The Basalt man who badly injured another driver and himself in a drunken-driving accident in which he went the wrong way in Snowmass Canyon was sentenced on Monday to 90 days in jail and four years of probation.
Brenton Merlin apologized to the victim, and his attorney, public defender Laura Koenig, said he takes full responsibility for the Feb. 29 wreck. He pleaded guilty in November to felony vehicular assault and DUI, a misdemeanor.
Merlin, 49, told Judge Gail Nichols of Pitkin County District Court that “not a day has gone by” in which he’s not reminded of the accident. In addition to flashbacks and nightmares, he said his left hand is completely numb and his right has nerve damage. He can no longer grasp objects, Merlin said.
He also said he had his hip replaced after his pelvis was shattered and that he will walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
“There is nothing I can do to take back what happened or reverse time,” Merlin said. “I am very sympathetic and very sorry” for the victim.
Aspen attorney Jeff Wertz, representing the victim, said both men are “lucky to be living.”
His client, who didn’t attend the hearing, spent five days in the hospital for a closed head injury and damage to his ribs, Wertz said. The victim, an ordained minister in the valley, no longer speaks clearly, he said.
Prosecutor Arnold Mordkin said Merlin on the morning of Feb. 29 was driving upvalley in the canyon. He had been released from Aspen Valley Hospital the previous day after being taken there for alcohol detoxification, Mordkin said.
“He has a very significant problem with alcohol,” he said. “People who drink and drive are homicides looking for a place to happen.”
The accident happened around 6 a.m., when Merlin either spun out during a snowstorm or “didn’t want to be where he was,” Mordkin said. Merlin turned around in the upvalley lanes and was driving in the wrong direction when the accident happened, according to a Colorado State Patrol report.
Merlin said the accident was “a wake-up call” and that he feels compelled “never to pick up a drink again.”
“The good news is that you keep trying” to quit drinking, Nichols said. “I hope you succeed now because you have hurt somebody very badly.”
She gave Merlin credit for 52 days of time served and ordered him to complete 24 hours of community service.
n In other court news, a Utah man was sentenced to two years of probation after he pleaded guilty this spring to felony trespassing.
But Taylor Colton, 42, still faces the possibility of a one-year prison sentence if he’s found guilty of a bail-bond violation.
Colton was to be sentenced in July but missed the date. He told authorities that he was involuntarily detained in a Salt Lake City psychiatric ward.
Colton was originally charged with felony burglary and trespassing after his then-downstairs neighbor told police he had surveillance footage of Colton breaking into his residence.
The victim in court told Nichols that hundreds of CDs were missing from a previous break-in, prompting him to set up the camera that caught Colton.
“Now I have to lock my place,” the victim said. “It’s had a dramatic effect on me.”
Colton said he did “accidentally enter that unit for which I’m very sorry.” He said he has suffered from the attention that his case has gotten in the local newspapers and on the Internet.
“I’m ready to get on with my life,” Colton said.
The burglary count was dropped as part of a plea deal, and Nichols sentenced him to probation, 90 days in jail, which he’s already served, and 24 hours of community service. He also must write a letter of apology to the victim.
At a preliminary hearing later Monday, Nichols ruled there was enough evidence to bind Colton over for trial in the bail-bond violation case.
His attorney, Koenig of the public defender’s office, argued that an action such as failing to appear for a court date must be voluntary.
He missed the July date because Mormon missionaries took him to a hospital after finding him in dire shape on a Salt Lake City street, Koenig said. Colton’s bag containing mental-health medications was stolen, and at the hospital he made suicidal statements, leading to his being involuntarily detained in a psychiatric ward, she said.
But Nichols ruled that Colton had a choice to go with the missionaries or return to Colorado for the court date. Koenig immediately entered a not-guilty plea for her client, and the bail-bond violation trial was scheduled for Jan. 22-24.
n An Aspen man was sentenced to three years of probation for felony attempted assault after he was tracked down through Facebook more than two years after his crime at a local bar.
Police said Derek Clark, 30, threw a glass ashtray at a man, cutting his forehead, after Clark and a group of people the man was with exchanged words at the Regal Watering Hole in May 2010.
An Aspen Valley Hospital doctor said the victim’s lacerations constituted a serious bodily injury, leading to Clark facing a felony assault count. That charge was dropped in exchange for Clark pleading guilty to the attempted assault count.
In April, a Regal employee emailed a Facebook photo to Aspen police. It shows two men, one of whom the employee said was Clark.
Digging into his social media profile, authorities learned that “he was spending the summer in the Jackson Hole area,” says a National Park Service (NPS) report. “Photographs on the site appeared to have been taken on Jackson Lake.”
Aspen authorities contacted NPS officers June 18. After confirming that Clark was wanted in Aspen for the alleged physical assault, rangers found that Clark was employed by a park concessionaire and arrested him.
The Regal employee said in May that a hobby of his is taking names from the weekly police blotter and plugging them into Facebook.
Koenig, representing Clark, said her client will pay $1,500 to $2,000 in restitution to the victim.
Nichols asked Clark what he had learned from the incident.
“A lot,” he said. “You need to be responsible for your actions.”
Clark also must complete 24 hours of community service.