Racial menacing in Aspen leads to jail, probation
March 5, 2018
A homeless man who pleaded guilty to pulling a knife on a black man in June and repeatedly yelling racial slurs at him will spend the next three months in jail and two years on probation, a District Court judge said Monday.
However, Judge Chris Seldin warned Jeffrey Sween, 51, that he only narrowly chose the probation sentence over prison and said he's not likely to hesitate to assign him the latter if he violates probation.
"This is a close call for the court," Seldin said. "On one hand, the court places great faith in the probation department (which recommended Sween be placed on probation).
"On the other hand, the account of the events here … indicates a pattern of behavior best described as repugnant."
The incident June 30 occurred when Sween, who was sitting near the fire pit across from Paradise Bakery, spoke to two other homeless men who walked by him, according to police.
Numerous witnesses reported that Sween called one of the homeless men, who was black, "boy" and asked what he planned to do with a pair of nunchucks in his back pocket. Sween also allegedly threw his bicycle at the men, but missed.
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"Sween then told (the black man) he had a knife and challenged him to a fight," witnesses told police, according to an affidavit filed by police in district court. "Sween at this time was calling (the black man) a (racial slur) and (expressing) his dislike for (black people)."
The other homeless man with the black man then exchanged words and punches with Sween, while the black man attempted to calm the situation, the affidavit states. Sween did calm briefly, until the other homeless man threw his shoes atop the nearby information booth, prompting Sween to pull a knife and chase the two other men while yelling racial slurs, according to the affidavit.
Sween told police he pulled the knife in self-defense after the black man threatened him with the nunchucks. However, all the witnesses interviewed by police said the black man did nothing to provoke Sween's actions. In fact, police reported seeing "a couple witnesses" hug the black man afterward and tell him they were sorry about what happened.
On Monday, Sween repeated the self-defense claim, saying the black man tried to steal his bike then began swinging the nunchucks at his head and shoulder.
"I said, 'Please leave me and my property alone,'" Sween told Seldin. "I just want you to know I'm a good person, your honor."
Prosecutor Ben Sollars said Sween's guilty plea to felony menacing in the case was his sixth felony conviction. He also said Sween frequently fights and argues with fellow inmates at the Pitkin County Jail and attempted to manipulate jail medical staff into providing him medication.
Sween also pleaded guilty to misdemeanor bias-motivated crime in the case.
Sollars asked Seldin to give Sween two years in prison for his history of violence and anti-social behavior.
Seldin said he was surprised the probation department recommended the probationary sentence, musing that Sween's crime could elevate his sentence to an aggravated level, meaning he could have faced up to six years in prison. Seldin also noted that police "did not credit Mr. Sween's account of events" of what happened with the black man.
However, the judge reluctantly accepted the probation recommendation, though he expressed concerns that Sween would be able to toe that line.
After Sween serves the 90 additional days in jail — he's served nearly six months total since his arrest — he will have to remain free of alcohol and drugs during his two years of probation, Seldin said. He also will be subject to random tests to see if he's remaining sober and have to undergo an anger-management evaluation, Seldin said.
Former District Judge Gail Nichols sentenced Sween to six months in jail in June 2015 after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor menacing. In that case, Sween allegedly threatened to pull a gun on an 18-year-old woman after she declined to go out to dinner with him.
Also, Sween was arrested and charged with two counts of disorderly conduct and two counts of trespassing just four days before the altercation with the black man.
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