Gage Colton Moore will serve one year in the San Juan County jail and 36 months of probation for his involvement in a crash that caused the death of two of his peers.
Moore pleaded guilty to the four charges levied against him — two second-degree felony counts of automobile homicide and criminal negligence of DUI alcohol/drugs as well as two counts of reckless endangerment, both class A misdemeanors.
After hearing testimony from Moore and the victims’ families, Monticello’s Seventh District Court Judge Lyle R. Anderson issued the ruling before a standing-room only courtroom.
“I’m not really sure what can be said because this is clearly a very devastating event for the families involved and for the community,” Anderson said. “Anyone who has children knows that were you to lose one, that would be a loss that really never goes away. It would be with you until the end of your own life.”
In the early morning hours of March 5, Moore lost control of a vehicle carrying four Grand County teenagers on the La Sal Mountain Loop Road.
Two local high school students were instantly killed as a result of the crash — Connor Denney, 16, and Taylor Bryant, 14. Daniel McCrary, a 17-year-old sophomore at Grand County High School and Tierney DeMille, 14, an eighth-grade student at Grand County Middle School, were critically injured.
During the court proceedings Monday, the victims’ families, including Loni Hayes, Denney’s mother, called for greater “consequences” for Moore. Under maximum sentencing guidelines, Moore could have faced up to 30 years in prison.
“Taking responsibility for his actions I don’t think is one year,” Hayes said.
Through tears, Hayes described the horror of learning that her son had died in the March 5 accident.
“I didn’t get notified by anybody. I found out on Facebook and it was a direct statement saying ‘Connor’s dead,’” Hayes said, crying. “ … I was told that Connor was unidentifiable and they had bagged him and tagged him as evidence and ‘you could touch a bag if you want.’ I couldn’t. I was sitting there in disbelief that it was even my son.”
Later in the proceedings, Anderson said that no court ruling could restore such a loss for the victims’ families.
“I cannot require anything of Gage that will give back to these families what they have lost,” Anderson said. “That’s impossible.”
Moore’s attorney, Tara Isaacson, said her client accepts full responsibility for his actions.
“Nothing I’m going to say today or that Gage will say today is going to change the fact that two young people lost their lives and two young people were seriously injured, as was Gage,” Isaacson said. “He understands he stands here today fully responsible for that, there’s no one else to blame.”
During Moore’s probation he will be subject to conditions including no consumption of alcohol or any other controlled substances, as well as curfews and possible GPS monitoring. Moore will also have to pay restitution to the victims’ families, which will be determined at a later date.
Family, friends testify at hearing
Witness testimony provided at the hearing gave greater details of the events that led to the tragic accident.
Earlier in the evening March 5, the four teenagers were playing video games and hanging out at McCrary’s house when they decided to sneak out and go for a late-night walk.
McCrary testified that the group became tired and — spotting Moore in a parked car — asked for a ride home.
San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws asserts that Moore had attended “at least one post-prom party” that night, and was described by friends in attendance as “stupid drunk.”
After the four teenagers entered the vehicle, McCrary told the court that Moore drove past his house “but none of us said anything.” Moore then drove the teenagers towards Sand Flats Recreation Area and later the La Sal Mountains, McCrary said, hitting speeds of “at least 120, 125” mph on the 40 mph La Sal Mountain Loop Road.
The San Juan County Attorney’s Office said that Moore was traveling between 60 to 80 mph at the time 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,” McCrary said, describing the lacerations and brain injuries he suffered as a result of the accident.
Although she did not speak before the court, DeMille sat in a chair as her mother, Honey Dawson, described the post-traumatic stress disorder and many surgeries her daughter has suffered from the accident. DeMille had difficulty walking to the chair 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” because of the crash.
“Taylor put [my daughter’s] seatbelt on her and I thank the Lord everyday 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 some dropped charges against Moore involving second-degree felony sexual abuse of a child and lewdness involving a child, a class-A misdemeanor.
Describing Moore’s behavior towards the young girls, McCrary said that he “grabbed their faces and kissed them.”
The sex-related charges — as well as several others — were dropped in Monticello’s 7th District Juvenile Court July 21 after a plea agreement was reached between the prosecution and the defense.
Anderson said that he would not take the prior sexual charges into consideration in his ruling Aug. 14, noting that those claims 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 it's probably something more young men than we would like to see have tried.”
Kim Bryant, Taylor Bryant’s mother, told The Times-Independent she believes Moore’s sentence “sends a terrible message to our teen community.” Bryant said she and other members of the victims’ families were taken by surprise at Monday’s sentencing hearing.
“We agreed to the plea, because we were made to believe that the judge did not have to accept it, that he would take into account the victims’ statements, along with the seriousness of the crime before handing down the sentencing,” she said. “In all honesty, did I expect Gage to be sentenced to the maximum sentence? No. However, I did expect that the judge would have some regard to the serious nature of the crimes that were committed, and pass down a reasonable sentence.”
Although a plea agreement was not an option he “relished or loved,” Laws said that it was ultimately important to the prosecution to get Moore into the adult system.
“With the stark difference in consequences between the two systems in mind,” Laws said. “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.”
According to Laws, Moore’s driver’s license should be suspended because this charge is based on a DUI.
“There are two things about the charges he pled to that most people don’t realize, [first] it is a DUI and will come with all of the normal DUI consequences, such as [a] suspended license,” Laws said. “[Second] in Utah, once you get a felony DUI, every DUI you ever get is an automatic felony. Usually it takes four DUIs for a felony.”
After Anderson issued his ruling, some of those gathered in the courtroom gasped audibly.
Many friends and family 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 loudly 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.
Addressing Moore, Anderson told the teenager 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,” 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 accident, thinking over all the lives affected by his actions. He said he would 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.”
Moore wept as he began describing his deceased peers, calling Denney a “great guy with a big heart” and Bryant a “beautiful soul.”
“There is no way I can take this horrible thing back,” a tearful Moore said. “I can only apologize from the deepest part of my heart … I am so sorry.”
Times-Independent reporter Jeff Richards contributed to this story.