Police closed Swain County ATV death case without questioning property owner

The Western North Carolina trail where a tourist was killed earlier this month after riding an all-terrain vehicle into a metal cable had been used by riders for at least 14 years without incident.

Although local authorities quickly concluded the trail is on private property, no one – not even police – seems to know who owns the land.

Key Largo, Fla., business owner Shane Hamilton died July 4, a day after striking the cable, which was strung low across a narrow path in the woods where his family was renting a cabin in Swain County, about 65 miles west of Asheville.

Hamilton’s family is upset that the Swain County Sheriff’s Office won’t reopen its investigation. Relatives and friends believe someone may have intentionally put up the cable to hurt passers-by.

But Detective C.P. Posey concluded in her July 8 report that “no criminal action has occurred” – a determination made despite acknowledging she did not know who owns the property where Hamilton died. That means she could not ask the person why the cable was placed across the path.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran has not returned numerous phone calls and emails requesting comment. His deputy chief, Jason Gardner, hung up the phone after less than a minute of being questioned by a reporter about the incident.

Jim Clayton, the Bryson City man who rented the cabin to Hamilton’s family, told Swain County deputies that he walked the trail earlier this year and never saw a cable.

“We’re talking a lot of people use that trail, and I’d never seen it,” Clayton said. “I’ve ridden horses back there, and a lot of people go hiking on the trail.”

Hamilton was 45. His 10-year-old son was riding on the back of the ATV but was not injured. He ran back to the cabin to get help. Clayton said the cabin is in short walking distance from where the cable was placed, so Hamilton was just minutes into his ride when he crashed.

Posey said she concluded that the property is private based on a review of Swain County tax maps.

Posey asked Clayton whether there was any agreement with the person who owns the property for ATV use.

“Mr. Clayton stated that there was not a written or verbal agreement in place but that folks had been using the trail for approximately 14 years,” Posey wrote.

Posey told the Hamiltons that “I could not determine that any criminal action had taken place” and “that the family would have to contact an attorney if they wished to pursue civil actions against the property owners.”

Clayton said the manner in which the cable was splayed was a danger to anyone using the trail, not just ATV riders.

“A hiker could have tripped over it and hit his head on a rock,” Clayton said. “To me, this is not what a prudent person would do to keep someone off his property. For the price of that cable, they could have bought a 3-by-5 piece of plywood that says, ‘Look, no more.’”

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has not released an autopsy report stating the cause of Hamilton’s death. Department spokeswoman Kristi Clifford did not have an estimate for how long it will take to release the report.