Deemed a “great person” by the prosecutor, judge and defense attorney, a Florida man who had himself filmed walking on the thermals of Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic spring was ordered Wednesday to pay $2,000 in fines and community service payments.
Matt Manzari, who has 16 screws and three plates in his face and scars on his body from an electric-shock accident he narrowly survived in his youth, was grateful to the judge for not sentencing him to jail.
“I really appreciate your leniency and understanding. It means more than you will ever know to me and my family,” he told Stephanie Hambrick, magistrate judge for Mammoth Hot Springs Court in Yellowstone.
Manzari said the video was intended as a light-hearted joke about body positivity for people who have scars or other physical issues.
In the video, Manzari is walking, shirtless, on the thermal crust near the Grand Prismatic spring – one of Yellowstone National Park’s main features. His torso is riddled with shock scars from years earlier. Acting as though he’d been swimming in the spring, he says, “Oh man, they said it was hot, but gee-whiz! Do I have a rash?”
On Wednesday while appearing by virtual link in court, Manzari was deeply regretful, saying he didn’t realize when he shot the video that leaving the boardwalk was illegal.
“It was 15 seconds of my life that has ruined the last six months,” he said, adding that in the past people who Googled his name would have found inspirational messages; now they find a thermals controversy. “Is this with me forever now?”
A Week In Jail, Or Thousands In Fines
The prosecutor recommended between two and seven days in jail, plus fines. Manzari’s defense attorney asked the judge to avoid jail time, saying Manzari’s delicate physical condition makes incarceration precarious for him.
Hambrick was torn.
“I wish we had met under some very different circumstances,” she said. “The court is struggling with the decision here today because there are so many things speaking in your favor – but there are so many things that I’m concerned about in this case, and the message it can send to other people.”
Hambrick said the thermal features of Yellowstone National Park look powerful and strong, “but they’re really very delicate,” and the colorful thermal mats are whole ecosystems that, when damaged, can take decades to recover.
She emphasized that the park also is dangerous to people.
“Individuals either voluntarily or sometimes involuntarily wind up in a thermal feature and suffer very, very severe burns and injuries, and sometimes even death,” she said, adding that park officials suspect a person went voluntarily into a thermal pool this summer to commit suicide.
But Manzari has no criminal history, is a productive member of society and has used his physical condition to mentor youth, host counseling events and present his story as an inspirational speaker, according to court testimony. When he discovered through angry commenters on social media that walking on thermals is illegal, he turned himself in and cooperated fully with park rangers.
Manzari made two high-grade aluminum signs for the park, warning of the dangerous thermal features and the possibility of federal penalties for trespass. The signs now on the boardwalk warning of hot thermals reminded him more of wet-floor signs at the grocery store than warnings of criminal penalties, Manzari said.
Hambrick told him he was welcome to mail the signs to park authorities.
Maryt Louise Fredrickson, the federal prosecutor, called Manzari a “great person,” noting his work with youth and people who are struggling. She said that while the court’s chief concern in the case was Manzari’s ability, through his influence, to encourage others to walk on the thermals, he is not “an influencer” on the internet.
But there were also aggravating factors in the case, said Fredrickson. Manzari’s video went viral once it was picked up by the Idiots of Yellowstone Facebook page. His footprints were visible on the thermal crust. He also admitted he saw the signs warning him not to leave the boardwalk.
Fredrickson said a jail sentence plus $750 in fines and $750 in community service payments was appropriate. Or in lieu of a jail sentence, proportionately larger fines and payments.
While trimming trees at a church in 2014, a power line near the tree arced and jolted 14,000 volts through Manzari’s body, according to defense attorney Jon Pfeifer.
“He was incredibly lucky to have survived that injury,” said Pfeifer, adding that Manzari has had roughly 80 surgeries since then.
Manzari told the court that he’s gone two years without needing a surgery and knowing that, his wife cried when she learned he may go to jail. He also has three young children.
“He has chosen to live a life that is exemplary,” Pfeifer continued. “(His) message to youth (is) of hope and overcoming adversity, and in particular an emphasis on body image issues, which of course many people suffer from.”
Manzari during his own testimony emphasized that suicide is a leading cause of death for teens.
“Unique to Mr. Manzari is, he’s more susceptible to, perhaps, the conditions of jail,” said Pfeifer. “He’s extremely susceptible to wounds or injuries without proper medical care. He doesn’t have the blood vessels to shield his body in the event he’s hurt or even slightly cut.”
Manzari told the court he was “so, so sorry” and from the minute he discovered walking on thermals was wrong, he’s sought to remedy what he did.
He said that for three sleepless nights, he private-messaged angry commenters to his Facebook video to apologize, and to say he’d never intentionally hurt the environment. One of these conversations produced a positive outcome for a commenter who confessed he was struggling and angry, said Manzari.
These efforts impressed Hambrick, who mentioned them when pronouncing Manzari’s sentence.
She imposed a $250 fine and $1,750 in community service payments to Yellowstone Forever’s geologic protection fund, which gives money toward park safety and improvement. Hambrick imposed another $40 in court fees and costs. The money is due by Dec. 30, but Manzari said he’d pay immediately.
He also thanked Fredrickson for acknowledging the mitigating factors in his case.
Thermal trespass, a federal crime, is punishable by up to $5,000 in fines and six months in jail.