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Nutty Putty Cave to be sealed today

Undersheriff says reason for closing the grotto is 'we have an unrecoverable victim'

PROVO — Despite objections from hundreds of local residents and visitors of Nutty Putty Cave, the Utah County grotto will be sealed off completely by Friday.

The decision was made after 26-year-old John Jones became trapped in a small crevice of the cave on Nov. 24. Despite 27 hours of rescue efforts, Jones died Nov. 25 and his body could not be recovered.

Utah County Undersheriff Mike Forshee said the cave is being sealed off with concrete in two places — the main entrance and the opening near the victim's remains.

Forshee said the seal on the cave's main entrance will not be permanent, meaning it could be reopened in the future if officials choose to do so. The opening near the victim's place of rest, however, will be permanently sealed.

After much effort to remove Jones' remains, it was deemed too difficult and dangerous. Forshee said drilling to reach the body would have cost between $400,000 and $900,000. The cost of the rescue efforts already exceeded $40,000, he said.

Forshee said the sheriff's office has received hundreds of complaints about closing the cave, many of them likening the experience to someone drowning in Utah Lake or getting killed in a park — neither of which would result in a closure.

The difference, he said, is that the cave is Jones' final resting place.

"The reason the cave closed is not that we have a death; it's that we have an unrecoverable victim," Forshee said.

In the past few days, nearly 600 people have joined Facebook groups petitioning to keep the cave open.

The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which owns the cave, had the final say about its closing, though several agencies were consulted in the decision.

John Andrews, SITLA's legal council, said meetings last Friday and Monday about closing the cave included officials from SITLA, the Utah County Sheriff's Office, Timpanogos Grotto as cave manager, a Utah County commissioner and a state legislator. The decision to close the cave was unanimous, Andrews said.

"I know a lot of people said this decision has been made in haste, but it has been thought over for many, many years," said Utah County Commissioner Larry Ellertson, who participated in the Nov. 27 meeting over the phone. "I thoroughly enjoy being outdoors and nature, but sometimes we have to look beyond that, and this may be one of those times."

Talks of closing the cave have been ongoing for several years. It was gated in 2006 and all spelunkers had to get permission and a key from the cave management group to enter.

It was then closed in 2007 due to abuse of some users and a need for a new management plan, said Max Barker, Timpanogos Grotto chairman. A new plan was made, and the cave reopened in May.

"It is a unique resource for how close it is and overall (how) safe it is as a cave," Barker said. "It's not a lot different than going up Rock Canyon. You can get yourself in trouble about anywhere."

Barker was one of those called in the early hours of the morning to help with the rescue efforts after Jones became stuck.

"He couldn't have gotten into a worse place," he said.

While Barker is sad to see the cave close, he said he knew it could happen if someone got seriously hurt.

Since the cave's discovery in the 1960s, Barker said Nutty Putty Cave has seen more than 50,000 visitors, with only 10 incidents of people getting injured and about four of those being serious.

Barker said he believes it's unlikely the cave will reopen, though he hopes one day it will.

e-mail: slenz@desnews.com