[Photo courtesy of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office]

A Moab teenager who accidentally killed two teens and seriously injured two others while he was driving under the influence of alcohol at excessive speeds was sentenced this week to one year in the San Juan County Jail.

Seventh District Judge Lyle R. Anderson announced the sentence shortly after Gage Colton Moore, 18, pleaded guilty on Monday, Aug. 14, to two second-degree felony charges of automobile homicide, as well as two class A misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment.

In exchange for his pleas, the San Juan County Attorney’s Office dismissed additional charges against him, including second-degree felony sexual abuse of a child; two third-degree felony charges of driving under the influence of alcohol/drugs involving injury to another person; and misdemeanor charges of lewdness involving a child.

The judge also ordered Moore to pay a still-undetermined amount of restitution to the victims and their families.

Moore faced a potential maximum penalty of 30 years in state prison for causing the deaths of Taylor Bryant and Connor Denney in a March 5 traffic accident on the La Sal Mountain Loop Road in northern San Juan County. Survivors Tierney DeMille Dawson and Daniel McCrary were seriously injured in the crash, which occurred after an intoxicated Moore lost control of the 2003 Subaru Impreza he was driving.

After hearing emotional testimony from the victims’ families, Judge Anderson imposed but then suspended Moore’s prison sentences and other penalties, and instead placed Moore on probation for three years following the teen’s release from jail. The judge’s ruling drew audible gasps inside the courtroom, followed by anguished screams in the courthouse lobby, as one audience member after another stood up from the courtroom pews and left the chambers.

“Slap him on the hand,” one woman said.

“I don’t want to hear this,” another woman said.

Honey Hope Dawson, whose daughter Tierney is still undergoing surgeries for the injuries she sustained in the incident, later told the media that she believes Moore “got away” with murder.

“I’m so upset with this judge (and) with this entire system up here,” she said outside the courthouse, vowing that she will take the case to the Utah Supreme Court if she can.

San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws said his office understands the frustration and anger of the victims’ families, noting that the plea agreement was not an option that prosecutors “relished or loved.”

“However, under the circumstances it was the best option available and we took it,” he said in a prepared statement.

Laws said that the shortcomings in the juvenile justice system in Utah are not the fault of judges, probation officers, police officers or lawyers, and placed the blame at the feet of the Utah Legislature.

During the most recent legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill by wide margins in an effort to reform the state’s juvenile justice system. That legislation – House Bill 239 – has “effectively declawed” the juvenile court system’s ability to curb the behavior of juveniles and will considerably limit the amount of restitution or justice that the victims of juvenile crimes receive, he said.

“We will (see) and are already seeing youthful offenders who have committed serious felony crimes receiving probation and a minuscule amount of community service hours as a consequence, even for repeat offenders,” he added.

But Moab resident Randy Martin, who served as Taylor’s basketball coach last season, does not accept Laws’ rationale behind the plea agreement, calling the outcome a “travesty of justice.”

“Those kids and their families deserved a prosecutor who was going to fight for them rather than a prosecutor who makes excuses and blames state legislators for why he felt his hands were tied and had to cut a plea deal,” Martin said.

Hostilities flare after sentence announced

In brief remarks to the court, Moore said he offered his “sincerest apologies” to the victims and their family members.

“Words cannot express how truly sorry I am,” he said.

Moore said he lives with “this feeling” of guilt, and will continue to live with it for the rest of his life.

It’s his hope, he said, that he’ll be able to use his experience as a way to help others and prevent something similar from happening in the future.

Defense attorney Tara L. Isaacson of Salt Lake City said her client made some bad choices that “obviously” had some terrible ramifications.

“He wakes up with this every day and he has genuine remorse and regret,” Isaacson said later.

At the same time, however, Isaacson pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court finding that teenagers lack maturity and a sense of responsibility, noting that their brains function at a different level.

“They just don’t think through things in the same way,” she said.

As the judge prepared to impose the sentence, he told the courtroom’s audience that he’s “not really sure” what can be said, because the incident was so devastating for the families involved and the community.

But he proceeded to go through the basic purposes of a sentencing hearing, from deterrence to correcting aberrant behavior, and found that it was “virtually impossible” to meet every one of them.

“I don’t have the perfect answer,” he said later. “I set aside the impossible and try to do what can be done.”

The guidelines that he’s ultimately encouraged to follow would say, “Don’t send (Moore) to prison,” he said.

As the proceedings neared an end and others continued to stream out of the courtroom, one of Moore’s relatives alleged that a man who walked by him threatened his life, claiming it was the fourth time that the person made such a threat.

Tensions between the two sides only grew outside the courthouse building in Monticello, as some people exchanged angry words with each other.

“You’ve got it coming, Moore,” a man shouted in the direction of Moore’s family members and friends.

At one point, San Juan County Sheriff’s deputies quickly intervened as an unidentified man rushed toward McCrary’s mother, Christina. While they took that man into custody, a broader dispute between the two sides later spilled over to the Maverik gas station in Monticello, where authorities again stepped in to defuse a tense situation.

No citations were issued and no arrests were made, but the county attorney is reviewing the incidents, according to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office.

Prosecutor’s statement outlines events on March 4-5

For the first time since Moore was arrested in late April, the San Juan County Attorney’s Office released an official timeline of events in the hours leading up to the accident.

According to that timeline, a group of Moab-area high school students, including Moore, obtained what Laws called a “substantial amount” of alcohol to celebrate junior prom night on March 4. According to Laws, multiple sources provided the alcohol, but he said that law enforcement officials have not been able to identify most of the suppliers due to a lack of leads or help from the community.

Later that evening, Moore attended at least one post-prom party, where he was “stupid drunk,” according to friends who attended the party.

Moore subsequently left the party, and sometime around 4:45 a.m. on March 5, he was parked outside a friend’s house when the four teens approached his vehicle and asked him for a ride home. According to Laws, the teens had sneaked out of a house to go for a walk and help a friend who was coping with a loss in her family.

Instead of driving them home, though, Moore took them on a ride that ended as he drove down the La Sal Loop Road – where the posted speed limit is 40 miles per hour – at speeds that reached up to 120 miles per hour.

At the time that he lost control of the vehicle and it rolled multiple times, he was traveling somewhere between 60 and 80 miles per hour, according to estimates from law enforcement. Three of the four victims were ejected from the vehicle, and Connor and Taylor were killed instantly as a result of the crash. None of the four teens that Moore picked up had been drinking alcohol, San Juan County authorities said.

During the investigation that followed, law enforcement officials found sufficient evidence that Moore was under the influence of alcohol to a degree that made him too impaired to be operating a motor vehicle. Based on eyewitness testimony and DNA evidence, Laws said there was also conclusive proof that Moore was the only person that could have been driving the vehicle at the time of the crash.

“People’s lives just changed”

Despite the conclusive evidence that Laws cited, false rumors began to circulate in the community that Connor was behind the wheel, and Connor’s mother, Loni Hayes, said those rumors have taken a toll on her family, including one of her sons.

“Because of the (false) rumors of Connor being the driver, the kids have bullied him,” Hayes said.

Christina McCrary told the judge that the rumors continue to hurt the surviving victims and their families.

“Lying about Connor driving has affected every single second,” Christina McCrary said. “It’s constant; it’s constant.”

Tierney, meanwhile, continues to suffer from physical and emotional injuries, Dawson said: Her entire brain was bruised and her frontal cortex was bleeding, while her right humerus was shattered, her left leg was nearly severed and her right hip was dislocated. Most of her right ankle was “lost,” and her right heel was broken in half. She has also undergone painful skin grafts.

Dawson said her daughter now has “PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) on top of PTSD” – because of Moore’s actions before the crash occurred.

Daniel McCrary told the court that Moore arrogantly forced himself on the two girls after they rejected his advances to kiss him.

“He said, ‘No one turns me down,’” McCrary said, adding that Moore grabbed their faces and kissed them.

Dawson said her daughter made it clear that she didn’t want to be kissed, telling the court that prosecutors should have kept the sexual abuse and lewdness counts in place.

“They’re charges that should not have been dropped,” she said.

Judge Anderson ultimately said that he could not consider the things that cause him concern: Moore’s actions amounted to something that would make a teenager’s father furious, he said, but he doesn’t believe that they crossed a criminal threshold.

Taylor’s mother, Kim Bryant, said that most people are taught at a young age that their actions have consequences, and while she said her heart goes out to Moore, she believes that the court should impose the maximum sentences on all counts.

“I don’t want anybody else to get hurt,” she said.

Bryant remembered her daughter as a beautiful, spirited girl who became involved in sports at a young age – and turned out to be a pretty fierce competitor. But even those memories were tinged with tragedy: Bryant noted that the following Monday would have been her daughter’s first practice of the school year.

Hayes paid tribute to her son as the kind of kid who lived in every moment.

“He didn’t think about anything other than right now,” she said.

Just days before the accident, Connor was due for a sports physical, and he wound up at the doctor’s office where she works. Hayes got to take her son’s vital signs and listen to his heart beat, and she felt as though time stood still as he walked out the door that day and told her that he loved her.

“There was a twinkle in his eyes that I’ll never forget,” she said.

Both Christina McCrary and Hayes told the court that because of Moore’s actions – and his actions alone – the families’ lives have changed forever.

“They did not drink; they did not make any bad decision, except for being in the car with the wrong person,” McCrary said.

“People’s lives just changed because of a choice that (Moore) made,” Hayes said.

McCrary told the court that March 4 was the last day she had a normal morning, adding later that she hasn’t slept soundly in five months.

“We will never be able to take away the loss that we have to live with every day,” she said. “The pain is indescribable.”

To help offset her medical expenses, Tierney DeMille Dawson’s family is accepting donations, which can be made at any Mountain America Credit Union under the name of “Tierney DeMille,” or via GoFundMe at www.gofundme.com/tierney-demille-dawson-medical-bill.

Victims’ families express outrage at judge’s order; Scuffles erupt outside court