Utah goblin toppler's uncle was killed by falling boulder
Investigation • Placing a value on the rock formation has held up filing charges, officials say.
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Just as Michael Astel stepped around a bend in a Colorado trail, a boulder "about the size of a washing machine" broke from its perch, knocked him to a ledge and crushed him.

"He said, 'I'm dying,' " recalled Debra Woolley, who was married to Astel at the time, of the 1982 "freak accident." A minute later, he was gone.

But more than 31 years later, Astel's death remains a vivid memory for his nephew, so-called "goblin toppler" David Hall.

Hall and Glenn Taylor elicited international ire in October, when they posted a video online of Taylor pushing over a "goblin" rock formation in Goblin Valley State Park. The men, who were visiting the area as Boy Scout leaders, subsequently became the subjects of an ongoing criminal investigation and lost their Scout positions.

Hall said Tuesday his uncle's death was on his mind as he filmed the toppling. Though he was only 10 years old when Astel died, Hall remembers going to his uncle's funeral and realizing the damage a boulder can cause.

"I'm probably a little bit more paranoid about what a loose rock can do," Hall said.

Hall and Taylor have insisted they knocked over the formation because it was loose and posed a danger to visitors of the crowded state park. Officials disagree and say the men should have contacted a ranger if they felt there was a threat.

Hall added that immediately during the initial furor over his video, he told several TV stations about his uncle's death but they never aired the footage.

Woolley said having someone die from a falling rock does change the way you look at boulders. She and Astel had lived in Colorado for only four days when he went hiking with a brother-in-law. The two men spent the early-morning hours tracking mountain lions, and it was Astel's first visit to the area, just outside of Craig, Colo.

According to Woolley, the two men were headed back to camp about 9:30 a.m. when the rock fell and crushed Astel.

Woolley added that Hall had looked up to and idolized Astel while he as growing up. She said her husband's death would probably influence her own actions if she found herself near a loose boulder.

"I would think differently from your average joe who would say, 'Walk away from it,' " she said.

Tim Smith, Utah State Parks southeast regional manager, said investigators are aware of Astel's death and the story "appears to be accurate."

The investigation into Hall and Taylor is ongoing and could be turned over to the Emery County attorney's office by the end of the week, Smith said. The investigation has dragged on, he continued, because officials have struggled to put a value on the toppled rock formation.

"The challenge obviously is no place out there selling goblins and hoodoos," Smith said. "Nobody has goblins and hoodoos on eBay."

As a result, authorities have considered an array of factors as they try to fix a value to the rock, including the costs of possible repair and the price of rocks that are for sale. They also have reviewed previous cases involving vandalism or theft, including one in which someone stole a boulder displaying rock art.

Smith declined to say how much the toppled formation might be worth but mentioned the investigation has "put the value up there considerably." Whatever figure authorities settle on also will influence the severity of any criminal charges against Hall and Taylor.

The Emery County attorney's office did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

In the meantime, the case continues to generate interest online, including a petition asking Utah Attorney General John Swallow to prosecute the men. The petition is hosted on Moveon.org and as of Tuesday afternoon had nearly 3,000 signatures.

jdalrymple@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jimmycdii