Mother details delicate resolution of Basalt manhunt in 2017
January 8, 2018
Trial testimony from the mother of Nicholas Ameral, convicted in a 2017 Carbondale armed robbery, revealed details of a tense ending to a manhunt that she feared would end in violence.
While the 20-year-old Ameral pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison in July, the trial of his cousin and accused confederate, 20-year-old Benjamin Weeks, continued Monday.
Investigators say that on Feb. 16 the cousins robbed the Carbondale Cowen Center, a Valero gas station, at gunpoint, and later led authorities on a two-day manhunt. Ameral's mother and Weeks' aunt, Alicia Jackson, was required to testify under court order to her experiences surrounding the robbery, the manhunt and ultimately her drive into the mountains herself to retrieve the two young men.
When Weeks came to the Roaring Fork Valley from California, Jackson tried to help him get his documents together to get a job. Weeks and Ameral were not living with Jackson full time, but they were staying at her residence from time to time, she said.
Jackson said she was at home in bed the night of the robbery, and that her son and nephew had also stayed there that night. She said that she had fallen asleep watching TV. She told prosecutors that she woke up around 10:30 p.m. and saw that they were lying down at the house, as well. Ameral and an accomplice prosecutors say was Weeks, with concealed faces, robbed the Valero with a handgun at about 11 p.m
The next morning, Jackson was taking her son to a temp agency across from the Valero to look for work, but Ameral had asked her to go to the 7-Eleven instead of the Valero, she said. But she later dropped him off at the temp agency.
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Police came to Jackson's house later that day with a photo of a young man that she identified as her son. She also allowed police to search her home, where they ultimately found clothing matching those worn by the robbers and a 9 mm Glock handgun, consistent with the weapon used at the Valero robbery. Jackson told investigators that she believed Weeks was involved in the robbery with her son.
When she learned that her son had a warrant for his arrest, Jackson said she started trying to get in touch with him.
After obtaining immunity against self-incrimination, 22-year-old Benjamin Sydoryk testified that he had let Ameral and Weeks stay at his Snowmass apartment for a few nights right after the robbery. Sydoryk, however, testified that he knew nothing about the robbery, and that he immediately kicked them out after seeing on a Facebook post that they were wanted in the crime. Prosecutors said that this would have been sometime soon before the pair fled authorities by leaping from a Roaring Fork Transportation bus and running into the hills near Basalt.
Jackson was able to talk to her son while he was hiding out, and had sporadic phone contact while he was on the run near Basalt. In the days that the two men were missing, Jackson feared the worst — largely because they are some of the few black people in a very white valley. Jackson said she worked with law enforcement to ensure the situation ended without violence, "Because I didn't want them killed by the Police Department or Sheriff's Office. That's what happens to black boys," she testified. "I repeatedly told them to turn themselves in."
Jackson testified that at one point, while she was trying to convince them to turn themselves in, her son was indicating that he would, but Weeks said, "that's not an option." Jackson said that she didn't feel like she was getting through to her nephew. Parsons asked whether the mother thought her son could say no to Weeks while they were on the run, to which she responded, "I don't know what his frame of mind was or what he was capable of."
She spoke with her pastor to connect with an Aspen police officer she knew from the congregation to find some way to end the manhunt peacefully. After spending a cold night in the open, the two agreed to let Jackson pick them up. They both suffered exposure-related injuries.
While Jackson was talking with Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan, authorities got a ping on the men's cellphone, indicating they were at Toner Creek. The undersheriff reportedly gave her directions to the location and let her drive her vehicle by herself to pick them up, while the authorities stood by in Basalt.
Jackson got the two men, shivering and soaking wet, into the car. She blasted the heater and covered them in wool blankets. Weeks had injured his leg or foot.
"They were alive," she testified in court. Parsons characterized Jackson's actions as going into "mom mode" to ensure her son's and nephew's safety. The prosecutor's questions also suggested that Jackson could have been putting herself in danger by going herself. Asked whether she was concerned about Weeks jeopardizing her safety, she said "it was a possibility." She later clarified that she had not been afraid that Weeks would hurt her.
Some of the prosecution's questions focused on which of the two men was more in control of the situation, whether one was leading the robbery and then the flight from authorities. But Jackson did not offer much damning testimony to that effect.
"I don't know who was the mastermind in this case; I don't have an opinion," she said.
When officers spotted her vehicle driving back down Fryingpan Road, they pulled Jackson over in town. Both young men would be treated at Valley View Hospital before being jailed.
In the car, officers also made the surprising find of a submachine gun, which Jackson said was only coincidentally in the car. The mother repeatedly called this a "target gun," which she had bought but that her son used most often. After police apparently overlooked the weapon when they searched her home, she put it in her car. Jackson testified that she was afraid that if law enforcement saw that gun in the house "they would kill my son for sure."
Outside of the courtroom Jackson said the year following the robbery has been a hard one for her family, and she hoped that Monday would be the end of it for her.
Weeks's trial, scheduled to run through Jan. 17, will pick up again Wednesday — when Ameral is also expected to testify.