Justin Erwin sentenced to five years in prison for role in 2016 Silverthorne sex assault

Sawyer D'Argonne
Summit Daily News
In January, Justin Erwin pleaded guilty to charges of attempted sexual assault, third-degree assault and criminal invasion of privacy.

Justin Cayce Erwin, 42, one of four men convicted in a Silverthorne sex assault case from 2016, was sentenced to five years in prison during a hearing at the Summit County Justice Center on Thursday afternoon. In January, Erwin pleaded guilty to charges of attempted sexual assault, third-degree assault and criminal invasion of privacy.

In a show of support, a group of more than a dozen of the victim’s friends and family gathered around her in the courtroom’s benches as the case finally reached its conclusion more than three years after the sexual assault played out in a Silverthorne apartment in the early morning of March 17, 2016.

The victim was the first to speak during the hearing, offering the court an impact statement in which she spoke about the destructive nature of the assault physically, psychologically and financially over the last few years. In her statement she noted the loss of her business and a constant sense of fear and distrust as a result of the attack, but said she was committed to retaking control of her life and embracing the healing process.

“Because of my own determination to heal, and many hours of coaching and therapy, I’m giving up on rage and taking my life back,” she said. “I choose now to live my life in the context of freedom, love, courage and contribution. I have the power to create my world, and my world is beautiful. And I declare myself complete.”

The victim was followed by several of her friends and family, many of whom spoke about their own experiences with sexual assault or about the difficulties they’d seen the victim deal with following the assault and during the legal process.

“Over the past couple years I’ve watched my strong, confident, loving friend struggle with nightmares,” said one friend. “There have been days when she couldn’t get out of bed, perform basic functions or have a consistent job … but she is one of those people who will take this and make it into something good.”

Deputy District Attorney Lisa Hunt also spoke on behalf of the prosecution, noting not only the damage the assault had on the victim, but the community at large. Hunt highlighted Erwin’s considerable criminal history, including multiple DUI charges and attempts to defraud the justice system even after his arrest for sexual assault, most notably an incident in November last year when he attempted to cheat a urine analysis by using a Whizzinator, and tried to bribe a public servant to keep it quiet.

“He’s violated probation and the orders of this court his entire life,” said Hunt. “He has zero regard for authority or the rule of law.”

Erwin’s attorney, Kate Stimson, brought in two expert witnesses to the hearing to argue that an untreated traumatic brain injury, along with a long history of substance abuse and mental health issues, were key contributors to Erwin’s actions. A neurologist reading a CT scan of Erwin’s brain from 2015 said that Erwin suffered from a blood clot between his skull and brain that was “squeezing” into his right frontal lobe — a condition he said could have dramatic side effects to decision-making and judgment.

Additionally, Dr. Brenna Tindall, a psychologist and expert in sex offender management, said that substance abuse and the traumatic brain injury could have exacerbated Erwin’s criminal behaviors in the past. Tindall recommended to the court that Erwin receive time at a community corrections facility in lieu of prison, where she said he would have a much better chance of receiving the treatment needed to address those underlying issues.

“I think it is likely they had something to do with some of his behavior that night,” said Tindall.

In a somewhat contentious cross examination of the expert witnesses, District Attorney Bruce Brown challenged the assertions, noting that the neurologist only reviewed a few images from a 4-year-old CT scan, never examined Erwin in person, or received any ancillary reports or subsequent scans of Erwin’s brain. Additionally, Brown pointed to the fact that Erwin’s criminal behavior predated the brain injury, contending the two are largely unrelated.

There was also a fair share of support for Erwin in the room aside from experts. Robin Reichwein, Erwin’s mother, spoke about Erwin’s longtime struggles with mental health and his brain injury.

“Most people know, or they themselves have trouble with alcohol or depression, but when you couple that with a traumatic brain injury you have a perfect storm,” said Reichwein, who continued to say she saw a noticeable difference in her son following a serious snowboarding fall in 1998. “I’m proud of the progress he’s made in the past few months. … there are many people that would like to portray Justin as a hardened criminal. He’s not. He’s someone who you consider a friend.”

Erwin’s girlfriend also spoke on his behalf, saying that she too has witnessed his struggles to treat his mental health issues and his efforts in self-improvement over recent months.

“He is asking for help,” she said. “He’s serious about his sobriety and benefiting from this help and therapy. He’s a completely different person now and I’m so proud of him.”

Erwin spoke for himself at the hearing, offering the victim an apology and affirming his decision to change his life for the better.

“I no doubt have a debt to pay society, and I accept that,” he said. “Moving forward I’ll live with honorable intentions, and I wish to continue my treatment to help me understand the underlying issues I’m dealing with.”

Stimson offered the defense’s final thoughts during the sentencing, urging Judge Paul Dunkelman to allow Erwin to continue treatment in a community corrections facility, saying that despite his criminal history, this was his first felony conviction. She spoke about his recent dedication to treatment, and the difficulties he would face due to his mental health issues in prison.

“This man will be eaten alive in the (department of corrections),” she said. “He’ll have to go through a medication change and won’t be getting the treatment he’ll need.”

Ultimately, Dunkelman decided that due to Erwin’s criminal history, his lack of accountability until recent months and the impact of the assault on the victim, a prison sentence was most appropriate. Erwin was sentenced to five years in prison, along with a two-year parole period afterward. Additionally, Erwin was sentenced in a number of lesser crimes including DUIs and violation of bail bond conditions, though the sentences will run concurrent with his prison term. Erwin was remanded into custody following the hearing.

More than three years after the assault, Erwin’s sentencing represents the end of the criminal proceedings in the case for the victim and the four men involved. In March last year, Paul Garvin was sentenced to a minimum of 16 years in prison after being convicted of sexual assault. Michael Gelber accepted a plea agreement last year, and was sentenced to one year in Summit County Jail. Ramon Villa, who also accepted a plea agreement, was sentenced to two years in county jail.

“It’s incredibly freeing, and I’m also extremely humbled,” said the victim following Erwin’s sentencing. “This has been impossible, and I understand the impact that my words have with the outcome of this case. I just want other victims to know they’re not alone. I’m here for you.”

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