Basalt woman pleads guilty in fatal summer crash on Hwy 133
The Aspen Times
A Basalt woman whose vehicle crossed the center line of Highway 133 south of Carbondale one night in August — killing a young woman and injuring her boyfriend as they were on a summer road trip through the West — pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in Pitkin County Court on Tuesday.
Christine L. Tinner, 47, entered the guilty pleas to the charges of careless driving-causing death and careless driving-causing injury during a highly emotional hearing over which County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely presided. Tinner previously faced five charges, but three were dropped under a plea agreement with the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. None of the charges were felonies.
Tinner faces up to one year in the Pitkin County Jail, but Fernandez-Ely suggested in court that a mix of probation and community service would be her preferred alternative. She set a sentencing hearing for March 12 and 13.
Shortly after the start of the proceeding, Fernandez-Ely left the courtroom for a few minutes to deal with her own emotions concerning the case.
“This is a very sad case,” the judge said after returning. “I will do my best not to cry. I know there is nothing anybody can say to make anyone feel better.”
Illinois resident Meleyna Kistner, 21, a senior mechanical engineering student at an Indiana university, was driving through Pitkin County south of Carbondale at around 9 p.m. on Aug. 23 with her boyfriend, Daniel Thul, 22, when the accident occurred. Earlier that day, they had toured the Roaring Fork Valley and visited the Maroon Bells.
Their eventual destination was Oregon, where Thul planned to visit a community where he had potentially lined up a job. Near mile marker 55, north of the highway’s intersection with Avalanche Creek Road, a 2010 Honda hatchback driven by Tinner went 9 feet past the center line and rammed head-on into Thul’s 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier, which Kistner was driving.
Kistner was killed, while Thul was seriously injured with multiple bone fractures and taken by ambulance to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. Tinner also suffered injuries, including a broken leg, and was transported to the same hospital.
The accident left Kistner’s father and stepmother, Remo and Heather Kistner, of Naperville, Illinois, as well as Kistner’s mother, Ruth Carlson, of Hawthorn Woods, Illinois, devastated and searching for answers.
All three were in court on Tuesday and told Fernandez-Ely they were opposed to the plea agreement. They also were highly critical of the Colorado State Patrol investigation, saying that Tinner should have been tested for sobriety following the accident. A state trooper who responded to the scene determined that he did not have probable cause to test her for drug or alcohol impairment.
Court testimony revealed that Tinner has had at least seven speeding citations since 1991. The investigation showed she was driving about 15 mph over the speed limit at the time of the accident five months ago.
Heather Kistner urged Fernandez-Ely to ignore the plea deal and throw the full weight of the law upon Tinner.
According to Heather Kistner, during a meeting late last year with Deputy District Attorney Andrea Bryan, the family was told, “‘We have to offer something. That’s the way things are done.’
“What’s being done for Melenya here by dropping these other three charges?” Heather Kistner asked. “The question, your honor, is why were there other charges in the first place if the way things are done is to plead them down?”
Heather Kistner added that Tinner should have been charged with felony vehicular homicide.
“This was not a tragic accident,” she said. “Ms. Tinner was nothing but reckless that night. … She was conscious in her disregard for the safety of others and the safety of herself.”
Remo Kistner, Melyena’s father, said that never in his “wildest dreams” last August did he think that a cross-country trip through Colorado could turn out fatal for his daughter.
“We just have a very difficult time explaining to everyone how a (police officer) couldn’t come up with probable cause to appropriately test for drugs and alcohol to see what in fact might have been in this lady’s system,” he said. “Even if there was nothing in her system, that would have brought us some sense of closure.
“But in this great state, you let an officer make that determination,” Remo Kistner added.
Carlson, who wept openly before, during and after the hearing, said she and her daughter were best friends.
She said Colorado should adopt laws requiring mandatory drug-and-alcohol testing of those suspected of causing fatalities.
“I think we should be held accountable for the things we do wrong,” she said. “I don’t think we should be able to hide behind the law.”
Bryan said the District Attorney’s Office charged Tinner with what it felt could be proven.
“Ultimately we did not believe we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this was vehicular homicide,” she said.
Fernandez-Ely spoke at length about the difficulties of the case given the complexities of the law. She said the plea agreement meant certainty of some type of punishment, but sending a felony case to a 12-person jury might result in acquittal.
“We’re never going to get Meleyna back,” the judge said. “No amount of jail is going to make you feel better.”
Tinner didn’t speak during the hearing except to provide short answers of “yes” when asked by the judge whether she was pleading guilty, waiving her rights to a jury trial and fully cognizant of her actions. Her attorney, Dan Shipp, later explained that Tinner wanted to communicate her remorse to the victim’s family, but he advised her against it, citing a mandate from Tinner’s auto insurance company to remain silent.
Tinner declined comment when contacted by an Aspen Times reporter following the hearing. She entered and exited the courthouse using crutches.
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Officer Haley Walker sat beside her stepmother in a windowless interrogation room just before starting the overnight shift on Thursday evening.