Local man sentenced in sexual-contact case

Tour guide gets 4 years probation

Harper Enlarge photo

Harper

SILVERTON – A Durango man was sentenced Tuesday to four years probation and must register as a sex offender after a jury convicted him late last year of unlawful sexual contact.

Keith Harper was found guilty Dec. 1 of groping two women while giving them a snowmobile tour Feb. 24, 2011, in the Cascade Creek area, about 25 miles north of Durango in San Juan County. The jury returned a “not guilty” verdict in the case of a third woman who accused him of inappropriate sexual contact.

Harper, wearing a sports coat and khaki pants, maintained his innocence Tuesday in San Juan County Court.

“I stand before this court an innocent man accused of a crime I did not commit,” Harper said.

He is appealing the case.

Harper was facing up to two years in prison on each of the two misdemeanor counts.

In addition to serving four years on probation, Harper must register as a sex offender for a minimum of 10 years, enroll in a sex-offender treatment program, pay more than $10,000 in costs and abstain from alcohol and drugs while on probation.

His Durango defense lawyer Ingrid Alt asked San Juan County Judge Lyndon K. Skinner to postpone the probation sentence to allow Harper’s appeal to be heard.

Skinner denied the request, saying that decision could be made at the appellate level, and a jury has issued a conviction on two counts that need to be addressed.

Harper is the owner of Outlaw River & Jeep Tours, which had a contract with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to give snowmobile tours near Cascade Creek to train passengers who paid extra.

Three women accused Harper of groping them while riding behind them on their snowmobiles Feb. 24, 2011.

A 31-year-old Georgia woman said Harper sat behind her and “very firmly grabbed” both her breasts. She accelerated the snowmobile and drove in a zig-zag pattern to throw Harper from the machine.

Another woman said Harper put his hands around her waist near her crotch while riding behind her. A third woman accused Harper of standing up and pushing his genitals into her back while he road from behind – a charge jurors didn’t convict him of.

Defense lawyers said one “hypersensitive” woman misread a situation, and her accusations “snowballed” into multiple complaints.

Harper, who testified in his own defense, said it is normal for snowmobile tour guides to help customers drive if they are too scared or are having technical or mechanical problems.

Harper said he was not yet seated on the snowmobile when the woman accelerated. Harper said he reflexively threw his arms around the woman’s waist to keep from falling off. The force made her accelerate faster, and Harper reached for the kill switch but fell off in doing so.

Harper said his hands never made contact with the woman’s breasts.

After learning about the complaints, Harper called one of the victims, said Deputy District Attorney David Ottman, who prosecuted the case.

He identified himself as the owner of the company, but he didn’t identify himself as the guide suspected of inappropriate conduct, the woman testified. Instead, he asked the woman to give an account of what happened, apologized, and told her the guide had been fired, the woman testified.

Before sentencing, Harper said the justice system has failed him, and one day, his case will be recognized as a miscarriage of justice.

shane@durangoherald.com