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Wife of embezzler in Aspen Skiing Co. scheme blames husband at sentencing

While admitting that some things about their online business selling second-hand skis did not seem kosher, Kerri Johnson on Tuesday laid the blame for the years-long $6 million scheme squarely on her husband’s shoulders. 

“Looking back, there were indications that something was off,” Johnson said during her sentencing hearing in Pitkin County District Court. “But I made the decision to trust (my husband) and that was my mistake.”

That decision — coupled with the magnitude and length of the theft from the Aspen Skiing Co. — led Judge Chris Seldin to sentence Johnson to 90 days in the Pitkin County Jail, five years of probation and 300 hours of community service for her role in the scheme. 

“There were questions she should have asked,” Seldin said, including why the $3 million in income they made over more than a dozen years was never reported. “There’s sufficient evidence to justify a punitive sentence.”

Johnson, 49, was not taken into custody after Tuesday’s hearing because Seldin allowed her to begin serving her jail sentence at 7 p.m. Friday.

Johnson’s husband, Derek Johnson, is a former Skico executive who was in charge of the company’s rental/retail division for more than 15 years. During the course of that employment, he stole more than 13,000 pairs of skis from the company valued at about $6 million and sold them on eBay for about $3 million. 

Derek Johnson, who is also a former Aspen city councilman and mayoral candidate, pleaded guilty to felony theft and was sentenced last month to six years in prison. He is currently incarcerated at the Sterling Correctional Facility, Colorado’s largest prison located in the northeast corner of the state, where his estimated earliest eligibility for parole is December 2022, according to online prison records. 

The couple will jointly have to pay back $250,000 in restitution, which is the amount of Skico’s deductible on the $6 million insurance claim the company filed. 

David Clark, Skico vice president and associate general counsel, urged Seldin on Tuesday to sentence Kerri Johnson to six months in jail and give her 10 years of probation and 500 hours of community service. He said the Johnsons’ massive breach of trust was done for no other reason than simple avarice. 

“It was just two greedy people who wanted to live far beyond their means,” Clark said. “I wonder if she truly appreciates what she and her husband have done to the community.”

Clark said it is “absurd” to believe that Kerri Johnson didn’t know what was happening and simply believed Skico would give the couple 13,000 free pairs of skis to sell. 

“How could the cost of the goods be zero?” Clark asked. “This is grave stuff.”

Seldin said he could not legally impose six months of jail, and that 90 days was the maximum he could give her under the law. 

Prosecutor Don Nottingham noted that the evidence against Kerri Johnson wasn’t as significant as the evidence against her husband. He said that was the main reason he agreed to give her a plea deal that took prison off the table in exchange for her guilty plea to felony theft. 

However, Kerri Johnson removed the Skico stickers from the skis she and her husband sold online, she listed the skis for sale on eBay, took payment for them and shipped them out in boxes paid for by Skico, Nottingham said. 

“It really was her that ran the eBay business completely,” he said.

Nottingham also brought up the fact that the Johnsons weren’t poor — Derek  Johnson made more than $100,000 a year as a Skico executive — and didn’t appear to need the extra money they made. The lack of reasons for the theft speaks to the “depravity” of the couple’s actions, he said. 

Kerri Johnson, however, only ran the second-hand ski business so she could quit her bank teller job and stay home with the couple’s children, said Dru Nielsen, her attorney. 

“The job was presented to her as a no-brainer by her husband,” Nielsen said. “She did it without passion.”

Derek Johnson worked out the original plan to sell second-hand skis with Skico’s blessing. Then when that arrangement ended after a couple years, Derek Johnson began taking skis without Skico’s knowledge on his own, she said. Kerri Johnson didn’t know the ins and outs of the ski business and didn’t understand the details of buying and selling equipment, Nielsen said. 

Further, the extent of Kerri Johnson’s bookkeeping for the eBay business consisted solely of paying quarterly sales taxes to the state of Colorado, she said. Kerri Johnson had no formal training as a bookkeeper and no college degree. 

Still, Kerri Johnson did notice nefarious signs signaling that the business wasn’t “on the up and up,” Nielsen said. For example, Derek Johnson told her not to talk about their business with members of the Aspen community, she said. 

“So this is the situation of the proverbial ostrich who buried its head in the sand,” Nielsen said. “That’s where she messed up.”

But Kerri Johnson is ultimately not to blame for the embezzlement, she said. 

“Mr. Johnson is the one who devised this scheme,” Nielsen said. “Mrs. Johnson’s role could have been done by anyone.”

The Johnsons’ three children figured prominently into Tuesday’s proceedings. Their oldest son attended his mother’s sentencing and sat with his grandmother in the first pew behind his mother during the hearing.

Nottingham said his sympathies were with the children, but noted that simply having children is not a reason to avoid punishment for serious crimes.

“This is what the Johnsons did to their children,” he said. 

Seldin asked Kerri Johnson who would take care of her two middle school-aged children while she is incarcerated in jail. 

“My mother is here as long as I need her,” she said. 

Skico officials have said their employees were harmed by the Johnsons’ actions, which included taking away bonuses because goals were not met and missing out on promotions and 401k contributions.

“I’m so sorry to all the people who’ve been hurt by what has happened,” Kerri Johnson said. “It hurts my heart every day.”

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Former Aspen businessman found guilty on marijuana trafficking charges, faces 32 years in prison

A former Aspen businessman faces up to 32 years in prison after he was found guilty Friday of six felonies in connection with a marijuana trafficking organization that duped investors and shipped pot out of Colorado.

Scott Pack, 41, was convicted by an Arapahoe County jury of two counts under the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act — pattern of racketeering and conspiracy; a first-class drug felony; and conspiracy to cultivate marijuana, according to a news release from the 18th Judicial District. He was also found guilty of two counts of securities fraud.

Pack, who now lives in California, was indicted in June 2017 along with 19 others after an investigation that started in August 2016. At that time law enforcement found an illegal marijuana operation at a site in Elizabeth, which is southeast of Denver.

Investigators discovered 845 marijuana plants weighing 2,535 pounds worth more than $5 million.

“Coloradans did not pass Amendment 64 to become the Wild West of Weed. Despite the perception that marijuana is completely legal, it is not,” District Attorney George Brauchler said in the news release. “Colorado created a regulatory framework that we defend by aggressively prosecuting those, including the rich, who choose greed over our laws.”

Pack was at the top of the drug enterprise, according to the news release, and played a pivotal role, taking the proceeds of black market marijuana as well as soliciting investors to back the enterprise through fraudulent statements and empty promises. None of the pot was sold legally in Colorado.

That was the beginning of an investigation that uncovered a major drug trafficking organization that was involved in illegally cultivating, processing and distributing marijuana and marijuana products to at least five states, according to the release.

“This defendant thought he could avoid prosecution by having subordinates do all the dirty work. He thought he left no trail.  He told them, ‘If anything happens to you, I have the money to hire the attorneys. So none of this can touch me,’” said Senior Deputy District Attorney Darcy Kofol, who tried the case with Senior Deputy District Attorney Laura Wilson. “He was wrong. I am grateful to the jurors for seeing the truth and holding him accountable.”

The drug felony carries a mandatory prison term of 8-32 years in prison. Other counts have presumptive ranges but prison time is not mandatory and sentences are at the discretion of the judge, officials said in the release.

Pack’s sentencing is set for April 6 at 8:30 a.m.

Teen faces felony charges for pot vape pen incident at Basalt High School

A 19-year-old who entered Basalt High School on Tuesday and allegedly gave a marijuana vape pen to four students who used it in the bathroom was charged with five felonies Thursday.

In addition, Ivan Henriquez Lopez, who is on probation for providing a pellet gun to a minor less than a year ago, could face decades in prison for the alleged drug offenses because they took place on school property, a prosecutor said.

The incident came to the attention of school officials Tuesday afternoon, when a student reported smelling a strong odor of marijuana coming from the girl’s bathroom near the high school’s front entrance, according to an arrest warrant affidavit filed in Pitkin County District Court.

School officials checked the school’s surveillance cameras, which recorded two female students letting Lopez into the school through an east entrance. Three female students later told a Basalt police officer that Lopez gave them the vape pen and each used it in the bathroom. A fourth girl in the bathroom also used the pen, according to the affidavit.

Lopez never attempted to enter the bathroom and kept himself hidden near the school’s band room until the girls returned the vape pen to him.

Lopez later admitted giving the pen to the girls and said he received it from a friend in Aspen, the affidavit states.

“Mr. Henriquez Lopez told me he frequently uses marijuana to help him sleep,” the officer wrote in the affidavit.

Lopez was expelled from Basalt Public Schools last school year, the affidavit states. No reason for the expulsion was provided in the affidavit.

He was charged with two counts of distribution of marijuana to a minor while on a school campus, two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and burglary, which are all felonies. He also was charged with criminal trespassing, reckless endangerment and interference with school staff, which are misdemeanors.

If the District Attorney’s Office decides to designate Lopez a “special offender,” he could face between eight and 32 years in prison because the marijuana offenses occurred on school property, said Deputy District Attorney Don Nottingham.

District Judge Chris Seldin ordered Lopez held in lieu of a $5,000 cash or surety bond. If he posts bond, he will not be allowed within 100 yards of Basalt High School and cannot have contact with people under the age of 18 who are not family members, the judge said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Aspen warrant highlights how alleged $30M Ponzi scheme touting ‘fancy diamonds’ made its way into valley

Touting “fancy colored diamonds” as a hook, a Florida man and his partners built what the federal government calls a $30 million Ponzi scheme that ensnared hundreds of investors, including a Roaring Fork Valley couple.

This past week, the Basalt-area couple’s efforts to recover their $500,000 investment in the diamond company resulted in a felony arrest warrant signed by a Pitkin County District Court judge for the man from Florida allegedly behind the scheme.

Jose Angel Aman, 50, of Wellington, Florida, has not yet been arrested on the on felony theft and check fraud charges, and attempts to reach him for comment Friday were not successful.

Aman and two partners — including a Canadian with a long-running weekly radio show that touts investment opportunities and has a house in the valley — were accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission in May of running a three-tiered Ponzi scheme that raised more than $30 million from about 300 investors from late 2013 to the date of the filing, according to federal court documents.

“They told prospective investors that Natural Diamonds would use investor funds to acquire raw colored diamonds known as ‘fancy colored diamonds,’ which they would then cut, polish and resell for profits that would result in investment returns of 24% and the full return of investors’ principal within two years,” according to the SEC court order in May, which was filed in U.S. District Court in South Florida.

“In reality, Natural Diamonds was a Ponzi scheme. Aman and Natural Diamonds used investor funds to pay prior investors with their purported returns.”

Aman and his partners, Harold Seigel and his son Jonathan Seigel, allegedly created a second entity called Eagle Financial Diamond Group “when the well began to run dry in 2015” on Natural Diamonds, the SEC alleged. Then, when the second company “lacked funds to continue the Ponzi scheme,” the partners created a third company, which offered a cryptocurrency backed by diamonds, according to the SEC complaint.

Seigel allegedly touted the diamond investments on his radio show, called “The World Financial Report,” then handed off prospective investors to his son, who provided more details via phone calls and email, according to the complaint.

All three companies now are controlled by a court-appointed receiver, who is tracking down assets, selling them and distributing funds to investors, according to court documents.

The Pitkin County charges stem from a Basalt-area husband and wife’s $500,000 investment with Aman in Natural Diamonds in September 2013, according to the arrest warrant affidavit filed in Pitkin County District Court. In December 2018, Aman mailed the couple a check for $100,000 as partial re-payment for the principal, but the check bounced.

Aman told the couple the money would be available in a couple days, so they waited 10 more days before trying to re-deposit it, according to the affidavit. But it was again returned for insufficient funds, and the couple was unable to reach Aman again.

In a phone interview Friday, the woman said they actually invested the money with Harold Seigel, who owns a home next to theirs in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“He was like, ‘Oh buddy, I’ll never let anything happen to your money,’” she said. “We didn’t even know he had a partner (named) Jose.”

The couple did receive some of the monthly interest payments the company promised, but were attempting to get back their $500,000, of which the $100,000 check was the first installment, she said.

“We were trying to get out for the last three years,” she said. “That was retirement money.”

The couple is on the list of investors to be reimbursed with the funds gathered by the receiver. So far, they haven’t gotten any of their money back, she said.

Reclaimed assets include $2.1 million from a West Palm Beach church called Winners Church International, where Aman was an official. The church received numerous unexplained donations from him, according to the receiver’s most recent filing from Jan. 30.

The receiver’s report also briefly mentions a “Colorado property” owned by Seigel.

“Regarding the Seigel home and property in Colorado, the SEC and I continue to be aware of the issue and continue our analysis of this sizable asset,” the report states. “I will keep the victims updated regarding the ultimate disposition of this asset.”

No other information about the Colorado property is divulged in the receiver’s report.

However, Pitkin County property records indicate that Harold Seigel’s wife, Harriet, owns a roughly 4,000-square-foot home on Sopris Creek Road in Basalt valued at a little more than $2 million.

Aman, the Seigels and their lawyers have been cooperative with the receiver’s efforts to redistribute assets, according to the receiver’s report.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Aspen Weinstein witness agrees to cooperate

A District Court hearing Thursday for a woman subpoenaed Wednesday as a witness in the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault trial in New York was canceled after she agreed to comply, a prosecutor said.

One of the women who accused the former Hollywood producer of assault “testified that her conversations with (the Aspen woman) refreshed her recollection abut the timing of her interactions with the defendant, including the year that he sexually assaulted her,” according to court filings by New York County Assistant District Attorney Meghan Hast.

Weinstein’s defense asked that the Aspen woman be available to testify, and the judge in the case agreed, according to the document.

An investigator with the local District Attorney’s Office was able to serve the Aspen woman with the subpoena Thursday morning, and she later agreed to cooperate, said prosecutor Don Nottingham.

“Like any person would be, she is reluctant to upend her life to attend the trial,” Nottingham said. “But she understands the importance.”

Indy Pass hostage taker’s sentencing postponed

A Colorado Springs realtor who pleaded guilty in December to taking three young men hostage at gunpoint three-and-a-half years ago will be sentenced to as long as two decades in prison next month.

Brolin McConnell, 33, was supposed to be sentenced Monday afternoon, but the commercial airline flight his Denver-based lawyer was on couldn’t land at the Aspen airport and the sentencing was postponed until March 2.

McConnell pleaded guilty in December to criminal attempt to commit first-degree kidnapping and felony menacing and could have faced as many as 32 years in prison. However, the District Attorney’s Office agreed to limit his sentencing to between eight and 20 years in prison as part of a plea deal.

McConnell has been in custody at the Pitkin County Jail since the hostage incident took place in July 2016 on Lincoln Creek Road on Independence Pass. He used two handguns to hold the men hostage, repeatedly threatened to kill them and fired a round from one of the guns at one of the men’s feet and another next to his head.

All three were able to run away from McConnell without physical injuries, though the three men were traumatized by McConnell’s unhinged threats, according to a lawyer who represents the men in a civil lawsuit.

Former Aspen restaurant manager to be deported after jail sentence

A New Zealand resident and former Aspen restaurant manager will spend the next 90 days in jail before being deported home after pleading guilty to sending child pornography over the internet.

Blair Gibsone, 48, said he’s been in “self exile” in the eight months since his arrest, and blamed his actions on alcohol, the stress caused by the recent deaths of family members and working 16-hour days in Aspen’s hospitality industry.

“I did not consciously remember this happened,” Gibsone said Monday in court before he was sentenced. “But it’s devastating to think that it did happen.”

Gibsone pleaded guilty in December to sexual exploitation of a child and could have faced as many as 12 years in prison. However, the District Attorney’s Office agreed to ask for only a probationary sentence, which also was recommended by the state’s Probation Department, said prosecutor Don Nottingham.

In addition to the 90 days in the Pitkin County Jail, District Judge Chris Seldin sentenced Gibsone to five years of probation that must include intensive sex-offender treatment, registration as a sex offender and both mental health and substance-abuse evaluations.

However, Seldin acknowledged that Gibsone is unlikely to serve the probation. That’s because after his jail sentence, he may be handed directly to immigration authorities and deported to New Zealand. Nottingham said he’s been contacted by New Zealand authorities, who wanted information about Gibsone’s case.

“It looks like he will have to register (as a sex offender) there, too,” Nottingham said.

Gibsone acknowledged that he will likely be deported.

“I beg that I can get back to New Zealand, try to pick up and push forward and better myself as a person,” he said. “I’ve been working on the reasons why this has happened.”

Gibsone was arrested in June after a female acquaintance told Aspen police that Gibsone admitted to regularly molesting and raping a young girl he frequently babysat. He sent the woman what he said was a picture of the girl sitting at a local Aspen restaurant.

Gibsone also included pictures of two naked female children and one naked male child in the Facebook chats he sent to the woman.

The babysitting story, however, turned out not to be true, and the girl he claimed to have molested did not exist, Nottingham and police have said.

However, Nottingham has said police also found numerous other sexually exploitative items in Gibsone’s house, while he admitted to a police detective that he’d been having sexual fantasies about children and had watched child pornography.

Seldin pointed out that Gibsone apparently never had any sexual contact with children and agreed that probation was appropriate in his case. However, he said he thought the Probation Department’s recommendation of just 30 days in jail wasn’t punitive enough.

“This offense requires 90 days (of jail) at a minimum,” Seldin said. “And that’s on the lenient side of what is (appropriate here).”

In light of the items found in his home, Seldin also said he found Gibsone’s story about blacking out and not remembering his actions “a bit hard to believe.”

Gibsone was taken into custody by a sheriff’s deputy after Monday’s hearing and taken to jail to immediately begin his sentence.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Suit claims sexual harassment, age discrimination against Aspen-area company

A Basalt and Aspen Highlands property management company faces civil allegations from a former employee who claims he was sexually harassed by his direct supervisor and fired because of his age.

The Romero Group, run by developer and politically active Dwayne Romero, was hit with a civil complaint Wednesday in Pitkin County District Court from Aspen resident Stephen Yochem.

Yochem’s suit claims The Romero Group fired him “shortly after turning 65 years old” in January 2019 in the aftermath of a series of incidents he had with his higher-ups, including his being the recipient of one person’s alleged sexual harassment.

Yochem also refused to sign resignation papers that were conditioned on him not taking legal action against Romero Group, the suit says.

The complaint names The Romero Group LLC, also known as The Romero Construction Management LLC, as defendants. No individuals, including Romero, who is an elected member of the Aspen School District Board of Education, are defendants in the case.

In a statement issued Wednesday night, The Romero Group said its “position remains that Mr. Yochem was terminated from his employment due to poor work performance, evidenced by documentation and complaints by home owners. We will decline to provide specifics as we wish to protect our clients. We are currently working with legal counsel to refute his false claims.”

Furthermore, the statement said an unemployment claim Yochem filed with the Colorado Department of Labor was denied, while a complaint he filed with the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies also was dismissed.

“Now Mr. Yochem has filed the complaint you have referenced,” said the statement, concluding that “The Romero Group does not tolerate discrimination or harassment.”

Yochem’s complaint said he was steadily subjected to insults and sexual harassment from a company executive when he worked for The Romero Group.

“(Yochem) is and was a diligent and professional property manager, but the constant harassment had created such a hostile environment that it was affecting (Yochem’s) performance,” the lawsuit alleges.

The Romero Group did not have a human resources department to which Yochem could report his allegations, so he took them to Dwayne Romero but he “was deliberately indifferent to it,” the suit alleges.

In the wake of Yochem’s meeting with Romero, he then became the target of a campaign waged by his higher-ups to remove him by “creating a false paper trail regarding anything they thought that could be used to get rid of (Yochem),” the suit alleges.

After he was fired, The Romero Group replaced Yochem with a younger, less qualified property manager, the suit contends.

The suit makes claims of sexual harassment, hostile workplace environment, retaliation and violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. It seeks compensatory and punitive damages, front and back pay, legal expenses and other costs.

Greeley attorneys Richard Blundell and Robin Cochran filed the suit on Yochem’s behalf.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Felony warrant issued for man who allegedly smashed gate at Aspen garage

Aspen police issued a felony arrest warrant Wednesday for a Denver man who blasted out of the entrance gate to the city’s parking garage early Saturday morning, causing thousands of dollars in damage, a police official said.

The unidentified man, who had not yet been arrested as of Wednesday evening, has been charged with felony criminal mischief after police tracked him down using surveillance video from the parking garage, said Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn. Police were in touch with the man’s lawyer Wednesday, he said.

“He drove out through the in door … without attempting to stop,” Linn said. “It appeared to be an intentional act.”

Surveillance video showed that the incident occurred at 4:37 a.m. Saturday, when a 2007 Hyundai SUV with Illinois license plates came tearing out of the garage using the entrance lane.

“He pulled down the gate and the control box,” Linn said. “Fortunately we have really good security video (in the parking garage). There wasn’t really any hope of him getting away with this.”

Police soon tracked the license plates to the man who lives in the Denver area. The damage to the gate is estimated at about $7,000, he said.

Reward of up to $7,000 being offered for information on Snowmass theft

Snowmass Village authorities and Eagle County Crimestoppers are looking for help cracking the case of the theft of a safe-box from a Snowmass Village condominium.

The safe was taken from a Willows Condo on Campground Lane sometime during the week of Oct. 21 and 28, according to Snowmass Village police investigators. A hidden key was discovered outside and a person or persons gained access.

“Nothing in the condo was disturbed and just the safe-box was taken from a dresser drawer where it was being stored,” according to a statement from Crimestoppers. “Contents inside the safe-box included a large amount of cash, several titles to vehicles and a Social Security card.”

“The owner of the safe-box is offering a $2,000 cash reward for information to assist investigators with the recovery and up to an additional $5,000 cash reward if the safe-box and its contents are recovered,” the statement continued.

Tips can be made anonymously. Call the Eagle County Crimestoppers at 970-328-7007, 1-800-972-TIPS or the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office at 970-328-8500. Tips also can be submitted to the Snowmass Village Police at 970-923-5330. If your tip leads to the arrest and indictment of an involved suspect, you could earn as large as a $7,000 reward.