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Climbing and Murder


Submitted by admin on 2009-06-04 | Last Modified on 2009-07-17

Rating: 12345   Go Login to rate this article.   Votes: 30 | Comments: 80 | Views: 14338

By J. Christopher Robbins

Some names and places have been changed.

The medical examiner originally ruled his death an accident.

“He has a shattered knee cap, a broken tibia, multiple broken ribs on either side of his chest, six dislocated fingers, and one detached Achilles tendon,” she told Deputy Sheriff Michael Gibbs.

The cadaver itself seemed to confirm the other climbers’ account of what happened:

Shane Ward, 33, lost his footing on the third pitch of “Hell’s Angel.” It is a nine-pitch intermediate-level climb. The pink, crystalline igneous rock rises 1,200 vertical feet above a forest. The top of the massif looks like wings attached to a humanoid body.

Ward was on belay at the time. Or so he thought. Upon seeing him fall, belayer and climb leader, Justin Morgan, tensioned the rope in his tuber. It arrested Ward’s drop. He hung safely for a few moments. But before Ward could find safety back on the cliff, his rope detached from his harness.

He fell 290 feet. One the way down, he struck the mountain several times.

“The broken bones did not kill him,” the medical examiner said. “Nor did the lacerations on his back, face, and buttocks. The cause of death was a cranial fracture and massive trauma to the brain when the decedent hit his skull on talus at the base of the cliff. I removed two pieces of granite from his occipital lobe,” she said, holding up a bag containing the shards.

“Looks like an accident,” said Gibbs. “Cause of death: Bad footing,” the homicide investigator said. Even in rural, mountainous Henderson County (population 61,734), the small homicide team could be relied upon for its macabre sense of humor.

Anatomy of an Investigation

In keeping with the department’s policy, Gibbs, although convinced that Ward’s death was accidental, still had to perform a perfunctory investigation. Any death of a person under 60 was assumed to be a homicide until facts showed it to be otherwise. So while a waste of taxpayer dollars, Gibbs has a job to do.

Despite his off-color jokes, Gibbs is a competent deputy. He is also an accomplished climber himself. Gibbs moonlights for the county’s search and rescue team. He has the tan skin and biceps to prove it. If anyone could make quick sense of Ward’s death quickly, it would be Gibbs.

Over the next three days Gibbs interviewed Ward’s three climbing partners: Morgan, Walt Bishop, and Ernie Martin. He inspected their equipment. With a search and rescue colleague, he climbed up to pitch three and visited the scene of Ward’s fall. He spent more time in the morgue. After three days of work, he submitted a fourteen-page report.

The report started with an exoneration of the climbers’ equipment:

“The climbers voluntarily provided the department with all climbing gear used the day Ward died. It was mostly in new and serviceable condition,” he wrote. “The four climbers were using a 10.5 millimeter braided-strand nylon climbing rope. Morgan purchased it two months earlier. The decedent’s harness, which belonged to Morgan, was also in new condition. All carabiners, slings, and other gear was serviceable with no apparent defects.”

The section concluded: “there is no evidence of any product failure or defect contributing to the decedent’s demise.”

Equipment, however, was the only thing in good shape the day Ward died. Gibbs’ report continued:

“Weighing in at 200 pounds on the day of his death, Ward was not a picture of an athlete. The 33-year-old electrical engineer had a desk job. It afforded him little exercise. Friends and family reported that he did he not work out at a gym.”

Ward did have rock climbing experience, Gibbs found, but it was not recent. “In his teens, he climbed with friends at several popular single-pitch sport cliffs in Henderson County. And while rare, he occasionally participated in more advanced mountaineering.

“In 1992, Ward did a three-pitch climb with a guide while on a vacation in Wyoming. In 1995, he climbed a Fourteener with a guide in Colorado. This required intermediate climbing skills. Most of the ascent was off-belay.

“The decedent’s family reports that Ward quit the sport entirely in 1995 after graduating college. He didn’t climb again until Justin Morgan invited him on the Hell’s Angel ascent.”

Gibbs’ investigation also traced the origin of the plan to climb Hell’s Angel:

“Morgan, also an engineer, is a co-worker of Ward’s. They work in the same department at Henderson Heights Engineering. According to colleagues at the firm, Morgan invited the decedent climbing several times. Co-workers reported that Morgan was eager to have Ward join him. But Ward wasn’t.

“In months past, co-workers reported ‘trash talking’ by Morgan when Ward declined Morgan’s rock climbing invitations. He finally relented, agreeing to the climb, one secretary said.

“Bishop and Martin were Morgan’s typical partners. The trio was advanced with extensive experience. By contrast, Ward had not been on belay in over 13 years.

“Bishop and Martin said that there was some miscommunication about the difficulty of Hell’s Angel. They said that on the morning of the climb, Morgan told the decedent that it was an easy climb. Morgan characterized it as ‘mostly a scramble,’ not a technical ascent. Neither Bishop nor Martin clarified or contradicted these statements to the decedent, although both knew them to be misleading.

“On the day of the climb, the climbers arrived later than they planned. Morgan, who drove, overslept. Although the group planned the day before to start the climb at 8:00 a.m., they did not reach Hell’s Angel, until nearly 1:00 p.m. That was after a three-mile hike to the base, including a scramble over 500 yards of steep talus.

“According to a report from a National Weather Service station 22 miles away, at 1:00 p.m., the ambient air temperature was 88 degrees. The temperature at 8:00 a.m., when they were supposed to start, was 68 degrees.

“An inspection of the mountain shows that, despite the heat, shaded areas were wet. A thunderstorm passed over Hell’s Angel the previous evening. Much of the route was wet. Specifically, a visual inspection revealed that even 24 hours later, the area from which Ward fell, was wet and slippery. In some areas, water cascaded down fissures in the cliff.

“The area from which Ward fell was also a “friction” climb. It had only a few holds and edges. The technique needed to stay secure on the face of the rock requires that the climber rely on the friction between the sloped rock and the sole of his shoe to support the climber's weight. This maneuver will be easiest for athletic climbers with limber Achilles tendons.

“Martin, Morgan, and Bishop had climbing shoes. The footwear is designed specifically for climbing and is well-fitting and has a ‘sticky’ rubber sole. Before starting the climb, Ward asked Morgan if he needed a pair for Hell’s Angel. Bishop and Martin said Morgan replied in the negative, indicating that the climb was sufficiently easy and that tennis shoes would be adequate.

“An inspection of Ward’s backpack reveals that at the time of his death he had a yellow, plastic 1.5 liter water bottle. It survived his fall intact. Inspection of the bottle shows that it was empty. Martin stated that he saw the contents of Ward’s pack at the base of the climb and that he does not remember seeing any other water with him.

“Between the second and third pitches Martin said that the decedent was complaining of a racing pulse. He was breathing audibly and in shallow breaths. Bishop said that he complained of fatigue, and reported that the decedent’s left and right quadriceps were severely cramping.”

Based upon this, Gibbs urged the medical examiner to perform a few more tests. She drew blood. She next conducted a bioelectrical impedance analysis of the cadaver. Electrical resistance increases as the body dehydrates. These tests confirmed that the decedent was severely dehydrated at the time of death.

Since dehydration was at best a precipitant of Ward’s death, and not the cause, deputy Gibbs discussed the last moments of Ward’s life with Martin and Bishop. Other pertinent facts came out in Gibbs’ report:

“Each man inspected the end of the rope after it came loose from Ward’s climbing harness. About three feet from the end, a correctly tied figure-eight knot remained. Typically, this figure-eight knot is one element of a properly secured climber on belay. After this knot is tied, the end of the rope is thread under both the tie-in loop and the waist belt of the climber’s harness. Then the rope is thread back through the existing figure eight knot, taking care to ensure that it follows the outside contours of the knot.

“Martin and Bishop said they never inspected Ward’s knot. Nor did they remember Morgan doing so. They said it would have been difficult to do so, as Morgan did not tie Ward into the belay until the second pitch.”

“The trio had climbed Hell’s Angel four times before. Due to their level of expertise and comfort, they did not use a rope on the climb, except for one short chimney pitch.

“After the first pitch, Ward said he was nervous and uncomfortable free soloing. He said he wanted to be on belay. Morgan initially tried to talk him out of it. Morgan said that Ward was ‘thinking too much’ and that he should attempt to keep up with the other climbers. Following continued objections by the decedent, Morgan finally agreed to set up the belay.”

Gibbs report focused further on the moments leading up to the climb:

“Neither Morgan or the others inspected Ward’s harness or other equipment at the base of Hells Angel. They appear to have been distracted with what Martin described as a ‘ritual.’

“Specifically, Martin and Bishop both said that prior to starting the climb Morgan, Martin, and Bishop smoked marijuana. It took about 25 minutes. Morgan brought the drug on the climb. He also brought a pipe and a small, rectangular, aluminum storage container that was filled with cannabis.

“According to both Bishop and Martin, When Morgan brought out the marijuana prior to the climb, Ward complained. Each man remembered the words he used, as well as the emphasis: ‘Morgan, are you out of your fucking mind?’

“Morgan replied that he routinely smoked marijuana prior to rock climbs and that he did not believe that it diminished his motor skills.

“Based upon witness Bishop and Martin’s allegation of marijuana use by all three climbers, and possession by Morgan, I conducted a forensic aerosol test of Morgan’s climbing gear. I separately swabbed the climbing rope, harnesses, and nylon slings. Each came up positive for marijuana residue. As a control, I swabbed various other items of clothing, which came up negative.”

Gumshoe Diligence

Gibbs filed his report on the Wednesday afternoon following Ward’s death. He also filed digitally recorded witness statements he obtained from Martin and Bishop, who cooperated with his investigation. Gibbs immediately emailed county Sheriff Jim Larson. Henderson County was small and sparsely populated enough that Larson personally supervised every felony case in the system.

Larson, like many in law enforcement officers, believed marijuana to be a gateway drug. He rigidly enforced zero tolerance programs. In 2002, he orchestrated a sting operation at a county high school that netted 23 juvenile pot smokers during lunch hour. The school principal pleaded with Larson to release nine of them, all first-time offenders. Among the nine were several honor students and the school marching band’s only sousaphone player. Larson refused. All 23 cases, even the horn player, were referred to the DA’s office.

Sheriff Larson’s review of the Ward case started promptly at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday. He opened his email and followed a department intranet web link to the department’s proprietary law enforcement software. It took him five minutes to turn analysis into action. He picked up his phone and dialed Gibbs.

“Gibbs, get me Scooter. I want a warrant for this rock climber.”

Wheels of Justice

It is a well-known fact of local government that the cops generally arrive to work early a and leave early. By contrast, the lawyers are typically the last ones in but the last folks to leave. At 10:00 a.m., Assistant District Attorney Mike “Scooter” Schroeder, a tall, lanky, blond-haired prosecutor, was still drinking coffee, reading the newspaper online, and settling in for his day’s work. At 10:00 a.m., when Gibbs call rang through, he considered not answering. That’s an early call for a prosecutor. Gibbs was still waiting for the caffeine fix to hit. But duty called.

“This is Schroeder.”

“Scooter, it’s Gibbs. Boss wants a warrant.”

“What case?” Schroder asked, taking another sip of coffee

“It’s the rock climber.”

“Paperwork ready?”

“When was the last time it wasn’t?” Gibbs questioned.

“The Sommers case, November 2003,” The man had a mind like a trap. That was six years ago, Gibbs remembered.

“I’ll be over in ten.” Gibbs said.

It only took a few hours for Schroeder to review the reports, evidence, and case file. He took his job seriously. There has to be probable cause for a warrant. It is part of both the state and federal Constitutions. And these days, prosecutors are increasingly finding themselves bunking with the accused when they break the rules.

It didn’t take long before Schroeder sided with Larson and Gibbs. And by 1:30 p.m., Schroeder played his first role in the case, swearing out a written search warrant. He next called up the county court’s website, found the name of the judge on duty, put on a tie, and walked across the street to the courthouse. Appointments are not needed for warrants. Shortly before 3:00, Schroeder entered the private chambers of the Honorable Emmitt T. Hodge.

Judge Hodge was balding, frowning, and sweating. The air conditioning window unit in his office had been on the skids for weeks. In Henderson County, even a sitting judge had to wait his turn.

“Afternoon your honor.” Schroeder said.

“Nice to see you, Scooter. Have a seat. This is about that rock climber?”

“Yes, Judge, we are investigating it as a crime.”

“Papers made it out to be an accident,” the Judge said.

Schroeder paused to collect his thoughts. He needed to be short but persuasive with Hodge.

“Judge, here’s the case as of today. We have a dead 33-year-old with limited mountaineering experience. He placed his trust in the expedition’s leader, a fellow named Morgan. Mr. Morgan is the subject of proposed search. Morgan mislead him about the difficulty of the climb, failed to supervise him, put him on the rock on the hottest part of the day, permitted him to dehydrate, improperly belayed him, and guided him to a wet and slippery part of the cliff where he fell 290 feet to his death.”

Hodge looked skeptical. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Hodge was a diligent jurist. Schroeder’s summary was not enough for probably cause.

“Scooter, that dog won’t hunt. What you described might be a civil suit brought by the victim’s family. Where’s the PC?” the Judge asked.

“Judge, you’d be right were it not for the drugs.” Schroeder let the statement sit in the air for a moment.

“Two witnesses have the climb leader smoking grass at the base of the hill. We have their taped statements. We also have a forensic test of the climbing gear – positive for cannabis residue. The levels of the drug on the equipment are consistent with drug use approximately 72 hours ago. That puts it back to afternoon of the climb.”

“What is the warrant for?”

We want to find Mr. Morgan’s cache of cannabis, confirm the forensics, and determine whether the witnesses are telling the truth or covering up. If Morgan is not guilty, the search will probably clear him.”

Judge Hodges leaned over his desk. He reached for his favorite fountain pen. He signed the warrant and handed it to Schroeder.

“One last question,” said the judge. “If this boy was high as a kite, what would the charge be?

“Murder, Emmitt.”

That caught the Judge’s attention.

“How do you figure?”

“Morgan acted indifferently to the value of human life. Unless he is dumb as a rock, he knew smoking pot before ascending one created a grave risk to those around him. As the leader of the climb, the organizer of the expedition, and the belay, the law must hold him to the highest standard. In this case, Morgan’s depraved indifference led to the death of the Shane Ward. If the search confirms it, we’re planning on charging it that way.”

Judge Hodges clearly approved. Murder cases were not common in Henderson County. When they cropped up, the men and women who populate the halls of justice get perhaps just a little too eager. Sheriff Lawson liked to remind folks that the department didn’t destroy its gallows – used liberally for much of 1800s – until 1953.

Knock and Announce

At 4:45 p.m. Schroeder handed the warrant to Gibbs. An hour later, Gibbs, a colleague from the crime scene unit, and the department’s two-member K-9 unit team rendezvoused at Morgan’s two-story garden apartment.

Morgan’s car was present. He probably had just returned from work. Gibbs led the team to the apartment, knocked and announced, and waited. Gibbs’ research confirmed that Morgan had no history of violence. But all three deputies waited with arms on their still-holstered side-arms, just in case. There’s a first time for everything.

Morgan first reaction was shock, like most suspects. The next response was denial.

“I didn’t do anything. Why are you here?”

His third response, which Gibbs always found baffling, was to consent:

“Look for whatever you want. I have nothing to hide.”

More at east, the four deputies, as well as Margie, an 80-pound German Shepherd, filed in and got to work.

It took only seven minutes. Margie found Morgan’s contraband in a backpack in his kitchen. They also seized and impounded a marijuana pipe, about 50 grams of cannabis, and the aluminum travel container Martin and Bishop described. As a bonus, they also found thirty Percocet tablets for which Morgan did not appear to have a prescription.

Gibbs cuffed Morgan and read him his rights in the presence of one of the other deputies. After he was done he pointed to the pile of contraband on the table and asked Morgan whether the drugs were his.

If he was smart, Morgan would remain silent or ask for a lawyer. That had been his right since 1966 when the United States Supreme Court made the famous “Miranda warning,” part of the American vernacular. But most people talk anyway.

“Yes.”

Gibbs loaded Morgan into the cruiser and drove him to central booking. During a subsequent interview (and after a subsequent Miranda warning) Morgan admitted on a digitally recorded interview to owning the drugs, the pipe, and the aluminum storage container. He then confirmed most of the other aspects of Gibbs’ report, except smoking marijuana before the climb. Gibbs wasn’t buying it.

“Justin, tell me the truth or we’ll just get another warrant to draw blood for a drug test.”

The new marijuana blood tests were highly accurate. They tested for THC metabolites. Metabolites are chemicals that remains in the human body after the body processes a drug. THC metabolites have a very long half-life. Sometimes three months ore more. That said, the test isn’t good evidence that Morgan was using drug at a particular time; only that he used.

Justin did not know that. Nor did he know whether Gibbs was bluffing about the warrant. But since deputy Gibbs had already showed up with one warrant, he assumed he could get another. A lawyer would have set him straight. But he still didn’t have one.

Morgan looked resigned. Gibbs was excited. Another confession was imminent.

“Yes, we smoked that day.”

“Smoked what?”

“Marijuana.”

“Before the climb?”

“Yes.”

“Did Bishop and Martin smoke Marijuana, too?”

“Ask them.”

“Please answer the question.”

“Yes.”

“How long after you smoked the drug did Shane die?” Morgan looked furious.

“You’re making it out like I killed him. This was a rock climb. I’m not Shane’s chaperone. If he wasn’t up for the climb he shouldn’t have come.”

Several hours too late Morgan finally asked for a lawyer.

“Sure. Do you have one do you want me to call for a public defender?”

Frying Pan to Fire

The marijuana use and possession charges were formally charged through an indictment. That is the job of the District Attorney. But on Monday morning, assistant DA Schroeder had to present the murder charge to the ten sitting members of Henderson County’s Grand Jury.

Most state constitutions require serious felonies be charged this way. Checks and balances at work, Schroeder thought. No matter how corrupt a hypothetical government might be (and Henderson County wasn’t) the citizens of the County have the final say, not me or the police, Schroeder reflected.

On the other hand, he knew that as a persuasive prosecutor could usually motivate a grand jury to indict a ham-and-Swiss sandwich, as the saying went. “For deliberately, and with malice aforethought, clogging the arteries of the victim.” Schroeder smiled to himself.

The grand jury panel is made up of people in the community. Service rotates and is mandatory. In rural mountainous regions like Henderson County you come when called. Except for mothers of young children and hay farmers and orchard-keepers during harvest, the court clerk does not generally tolerate excuses. Ranchers used to get a pass, too, but not anymore.

Schroeder’s presentation lasted 40 minutes. He brought in Bishop and Martin as witnesses. He also let deputy Gibbs’ testify. He showed photographs of Shane Ward’s body. He displayed, on a plastic tray, and sealed in transparent plastic bags stamped “EVIDENCE,” Morgan’s pot pipe, aluminum storage box, and the cache of cannabis. And he played Morgan’s confessions to Gibbs.

In his summation before this closed-door meeting, he took special care not to permit the grand jurors to make the Justin Morgan case a referendum on marijuana. That happened from time to time in drug possession cases.

“A lot of you, like myself when I was a younger man, might occasionally indulge,” Schroeder said. “But this case is not about marijuana. The law is not blaming marijuana. It is blaming Justin Morgan.”

“A gun is a safe in the hands of a responsible citizen. Fighter jets are safe in the hands of responsible governments. A car is safe when its driver operates it responsibly and sober. Likewise, use of marijuana or alcohol ought to be a private and innocuous affair, responsibly consumed.”

“But there is nothing innocuous about Justin Morgan’s use of drugs in this case. When Shane Ward needed Justin Morgan the most, Morgan was least equipped to help him. And remember, Marijuana is only one element of this case.

“Justin Morgan was supposed to be the leader. He was the host. He was the belayer. He was supposed to be the shepherd of this flock – the guardian angel on Hell’s Angel. He failed in every one of these roles. The drug use is just yet another example of his reckless indifference to the plight of Shane Ward that hot Saturday afternoon.”

It took the grand jury the better part of the day to deliberate. That is not a good sign for a prosecutor. It could mean the case is weak. Schroeder knew better, however. These were complicated facts. And good citizens in Henderson County always took time with murder charges. Well, at least when the murderer wasn’t a gang member, on meth or an illegal immigrant.

After breaking for lunch, reconvening, and then debating for another three hours, the grand jury indicted Morgan. The foreman signed the indictment document.

WE THE GRAND JURY hereby indict JUSTIC C. MORGAN, JR. for murder. We find that under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, JUSTIN C. MORGAN, JR. intentionally engaged in conduct which created a grave risk of death to the victim, Shane Ward, and thereby caused the death of Shane Ward.

If convicted, Morgan could get life without parole.

Bishop and Martin were not arrested, but they were charged. On the advice of their lawyers, Bishop and Martin pleaded guilty pursuant to plea bargains. They will serve thirty days in county prison. Each has agreed to testify against Morgan in his upcoming murder trial.

J. Christopher Robbins is a climber from Evergreen, Colorado. You can email him at chris@cherry-creek.net.

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80 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

 johnwesely
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 2009-06-04
1 out of 5 stars What an amazing crime drama. I am truly impressed.
 frogclimber
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 2009-06-04
Cool. Well written. I'm not convinced that that is murder though.
 johnwesely
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 2009-06-04
1 out of 5 stars It was totally murder. He was high on pot.
 Gmburns2000
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 2009-06-04
That's a good read, but is it real or fiction? Just curious when it happened and why I hadn't heard of it before today (or maybe I have and I'm not putting together the changes in names with the event).

Interesting, but curious.
 altelis
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 2009-06-04
5 out of 5 stars I totally second Greg's comments........and johweesely- i hope you are being sarcastic....groan....
 Guy03
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 2009-06-04
4 out of 5 stars Wow, that is terrible! Im going to need sometime to think about this one...
 alamuerte
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 2009-06-04
i'm gonna have to go with no murder here. if the jury consisted of a bunch of climbers who knew the sport and what your independent actions entailed ten he would be innocent. Ward died b/c he wasn't prepared to go on that climb; but he did. Weed is erroneous.
 jermanimal
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 2009-06-04
When I smoked pot, I turned into a bat and few around the room and woke up later at the bottom of a 30 foot ink well.
 dynosore
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 2009-06-04
If this were real, a manslaughter charge would stick.
 GeneralZon
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 2009-06-04
First degree murder would be hard to prove since the prosecution would have to prove that it was premeditated.

If the harness fit, you must acquit.
 md3
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 2009-06-04
We are not allowed to make closing arguments / summations to a Grand Jury.
 swoopee
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 2009-06-04
Great story. True? Untrue? Who knows? I guess we could try contacting J. Christopher Robbins to find out, if we really wanted to. Somehow I doubt that they'd get a conviction for 2nd degree murder in this case though, more likely criminally negligent manslaughter.
 robdotcalm
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 2009-06-04
5 out of 5 stars JCR: Thanks for this nicely written story, which raises a lot of interesting questions. Clearly Morgan failed big time in his duties as the de facto leader of the group, which included an inexperienced climber. Since he was not a professional guide being paid, I have no idea what would be the legal consequences of his derelict behavior (the most significant of which was not checking Ward’s tie-in knot).

Cheers,
Rob.calm
 iron106
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 2009-06-04
What a story. Most Grand Jury's are a rubber stamp to send cases to trial though. I would be suprised if Morgan would be convicted. Although ya naver no.
 areyoumydude
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 2009-06-04
That is just stupid.
 AltitudeJunkie
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 2009-06-04
it sounds to me like the cause of death in this story is the knot failed. tying into a harness correctly is pretty basic. if a person is doing a climb they know will require a harness, they should know how to tie into it properly. plus if they can't properly tie into a harness they shouldn't be doing multipitch.
 mikemind2002
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 2009-06-04
its not murder. each person better to be able to hold their own when it comes to high angle climbing. the dead guy clearly failed to take control.
 rtwilli4
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 2009-06-04
The Morgan guy was obviously a bit of a dick head... even his friends are testifying against him!

That doesn't mean that he is a criminal. Ward holds just as much responsibility. He hadn't been climbing in 13 years and decided to go lead the third pitch of a traditional route... on a slab... a wet slab... with tennis shoes... and no water!

It's a civil matter at best. Maybe in some crazy back water area they would bring criminal charges, and probably get a conviction because of the jury's lack of knowledge of climbing and ignorance when it comes to marijuana. If that were the case... I say all three of the climbers would be equally responsible. No one was paying Morgan. All three smoked weed.
 gripster
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 2009-06-04
it seems obvious to me that this is not murder. morgan was not hired as a guide, so shane entered into what is know as assumption of risk. he knew the sport was inherently dangerous, and he also knew that he was not hiring a professional guide. so by agreeing to go on the trip, he assumed all of the inherent risks that go along with climbing.
 altelis
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 2009-06-04
5 out of 5 stars To GeneralZon: something that a lot of people don't realize is that there is such a thing as "statutory first degree murder". What this means is that, despite the fact that the murder was not premeditated, there are specific criterion laid out in the statute (hence the name) that allow a murder to be called, tried as, and punished as, first degree murder.

I know in Florida, and other states, a murder committed during a felony, is a "statutory first degree murder". Likewise, in many states you if you hit and kill a pedestrian while driving because you were distracted by the sun-flare this could be tried as manslaughter. If you were drinking? Homicide. Depending on the laws in this state, if a similar rule is in place, and they also accused him of a felony possession, he could get hit with first degree murder....

Do I necessary think thats right? Not necessarily. That doesn't change the law though....
 johnwesely
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 2009-06-04
1 out of 5 stars My favorite part was the preachy bit about gateway drugs.
 j_ung
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 2009-06-04
“According to both Bishop and Martin, When Morgan brought out the marijuana prior to the climb, Ward complained. Each man remembered the words he used, as well as the emphasis: ‘Morgan, are you out of your fucking mind?’" --- So, not only did Ward assume the risk of climbing in general, but IMO, he also assumed the risk of being led up the wall by three stoned dudes. The victim knew they were rock climbing. The victim knew the other three were high at the time. And, according to the report, the victim knew it was a poor choice to follow, hence his own words: "out of your fucking mind." If that doesn't constitute an assumption of risk, I don't know what does.
 subantz
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 2009-06-04
4 out of 5 stars Weed if anything would paranoy the shit out of me and I probably wouldnt have climbed free solo at all. Sober on the other hand I may have made a different desicion
 dwadamcat
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 2009-06-04
As a beginner climber I have my 2 cents to put in. First it WAS an accident. The man who died let the peer pressure lead him to make a bad decision and go on a climb unprepared. The fact is as a former climber he should have been aware of what the climb would require and he was a middle aged adult male who should have been in tune enough with his body to know he was not physically capable. I myself smoked on my first climb and it was the only thing that convinced me I could repel. If not I would have been stuck for a long time... I know in my community many of the climbers do partake and they are some of the most amazing athletes I have ever seen. They may have helped contribute to his death by not parenting him but they arnt his parents. A full grown adult should be smart enough to not put themselves into that situation. I am just saying that at 23 with a Huge ego, there is no way as shit even my hero's could convince me to do a climb I knew I was not experienced enough to do. If I did, I would be accepting the fact that death could be the consequence. I am in no way a marijuana advocate as it has its problems but come on when will those damn weed police finally get stoned themselves and see how weed really effects people.
 subantz
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 2009-06-04
4 out of 5 stars OK maybe this is alittle selfish, but I would like to see a picture of the route. It sounds amazing wings on a humanoid. I just wanted to see what it looks like.
 shimanilami
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 2009-06-04
I'm going to take another bong hit and think this one over a bit.
 fresh
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 2009-06-04
if I wrote the laws this case would be thrown out. Ward saw all the facts, made a choice, and paid the ultimate price for it.

but that doesn't mean morgan wasn't a complete d-bag of a leader. there should be some kind of price for him to pay, though I dunno how it would go legally.

I wonder how often this kind of thing happens, minus the death?

oh yeah, and is it true or not true?
 mooredesign13
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 2009-06-04
Looks to me like a case where Morgan and his friends intended on scaring and humiliating Ward, but not to kill him. Dick head climbers do this on a regular basis, even to their own friends, and usually it's safe sandbagging, but in this case First degree murder is a bit of a stretch. Perhaps manslaughter or at least criminal negligence. I know people who smoke and climb but personally i wont let anyone do it if they are roped up with me... as for this story, pot has little to do with the outcome. What would have mattered more would be more info as to the relationship between Morgan and Ward.
 jorgegonzalez
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 2009-06-04
Refer the dumbshit to me, been doing criminal defense in Los Angeles for 27 years +. The cop is obviously biased as hell, and I can call tons of expert climbers who smoked pot from the minute they woke up till they went to sleep at night, and always, always climbed high. And they climbed at the highest of standards, establishing classis climbs considered hard today with advanced technology and sticky rubber. The one guy who didn't smoke didn't tie in right, and the others didn't owe him a duty other than as friends, i.e., they were not a commercial enterprise. Hell, I used to own a bong made from pcv pipe which we regularly carried on our climbs. NOT GUILTY!
 curator
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 2009-06-04
"Ward was on belay at the time. Or so he thought. Upon seeing him fall, belayer and climb leader, Justin Morgan, tensioned the rope in his tuber. It arrested Ward’s drop. He hung safely for a few moments. But before Ward could find safety back on the cliff, his rope detached from his harness."

Am I misreading this....or misunderstanding? How could he fall and have the rope arrest his fall for a few moments then fail? It seems that if he didn't tie in correctly the knot would have failed under the higher load generated during the fall. How could he fall, stop, then fall?
 Toast_in_the_Machine
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 2009-06-04
I'm sorry, without a stick diagram, I just can follow this accident report. Please get MS on this immediately.
 flatlanderAB
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 2009-06-05
WARNING

Climbing is dangerous. Understand the risks involved before participating. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN ACTIONS AND DECISIONS. If you climb with someone who is high thats your choice, just as getting into a car with someone who has had a drink. If you DO NOT know how to tie a figure of eight or bowline with a backup knot to tie in get someone to show you. If you don't check your own knot/harness and your partners knot/harness you are a fool.
 heidt410
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 2009-06-05
Why are some questioning fact or fiction?... unaware.

regardless of the weed, Morgan was just being a bad leader. Hard to say the weed had anything thing to due with his actions. Sure doesnt make you a better climber, and I would be hesitant to climb with anyone smoking before a climb and being like "duuuude, just solo the 5.8 friction, brah..." but I think he would be responsible to a certain degree... hard to say murder when he set up a belay mid climb and did his part to arrest the fall.

 newclimbing08
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 2009-06-05
Bad leader or not Morgan was not a paid guide...If you get in the car with a drunk driver and they wreck the car and you die, is it that persons fault?
I think people need to stop blaming others. It would be one thing if Morgan was paid, then he would be responsible for the well being of his customer.
I personally would not let someone lead me 1000 feet up a rock face while they were stoned. I am very selective about who I climb with for obvious reasons. Mislead or not, you can't always take someone's words as facts. Do a search, find some information about what your getting into (don't dive into murky water).


 climberclif
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 2009-06-05
Maybe if he'd smoked a little bit of weed with the other guys he would've slowed down enough to make sure his eight was tied right, and he wouldn't be dead......
 phoenixfire
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 2009-06-06
Sounds like a bad after school special...seems like someone would have caught wind of this accident/case before now and made a bigger stink of it before this was printed. I respectfully question the validity of the article.
 saphius
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 2009-06-06
It's less like getting in a car with a drunk driver.

It's more like a drunk guy jumps in the back of a sober guy's car, they drive around for a bit, the drunk guy notices the car is making funny sounds and has his own seatbelt on.

The car loses control and hits into a brick wall. Turns out the driver, sober, didn't have his seatbelt on and, well, he dies.

They then charge the drunk guy for his death.

Makes no sense.
 dead_horse_flats
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 2009-06-06
1 out of 5 stars

Fiction.

 the_pete_war
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 2009-06-07
4 out of 5 stars Very interesting. However, is it true? Because I know quite a few people that behave that way before climbing. And some climbing "accidents" result of reckless behavior...
 milesenoell
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 2009-06-07
OK, the author is J Christopher Robbins... like from Winnie the Pooh.

Just as an aside though... the lessons I take from this are: never say yes to the police, oh and it's good to check each other out before you leave the ground.

As for legal status, Ward expressed his awareness of the elevated risk before leaving the ground, and Morgan is only a friend not a guide so I don't expect that any jury would see it as murder, maybe manslaughter in a really conservative county, but even that's ify.
 elwood54
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 2009-06-07
fiction
 icyfrosty
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 2009-06-08
Very interesting story, I liked it for what it was :)
 sprog
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 2009-06-08
Yeah, looks like manslaughter at most, not murder, if this is true...still if you're taking a less experienced climber out you ought to be responsible and look after them (just as much as you should know your own limits and not let yourself get in over your head if you're the less experienced climber)...either way I wouldn't climb with someone who had just done pot any more than I would get in a car with a drunk driver.
 tradpuppy
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 2009-06-08
stoned Sandbagging is muuuurder!
 streetshark
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 2009-06-09
4 out of 5 stars Blame aside, we as climbers have the responsibility to check each others knots and harness before pursuing a climb. It is just safe practice. Both climbers, Morgan and Ward, are responsible for checking all points of safety. If this was done "correctly," then it is likely that no incident would have occurred. Both persons appear to be negligent in this case. Morgan should have checked the knot, and Ward should have passed on the climb.
 pink_flamingo
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 2009-06-09
Lesson of the day - don't talk to the cops.
 ClimbSoHigh
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 2009-06-09
This is what I have taken away,

1. This is a false sroty.
2. This would not be murder, at least under US law.
3. This story is written as an anti-pot campain. Reefer KILLS peope!!!!
4. Climbing multipitch trad is dangerous, especially stoned, even more when someone is inexperienced.
5. The "murderer" went out of his way to stop and belayed him and the fall was arested so the belayer did everything right. Sounds like fatty must have untied himself after falling.

I love it when propaganda works its way into places still. The author claims a sober, fully grown man with adequate intellegence, decided to free solo with 3 stoned guys. A stoner stoned is about the same risk as a normal person really tired. I know plenty of people who are absent minded naturally, and they are way more dangerous than a drunk. This article reminds me of Reefer Madness. Just like that first time I smoked I thought it was funny to shoot my girlfriend. I was hoping for a story closer to The Eiger Sanction, what a let down. , Now remember kiddies, if you get stoned while climbing you will not only kill your friends, but you will also be a dirty sandbagger and be convicted of murder!!! Remeber society like alchoholics way more than potheads, because our countries founders drank about a half litre of wisky daily, and the lumber industry would have been out of business to hemp products.

That all being said I do not lead climb ever with pot heads, nor spacy/flakey indviduals. I would however prefer a drunk stoner over a ditzy, mechanically dumb, partner. I have read my petzl label and apparently climbing is inherantly dangerous...interesting.
 oscarolea
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 2009-06-09
Good for a movie!
 Jeremy165
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 2009-06-10
I agree with several things and disagree with several.

Weed doesn't kill people. Alcohol and tobacco kill people. Yes weed impairs skills but not like alcohol. This is one of the most incorrect thing about the Amercian culture - alcohol is embraced and given out without thought as a social thing. Weed is looked at by many as in the same class as heroin. You'll know you've got one when they call weed "dope." I bet these are the same people who get hammered on whiskey and beat their wive.

In the above story the death is obviously the fault of the deceased. Your partner has the responsibility to check your gear but sometimes, like in multipitch, its not possible to check your partner's knot. Correctly tieing my knot and remembering not to untie the damn thing is 100% your own responsibility.

If when I'm climbing and take a fall or am hanging for a rest I notice that my backup knot isn't looking tight and dressed I take the time to correct and ensure I am tied in. This is the responsibility of he or she on the sharp end. Also, unless I'm bringing my 5 year old cousin on a hike, or I'm on a VI multipitch, there are very few times I really keep tabs on my partners' water intake. Should I make sure they have regular bowel movements too?
 phoenixfire
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 2009-06-10
Cant we get this removed or relocated from the main homepage spot and have something important up...like about the loss of the 3 climbers in China or an other important current event?

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