements do little to appease me. After all, I can’t imagine he could say anything to a reporter besides how sorry he was without looking like a monster. Nor does it seem as if society learned anything positive from Pete’s death. People still throw rocks and logs off cliffs, and chunks of concrete off highway bridges. People still do things that endanger others.

Over the past few winters there have been an increasing number of skier-triggered avalanches that have either hit or come close to Highway 22 over Teton Pass. No charges have been filed in any of the incidents, nor has anyone died, but public outcry has been loud. People believe that skiers’ reckless behavior is endangering innocent commuters and that it’s just a matter of time before there is a fatality. Their anger is fueled by a kind of us-versus-them mentality. People in cars are going to work. People out skiing are just having fun.

Luke Rodolph was just having fun. The two teenagers in Ohio were just having fun. How do we as a society respond when someone’s fun goes terribly wrong?

Victoria Schafer’s son does not want the lives of the teenagers who killed his mother to be ruined by whatever punishment the legal system doles out. He is quoted in the Post story saying, “If there’s anybody that understands teenagers making mistakes, it’s my mom and me. If it was truly just some kids that didn’t know any better or were just being stupid kids, and not anything more than that, I think my mom would understand.”

His attitude is incredibly magnanimous. I don’t have that same grace. Instead, the article about his mother’s death reminded me of the helpless rage I felt at my husband’s death, and the rage felt by commuters who feel their lives are threatened by careless skiers. Not knowing better or being stupid kids does not excuse reckless behavior that results or could result in the loss of life.

So, what does society do when this kind of thing happens, when people fooling around or out having fun do something stupid that results in the death of an innocent bystander? I don’t know if the answer is criminal charges. I don’t even know if legal action is the best action. I do know that there is an attitude of carelessness in our society that prevents people from considering the effect of their actions on others, and if we want to change that we need to do something that helps encourage people to pause and think before they act.

Why does that seem so hard? Is it a lack of imagination that allows people to ignore the potential consequences of their actions? Is it the excitement and adrenaline of the moment that blinds us to the risk?

I think our vision is limited by the things that have an immediate effect on us: the things that make us happy, and the things that touch the people or places we love and the activities we enjoy. It’s hard to get out of our little bubble.

We are also blinded by subtle human factors we often ignore — ego, pride, peer pressure, competition, fun, etc. Those things make it hard to make smart decisions in the heat of the moment, although I do think we are getting better about considering them. Avalanche education, in particular, is focusing on decision making and trying to get people to think before they act in the hope that we prevent tragic, preventable accidents. But getting better doesn’t seem good enough.

It’s still too easy to think we are immune and invincible — to think we’ll never do something that hurts someone else. Until we make that turn on the untracked powder that triggers a slide onto the highway. Until we throw a rock off a cliff for the thrill of watching it explode and kill someone climbing down below. Until our dreams destroy someone else’s.

I wanted something from Luke Rodolph. I wanted him to go to jail. I wanted him to suffer for having made me suffer. I wanted him to pay in some way that felt commensurate with killing Pete. It wasn’t a pretty emotion, but it was a raw, unfiltered one that I could not control.

As time passed my anger shifted. That evolution took a long time and is a long story, but it was more about my healing than any sense of forgiveness. Victoria Schafer’s death rekindled that fire. I found myself feeling grateful that the state of Ohio was taking her death seriously and not falling for the notion that boys will be boys — that everyone throws stuff and that makes it OK. It seems like pressing charges forces society to examine what happened closely and to learn from the events. It’s a chance for all of us — not just family and friends — to heal and learn. It’s an opportunity for those boys to publicly accept responsibility for their actions.

Ed Newell said he did not think society would gain from Luke Rodolph going to jail. He may have been right, but I do think society lost an opportunity by there being no consequences for his actions. Until we come up with a way to hold people accountable for reckless, dangerous behavior, I don’t see it stopping. Our memories are too short and our egos too big.

Molly Absolon writes Mountainside every other week. Contact her via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

(4) comments

TERRENCE MILAN

The people in the story are victims of extreme stupidity. What possible good can ever come from launching a rock down a mountain or throwing a log of a cliff. Never a thought given to that something like this could hurt someone else. It's not a crime to too be stupid, but to stupidly cause someone else's death is. Ignoring it is just enabling it. If someone were to use a fire arm, then that would be crime. Using another weapon of choice like a rock or a log leaves the victim just as dead as a gun shot.

Jeffrey Walker

First and foremost, so sorry to hear of the loss of your husband. What an awful thing to have happen.

What I'd like to hone in on is your comparison of rolling rocks and logs down a hill to the avalanches on Teton Pass. First, just some fact checking, charges have been filed against at least one skier. Second, and maybe most importantly, unlike this rock and log throwing you are analogizing, avalanches are not solely human triggered. There have been countless avalanches that have put commuters in danger that were triggered otherwise. Its also impossible to know if skier triggered avalanches that impacted the road would have come down at a later point in the day through natural means.

Put another way, we could outlaw skiing on Teton Pass and the avalanche problem will still very much persist.

The big question on the Pass is simple: what will it take to raise the money for avalanche sheds? Like it or not, the pass goes directly underneath 3 slide paths. This side of a tunnel, that will always be the case.

Why is the entire town in favor of wildlife crossings, but for a very similar amount of money we can mitigate this danger once and for all on the pass? Are the JH moose somehow more valuable than the Teton Valley commuters? Jackson apparently thinks so...

Lets aim to fix the problem (keeping people out of harms way), not simply vilify one big part of the community in Jackson and Teton Valley.

Don Frank

Molly. Reckless behavior creates profound loss and I’ll informed judgement has consequences. I an deeply saddened by Pete’s unnecessary death and the incomprehensible nature of grief. Mr. Walker makes some points above but misses the judgement dynamic in my humble view. If avalanches are loaded energy poised to move downhill and if some avalanches will slide into our public roads then society can make an informed judgement. DOT does avalanche control on suspect terrain and CLOSE the pass using informed judgement. Recreational skiers who ski into potentially loaded slopes above commuting neighbors are taking a risk for themselves and for innocent persons in harms way downslope. One reasonable judgement is to only ski backcountry slopes that are NOT positioned above our roads. YES that does mean that skiers avoid easier accessed pitches above Teton Pass roadways. It means using respectful judgement and caring more about our friends and neighbors then our personal pleasure. By the way the snow structure built on the early sixties on Teton Pass did not survive initial winter force events. So spend millions on direction enormous forces or adjust human behavior. If I survive a human caused avalanche driving on Teton Pass I will not take the “ignorant boys will be self indulgent boys” defense. Sorry Molly, my grief over loss and reckless behavior does not allow me to be silent when selfishness and ego surface. I say enough, no more.

Jeffrey Walker

Fair points Don.

One thing I'd like to hone in on however...

Avalanche sheds are very proven throughout Europe and Canada. (google Rogers Pass) There are parts of the US too where they've been shown incredibly effective. Do not confuse engineering from 40+ years ago with today's engineering and understanding of materials.

To add, this isn't a way to "fix poor behavior and decision making". Its a way to make the pass safer, period. Realize most avalanches that have impacted the road way ***have not been skier triggered***. This is by a large margin, too. I welcome you to use the Jackson Hole Avalanche database from years prior to dig into this.

WYDOT has studied the idea of using avalanche sheds, and its been deemed a good idea if it were not for the cost, which is (ironically) ~similar cost to the wildlife crossings that were just approved.

That's right, we can actually mitigate this problem for $10-20M. That is the price one wealthy person is spending on their house in Jackson. Though it may seem like a large amount of money, its really a drop in the bucket considering what is being protected.

There is no boys will be boys defense here. The defense is "lets decouple the pass from the avalanche paths as much as possible in the first place".

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