Prosecutors will not file any criminal charges in connection with the death last year of the 6-year-old girl who fell from a ride at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, saying they lack the evidence needed to prove park employees acted negligently or recklessly.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Jefferson Cheney wrote in a Jan. 25 letter released by his office Wednesday that he weighed charges of criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter in the Sept. 5 death of Wongel Estifanos at the Glenwood Springs amusement park.
“After considering all of the information provided to me, I conclude that the office of the district attorney cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt any one person or entity acted with criminal negligence or was criminally reckless beyond a reasonable doubt,” Cheney wrote.
Wongel, who wasn’t buckled in, died after falling more than 100 feet from her seat on the Haunted Mine Drop ride. State investigators found that two ride operators did not properly check her seat belt — she was sitting on top of it — and ignored an alarm that should have alerted them to the safety issue.
The state investigation found inadequate training and multiple errors made by the ride operators contributed to Wongel’s death. The Colorado Division of Oil and Public Safety, which licenses amusement rides, fined the park’s owners $68,000 in October.
The girl’s parents released a statement Wednesday highly critical of Cheney’s decision, saying the lack of criminal charges means “our daughter’s life has been treated as cheap and meaningless.”
“We never wanted the people who killed our daughter to go to jail,” Estifanos Dagne and Rahel Estifanos said in the statement released by their attorney Dan Caplis. “But for the DA to let them off with nothing says our daughter’s life was worth nothing.”
The parents said Cheney sent the message that “in Glenwood Springs, someone can recklessly kill a child and not even get a ticket.”
The Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park released a statement Wednesday emphasizing its priority on safety, but noting, “One accident is one too many, and we are taking steps to be sure that nothing like that can ever happen again.”
“We continue to offer our condolences to the Estifanos family,” said Steve Beckley, the amusement park’s founder. “I am so sorry for their loss, and while I understand that my words cannot touch their grief, my heart continues to ache for them.”
Though nobody associated with the park will face criminal charges, the circumstances surrounding Wongel’s death will be litigated in court. Her parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the park in October, alleging that a pattern of recklessness and improper training caused their daughter’s death.
“The criminal system failed our daughter. We will now go to civil court and prove it on our own,” Wongel’s parents said in their statement Wednesday.
Wongel and her family had visited the amusement park over Labor Day weekend as part of their vacation from Colorado Springs. Wongel boarded the Haunted Mine Drop, a six-person ride that features a 110-foot drop into a tunnel, with her uncle and a few relatives, according to the lawsuit.
The two ride operators, who had been hired a few weeks prior, did not realize Wongel was sitting on top of her seat belt. When an alarm went off alerting the issue, the operators reset the system to bypass the alarm and start the ride, state investigators found.
The family’s lawsuit also claimed the park was warned about lax seat belt checks twice before Wongel’s death.
In 2018, a mother emailed the park and claimed that operators didn’t realize a teenager was not belted in and had to be told by shouting passengers about the issue before it was fixed. Another passenger sent an email in 2019 stating he inadvertently sat on top of the seat belt on the ride and had to be persistent in convincing the ride operator he was not buckled in.
“We want justice for our daughter,” Wongel’s parents said. “We want to protect others.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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