ASPEN - A tenant displaced by a fire that burned an Aspen condominium unit on Monday now has a place to stay: Pitkin County Jail.
But authorities have yet to say publicly what, if any, role Joseph Edward Kern, 35, had in the blaze. Instead, he is incarcerated on pending charges of stealing more than $2,000 from a downtown Aspen restaurant on Wednesday - two days after the fire ignited.
Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols advised Kern on Thursday that
he faces three felony offenses - theft,
second-degree burglary and third-degree burglary - along with a misdemeanor charge of obstructing a peace officer.
Aspen police investigator Walter Chi arrested Kern on the theft charges just a day after they spoke about the fire, which struck his second-floor rental unit in Building 9 of the Hunter Creek Condominiums.
"He claims to not know about the fire," Chi said, declining to say whether he believes that Kern was involved. "It still could come back as an accident."
Kern, who moved into the unit with his fiancee on the very day the fire broke out, also had renter's insurance, Chi said. Authorities fielded a report of smoke coming from the unit's window around 2:08 p.m. that day.
"Where it started we know. How it started we don't know," said Ed Van Walraven, Aspen fire marshal.
The blaze originated in a bedroom and, as is typical procedure in all structure fires, remains under investigation until the exact cause is determined. An agent with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation also has inspected the property, Van Walraven said.
"There are still a couple of loose ends we need to tie," he said.
Meanwhile, Kern, who had been director of operations for the four Aspen restaurants owned by Craig and Samantha Cordts Pierce for 21⁄2 months, appeared in Nichols' court chambers, where the judge reduced his bond from $12,500 to $5,000.
Employees at their CP Burger eatery called police before 10 a.m. Wednesday to report that Kern was in the upstairs office of the restaurant. When Chi arrived at CP Burger, he noticed that the safe in the office was open, and Kern was not on the premises, according to an affidavit for a warrantless arrest, which was written by Chi.
Chi then contacted Craig Cordts Pierce, who said that Kern was not allowed in the office. Cordts Pierce also told Chi that he had been trying to terminate Kern's employment but that Kern had not responded to his phone messages or texts. Samantha Cordts Pierce also told Chi that as recently at 8:50 that morning, she had texted Kern to return her the keys to CP Burger.
Later, Chi and fellow Police Officer Peter Bauer spotted Kern at the Ruby Park Transit Center, less than a block away from CP Burger across Durant Avenue.
There, Chi told Kern he was under investigation for trespassing at the restaurant, Chi wrote. At times, Kern attempted to leave but was restrained by Bauer, Chi wrote.
Chi eventually arrested Kern. While in the patrol car, Chi "observed a large amount of cash in Kern's left front pants pocket. The cash appeared to be folded in half and had paper clips dividing the funds," Chi wrote.
All told, officers confiscated $2,113.40 in cash from Kern, the affidavit says. And Craig Cordts Pierce said that a quick accounting showed that $2,609 went missing from the office, Chi wrote.
Later, Chi reviewed CP Burger security video, which showed Kern "enter the store, proceed directly to the office, open a safe located next to the open space ... remove several white bank type bags, and remove selected cash," Chi wrote.
At the advisement hearing, Kern told the judge he has lived in the valley for three years, working in the food-and-beverage industry.
"I feel I can continue to work through this. ... I'm definitely aware, as you advised me, of the fines and consequences of this, if you will," he said.
Kern said that should he post bond, he has friends who will put him up because his rental unit is uninhabitable for the time being. His fiancee attended the hearing, as well.
Nichols said part of the reason she reduced Kern's bond is because she did not consider him a high flight risk given that he made all of his court dates for a previous drinking-and-driving arrest in Pitkin County about a year ago.
Kern is due back in court Oct. 15 for further proceedings.