Stephen Hays is the managing partner of Deep Space Ventures, a $20 million venture capital fund based in Dallas. He’s also a convicted felon. What that means is a matter of interpretation in a dispute over the details of an ugly scene near a bar at a ski resort.
In November, Hays pleaded guilty to attempted assault and attempted extortion. Judge Paul Dunkelman in Eagle County District Court (the court with jurisdiction over Vail, Colorado) sentenced Hays to 90 days in jail and four years of probation. The jail sentence was suspended, and the sentence on the extortion charge was deferred. Hays also now faces a civil suit related to the case, and he has countersued, alleging he was both physically and sexually assaulted during the same incident.
Hays is an active investor in esports and tech companies. His fund has invested in startups such as Battlefy, Optic Gaming, FanAI, Infinite Esports & Entertainment, Haste, PlayVS, and Mobalytics. The company has made 19 investments since March 2016.
“I maintain I am innocent here, even though I had to take a plea deal,” Hays told VentureBeat in an interview. “It’s not pleasant. I feel my character is being assassinated and I want to defend that. I ended up in a ‘he said, he said’ [dispute]. It’s the fallout from a guys’ weekend in Vail. My former buddy is out to inflict some damage on me and tell lies.”
The incident occurred in Vail, Colorado, on January 20, 2017, after a day of skiing. Hays alleges he was tired and trying to extricate himself from the company of his friend and a “sloppy drunk woman.” He acknowledged that everyone at the bar had been drinking, and that they were thrown out.
Hays claims they were thrown out due to the woman’s behavior, but everyone else interviewed for this story put the blame on Hays.
The incident — and some of what happened before it — was captured on video. A security camera from the bar shows the group leaving, according to a video that Hays showed me. The woman, Shelby Spears, tried to jump into the arms of Hays, and she also tried to lift his shirt. Hays was clearly annoyed at what was happening, and at one point he pointed at the security camera. She grabbed his crotch, the video shows, and Hays said that is the basis for his sexual assault countersuit against Spears.
“I had some drinks. But I was not heavily intoxicated. You see she was jumping all over me. I maintained my posture well,” Hays said.
A second video showed Hays and the group walking along a road, where Hays was recording video in case he needed it for evidence later on. The video shows they are angry at each other.
Spears, 25, said in an interview with VentureBeat that she did not know Hays before that night. She said the group had been kicked out of the bar because of verbal outbursts by Hays.
What happened next, as the group walked up some stairs toward a bus stop, is disputed. Spears said that Hays struck her, causing her to fall down a set of stairs. She said Hays did not stop to help her. Hays said he did not strike the woman, and she fell on her own down the stairs. He said none of the witnesses saw the actual moment of the alleged assault. Rather, they only saw the aftermath of the woman lying on the ground at the bottom of the stairs.
But a security camera video (provided via an Open Records Act request by VentureBeat) shows that Spears was standing in a landing area as Hays was approaching her, moving up the stairs. The view is blurry, and only shows what happened from a distance. You can check out the video below for yourself to see if you see anything clearly. Some people I have shown this video to say they cannot tell what happened from the footage.
Hays and Spears come close to each other. Hays’ arm apparently reaches out. Spears abruptly falls backward down the stairs, as if she were propelled. Two other men in the group evidently heard what happened. But they were facing the other way. They both turned around, and then stopped to assist Spears at the bottom of the stairs. Hays, however, kept walking away from the group.
“I let her go ahead of me. I had been trying to create separation,” Hays said. “She closes the gap. Then she falls.”
“It’s clear that [Hays] assaults her in the video,” said Joseph Kirwan, chief deputy district attorney for Eagle County, in an interview with VentureBeat. “Then she hits the ground. There wasn’t much doubt about it.”
A witness to the circumstances around the incident — but not the moment the incident happened — said Spears had to be taken to a hospital, and a photo of her after the incident showed her with a set of black eyes and other head injuries. The witness asked not to be identified. Spears said that Hays struck her with his fist.
“I am 110 pounds,” Spears said. “He is big. My black eye lasted about two weeks, and I had short-term memory effects. There was a huge knot on my head.”
Hays acknowledged that he did not stay behind to help. Rather, he said he used the opportunity to finally make his exit from the group, as he saw there was a crowd of people helping the woman. He had been trying to get away from the group for a while, he said.
“I saw she would be taken care of,” Hays said. “I said I would keep distance. I didn’t want to escalate, tried to create separation.”
The witness claimed that Hays flipped them off as he walked away, and the video shows Hays making such a gesture at the group as he walked away. There is no sound on that security camera video. Hays acknowledged that he is the person walking away and making the gesture.
Hays said that no one reported the crime immediately. Rather, he said they waited about four days. Hays was not arrested until June 7, 2017, almost six months after the incident.
Hays claimed that his former buddy, whom he stayed with, became angry that Hays had told his own wife what happened. Hays’ wife purportedly told the buddy’s fiance about the other woman, and that got the buddy in trouble. After that, Hays alleges that the buddy turned on him and retaliated with the police complaint.
Before that happened, Hays said that no one said they saw the actual alleged assault occur. They only saw that the woman had fallen down the stairs. As the police report was filed days later, Hays claims the witness’ testimony changed to implicate Hays.
Then the mess got deeper. According to the witness, Hays allegedly tried to coerce the witness not to report the crime. But the witness reported both the crime and the threats. Hays reportedly sent a large number of threats via text. That was the cause for the extortion charge — to which Hays pleaded guilty. That’s where Hays said his dispute with his buddy got “out of control” and his buddy went “nuclear.” Hays said he is not proud of those text messages and he regrets sending them, but he said, “At no time did I say, ‘Don’t go to the police.’”
The witness disputes that version of the events. The witness said that the police were asked to pull the security camera videos from that night, and, after the camera videos were reviewed, the police said that they should come in to file a complaint.
“I want to do this for the better of entrepreneurs,” said the witness, who is also an entrepreneur and asked not to be identified, in an interview with VentureBeat. “If that guy was on my board, and he did things like that, he would be off my board. People need to do reverse diligence on their investors. Somebody needs to know this story. I feel it is my duty as an entrepreneur.”
Hays said that his messages to the witness were taken out of context, and that he was not trying to intimidate the witness. The extortion charge was a felony, more serious than the misdemeanor attempted assault charge.
Hays said he regrets pleading guilty, and he only did it on the advice of his attorneys. They had told him that a local jury would not look kindly on an out-of-town tourist getting into an altercation with people who were familiar as locals. The attorneys did not expect a trial to go well, and Hays said he caved to pressure from the attorneys and district attorney.
“I wanted this to be over with,” Hays said. “It was a no-win situation. It was clear it would not be a positive outcome.”
Kirwan at the district attorney’s office said he was not surprised that Hays pleaded guilty, because of the video evidence and the text messages.
The witness said that Hays’ defense about pleading guilty doesn’t make sense, as the witness is not a permanent resident of Vail, nor is Spears. The witness said the only reason to plead guilty was that the case against Hays was strong, based on the evidence for the attempted assault and the evidence for the extortion.
Spears said an attorney has filed a civil lawsuit on her behalf against Hays in Colorado. Hays has countersued. He said that Spears caused him a lasting injury when she kicked him, an act that was recorded on the cell phone video he took. Meanwhile, Hays has been actively investing, and he even wrote an op-ed about esports for VentureBeat.