By Colin Bane
In the early hours of December 30, 2008, the Eldora Mountain Ski Resort lift crew filed into the staff room for their pre-shift meeting. As the groggy lifties settled into chairs, another Eldora employee entered. His name was Derik Bonestroo, 24, and he was armed with a small arsenal of weapons including a .357-magnum revolver, a .44 magnum revolver, and a Glock 20 10mm semiautomatic handgun. Bonestroo swung an axe with one hand and fired a warning round into the ceiling with the other before promising to kill anyone who didn’t identify as Christian. It appeared that yet another mass killing was about to commence. But just then, Eldora’s longtime and much beloved mountain manager Brian Mahon burst into the room. When Bonestroo asked him his religion, Mahon answered: Catholic. Bonestroo shot Mahon once in the chest and once in the head, killing him instantly, but spared everyone else in the room as he fled. In the minutes following the murder, Bonestroo led ski patrol on a car chase to a nearby intersection, where, in a standoff with Sheriff’s deputies, he shot himself.
“You want to think it can’t happen here, in our mountain paradise playgrounds,” says Neil Colclough, a security expert who worked at Vail Resorts following the 1998 Two Elk Lodge arson and who has been advising the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) and other industry groups since the Eldora shooting. But subsequent incidents involving guns at other resorts show it wasn’t an isolated event.
In January 2015, a 15-year-old boy was arrested after two separate incidents of attempted sexual assault on teenage girls he’d ridden up the chairlift with at Monarch Ski Area in Colorado, then forced into the trees at the side of a run. He fired a handgun during the second attempt, and was later charged with felony menacing, aggravated criminal extortion, enticement of a child, and other charges.
Then in October 2015, deputies from California’s Kern County Sherriff’s department dug up Alta Sierra Ski Resort employee Carl Woolwine’s body from a shallow grave. He’d been shot in the head, allegedly by a supervisor on the resort’s maintenance crew.
Beyond suicides (see “One Way to Die in the West”; Deep Winter, 2016), these were the only major gun-related incidents at American resorts in recent years, but they have prompted many ski areas to change how they work to prevent, prepare for, and respond to similar threats. “Some have developed comprehensive active shooter scenarios in their crisis plans,” says Colclough. “You want to be implementing these controls at your leisure, versus being forced to by a bad event.”
In today’s climate, such planning seems more vital than ever. During peak season, bigger resorts can see as many as 20,000 visitors clustered into one base village. After the Boston Marathon bombings and the Bastille Day attack on tourists in Nice, France, Colclough says there’s a heightened awareness around protecting those kinds of crowds.
During his tenure with Vail, Colclough worked with the Town of Vail Emergency Planning Committee and the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships Safety and Security Committee, instituting increased surveillance, bag checks, bomb-sniffing dogs, and other measures for that high-profile international event. He has also collaborated with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Infrastructure Protection to help identify and address vulnerabilities and protective measures at mountain resorts, and in 2016, at the NSAA regional Winter Conferences, he led seminars on how to deal with active shooter scenarios.
But in terms of preemptive steps to curb such violence, especially of the active shooter ilk, Dave Byrd, Director of Risk & Regulatory Affairs for the NSAA, says the association doesn’t enforce any specific policies on gun possession. “The [state] laws are a patchwork quilt of individual rules and regulations,” he says. “And given the wide diversity of our skiing or snowboarding guests, with an equally wide range of sharp political viewpoints, I am not aware of any ski area policy that would ban guns directly.”
And state laws do vary wildly. Among states with ski areas, Wyoming’s gun laws are the least restrictive—permits aren’t required for purchasing, registering, licensing, or carrying firearms—and California is the strictest, prohibiting large capacity magazines among other limits. But in most ski states, concealed carry and open carry of firearms is legal.
For his part, Colclough is a proponent of resorts putting clear firearm policies in place as a mitigating control. “It’s important to set the expectation up front, both for the employee and for the consumer,” he says. “Gun violence in this country is real, the threat of terrorism is real, and American ski resorts have some real vulnerabilities.”
Short of installing metal detectors at the base of chairlifts to screen for firearms, it’s fair to assume that some skiers and snowboarders could be carrying firearms on the mountain. Given that deranged shooters have turned to movie theaters, nightclubs, and even elementary schools to deliver mass killings, Byrd says the NSAA is reminding its members to be vigilant. Derik Bonestroo came to Eldora sufficiently armed to take many more lives than Brian Mahon’s and his own, in what might just as easily have been a mass shooting event. Byrd says he hopes the lessons from that morning will make Mahon’s murder the last mountain resort casualty of its kind.
From the Early Winter 2016 issue.