BRECKENRIDGE - Less than four months after he beat local camper Karl Kohler to death with a baseball bat near a trailhead on Peak 9, Gregory Scott Gavin took a plea deal: second-degree murder in the heat of passion with a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison.
He just had to give a truthful account of the murder.
But when he sat down with detectives a few weeks later, Gavin told the story not of a heated argument with a tragic ending, but of a cold-blooded killing, during which he left the victim beaten and bleeding, but still alive for several hours while deciding what to do before returning to end his life.
Prosecutors said if they had known the details of the crime beforehand, they would have charged Gavin with first-degree murder.
A conviction would likely have landed him behind bars for the rest of his life.
But by the time Gavin gave his account of the murder, the plea deal was done and it was too late to change the charges.
"Our hands were tied," deputy district attorney Anne Francis said.
In November, Gavin was sentenced to 12 years in prison, the maximum penalty under the plea agreement.
Kohler was found bludgeoned to death near the Burro Trail Trailhead near Breck in May by volunteers working in the area.
Gavin, 50, was arrested June 8 and charged with second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence.
Both men made their permanent homes in the woods around Summit County.
Some members of Kohler's family were furious when they learned the details of Gavin's confession, saying the punishment did not fit the crime.
"When I thought Karl's death was the result of an argument that got out of hand, I thought that while 12 years of a person's life was a significant price, it seemed like a price that was in no way fair to Karl," Kohler's brother Ralph Kohler stated in a letter to the court read during the sentencing hearing. "When I read (Gavin's) statement, I am now outraged and heartbroken."
Attempts to contact Ralph Kohler by phone and email for a comment for this story have been unsuccessful. He did recently submit a letter to the Summit Daily News saying he wanted this community to know that his brother's death was not a crime of passion, but premeditated murder.
Under Colorado law, first-degree murder is committed when an individual acts with deliberation and intent to cause the death of another person. It carries a minimum penalty of life in prison and a maximum penalty of death.
Gavin apologized for his crime at the sentencing hearing.
Gavin told authorities he awoke at dawn the day he killed Kohler. He had heard a "scuff" outside his tent.
Thinking there might be an animal near his campsite, he sat there quietly. Then the right side of his tent came down, he said. A few seconds later the backside of the tent began to collapse and Gavin said he could see someone clawing at the tarp.
"I was like, I've got to get out of here," Gavin told Sgt. Wes Mumford of the Summit County Sheriff's Office during his taped confession. "I had to get the hell out of there."
Gavin said he then grabbed a baseball bat from inside the tent and climbed out to find Kohler, a man with whom he said he had had a long-standing disagreement.
A witness claimed to have heard Kohler threatening to kill Gavin during a previous confrontation on a Summit Stage bus.
During his confession, Gavin told authorities he was afraid for his life when he saw Kohler outside his tent that morning.
"I knew he was going to kill me," Gavin said. "So I hit him with the bat. I was hoping I could hurt him and then he'd go away."
Kohler then stood up and approached Gavin, saying "bring it, bring it," Gavin said. Gavin said he hit Kohler several more times with the bat around the head, neck and face, until he was lying on the ground, no longer trying to get up, but still breathing.
"I just had a strange feeling inside me," Gavin said. "I did squat down and then (I was) trying to think what to do. ... said I should go to the police, get some help."
But instead, he put on his boots, grabbed his pack, hit Kohler again on the hand and the leg so he wouldn't follow him and walked away from the campsite on a nearby trail, he said.
He stopped to stash the baseball bat under a bush and then went into Breckenridge to catch the bus.
"I think I went to Frisco and back and decided what to do," Gavin told authorities. "I decided I had to go back up there and see him, see if he was alright."
When Gavin returned to the campsite he found Kohler inside his tent. Then Kohler opened his eyes.
"I was thinking, if this guy gets away, he's going to come back and kill me," Gavin said.
He then went back down the hill to retrieve the baseball bat, returned to the campsite and hit Kohler again, he said. Gavin told authorities he dragged Kohler's body out of the tent, grabbed a couple of items, including a wallet, that had fallen out of Kohler's pockets and returned to town. Once in Breckenridge, Gavin said he threw the wallet and other items in a Dumpster where they were later found by investigators.
Gavin said he then relocated to the Keystone area and remained there until he was arrested a few weeks later.
Kohler, 45, had lived in Summit County for approximately 10 years, at the time of his death. Friends in the community remembered him as intelligent and artistic, with a deep love for music, but said he had lived a hard life.
At Gavin's sentencing hearing Kohler's family mourned the loss of an "honorable man" and disparaged the system that upheld the law, but not necessarily justice in their eyes.
"My family and I think the readers of the Summit Daily News deserve to know the whole truth about how Karl died," Ralph Kohler stated in a letter to the editor letter. "They can decide for themselves whether they think the punishment of 12 years for his killer was just."