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Telluride liftie facing jail time



Colorado ski resort’s only gondola shut down over 30 times during holidays

A young American lift operator could face jail time this year after a gondola in Colorado’s Telluride ski resort was repeatedly shut down over the busy holiday season.

The 32 shutdowns, which began the day after Christmas, lasted for three days while lift mechanics struggled to make sense of the stoppages.

A female liftie, who had been working for the Gondola Transit System for about a year, was arrested and charged with three counts of endangering public transportation. She was released on $15,000 bail.

"We can’t think of anywhere up in Colorado that any lift operator of any kind has ever messed with their lift," said Chris Broady, deputy chief of Mountain Village Police.

On New Year’s day 19-year-old liftie Alisha Sult, who is from Mountain Village, was arrested on three counts of endangering public transportation. If convicted she could face four to 12 years in prison on each count.

The police have interviewed Sult but have yet to come up with a motive for the forced stoppages.

"We never did find a motive," said Broady.

"We are very confident that it is absolutely not any type of domestic terrorism or hidden agenda along those lines."

The shutdowns happened from Dec. 26 to 28. Most lasted less than a minute. On Friday, Dec. 27 however there were power failures again and at 4:30 p.m. a pulley failed at one of the stations. The pulley problem was fixed in 45 minutes but operators were hesitant to start the gondola again because they had not been able to figure out why the lift kept stopping.

The gondola, which is a free 12-minute ride connecting the towns of Mountain Valley and Telluride, was scheduled to run until midnight but stayed closed for seven and a half hours that evening.

"We could have reopened the gondola but due to the safety concerns because they hadn’t been able to isolate the electrical problem, they had to shut it down," said Broady.

There were far-reaching effects for the merchants in both towns that night, he added.

About 170 reservations were made at a mountaintop restaurant serviced by the gondola but people couldn’t get there. There was also a Warren Miller movie screening in Mountain Village that many people were planning to go to via gondola.

The towns put on a bus service to shuttle people back and forth but it could not take close to the numbers that ride the gondola. The buses can move 20 to 30 people at a time whereas the gondola moves 700 people in one hour.

"We have a lot of people that don’t drive," said Broady.

"They just ride the gondola back and forth to get to work and do their shopping and everything."

Regarding the potential jail time Sult faces if convicted, Broady said: "(Our legislature) just takes a very serious view of anybody creating a substantial risk of death or injury to people on a public transportation system.

"We did feel that her actions did create a substantial risk of serious injury, not necessarily to the public but to the mechanics who were out there at three o’clock in the morning climbing towers and things like that."

The mechanics were working around the clock trouble shooting the system to prove electrically or mechanically why the shutdowns were happening.

By process of elimination they figured out the problem was from human tampering and the Mountain Village Police were called in to help. The search was then narrowed down to those working on the lift with access to the emergency stop and slow buttons. There are 16 employees working on the gondola and by process of elimination police made an arrest on Jan. 1.

Broady calls the events over the holiday bizarre.

"We were really hoping to find a motive and that’s one thing we did not find," he said.

Telluride gets about two million riders each year. The Christmas holidays are the busiest time of the season with over 5,000 skiers using the gondola each day.

Charges are also pending on 32 counts of hindering pubic transportation, 32 counts of second degree criminal tampering and 32 counts of computer crime.

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