Judge dismisses seat-slashing case

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SANDPOINT — A felony vandalism charge against a Bonner County man accused of slashing dozens of chair lift seat covers at Schweitzer Mountain Resort was dismissed on Wednesday.

Magistrate Court Judge Justin Julian dismissed the charge against David Donald Markwardt because the state was unable to show during a preliminary hearing that the damages met or exceeded the $1,000-threshold that elevates a misdemeanor offense to the felony level.

Julian dismissed the charge without prejudice, which means the state can revive the case. Markwardt still remains subject to a civil lawsuit filed by the resort in attempt to recover the damages and bar Markwardt from accessing the slopes.

The seat cover vandalism has vexed the resort since the 2011 winter season. More than 60 seats were slashed on five lifts, causing nearly $8,000 in damage, according to court documents.

Resort employees testified that they kept a running tally of the chairs that had already been damaged and were watchful of any new acts of vandalism.

Basin Express operator Amy Yearwood testified that she was advised of fresh vandalism was detected on the Great Escape Quad on Jan. 15. She noticed two chairs were damaged on her lift and gave a heads-up radio call to staff at the Lakeview Triple that the suspect — clad in a red coat, black pants and a balaclava — appeared to be headed their way.

Ski Patrolman Jonah Pucci testified that he confronted a skier that fit that description and asked him if knew anything about the damage, which also turned up on the chair the suspect had just gotten off of.

“No, but I’ve ridden a lot of chairs that have been slashed,” Pucci recalled the skier saying.

Nate Widgren, the resort’s security director, told the court that the damage was remarkably similar on the stricken chairs. The chairs had multiple slash marks that were 1-2 inches apart in the middle of the chair, where single riders are instructed to sit. The damage was fan-shaped and broadened toward the front of the chair.

“Early on in the investigation, there wasn’t a whole lot to go on,” Widgren testified.

Resort officials zeroed in on Markwardt as a suspect by examining lift ticket sales, scans of the tickets in lift lines and available video footage from surveillance cameras.

Markwardt’s defense counsel, Frederick Loats, emphasized during the hearing that nobody witnessed his client perpetrating vandalism and none of the witnesses could testify that the man in the red coat was in fact Markwardt.

Although there was evidence of vandalism from last season, no evidence was introduced regarding vandalism from prior seasons, which threw into doubt whether there was enough damage to warrant a felony charge.

Julian held that the state’s “best-case scenario” during the hearing was that there was evidence of misdemeanor vandalism.

It is not clear if Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Roger Hanlon will seek to have the charge re-filed. Hanlon does not comment to the media on pending cases.

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