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Aspen driver with penchant for sleeping pills pleads guilty to DUI

An Aspen woman who was arrested for driving while intoxicated twice in four days last summer pleaded guilty Monday to one count of felony DUI.

Leslee Francis, 56, also will plead guilty Thursday to a second count of felony DUI in front of another District Court judge, while a third DUI she picked up Mother’s Day 2018 with her teenage son in the car will be dismissed, said prosecutor Don Nottingham.

In exchange for one of the guilty pleas, Francis will receive a four-year deferred sentence, meaning the felony conviction will be wiped from her record if she stays out of trouble during those four years. The second DUI will stand as Francis’ fifth DUI conviction.

She would have faced as many as six months in jail for the plea to the second DUI, but she has already served that much time and her plea deal ensures she won’t serve more. A person cannot be sent to prison for DUI until all other treatment options have been exhausted, Nottingham said.

“This disposition means hopefully she can get a handle on the issues that brought her before the court,” he said. “If not, she’ll likely get sent to prison.”

Francis admitted Monday to driving under the influence of prescription drugs. She was in possession of a drug called Zolpidem, a sedative used to treat insomnia, after both her DUI arrests in late July and early August, according to court documents. She also tested positive for the drug after her Mother’s Day arrest in 2018.

Francis pleaded guilty to felony trespassing in August 2017 after she was caught on surveillance video breaking in to her neighbor’s home and stealing seven pills used to treat high blood pressure. She was sentenced to 60 days in jail and three years probation in November 2017 for that incident, meaning that she was on probation when all three DUIs occurred.

Francis, her two defense lawyers, the prosecutor and District Judge Chris Seldin all appeared in court by phone Monday because of coronavirus concerns. The only people in the courtroom were two court clerks, two prisoners from the Pitkin County Jail awaiting hearings, a sheriff’s deputy from the jail and an Aspen Times reporter. Another Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy was stationed outside in the hallway.

In other court news Monday:

• A Snowmass Village man who yelled that he had coronavirus at Gondola Plaza on the last day of lift-served skiing last month, then sneezed near skiers and later spit into an Aspen police officer’s eyes was released Monday on his own recognizance.

A frustrated Judge Seldin said that despite the fact he was concerned that Brandon Tidrow’s recent behavior was “extremely alarming,” he didn’t want Tidrow “languishing in custody.” The judge said he’d repeatedly asked officials with the Probation Department to come up with a plan that would allow Tidrow to be released, but had not received one.

So on Monday, the judge released Tidrow, 32, and told him not to commit new crimes and to set up appointments to check in with local mental health providers twice a week.

“You gotta understand — this is it,” Seldin told Tidrow. “If we run into more trouble, I’m going to feel like I’ve done all I can do.”

In addition to sneezing near skiers March 14, a mohawk-wearing Tidrow spit on nearby hand rails, and put his hands down his pants and wiped them on other people while yelling that he had the virus, according to a police report. When officers spotted him outside Carl’s Pharmacy, he ran inside, yelled to customers that he had coronavirus, then spit in the officer’s face when he tried to apprehend him.

Tidrow will be charged with felony assault for spitting on the officer, Nottingham has said. He’s also been arrested twice on misdemeanor charges in recent weeks, Seldin noted.

“This is the sort of pattern that gives me great concern,” Seldin said. “It’s an indication to me that something is off the rails.”

It was not clear if Tidrow has or had COVID-19.

• A Basalt man charged with burglarizing a marijuana dispensary in February then robbing it less than two weeks later at knifepoint will remain behind bars at the Pitkin County Jail for the time being, Judge Seldin said Monday.

A public defender representing Hayden May, 26, asked Seldin to release him on his own recognizance or a low cash bond, saying he could live with his older brother at an apartment in the Basalt area. May also could obtain part-time work at his father’s company, she said.

Prosecutor Nottingham, however, said the employees of the Basalt marijuana dispensary that was robbed March 1 by a man wearing a ski mask asked the judge to set a high bond for May. The employees recognized May’s eyes and his voice during the robbery because he is a regular customer, and were concerned about him getting out of jail, he said.

Nottingham also noted that May recently finished probation related to his robbery of an Aspen marijuana dispensary using a hammer in June 2015.

Seldin declined to modify the $30,000 bond he previously set for May.

“The court’s concern is public safety,” he said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Kerri Johnson, who is serving time for role in Aspen embezzlement case, released from jail over COVID-19 concerns

For those who don’t think the tentacles of the unfolding coronavirus pandemic touch every aspect of life, consider that Thursday they reached the Derek Johnson theft case.

The former Aspen Skiing Co. executive was sentenced in January to six years in prison for pleading guilty to stealing more than 13,000 pairs of skis from his employer and selling them for about $3 million over a 15-year period. His wife, Kerri Johnson, also pleaded guilty to felony theft and was sentenced in February to 90 days in the Pitkin County Jail and five years of probation.

But on Thursday, District Judge Chris Seldin released Kerri Johnson from jail more than two months early because of virus-related concerns, according to court documents.

And while she asked the judge to reduce her 90-day sentence to the 28 days she’s served so far, and release her permanently from jail to begin her probation sentence, Seldin said no.

“The Court declines to modify the length of the jail sentence,” the judge’s order Thursday states. “However, the Court will permit Ms. Johnson to serve the jail sentence non-consecutively.

“This course of action is consistent with requests from the jail to manage its population in light of the current public health crisis.”

That means Kerri Johnson must report back to the jail to serve the remaining 62 days of her sentence in “49 days, or such other time that may be authorized by the Court,” Seldin wrote.

In a motion filed March 14 by her lawyer, Johnson cited the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the area school cancellation affecting her two school-aged children now being cared for by her 76-year-old mother as reasons for the jail sentence reconsideration request, according to the motion.

“With both Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in custody and the national emergency related to spreading coronavirus, the Johnson family is experiencing significant stress and worry,” the motion states. “At this point, the harm and risk posed by Ms. Johnson remaining in jail for one more month during this pandemic seem to outweigh the Court’s original reasons for imposing a 90-day jail sentence.”

The motion states that Johnson has had no disciplinary issues in jail and expects to receive the maximum amount of so-called “good time,” which allows an inmate to subtract time behind bars in exchange for good behavior.

“This means that Ms. Johnson will likely serve 54 days of jail,” according to the motion. “As such, to date, she has likely served approximately half of her jail sentence.”

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said one other jail inmate has been allowed out on furlough in recent days because of the encroaching virus. That inmate was in the work release program, meaning he left jail during the day to work and returned at night to sleep, and officials didn’t want him continually re-entering the jail and possibly infecting other inmates, DiSalvo said.

The inmate also will have to serve the rest of his sentence at a later date.

Kerri Johnson is the only full-time inmate released because of the coronavirus, he said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Pitkin County commissioner calls cops on large gathering of celebrants not practicing social distancing

Nobody better mess with Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper.

A group of young people drinking beer “shoulder to shoulder” in Rio Grande Park and not practicing appropriate social distancing learned that lesson Tuesday, when the five-term county board member and former nurse called Aspen police on them.

“If (one sharp-tongued young man) hadn’t have been so nasty to me, I probably would have walked away,” Clapper said Wednesday. “But he told me to call the cops, so I did.”

Clapper said she was walking past the park Tuesday evening when she saw a group of about 20 young people drinking beers together.

“They were standing shoulder to shoulder around a picnic table,” she said.

So Clapper said she went over, reminded those gathered that they were in the middle of a pandemic and suggested they spread out a bit and perhaps better observe Centers for Disease Control recommendations limiting groups to less than 10 people.

Some in the group explained that they’d just finished their last shift together at a local hotel and were celebrating, Clapper said.

“Then one young man got really nasty with me,” she said. “He told me to move along.”

Clapper said she told the young man “we were all in this together” and that she “didn’t want to have to call anyone.”

“He said, ‘Go ahead and call the cops,’” she said. “I said, ‘OK.’”

Aspen police received Clapper’s call about the matter about 6:15 p.m., though by the time an officer responded he found the party was “fizzling out,” according to a police report. The officer took no action.

Clapper said she later regretted her phone call to police, though not because she interrupted the celebration.

“I felt bad,” she said. “The police have better things to do.”

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Driver cited in downtown Aspen fatal crash that killed 5-year-old from New York

The driver of the SUV that struck and killed a 5-year-old girl Sunday in downtown Aspen was identified Tuesday as a longtime Aspen real estate broker.

The girl, meanwhile, was identified as Hannah Heusgen, of New York City, who was visiting Aspen with her family, according to prior police statements and a Tuesday news release.

“The victim’s family is requesting privacy to cope with this tragedy,” the release states.

The driver of the 2018 GMC Acadia that struck Heusgen early Sunday afternoon was Heidi Houston, who was charged Tuesday with misdemeanor careless driving resulting in death. A message left Tuesday afternoon for Houston, 67, was not returned. 

“Heidi is just devastated by the accident and cannot stop thinking about the little girl and her family,” her attorney, Abraham Hutt, wrote in an email to The Aspen Times.

Houston was southbound on Galena Street and turning left on to Hyman Avenue, and the girl and her family were crossing Galena when the accident occurred at 12:33 p.m., according to the release.

The Heusgen family was crossing Galena diagonally from the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall to the northeast corner where the Ute Mountaineer outdoor store is located, according to an Aspen Police accident report.

After Houston struck the girl, she went under the SUV and became wedged beneath the rear passenger wheel, the report states. Heusgen was pronounced dead at Aspen Valley Hospital at 1 p.m.

Houston was not intoxicated at the time of the accident, the report states.

Careless driving resulting in death is a class one misdemeanor traffic offense punishable by between 10 days and a year in county jail.

“The investigation indicates that careless driving causing death is the appropriate charge,” prosecutor Don Nottingham said Tuesday. “We haven’t seen indications of intoxication, nor does it appear the actions of the driver were reckless or intentional.”

The Aspen Police press release included phone numbers for Mind Springs Health – 970-920-5555 – and the Aspen Hope Center – 970-925-5858 – for anyone who saw the accident scene or otherwise might need mental health assistance because of the incident. 

“This is, of course, a terrible tragedy,” Nottingham said. “Everyone involved – police, the DA’s Office, emergency personnel – our hearts break for this little girl and her family.”

Sex assault charge dropped against teen

An 18-year-old Arkansas man arrested New Year’s Eve for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman in the bathroom of a downtown Aspen bar will not be prosecuted, according to court documents.

The man, who was not identified by The Aspen Times at the request of police, was initially charged with sexual assault after other patrons at the bar saw him with the woman in a bathroom stall. However, further investigation found that contact between the two was consensual and that no sexual assault occurred, prosecutor Don Nottingham said Monday.

Nottingham emphasized that the District Attorney’s Office takes allegations of sexual assault seriously, though that was not what happened in this case.

In other court news Monday:

District Court Judge Chris Seldin denied a motion to reduce bond for a man arrested earlier this month for allegedly burglarizing and later robbing at knifepoint a Basalt marijuana dispensary.

A public defender representing Hayden May, 26, asked Seldin to reduce his client’s bond from $30,000 to a personal recognizance bond, meaning he could be released from jail and post no money.

Nottingham objected, pointing out that May was convicted of two felonies in connection with the armed robbery of an Aspen pot shop four years ago and now faces four counts of aggravated robbery that require mandatory prison if he’s convicted.

Seldin asked if public defender Alex Haynes had any more information about an alibi another lawyer talked about during a court appearance two weeks ago. Haynes said he didn’t.

The judge then said he was concerned about community safety if May is released and declined to alter the bond.

May allegedly broke into Roots Rx in Basalt on Feb. 18 but didn’t take anything after he triggered alarms. He then allegedly returned March 2 and stole nearly $3,300 from employees after threatening them with a pocketknife.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Basalt cops were on to suspect before robbery

Police had already identified Hayden May as the prime suspect in the bungled burglary of a Basalt marijuana dispensary five days before he allegedly robbed the same store at knifepoint Sunday.

That’s according to court documents filed in Pitkin County District Court, including a second arrest warrant affidavit posted late Monday charging May with the Feb. 18 Roots Rx burglary, in which the culprit was caught on video crashing through the store’s ceiling after hiding out inside the building.

That means the 26-year-old May — who pleaded guilty to robbing an Aspen marijuana dispensary with a hammer in 2015 — now faces four felony charges of burglary, aggravated robbery, menacing and theft plus second-degree trespassing and criminal mischief, both misdemeanors.

On Monday in his first appearance in District Court, May and his public defender seemed to indicate he was innocent of the robbery charges. Lawyer Ashley Andrews said May had an alibi for the Sunday night robbery and called witness identification of him “shaky.”

According to court documents, a female Roots Rx employee who was ordered to open the store’s cash registers recognized May’s voice and eyes and called him by his first name because he is a regular customer there. May made purchases at the store four times in the eight days before the burglary, though none since, according to the second affidavit.

Basalt police, however, already identified May as the suspect in the Feb. 18 burglary at Roots Rx before the armed robbery Sunday, the documents state.

After a story about the burglary and a photo of the suspect ran in The Aspen Times, a man called Basalt police and said the photo looked like May, according to the affidavit. Another person who saw him near the dispensary bathrooms several hours before the Feb. 18 burglary also tentatively identified May as the suspect.

Police later searched May’s house and found the exact clothing the burglar was wearing, including a jacket covered in what appeared to be drywall and Sorel winter boots with multi-colored laces.

Surveillance video inside the store caught the burglary suspect entering the building three times between 6:45 p.m. and 7:25 p.m. After the last entrance, the man “hid behind a tall stack of retail boxes near the restroom until the employees closed and left the building around (8:15 p.m.),” according to the affidavit.

The man then stands on a counter, hoists himself up into the “attic,” crawls about 8 feet through the ceiling, then kicks out ceiling tiles and insulation sheets and drops on to a glass counter about 8:45 p.m., knocking two glass bongs to the floor, the document states.

That’s when alarms sound and he flees.

May is due back in court March 16.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Man who took hostages in 2015 incident on Independence Pass near Aspen sentenced to 12 years in prison

A Colorado Springs realtor was sentenced to 12 years in prison Monday for holding three men hostage at gunpoint on Independence Pass in July 2015 and repeatedly threatening to kill them.

“I had no intention of harming anyone that day,” Brolin McConnell said in court Monday before he was sentenced. “I am extremely sorry for what they have gone through and what the community has gone through.

“I’m not the same person (I was) prior to going insane.”

McConnell’s case has been through numerous stages since he used two handguns to hold the three young men hostage for more than an hour four-and-a-half years ago on Lincoln Creek Road. He initially pleaded not guilty to the 18 felonies, including attempted first-degree murder, that had been filed against him.

But after a year and a half in the Pitkin County Jail, McConnell changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity. That delayed the case another 14 months while psychiatrists at the state hospital in Pueblo examined him and eventually found him sane.

McConnell, 34, pleaded guilty in December to criminal attempt to commit first-degree kidnapping and felony menacing and faced between eight and 20 years in prison as part of a plea deal with the District Attorney’s Office.

McConnell was scheduled to be sentenced a month ago, but his Denver-based lawyer wasn’t able to land in Aspen because of weather. However, one of the three victims who’d traveled to Aspen from his home in Hawaii spoke at that time so he would not have to return Monday for the actual sentencing.

“Prior to this incident I was just a simple kid from Hawaii,” Blake Ramelb said last month. “Now I can’t go anywhere without images (from that day) in my head. My life is forever held hostage by this man.”

Ramelb had a foot injury that day and could not easily run away from McConnell, which the two other hostages were able to do. Ramelb said he begged McConnell repeatedly not to shoot him.

“I said, ‘I’m not ready to die,’” Ramelb said.

McConnell, however, merely smiled at his pain and repeatedly threatened to shoot him in various parts of his body and watch him “bleed out,” Ramelb said.

McConnell fired a shot from one of the guns at Ramelb’s feet and another beside his head. An Aspen Police officer witnessed McConnell fire the shot next to Ramelb’s head and said he thought Ramelb was a dead man. Ramelb thought the same thing.

“I knew the next shot would be the one that would take my life,” he said. “I was begging the officers to help me.”

Ramelb said he will not feel safe once McConnnell gets out of prison.

A second hostage, who asked not be identified, spoke in court Monday and said he’s been robbed at gunpoint twice in Dallas, where he’s from, and that McConnell scares him far more than those robbers. McConnell pointed the handgun at his head, threatened to shoot him in the face and kept flicking the gun’s safety on and off all the while smiling and making odd statements and jokes, he said.

When McConnell asked them to “get in an execution line,” he said he looked at his friend who he’d gone up to Lincoln Creek with to camp, and thought, “See you in the next life.”

Today, he said he thinks of the incident daily, has “trust issues,” routinely sits in the back of rooms and has nightmares that can ruin his entire week.

“I’m fearful for my life and he’s not even in prison yet,” the victim said Monday.

Prosecutor Don Nottingham read a statement from the third hostage, Mark Meredith, who said he has post-traumatic stress disorder from the incident. He said it affects his ability to go to school and that he’s been told he needs to get therapy, but doesn’t have time for it.

“To say that this changed the trajectory of my life is an understatement,” Meredith said.

All three men asked District Judge Chris Seldin to impose the maximum 20-year sentence.

Nottingham also urged the judge to give McConnell the maximum, saying it was “one of the most terrifying and dangerous” incidents to have occurred here in recent years.

But Harvey Steinberg, McConnell’s lawyer, reminded the judge that his client had no prior criminal history, did not plan to take people hostage and that he suffers from mental health issues.

“This case is driven by mental illness that clearly Mr. McConnell was suffering from at the time,” Steinberg said. “He simply lost it that day.”

McConnell has since been prescribed medicine that treated his mental health symptoms and “settled him down,” Steinberg said.

McConnell’s mother said her son “had been under great stress” at the time of the incident because of his workload, lack of sleep and a recent divorce. He’s also suffered while in jail, when he’s lost both his houses, all his possessions and money and, most importantly, his two children’s childhoods, she said.

“Brolin has always been a thoughtful son to us,” said Noreen McConnell, adding that he’s never been violent. “He’s a hard worker with a strong ethic.”

Judge Seldin wondered aloud Monday how differently things might have turned out if no guns were present. In that case, McConnell likely would have received probation focused on mental health treatment, he said.

As it was, the situation “turned out about as bad as it could” without anyone ending up dead, Seldin said.

However, a 20-year prison sentence would only serve as retribution when what McConnell really needs is consistent mental health treatment, the judge said. Seldin urged McConnell’s friends and family members — many of whom attended Monday’s sentencing — to help him deal with the paranoid delusions he experiences by ensuring he takes his medication.

McConnell was given credit for the 1,315 days he’s already spent in jail in Pitkin County.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Aspen dispensary robber from 2015 case arrested Sunday for similar crime at Basalt pot shop

A local man who robbed an Aspen marijuana dispensary with a hammer four-and-a-half years ago allegedly committed nearly the same crime Sunday night in Basalt, according to police reports.

The only difference this time was that Hayden May, 26, allegedly used a pocketknife Sunday instead of a hammer to rob employees, and stole more than $3,200 in cash instead of jars of weed, according to an arrest warrant affidavit filed Monday in Pitkin County District Court.

May was arrested on a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus in Aspen almost immediately after the robbery of Roots Rx in Basalt because — like his Aspen armed robbery in July 2015 — dispensary employees recognized him. Reports also indicate that May might be same person who broke into the same shop Feb. 18 but fled before taking anything, according to a Basalt police officer.

Sunday’s incident occurred about 6 p.m. at the Roots Rx dispensary on Southside Drive in Basalt when May allegedly entered wearing a black sweatshirt, jogging pants and a ski mask, according to the affidavit filed by Basalt police.

“… (The) male entered the store wearing a mask, stating something (to) the effect of ‘Give me the money,’” the affidavit states. “The male pointed the knife at the employees while entering.”

He told a female employee to open the cash registers while warning a male employee to back off or he’d “kick his f—ing ass,” according to the court document.

“(The female employee) informed me that while she opened the registers for the male … she said ‘Hayden’ to the male,” the affidavit states. “(She) further stated that she recognized the male as Hayden from his voice and his eyes … (and) that she knew Hayden because he was a frequent customer.

“(The male employee) informed me that he thought the male was Hayden due to his stature.”

May allegedly fled with both cash drawers, which contained $3,290. The drawers and a North Face sweatshirt were recovered by police nearby, according to the affidavit.

Not long after, May allegedly boarded an Aspen-bound RFTA bus at Willits. Soon after that, a RFTA dispatcher advised drivers to be on the lookout “for a skinny white male subject” the bus driver suspected might be May, according to an Aspen police report.

At a Basalt bus stop, the driver exited the bus, called RFTA dispatchers and reported her suspicions.

Aspen police officers boarded the bus at Garmisch and Main streets and ordered May to stand up. May, instead, tried to flee and began fighting with the two officers, who eventually handcuffed May after his leg became trapped in the bus door, according to the Aspen police report. He also attempted to escape from officers when they took him off the bus, which caused minor injuries to two officers. Officers eventually searched him once they had him on the ground outside the bus.

“(An officer) asked Hayden if he had any weapons on him,” the report states. “Hayden replied something to the effect (of), ‘No but the cash is in my pocket here’ and reached for his right jacket pocket.”

Officers found $3,000 in cash in his jacket pocket and another $300 in his wallet, the report states.

May was charged with robbery, theft between $2,000 and $5,000 and menacing with a deadly weapon, all felonies. Other charges may be pending.

Basalt police executed a search warrant Sunday night at May’s home, and it turned up clothing that matched the clothes worn by the man who broke into Roots Rx in Basalt on Feb. 17, said Basalt Police Lt. Aaron Munch. That man fled without taking anything after alarms went off, police have said.

However, a public defender appointed Monday to represent May said the evidence linking him to Sunday’s armed robbery was weak, including witness identification she called “shaky.” In addition, May has an alibi as to his whereabouts Sunday, while the $3,000 in cash he had in his pocket was his rent money, said public defender Ashley Andrews.

May’s father and brother live in the area and he works at a restaurant in the Willits area, said Andrews, who requested a personal recognizance bond.

Prosecutor Don Nottingham said there was nothing wrong with the witness identification of May.

“I disagree that the ID is shaky,” he said.

Further, Nottingham said that because of May’s previous conviction for armed robbery, he could now face between 10 and 32 years in prison if convicted of the same charge again. He asked for a $10,000 cash or surety bond.

District Judge Chris Seldin said it appeared to him that officers “had a good array of evidence linking the defendant to the charges” before setting bond at $15,000 cash or surety.

“I’m disappointed we’re here,” Seldin said, looking directly at May.

“I’m disappointed as well,” May said. “This is a shot in the dark.”

May attempted to say more but Seldin cut him off. He is due back in court March 16.

May used a hammer to rob the Stash dispensary — now called Euflora — on July 28, 2015, telling employees there, who also were his friends, that he was desperate. He then stole several large jars of marijuana, fled the store, stole an SUV from a former employer and apparently headed east on Interstate 70.

St. Louis police attempted to pull him over in the next day west of that city, though he declined to stop and led them on a high-speed chase that reached 100 mph. He did not stop until he crashed head-on into a police car, injuring an officer inside, then hit a utility pole.

He later pleaded guilty to robbery, theft and aggravated motor vehicle theft — all felonies — in Aspen and was sentenced to 464 days in jail, four years of probation and ordered to serve 200 hours of community service.

May also faced charges in Missouri over the his arrest there, though it was not clear Monday how that case was resolved.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Basalt police seek help identifying man who broke into pot shop

Basalt police are seeking help identifying a man who broke into the Roots Rx marijuana shop Tuesday night.

Police believe the suspect hid outside the business in the Southside neighborhood until employees closed and departed, according to Sgt. Aaron Munch. The shop closed at 8 p.m. The burglary occurred at about 8:30 p.m. He was able to gain access in a way police didn’t want to discuss.

“The alarms went off,” Munch said. “By watching surveillance video, he just got scared and took off.”

The man unlocked a deadbolt on the front door and ran off without taking any product or cash. Munch said Roots Rx had complied with state law and kept all products locked.

The pot shot’s alarm company got an instant notification that the on-premise alarm was triggered and called police. Two officers from Basalt and a Pitkin County deputy sheriff arrived on the scene shortly and checked the store for an intruder.

Munch said the cameras captured images of a clean-cut man approximately 30 years of age. While the images are in black and white, he was wearing a green jacket and black pants with a Sorrell-type pair of boots.

Store employees didn’t recognize the man as a regular customer. Munch said if anyone has information about the suspect, they are urged to call Basalt Police Department at 970-927-4316.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Farrises avoid prison, apologize after theft conviction in court

Every seat was filled in the courtroom Thursday when Judge Denise Lynch told Charles “Zane” and Charla Farris they would have to complete probation, do community service and pay restitution — but would not receive not jail time.

The Farrises were sentenced Thursday afternoon for taking between $5,000 and $20,000 from the ranch they had managed for Waffle House, Inc. chairman Joe Rogers.

Judge Lynch sentenced each of the Farrises to five years supervised probation, 200 hours of community service, and to pay restitution in an amount to be determined later.

“The court can see how full the courtroom is,” Charla’s attorney Andrew Ho said.

He asked for those in the courtroom supporting Charla to stand, and more than 20 people stood up.

If he called all of them to give statements of character, “we could be here all afternoon,” Ho said.

“I’m not going to let you call all of them. I have a basketball game to watch at 6:30 (p.m.),” Judge Lynch joked.

Both Farrises were convicted of the theft of Bear Wallow Ranch funds in November, but the jury settled on a far lesser degree of theft than what prosecutors alleged.

After nearly six weeks of trial and three days of deliberation, the jury found the Farrises not guilty of the alleged theft of between $100,000 and $1 million, and exonerated them on multiple counts of cattle theft.

Prosecutor Ben Sollars, who asked for one to three years in prison for the Farrises, said Thursday that the theft was “not on a one-time basis, but more of a death by a thousand cuts,” and created a pattern of breach of trust.

“There are some aggravating factors that separate this out from other acts of theft,” Sollars said.

Judge Lynch disagreed, and said incarceration would not be appropriate.

“I think sending (Charla) to prison is just going to make her a worse human being. It will punish for sure, but I don’t think it’s going to rehabilitate at all,” Lynch said.

Rogers, who owned and kept Bear Wallow as a corporate retreat house for many years, attended the sentencing hearing. He has also sued the Farrises in civil court for the alleged losses.

The Farrises were sentenced separately, but each made a statement that they appreciated the time of the jury and judge in the case.

“I’m very sorry for the mistakes I have made, and I know that those mistakes led me here,” Charla Farris said.

“I apologize to anyone and everyone,” Zane Farris said.

During the trial, defense attorneys alluded to class distinctions, and that continued in the sentencing hearing.

In this case, “the word of one person with a lot of money and power obviously meant more than the word of one family” who was part of the community, Zane Farris’ defense attorney Kathy Goudy said.

Zane Farris was most relieved to be acquitted of the counts of stealing cattle, Goudy said, since he continues to work as a cattleman.

Monica Groom, an attorney who did not represent either of the Farrises, said in a statement to the court that Zane Farris and Charla Farris are beloved members of the community.

“These are two individuals who would do anything for you,” Groom said.

tphippen@postindependent.com