By Shane Benjamin
Keith Leslie Harper, the Durango outfitter accused of groping three women while giving them a snowmobile tour, was found guilty Thursday on two counts by a jury in San Juan County.
Harper, 62, hung his head after the first guilty verdict was read, and shook his head when the second verdict was read.
He declined to comment after leaving the courtroom with his wife.
Harper, who owns Outlaw Rivers & Jeep Tours, was charged with three counts of unlawful sexual contact, all misdemeanors. He was found not guilty on one of the counts. Unlawful sexual contact occurs when someone knowingly touches another person’s private parts – even through clothing – without consent for the purpose of sexual gratification.
Prosecutors said Harper grabbed one woman’s breasts, put his hands near the crotch area of another woman, and pushed his genitals into the back of another woman while leading a snowmobile tour last winter.
All three women testified against Harper during the three-day trial.
Defense lawyers said the accusations began with one “hypersensitive” woman who misread a situation, and it “snowballed” into multiple accusations.
“I think she jumped the gun on the whole thing, to tell you the truth,” defense lawyer David Greenberg told jurors. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”
The incident occurred Feb. 24 in the Cascade Creek area, about 25 miles north of Durango in San Juan County. Harper provided snowmobile tours to customers of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad who paid extra for the experience.
The five-person jury deliberated for 2 hours and 45 minutes before reaching its verdict about 7:45 p.m. Thursday. The jury was cut from seven members to five members Wednesday after two jurors said they couldn’t report for jury duty Thursday. The two-day trial was scheduled to end Wednesday.
Harper faces two years in prison and will have to register as a sex offender. Sentencing is set for 2 p.m. March 13 in San Juan County Court.
A 31-year-old Georgia woman said Harper sat behind her and “very firmly grabbed” both her breasts. The woman said she accelerated the snowmobile and drove a zig-zag pattern to throw Harper from the snowmobile.
Harper took the witness stand Thursday in his own defense. He told jurors he was almost seated on the back of the woman’s snowmobile when she hit the throttle. Harper said he reflexively threw his arms around the woman’s waist to keep from falling off the back. The force made the woman accelerate faster, and Harper reached for the kill switch, but fell off in doing so, he testified.
Harper said his hands never made contact with the woman’s breasts, not even accidentally.
“I know where my hands were with respect to (the woman’s) anatomy,” he said. “I think she was embarrassed she lost control, and it was an explanation.”
Another woman accused Harper of putting his hands around her waist near her crotch while riding behind her. The third woman said Harper pushed his genitals into her back while he rode from behind – the charge jurors didn’t support.
Harper denied all allegations.
Harper said it is routine for guides to ride on a customer’s machine for brief periods, for example, if customers are scared to drive or if they tip over a snowmobile. In one case, Harper blocked a trail with his snowmobile to prevent people from going ahead and rode on a customer’s machine to lead the group to a restroom.
Soon after learning of the allegations, the D&SNG canceled its $175,000 contract with Outlaw Tours, costing Harper about $80,000 for the remainder of the year.
“We’ve lost a lot of money,” he said.
Deputy District Attorney David Ottman said Harper committed brief “crimes of opportunity” for sexual gratification. He asked jurors to disregard the idea that Harper is the victim of a “perfect storm,” in which three women – two of whom didn’t know each other – came together to plot against Harper.
“He did what they told you he did,” Ottman said.
Defense lawyer Ingrid Alt asked jurors to consider the big picture:
Why would Harper risk everything to grab a woman’s breasts for a brief moment while he wore gloves and she wore a ski coat? The prosecution failed to meet its burden of proof, and the case was riddled with holes and inconsistencies, Alt said.
The woman who accused him of putting his hands near her crotch did so because she was upset he sat close to her after she accidentally urinated herself, Alt said. She knew another woman made a sexual complaint against Harper, and she decided to make a similar complaint, Alt said.
Defense lawyer David Greenberg compared Harper to Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, who has faced several accusations of sexual impropriety. The only difference, Greenberg said, is Cain’s future will be determined by the “brutality” of the media, while Harper’s was decided by a jury.
Greenberg declined to comment after the verdict.
Harper said he was unable to get any information about the allegations from the D&SNG or law enforcement. He eventually called a woman who was on the tour. He identified himself as the owner, but didn’t identify himself as the guide suspected of inappropriate conduct. Instead, he asked for the woman’s account of what happened, apologized, and told her the guide had been fired, the woman testified.
Ottman said Harper obscured the truth to the woman, and he covered up the truth again this week in the courtroom.