By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
A Sundance tow truck owner charged with theft following a fatal crash last summer has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
Norman “Gus” Sampson of Iron Horse Towing pleaded no contest on June 1 to a single charge of theft in connection with allegations he stole tools and other items from the pickup truck belonging to 41-year-old Shon Engel.
Engel was killed in early August in a single-car accident near Sundance.
A no-contest plea signifies that the accused accepts the conviction but avoids a factual admission of guilt.
Sampson was called by the Wyoming Highway Patrol to the scene of the crash on I-90, near Sundance, to tow the vehicle and collect the items strewn throughout a field.
The WHP trooper took several photographs of the crash site, documenting several items including a $200 pair Maui Jim sunglasses, a red Yeti cup Shon’s parents had just purchased for him, a large knife, a chair and lots of tools and other items scattered in the grass.
Sampson said he gathered all the items and put them in the back of the damaged vehicle for the family to collect, which he said took him about three hours to collect.
A few days later, however, when Engel’s older brother, Jim Engel, came to pay the towing bill and retrieve his brother’s items, he said there was nothing in the back of the pickup truck. Engel said he then drove up to Sampson’s shop to pay him $750 in cash for the bill and asked about his brother’s belongings.
Sampson refuted that fee and told Cowboy State Daily that he charged Engel $500.
Jim Engel said that Sampson again told him that everything he had collected from the accident was in the back of the truck, but Engel hadn’t been able to find anything.
However, when Engel went into the shop, he said he saw the Red Yeti cup sitting on a table and spotted a large pile of tools and Shon’s knife sticking out of a red toolbox.
His brother was a mechanic, Jim Engel said, and kept hundreds of dollars of tools in his pickup.
When questioned, Sampson reported he had forgotten about the items and told Engel could take them. Engel then said he asked about the remaining items but was told that was everything.
He filed a report with the Crook County Sheriff’s Office.
When questioned by Sheriff’s Deputy Nicholas Kaminski, Sampson repeated that he had placed everything belonging to Shon in the back of the vehicle, adding that Jim Engel and Shon’s best friend David Watt had repeatedly harassed him and threatened to beat him up if they didn’t get the possessions back, according to the incident report provided by the Crook County Sheriff’s Office.
Kaminski informed Sampson there was photographic evidence of the accident site showing all of Shon’s possessions, according to the report.
Sampson said he didn’t know where the items were and that maybe Jim Engel had taken them when he was rummaging around in the truck, the report said.
The deputy then went to his wrecker and lifted the drop deck where Shon Engel’s Maui Jim sunglasses were found sitting in a bed box underneath the deck, the report said, along with a hammer also belonging to Shon Engel.
About 20 minutes later, Sampson contacted the sheriff’s office to report finding a few more of Shon’s items, including several sockets, a hammer, crescent wrench and other tools.
Sampson was issued a citation for theft on Dec. 8, 2021.
Doubting His Plea
Sampson initially requested a jury trial that was scheduled for later this month but entered the no contest plea to the single charge of theft in his pre-trial conference on June 1, according to Cindi Baudhuin, chief clerk of Crook County Circuit Court.
Sampson told Cowboy State Daily Thursday that the decision to enter the no contest plea was done rashly after a short discussion with his public defender who he had just met that day. He said that later that night, he doubted that decision and thought he should have requested the jury trial to prove his innocence.
He said he did not steal anything and put everything he’d found into the wrecked vehicle.
“I didn’t steal anything from his brother, but he (Engel) won’t listen to me,” he said. “He’s bullheaded.”
He said he’d overlooked the items that he had stuck in the back of his truck during the cleanup and didn’t notice them under the drop deck because he hadn’t looked there and hadn’t thought about it. He also said he didn’t realize that any of the items in his shop belonged to Shon Engel.
Sampson has since been removed from rotation by WHP and the Crook County Sheriff, he said, and hasn’t worked for the past 10 months. He is still authorized to tow vehicles, however.
He said this is his first complaint in the 13 to 14 years he’s been in business and that he understands how emotionally wrought the process is for the family of loved ones who die in automobile crashes and said it’s also hard for him, too.
“I didn’t steal anything,” he said. “The only thing I’ve gotten is a bad reputation and I want my name cleared.”
For his part, Engel said he’s just glad it’s over and wasn’t looking forward to putting his parents through the pain of sitting through a trial.
“I have mixed emotions about it,” he said. “I was looking forward to sitting in the courtroom and hearing him justify stealing dead people’s memories, but it’s better for my parents not to have to sit through it.”
Engel said he pursued the case because it was a matter of principle.
“You just don’t do that,” he said. “It’s not right.”
It’s not about money, Engel added, but rather having his brother’s memories returned.
Sampson will appear for a judgment and sentencing on June 24.