Man sentenced to 5 years in prison for bias-motivated attack in El Jebel
An Old Snowmass man was sentenced Monday to five years in state prison for his attack in August on an elderly Latino man sitting in his car outside the El Jebel City Market and scratching off lottery tickets.
Eagle County District Judge Russell Granger said the attack by Jerry Cunico was unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.
“Maybe if I was a judge in a big city where they see a lot of violent offenses, I’d be hardened,” Granger said. “This is Eagle County, and I’m not hardened. I don’t see that many offenses like this, and it is just not OK to do that in Eagle County.”
Cunico, 47, pleaded guilty in November to second-degree assault and bias-motivated crime, both felonies. He didn’t have any prior felony convictions, so his attorney, Terry O’Connor, requested probation. He said Cunico has a job and housing waiting for him. He has worked in the past as a carpenter, mechanic and landscaper, according to testimony.
O’Connor said alcohol is the root cause of Cunico’s troubles and that he isn’t biased against Latinos.
“Mr. Cunico wants to show that’s not the person he is,” O’Connor said.
The probation department in the 5th Judicial District recommended two years in Community Corrections. The District Attorney’s office sought six years in Community Corrections, which are an alternative to prison and provide more flexibility for inmates.
Granger said he disagreed with everybody in the case on the sentence. He said state prison was appropriate after weighing what the 67-year-old victim endured.
“The impact on the victim is significant. The victim had serious bodily injury,” Granger said. “The victim, while he was talking to the court, pulled his lip down and showed that he’s missing several teeth.”
The man also expressed how he and his family members fear for his safety.
“The victim is an elderly, small man. … Look at the defendant. The defendant appears to be a powerful man, strong man,” Granger said. “So the confrontation must have been horrifying to the victim. And although a fair fight isn’t necessarily a condition of the sentencing, this was anything but a fair fight. I don’t see that the victim had much of a chance of defending himself at all.”
The victim spoke for about 15 minutes at the start of the hearing and explained in Spanish what happened. A translator related his story.
The victim said he went to the grocery store after work to get juice, tortillas and other items. He picked up some scratch lottery tickets from a vending machine on his way out.
He went to his car in the parking lot and starting checking his tickets. His left leg was outside of his car and the driver’s side door was open because the parking space was vacant beside him.
As another vehicle parked, a man was yelling “Mexico,” the victim said. He didn’t pay attention because he was focused on the lottery tickets. In addition, “I’m not Mexican. I’m from El Salvador,” he said.
Next thing he knew, someone grabbed him by the throat and started punching him. “I thought he was going to kill me,” the victim said.
During the attack, he used his legs to kick Cunico out of the car, but the other man grabbed his feet and pulled him out. Two boys witnessed the confrontation at about 9:30 p.m. and ran into City Market to get help. Cunico was restrained until Basalt police officers arrived.
“I don’t think these people should be attacking an elderly guy like me — only because they don’t like Latinos,” the victim said.
His attorney, Lucy Laffoon, an immigration attorney from Glenwood Springs, said the victim came to the U.S. seeking asylum. He has a work permit and “permission to be here.” He has applied to the U.S. government for a “U visa,” which is a special, nonimmigrant visa set aside for victims of crimes and immediate family members who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are willing to work with law enforcement officials on a prosecution of criminal activity, according to the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“In this political climate, your honor, these types of crimes cannot be tolerated,” Laffoon said.
Granger stressed that he wasn’t making a political statement with his sentence.
“This has nothing to do with politics, absolutely nothing,” Granger said. “This has everything to do with justice.”
He later added, “The way I see this case is, I have one human being who has harmed another human being in a very violent, vicious manner. And that’s it.”
Granger levied the five-year sentence for second-degree assault, the more serious of the two charges. He sentenced Cunico to two years on the bias-motivated crime charge, to be served concurrently. He also will have three years of mandatory probation upon release from prison. He will receive credit for the 142 days he has spent in Eagle County Jail since he was arrested. Cunico must also pay the victim $3,494 in restitution, an amount that could increase with future treatment, and pay various court costs and fees.
Cunico gave a brief apology to the victim, his family and friends, and law enforcement agencies during his hearing. He didn’t look at family members or a friend when he was led out of the courtroom after the hearing.
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