Hot Water for a Group of Teens and Young Adults Who Find Little Mercy
The Heavy Hand of the Law Reaches into the Mormon Community; ‘Come on, dude’
- Published In: Criminal Justice
- Last Updated: Jun 02, 2022
Astoria Hot Springs Park features five man-made soaking pools filled with natural thermal waters. The Astoria Park Conservancy owns the pools. (Wyoming Truth photo by Sargent Schutt)
By Alec Klein
Special to the Wyoming Truth
JACKSON, Wyo. — Packed in a Subaru Outback, they crossed the red bridge shimmering in Christmas lights under light snowfall. Then they turned left, hugging the edge of the craggy mountains in pitch black. And there it was: steam emanating from pools of water, defying the shuddering frost of winter. It was about 8:30 p.m. on January 7 last year, at the Astoria Hot Springs Park carved out of the wilderness, and everything was about to change.
“It was kind of mystical,” Josh Dawson, now 22 years old, recalls of the rising mist.
It all started out innocently enough. There were six of them—Josh and his older brother, Theo, and sister, Stormy, along with their two cousins and a friend—all teenagers or in their early 20s. They wanted to spend one last evening relaxing together before the end of their winter break.
So, in their bathing suits, they climbed into the hot springs pool. “Just hanging out, talking,” says Allysa Johnson, now 20 years old, a friend of the Dawsons who had just moved to Jackson.
The following day, Josh would head back to Snow College in Utah where he played middle linebacker. Not long before, he had returned from Bolivia, where he had served on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often referred to as the Mormon Church.
His brother, Theo, would also return to school, Brigham Young University, where he, too, played middle linebacker. Theo, who is 24, had also served as a missionary, in Chile. Allysa would be heading back to BYU as well.
For about 45 minutes, they swapped stories and regaled each other with jokes. No alcohol. No drugs. No intimacy. No vandalism.
At 9:23 p.m., Tristan Shockley, the co-manager of the Astoria Hot Springs Park, texted a message to his friend, Ted Dawson, the father of Josh, Theo and Stormy. Tristan wanted to let Ted know that someone had called the sheriff’s office, complaining that poachers had trespassed at the hot springs pools.
When the manager checked the security video feed, Tristan instantly recognized one of the people in the pool: It looked like Theo.
“It’s no biggie,” Tristan texted Theo’s dad, Ted.
Tristan declined to comment for this article.
Moments later, a harsh spotlight caught the six in the pool. A sheriff’s squad car pulled up.
“Whoa,” Josh thought.
“We tried to hide for a second,” Theo says sheepishly.
But submerging under water was not an effective plan.
Get out of the pool, one of the sheriff’s deputies ordered; you’re trespassing.
They complied, stepping out of the pool, dripping wet in freezing temperatures. Two other squad cars arrived in short order. About five officers in all stepped out.
At first, the officers told the group that they would simply receive a ticket and fine and be on their way with a warning; Astoria Hot Springs and Park, after all, is a nonprofit owned by a conservancy, with regular hours, which were over, and an admissions fee, which hadn’t been paid in this instance.
The six of them stood there, shivering in their bathing suits for several minutes, while the officers checked their identifications.
“Our hair was all frozen,” Allysa says.
About 20 minutes later, one of the officers came back with a different take on the situation: He informed them that they were now facing criminal trespassing charges. What had started as a little lark among family and friends had become decidedly more serious.
Josh worried what this kind of legal trouble would mean for his status on the college football team. His brother Theo wondered the same thing. “My heart literally dropped in my chest,” he said, concerned he might get kicked off the team. Stormy, Theo’s twin, fretted she would be removed from her nursing school program. All three were also blaming their little brother, Colter, now 18, who wasn’t with them at the hot springs but had given them the idea in the first place.
And they wondered how a ticket and small fine had turned suddenly into a criminal charge.
“We don’t know,” Allysa says.
The bedraggled bunch trudged their way home to let Ted know what had happened at the hot springs. But Ted already knew, having already received the text from the hot springs manager.
What’s more, Ted knew the owner of the hot springs. The two were family friends. Ted, 53, who owns a real estate firm with six offices in the area, figured his kids and the rest of the group would apologize for the pool excursion and that would be the end of that.
“I was laughing,” Ted says, when he greeted the scofflaws.
“Hey, what’s up, you Shawshank convicts?” he quipped, referring to the classic movie, “The Shawshank Redemption,” about a man who endured years of torment in prison.
“It can’t be that big of a deal,” Ted surmised of the situation with his children and friends.
Ted was right—in theory.
Todd Seeton, the hot springs manager, didn’t want to press charges. Todd was frustrated because others had been trespassing lately, including one person who had been arrested after being caught being high on drugs and skinny dipping in the pools. Todd just wanted the group to apologize and pay the entry fee ($14 for local adults; $10 for local kids under the age 13).
“The Dawsons are great people and certainly they’re an asset to community,” Todd says. “Unfortunately, it all happened at a time when we were experiencing night trespass swimmers.”
Ted readily agreed to make amends—and offered even more. His three kids and the others involved would trek back to the hot springs weeks later on their next break from school—a trip of some five hours—and, in the dead of winter, drain, scrub, bleach and clean the cavernous pools of algae. What’s more, they would participate in a social media campaign to stop poaching the pool.
As it turned out, all of that wasn’t enough—at least not for the Teton County prosecutor’s office.
The long arm of the law intended to move forward with criminal charges, even though the owner of the hot springs reached out to the prosecutors, explaining that he was satisfied with what the group had done to make amends and didn’t want to press charges.
The prosecutors were unmoved. Ted was perplexed; to him, this was a minor matter involving young people, making a small mistake that could be handled well in a neighborly way. Why would the prosecutors want to pursue this case when there were serious crimes to bring to justice?
“This is what nobody knows,” he says.
Indeed, Ted reached out to a friend, a former Teton prosecutor who is now a judge in another county, seeking his opinion about the situation. “The stupidest thing.” That’s what Ted said his friend remarked about the prosecutors’ criminal pursuit of the matter.
Ted figured he would appeal to reason, emailing Erin E. Weisman, the elected Teton County and prosecuting attorney, and James L. Radda, the circuit court judge before whom the matter was set to appear.
In a Feb. 22 email to authorities, Ted acknowledged the group had made “a silly mistake” when they had gone to the hot springs. “This was not a malicious offense, but a bad judgment,” he wrote. Ted also made the point that, “All the kids realized they had screwed up, as you know 3 of them grew up here and never so much as had a ticket through their time in Jackson.”
Ted’s kids have been known not just for their prowess on the gridiron but for their positive community involvement. For instance, back in 2015, Josh, his brother Theo and their sister Stormy all fought to reinstate “America Day,” a homecoming event, at Jackson Hole High School. Apparently, some students felt “America Day” carried anti-immigrant connotations. Josh, Theo and Stormy fought in favor of the patriotic, flag-waving event.
In his February email to the prosecutor and judge, Ted appealed for mercy for the pool incident, saying he wanted to “free up the courts time and handle this internally…”
What Ted received were formal responses with little recourse.
Judge Radda replied in an email, “In Wyoming, a judge has no authority to dismiss a case under the circumstances you have described. Plea negotiations have to occur, if at all, with the prosecuting attorney.”
Plea negotiations for a pool event?
Judge Radda declined to comment for this article.
Weisman, the top elected prosecutor, emailed Ted as well, noting, “It would be wholly inappropriate for me to discuss any of these cases, or any other criminal cases for that matter, with you.”
Weisman did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Ted was even more baffled. Weisman had known him and his family for years, and in her email, she not only seemed clinically cold to him but only vaguely aware that this matter involved his children—“defendants who I believe may be your sons,” she remarked.
Even more, Ted emailed Weisman back, asking, could they “hopefully avoid potentially wasting the courts time if it could be handled outside of the courts?”
No such luck.
Ted had to hire a local attorney, Dick Mulligan. As part of the back-and-forth between lawyers, the prosecutors said that if the group pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor, their convictions would be expunged later. Fine. They relented—until another unexpected complication arose.
The mother of Kirsten Marstella, now 20 and an attendee of the hot springs pool event, called Ted in a panic.
Kirsten was planning to go on an 18-month mission to Chile to spread the word of Jesus Christ and serve the community. But the Mormon Church said she couldn’t go if she had a criminal conviction.
The lawyers conferred again. Another solution was reached: Kirsten and the others would receive a deferred adjudication, where they admitted to the charge but the conviction would not be entered for the time being; the court could place the defendants on probation for a period. But the church said Kirsten couldn’t go on her mission while on probation.
The lawyers conferred yet again. Yet another solution was reached: The probation would be pushed two years into the future, so Kirsten could leave for her mission in Chile before she incurred a rap sheet.
So much for that plan.
COVID-19 scuttled the overseas trip, trumping the prosecution. Instead, Kirsten went to Tacoma, Wash., where she’s still on her mission.
The prosecutors, however, extracted a bit more proverbial flesh from the pool trespassers. They paid court fees and each agreed to 10 hours of community service. They were also banned from the hot springs for a year. By mid-March, the matter was finally over.
Well, not completely.
A gnawing sense prevails among Ted and the group that none of this should have happened. In another time, in another place, they believe reasonable people would have handled this in a reasonable way, without turning it into a criminal court case.
“Yeah, they broke the law,” Ted says, “but at the end of the day, was it malicious and [with an] intent to hurt? Not at all. If anybody needs a break, after these last 14 to 16 months, it’s the kids.” He was referring to how COVID-19 had wiped out events like prom and the football season. “Are you serious? This is the way you’re going to punish kids?”
Allyssa calls the prosecutors’ actions “super frustrating. It’s too much, super blown over. I don’t understand. I think we’re good kids.”
When Josh looks back on what happened, he says, “It’s kind of one of those, ‘Come on, dude, what are you trying to prove? What’s going on?’” He shrugs. “Just gotta do the time.”
Could a hardened criminal have said it any differently?
“It’s just annoying,” says his brother Theo. “Yeah, what we did, we shouldn’t’ve done, but at the end of the day, we did more than restitute for what we did and we’re still on probation.”
Theo has earned something of a rep, too. His football teammates teasingly call Theo, who maintains a perfect 4.0 grade point average, the “convict.”