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A FATHER'S PAIN, A JUDGE'S DUTY

A Father's Pain, a Judge's Duty, and a Justice Beyond Their Reach

A child's fate entwined the lives of two good men haunted by their choices.

December 30, 2001|BARRY SIEGEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SILVER SUMMIT, Utah — He sat in his chambers, unprepared for this. "Just giving you a heads up," his court administrator was saying. "Paul Wayment hasn't reported in yet. They can't find him."

Judge Robert Hilder felt uneasy. Wayment was supposed to start his jail sentence this morning.

The 52-year-old judge walked slowly to his Summit County district courtroom. The trial underway passed as a blur. More than once, clerks pulled him off the bench to give him updates on Wayment. Each time, in his chambers, he stared out windows at the jail, hoping to see Paul drive up. At the lunch break, he went into Park City to eat, alone with his thoughts.

He'd sentenced Wayment to jail even though the prosecutor didn't want this distraught father to serve time. Hilder felt he had to. Wayment's negligence caused his young son's death. There must be consequences, the judge ruled.

Now there were--more than he had intended.

On his way back from lunch, Hilder punched off the car radio, wanting to avoid the news. As always, his 6-year-old son's drawings and broken Lego toys covered the floor of his Ford Taurus. At the courthouse, he walked down a hallway that took him past the administrator's glass-walled office. She rose and waved him in. Concern, he saw, strained her face. He approached her door, bracing himself.

Had he driven Wayment to suicide? Hilder believed it possible. Just as he believed it possible that he'd caused his own father's suicide, 20 years before.

Although it includes the Park City ski resorts, Summit County is less the province of people than of rolling pastures and mountain forests. Only about 25,000 live in 1,849 square miles. Only one judge--Hilder--hears criminal cases. Three lawyers comprise the county attorney's criminal division. Two private lawyers on a part-time retainer fill the public defender's role. When they heard of Gage Wayment's death, all of them knew it would come to them. They knew they'd soon have to make their own choices.

The first choice, though, had been Paul Wayment's.

There he stood last year on a radiant October morning, high in a remote forest. Before him spread the wild green abundance of Chalk Creek Basin, a rugged 8,000-foot-high hunting ground where deer and elk and moose wander through dense stands of golden quaking aspens. Behind him, strapped in a car seat in his red Dodge pickup, sat his son Gage, his inseparable buddy, his most precious gift, his future hunting partner.

Paul Wayment felt more comfortable in these mountains than anywhere. At 38, he was an uncomplicated man, raised in small Utah towns, instructed in the Mormon faith, captivated by both hunting and the wilderness. When he worked, which wasn't always, it was in construction or on an assembly line. He found the inside of homes stifling. The same with any kind of social gathering, unless they held it outdoors, made it a picnic. He was fine with silence. He could sit for hours high on a ridge, watching the deer, studying the sky, searching for bald eagles. The mountains gave him solace and sanctuary, the mountains made him whole.

So did Gage. There had been a brief, troubled marriage, then a divorce. Now, for the time being, Paul had full custody. Gage was big for his age, a rambunctious 33-pound ball of energy who looked closer to 4. Father and son did everything together. Camping and boating as often as they could. Playing ball in the backyard, fixing things around the house, planting their vegetable garden. They'd roll around their neighborhood, Paul pulling Gage in a wagon, giving away their extra produce. They'd hike down to a vacant field, Gage on Paul's shoulders, to see the cows and geese. They looked so happy, joined at the heart. You never saw one without the other. Gage's gregarious manner made Paul more outgoing. Mr. Mom, the neighbors called him. On days when she felt in need of a lift, one neighbor would sit on her porch just to watch them, just so she could smile inside.

Bringing his young son into the wilderness made sense to Wayment. There he could join together the two things he loved most. Yet on this morning, he had to choose between them.

Before him stood three deer, two does and a buck.

Behind him Gage slept in the pickup.

The deer began to move off, gliding into the forest. Wayment counted five of them now. He'd come to scout deer, preparation for a weekend hunting trip.

He turned toward Gage, then back to the deer. All around him, the quaking aspens seemed alive in the breeze, humming a faint prayer. "In one brief monumental moment," he would later say of this instant, "I made the biggest and most painful mistake of my life."

He took a step. He began to follow the deer.

He had left Gage asleep out here once before, but that time he'd strayed only 75 yards from the pickup. Now he was well beyond 75 yards, well beyond sight of Gage.

The deer disappeared over a ridge. Wayment crept after them. Minutes passed--just how many remains uncertain. Wayment walked a mile, maybe two.

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