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Bellingham hiker pleads guilty to stabbing mountain biker in right-of-way trail dispute

Robert Mittendorf/The Bellingham Herald

As the criminal case against a Bellingham hiker accused of stabbing a mountain biker multiple times during a March 2021 right-of-way dispute on a trail concludes, the civil case over the incident has just begun.

Dake Hartman Traphagen, now 72, pleaded guilty April 26, 2023, in Whatcom County Superior Court to an amended charge of third-degree assault, a felony.

Traphagen was sentenced the same day to 30 days in jail, with the option to serve the time through electronic home monitoring. Court records show Traphagen enrolled in a private electronic home detention program May 2 and is expected to complete his sentence by May 31.

Traphagen initially faced charges of first-degree assault with a deadly weapon, a felony, and possession of a deadly weapon, a gross misdemeanor, but his charges were amended down as part of an agreed plea deal, according to court records.

A no-contact order was put in place between Traphagen and the victim, George Michael Lanham, a 68-year-old mountain biker, until April 26, 2028, court records show.

Sentencing hearing

At Traphagen’s sentencing hearing in late April, Whatcom County deputy prosecuting attorney Maggie Peach said it was clear the parties saw the case and potential trial outcomes “quite differently.”

Since the beginning of the case, Traphagen has maintained that he acted in self-defense — a claim the prosecution felt confident they could successfully attack during trial, Peach said.

Nonetheless, the parties worked for two years to come to the agreed resolution, she said.

As they got closer to trial, Peach said the realities of what a conviction on the original charge could mean for Traphagen began to set in, and the agreed deal took shape. One of the biggest factors in the prosecution proposing the agreed plea deal was that Lanham did not want to see Traphagen serve prison time for the incident, Peach said.

The prosecution wouldn’t have extended the offer if they didn’t feel it was an appropriate resolution, she added.

“This entire situation, I think one of the real tragedies of it — apart from the injuries suffered by Mr. Lanham — is how preventable it was, and how a disagreement of a right-of-way of a hiking trail could result in a stabbing,” Peach said. “It’s pretty shocking that it would happen in this community, and I think it affected not only a lot of hikers, but mountain bikers and anyone who uses the trails here.”

Peach said the agreed resolution took into account Lanham’s wishes, his injuries, Traphagen’s age, lack of criminal history and his belief that he was acting in self-defense.

“I’ll keep this short: Dake hurt me very badly. He stabbed me six times,” Lanham said at Traphagen’s plea and sentencing hearing.

Lanham said during one of the last times he was stabbed while the two men struggled, the knife grazed his bone and severed muscles and one of the three main nerves in his arm. He said without nerve stimulation, the muscles in his hand have started degenerating. After two surgeries, doctors have concluded there’s nothing more they can do, he said.

“My dominant left hand will never be the same again. Full recovery is not possible. I’m crippled for life. Everything is harder now,” Lanham said.

Doctors told Lanham it’s unclear how far the degeneration in his hand could go and that much of the damage is beyond repair. He said he’s most concerned with potentially losing his independence in the future.

“Even so, I’m still grateful to have two hands and the wherewithal to live and play on the beautiful shores of Lake Whatcom. I fully support the decision to offer Dake a plea of [no] jail time. I see no benefit of putting him in prison,” Lanham said.

Who was the aggressor?

Traphagen’s criminal defense attorney, Douglas Hyldahl, said reasonable minds disagreed when it came to the circumstances surrounding the trail dispute.

In several motions filed prior to Traphagen’s plea and sentencing, Hyldahl wrote that Lanham was the aggressor, not Traphagen. Hyldahl wrote that Lanham, as the cyclist, should have yielded to Traphagen and the other hikers.

Hyldahl argued that due to Lanham’s actions, Traphagen feared for his safety and his life and ultimately stabbed Lanham in self-defense. The springblade knife Traphagen had was one he purchased off the internet and used while fishing, Hydahl said.

Traphagen accepted the plea deal to minimize the risk to him and his family, according to court records.

Traphagen declined to speak during his sentencing hearing. This was in part due to the pending civil lawsuit, Hyldahl said.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge David Freeman said it was clear the resolution was heavily negotiated. He said he understood why the parties needed it to be seen as an appropriate conclusion to the case.

Because of Lanham’s support of the plea deal, Traphagen’s age and lack of criminal history, Freeman followed the agreed recommendation.

“It’s tough. While this resolution is appropriate, Mr. Traphagen at 71 is walking out of this courtroom as a convicted felon. Mr. Lanham is sitting here with what appears to be permanent medical conditions that will affect him for the remainder of his life. No one is walking out of this without some pretty significant consequences, which is unfortunate given the circumstances of how this all occurred,” Freeman said during the hearing.

Civil case is looming

Lanham filed a personal injury civil lawsuit March 3 in Whatcom County Superior Court against Traphagen and his wife, Gail Smedley. Smedley was one of the hikers with Traphagen at the time of the stabbing, court records show.

Lanham’s lawsuit alleges Traphagen refused to move aside as the pair approached each other at a muddy and difficult point to pass on the trail on Stewart Mountain. Traphagen pulled Lanham’s mountain bike down by the handlebars, while Smedley pulled on Lanham’s helmet, the lawsuit alleges. Traphagen then stabbed Lanham at least five times, the court records state.

Lanham’s lawsuit states he has suffered permanent nerve damage and asks for general and special damages due to the permanent injury. The damages requested include Lanham’s medical expenses, past and future mental and physical pain and suffering, disfigurement and loss of enjoyment of life, wage loss and impairment of earning capacity, property damage and loss of use, court records state.

In a response to the lawsuit filed by attorneys for Traphagen and Smedley, they allege that Lanham aggressively shouted for the pair to get out of his way as he was riding his mountain bike up the trail and incorrectly asserted that he had the right-of-way, records show.

The response alleges that Traphagen was acting in self-defense and that it was Lanham’s own actions as the aggressor that caused the incident and ultimately Traphagen to react out of fear for his personal safety, court records state.

The response states Traphagen attempted to move out of Lanham’s way, but that Lanham rode his mountain bike directly at Traphagen instead of passing by him. Traphagen said he put his hands out to absorb the impact and he and Lanham fell backward. Traphagen said Lanham then held his hands to the ground, spit in his face and refused to get up, according to court records.

Traphagen admitted that he stabbed Lanham, but said he did so only after Lanham denied multiple requests to get off of him, the response to the lawsuit states.

Traphagen and Smedley have asked for Lanham’s lawsuit to be dismissed.

They have also made counterclaims against Lanham. Traphagen and Smedley accuse Lanham of assault, negligence, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium.

Traphagen and Smedley are requesting past and future special and general damages, court records show.

In a response filed Wednesday, Lanham argued that Traphagen and Smedley have not sustained any damages caused by him. Lanham said he acted in self-defense and accused Traphagen and Smedley of being the aggressors, according to court records.

Lanham has asked the court to dismiss the counterclaims made by Traphagen and Smedley, records show.

A hearing has not yet been set in the case.