WHITEHALL — Rancher John Kountz often thinks about the young woman who appeared on his doorstep in the pitch dark last June, her bare feet bleeding from walking a dirt and gravel road after surviving a crash that claimed her friend.
She was wet, cold and in shock as she recounted the terrifying moments when Michael Lee Brown-Silva’s vehicle overturned into an irrigation ditch filled with water about 2 miles from the Kountz ranch outside Whitehall.
“I often think of her, how it (fatal crash) affected her life,” said Kountz. “She ran pretty near a mile and a half to 2 miles in her bare feet. She just got out of the car luckily — someone must have been watching over her. She was worried about her friend.”
Brown-Silva, 30, and the woman, both of Butte, had earlier visited the hot springs — also known as “hot pots” — adjacent to the Jefferson River near the Waterloo area. Drinking was involved, said Madison County Sheriff Roger Thompson, lamenting the loss of life and the prevalence of alcohol-related incidents in a seemingly bucolic spot in the shadow of the Tobacco Root Mountains.
Since taking office in January 2015, Thompson said the hot springs draw visitors from across southwest Montana. His department has responded to a variety of complaints from speeding, reckless driving and parking on the rural road to underage drinking and drug use.
But it’s the “overuse of alcohol” that is fueling fights and potentially dangerous scenarios that occur at the hot springs or along the narrow road. The sheriff said 90 percent of the incidents his agency sees are alcohol-related.
On April 2, a verbal altercation between two Whitehall women in their mid-20s and four people in a pickup truck on the road adjacent to the hot springs ended with a 23-year-old Butte man allegedly grabbing a gun and firing a shot in the air.
Thompson said after the verbal sparring, the women went to a nearby campsite overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and confronted the four individuals from the pickup as well as two others. In an attempt to break up the argument, the Butte man told authorities he responded with gunfire and told the women to leave.
Deputies from Jefferson and Madison counties responded to the scene along with Thompson, who said four teens were cited with minor in possession of alcohol. The man was cited with disorderly conduct.
In his 32-year career in law enforcement, it’s the calls or personal visits to parents reporting an alcohol-related fatality that may distress Thompson the most. Sometimes they are asked to come to a crash scene.
“Literally by breaking that news you’re starting the worst day of their life,” Thompson said, imploring parents to pay more attention and help their kids stay out of trouble.
“That’s why they get in wrecks, that’s why they end up drinking when they’re not supposed to. And that’s why they end up dying,” he said.
The Madison County Sheriff’s Department works closely with its colleagues in Jefferson County, the Montana Highway Patrol and the BLM to ensure the safety of those who patronize the hot springs bubbling in a side channel of the Jefferson River. When the river runs high, the springs are a popular destination, especially on weekends.
The nearly 21-acre property — an old mining claim — that the hot springs sit on is owned by Margaret Rudolf and several family members. Reached by phone in Bonita Springs, Florida, last week, she said the land has been in her family for 70 to 80 years and was originally owned by her grandfather.
Charles Jacob Pruett first came to Montana as an infant in 1862, later settling on a ranch southeast of Whitehall, according to an obituary in the Philipsburg Mail in December 1938. Rudolf, 77, said her grandfather would go on to discover the lucrative Mayflower gold mine.
Rudolf was disheartened to learn that the hot springs have become, at times, a magnet for partiers who exercise poor judgment and leave behind their litter.
“It’s a pretty area. … That’s too bad,” Rudolf said, suggesting the property be fenced off. She bemoaned the lack of care at both the springs and nearby Fish Creek Cemetery where family members, including her grandfather, are buried.
“There’s nothing I can do. First of all, I’m old,” she said. “It’s really a shame, so much tragedy in the world.”
On a recent warm afternoon, Charlie Soha of Dillon and a 68-year-old friend who called himself “Montana Mitch” soaked in a semi-circular pool lined with stones.
“I like the serenity of being by the river … the remote location — just the tranquility. I’ve met people from different states, different countries,” Soha said.
His friend, who resides in the Waterloo area, has been using the springs for about 40 years and remembers when the water barely gurgled from the ground. The “waters are good,” he said, especially for healing cuts and arthritis.
But the numbers of visitors has swelled over the years, resulting in parking issues and “youth drinking like a fish.”
“It’s disgustingly busy. There’s times on the weekends when you can’t find a place to park,” Montana Mitch said.
Thompson also worries about the area's property owners and residents living along the county road. In addition to the traffic incidents sometimes involving alcohol, reports of cattle struck by vehicles and stolen property have unsettled those who live and work in the area.
Kountz, a fourth-generation rancher, had his pickup truck stolen four or five years ago. The sheriff said two underage males, who may have been left by friends at the hot springs, walked to the ranch, took the pickup and drove “extremely recklessly” until they flipped it on a road en route to Whitehall. They were later caught.
The “spilling over” of incidents and criminal activity into the community near the hot springs is a huge concern for law enforcement.
Residents and responsible visitors to the springs “are tired of people coming out here being selfish and having no regard for the neighbors,” Thompson said.
Kountz said greater vigilance is needed but understands the local sheriff’s department may not have the resources. The BLM “could do a bit more,” he added, and perhaps starting a “Friends of the Hot Pots” would help. But he believes the answer lies with personal responsibility.
It will take those who are accountable to restore decorum to a place where, according to his grandparents, “Finlanders” from Butte would come to enjoy the hot waters and drink wine.
Run the renegades out if necessary, said Kountz.
“The good ones got to stand up and do what’s right. Be a good neighbor. If there’s trash there, pick it up. If there’s druggies there, turn them in. Quit damaging things,” he said.