A Moab teen whose reckless driving caused the death of two of his peers will face one year of detention in San Juan County jail and three years of probation, a 7th District judge ruled Monday.
During his initial appearance in adult court, Gage Colton Moore pleaded guilty to four charges — two second-degree felony counts of automobile homicide and criminal negligence of DUI alcohol/drugs, and two counts of reckless endangerment, both class A misdemeanors.
In addition to his jail sentence, Moore’s probation restricts him from consuming alcohol or controlled substances; it also includes curfews and possible GPS monitoring. Moore was ordered to pay restitution to the victims’ families in an amount that will be determined later.
The crash occurred in the early morning hours of March 5 after Grand County High School’s junior prom. Moore was driving a sedan when he lost control on a curve on the La Sal Mountain Loop Road near Moab, ejecting three passengers and claiming the lives of Grand County High School students Taylor Bryant, 14, and Connor Denney, 16.
Two other passengers — a 17-year-old boy and a 14-year old girl — were in critical condition after the crash.
Earlier that evening, the four teenagers sneaked out of the 17-year-old’s house to go for a walk and spotted Moore in a parked car, according to the San Juan County attorney’s office.
The 17-year-old testified Monday that the group was tired and asked Moore for a ride home.
San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws asserts that Moore had attended “at least one ‘post prom party’” that night, described by friends in attendance as “stupid drunk.”
When the four teenagers entered the vehicle, the 17-year-old victim told the court that Moore passed his house and instead drove toward the mountains near Moab. According to the boy, Moore drove at speeds of “at least 120, 125” mph on the La Sal Mountain Loop Road, which has a speed limit of 40 mph.
The San Juan County attorney’s office estimates that Moore was traveling between 60 to 80 mph when he lost control of the vehicle, causing it to roll multiple times.
“I was going to tell him to slow down, but he already pulled the [parking] brake and we crashed,” the 17-year old victim said, describing lacerations and brain injuries he suffered that night.
Although she did not speak before the court, the 14-year-old victim sat in a chair as her mother, Honey Dawson, described the many surgeries her daughter has needed since the crash. The 14-year-old had difficulty walking to the stand and was visibly upset as her mother spoke.
Dawson, pointing to her daughter’s scars, said she “almost lost her right foot” and “has no ankle now.”
“Taylor [Bryant] put [my daughter’s] seat belt on her, and I thank the lord every day that she did, but I wish she would have been able to do that herself,” Dawson said. “She saved my daughter.”
Dawson also called her daughter a “victim of sexual abuse,” asking the court to reconsider dropped felony and misdemeanor charges against Moore.
The 17-year-old victim described Moore’s behavior toward the girls, saying he “grabbed their faces and kissed them.”
The assault charges — as well as several others — were dropped July 21, after the prosecution and the defense made a plea agreement.
Judge Lyle Anderson said he would not take the prior sexual charges into consideration in his ruling Monday, noting that their allegations did not cross the “criminal threshold.”
“It was something that would make a father furious at a young man … but it didn’t cross the criminal threshold,” Anderson said. “And I think its probably something more young men than we would like to see have tried.”
Although reaching a plea agreement was not an option that Laws “relished or loved,” it was important to get Moore into the adult system, he said, acknowledging what he calls the many shortcomings with the juvenile justice system.
“With the stark difference in consequences between the two systems in mind, we struck a plea deal, after consulting with the families and getting their feedback, that would get Mr. Moore into the adult system, something that wasn’t very likely without him waiving his right to a certification hearing, with a year of jail time and 36 months of probation to either turn his life around or fail and run the risk of going to prison for a very long time,” Laws said.
Moore’s lawyer, Tara Isaacson, said that accepting responsibility for his actions could lead to a one-year prison term with three-years of probation.
“I want you to know that Gage takes full responsibility, but taking responsibility means taking into consideration a lot of factors,” Isaacson said. “He was a 17-year-old man; he did make bad choices, but he is here to take responsibility, and that can be done with a suspended prison term.”
In court Monday, the victims’ families repeatedly called for harsher sentencing. Under maximum sentencing guidelines, Moore could have faced up to 30 years in prison.
“My heart goes out to Gage. He made a terrible mistake, and he will always have to live with that pain, as we all do,” said Kim Bryant, Taylor Bryant‘s mother. “But most of us are taught from a very young age that there are consequences for our actions. I feel Gage needs to be held accountable for his actions, and that he should serve the maximum sentence.”
After Anderson issued the sentence, gasps filled the standing-room-only courtroom.
Many friends and family members of the victims immediately exited the courtroom after the ruling, calling it “ridiculous” and “a slap on the wrist.” One woman, upon leaving the courtroom, screamed in aguish.
Throughout the court proceedings — especially as the victims’ families spoke — Moore was visibly upset, often holding his head in his hands and wiping tears from his eyes.
Anderson told Moore on Monday that he is not “beyond redemption.”
“You will have to recognize that the total enormity of the loss is such that you will never be able to repay it. … But you can make something of your life. You are not beyond redemption,” Anderson said. “… You maybe have more reasons than anyone else to try to make something of your life … be a good man, be a responsible man, and think before you act and free yourself of any addiction.”
Moore told the court that he lives with guilt every day as a result of the crash, thinking over all the lives affected by his actions. He said he will carry this guilt for the rest of his life.
“Since the accident, I am getting the help I need for my drinking problems and careless behavior. I take full responsibility for my actions,” Moore said. “… I started participating in a group program to teach me how to deal with my problems in a more positive and productive way. My hope is to use this tragic experience as a way to help others and prevent something like this from happening to others in the future.”
When he began describing his deceased peers — calling Denney a “great guy with a big heart” and describing Bryant as a “beautiful soul” — Moore wept.
“There is no way I can take this horrible thing back,” Moore said. “I can only apologize from the deepest part of my heart.”