The climbing death of the Montana Innocence Project’s lone investigator over the weekend in Colorado has left several communities in Missoula grieving and the Innocence Project staggering.
Park rangers found the body of Spencer Veysey, 26, late Saturday afternoon at the bottom of Lambs Slide on the east face of Longs Peak, the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park.
“It’s a terrible thing, an unspeakable thing. We’re just reeling over here,” Larry Mansch, legal director of the Montana Innocence Project, said Monday.
A 2012 graduate of the University of Montana’s journalism school, Veysey was one of four full-time employees at the Missoula-based Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that works with the University of Montana law school to prevent and overturn wrongful convictions. The others are Mansch, executive director Joseph Bischof and communications associate Sarah Ferguson.
Veysey worked at the Kaimin, the UM student newspaper, in his undergraduate years.
“He was just a great, inquisitive kind of kid. So persistent,” said UM journalism professor Dennis Swibold. “When he was suspicious about something, he wouldn’t quit until he nailed it down.”
Mansch said Veysey was “a big, strong burly guy” who loved to build things and run rivers. He played rugby and was president of the UM Jesters rugby club for two years, according to the Jesters’ Facebook page.
He came to UM from Ames, Iowa, where his father Steve works in the chemistry department at Iowa State University. According to a 2007 article on the Ames High School website, Veysey graduated a year early and spent what would have been his senior year working on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska.
A news release issued Sunday by Rocky Mountain National Park said Veysey was reported overdue Friday night in an attempt to summit the 14,259-foot Longs Peak, the northernmost “fourteener” in the Rocky Mountains.
A search of the most popular route, the Keyhole, and of the Chasm Lake area northeast of Longs Peak was undertaken Saturday morning, with searchers encountering icy conditions, according to park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson.
Lambs Slide, where the body was found, is described on a website for climbers as an "obvious chute running along the base of the lower east face" of the mountain. While it classified the climb as easy, the same site warned to "expect rock fall and very hard ice or snow."
Longs Peak is the most prominent summit on the Front Range in Colorado, northwest of Boulder and southwest of Fort Collins.
According to the Coloradoan of Fort Collins, Veysey was the first fatality in Rocky Mountain National Park this year. There were six in 2014, three of them on Longs Peak, which has claimed 62 lives all told.
No further details of Veysey’s death were available.
Mansch said Veysey was at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge on Wednesday, talking to people about new cases. He left Missoula the next day for Colorado with his girlfriend, who was part of a wedding party in Colorado. Mansch speculated that Veysey went climbing Friday while his girlfriend was involved in wedding preparations.
Veysey started with the Montana Innocence Project as a student volunteer and worked his way over the past three years into the first full-time investigator.
“It didn’t really matter” when he was paid for only part-time work, Mansch said. “He was here 50 or 60 hours a week.”
As an investigator, Veysey studied potential cases for reference to Mansch in the legal department, and was usually called on to testify when a case went to trial.
“The wealth of knowledge he has and is able to retain ... it truly is irreplaceable,” said Mansch. “He can tell you everything about every case.”
The Innocence Project currently has a case filed in Great Falls over the homicide conviction of Richard Burkhart, who was found in 2002 to have beaten a Great Falls man to death with a ball-peen hammer.
Burkhart has long maintained his innocence and was unsuccessful in an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court in 2004.
Mansch said Veysey uncovered witnesses who had not been contacted by law enforcement and thus never testified. The Innocence Project recently filed a “Brady claim,” alleging the prosecution didn’t disclose favorable evidence.
“Spencer found that evidence,” he said.
The project is also involved in the conviction of Katie Garding of Stevensville, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2011 for hitting and killing 25-year-old Bronson Parsons as he walked with a friend along Montana Highway 200 in East Missoula on Jan. 1, 2008.
“We allege her car couldn’t have been the one involved,” Mansch said. “It had zero damage.”
Veysey purchased Garding’s car and stored it, and found one of the same model and year, with similar mileage and tires, Mansch said. He even fitted it with the same kind of custom-made bumper Garding’s had.
“Then he put it on a trailer, drove to California and had experts do a vehicular accident reconstruction. It was all filmed, and that forms the basis of our petition,” Mansch said.
Swibold is on the board of the Montana Innocence Project and is familiar with Veysey’s work there.
“It was another way to use the skills we teach over here,” he said, adding Veysey was working on obtaining a private investigator's license.
Veysey had “a great infectious sense of humor and outrage,” the professor said. “When he thought things were funny, you knew about it. When he was outraged about something, you knew that as well.”
The Innocence Project board meets at the end of October and must decide what to do about the void Veysey leaves.
“We’re very lucky we have a network of volunteer citizens, students and pro bono attorneys,” Mansch said. “But you can’t replace Spencer’s investigative skills, so we’re going to be really in a fog for a bit here. I don’t know what we’re going to do in the short term."
The investigative cases will probably be put on hold for a short period. Litigation will go forward without Veysey's testimony.
“As much as we miss him," said Mansch, "the work we do here is good work and it’s still got to go on.”