DA: Criminal histories justify different sentences in Basalt assault case
One defendant sentenced to 7 years in prison; another faces 3 to 6 years but no mandatory prison
The two defendants in a brutal Basalt assault case are facing different sentences because of differences in their criminal histories and actions after their arrest, according to 5th Judicial District Attorney Heidi McCollum.
Mufasta Muhammad, 24, pleaded guilty to second-degree assault, a felony, on March 17 and was sentenced to seven years in the state prison system.
Co-defendant Daniel Wettstein, 36, pleaded guilty to second-degree assault by strangulation May 12 and will be sentenced June 30. The prosecutor in the case and the defense attorney hammered out a plea deal which sets the maximum sentence at three to six years in state prison, but also leaves open the possibility of probation.
The different sentences caught the attention of Eagle County District Judge Paul Dunkelman when assistant district attorney Johnny Lombardi and the attorney for Wettstein, Michael Fox, outlined Wettstein’s plea disposition May 5. When asked why there were different proposed sentences, Lombardi said Muhammad had a criminal history. It wasn’t disclosed that Wettstein also has an extensive arrest record dating back to juvenile court in 2001 and convictions that include a prior third-degree assault, which was a misdemeanor.
But McCollum said a deeper dive into the two men’s histories justifies the different sentences.
“The nature of their crimes were different,” McCollum said, referring to their criminal histories.
Wettstein’s convictions include two charges when he was a juvenile — disorderly conduct in 2001 and third-degree criminal trespass in 2004. He also was cited as a minor in possession of alcohol in 2005.
As an adult, he was convicted of third-degree assault and disorderly conduct in 2008, both misdemeanors, according to McCollum. While Wettstein may have been arrested for other alleged acts, he wasn’t convicted of them, McCollum said. Arrests without convictions are not admissible in court.
Wettstein’s conviction record has been clean for 13 years and he served in the U.S. military, McCollum said. Wettstein has never been convicted of a felony and he never violated conditions of bond, she noted.
In contrast, Muhammad has multiple felony convictions in recent years. McCollum said his record includes second-degree burglary in 2018, for which he received a deferred judgment. If Muhammad had been able to avoid trouble for a specific time, the conviction would be erased from his record. Instead, he violated conditions of bond by getting convicted of second-degree assault causing bodily injury, a felony, McCollum said. He was also charged for violating bond.
“That’s felony, felony, felony right in a row,” McCollum said.
Muhammad was also arrested for DUI and obstruction in 2017 and providing alcohol to a minor in 2019, McCollum said.
Muhammad and Wettstein were arrested on Aug. 27, 2020, for severely beating a man and holding him at a townhouse where Wettstein and Muhammad lived in the Willits neighborhood of Basalt. The man said he was drinking with Wettstein at a bar the prior evening and they returned to Wettstein’s residence.
Something went awry and Wettstein allegedly held a pistol to the victim’s head, according to an affidavit filed at the time by Basalt police for a warrantless arrest. Muhammad arrived at the home later in the evening and also allegedly held a gun to the victim’s head.
“(The victim) said Mr. Wettstein and Mr. Muhammad took turns beating him throughout the night,” the affidavit said. “(The victim) said during the morning of August 27, 2020, Mr. Wettstein and Mr. Muhammad continued to beat him and would not allow him to leave the home.”
At one point, Wettstein passed out and Muhammad forced the victim upstairs at knifepoint where he was held captive, McCollum said.
While unattended, the man was able to exit a second-story window, jump to the ground and seek help from a neighbor.
Basalt police responded and Wettstein exited the house when called out. Muhammad surrendered hours later after a SWAT team from Eagle County parked outside the residence with an armored vehicle.
The case was an eye-opener in Basalt because of the violence.
The ensuing court cases captured the attention of Ryan Bradley, an educator who coaches and teaches many low-income people of color in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“I feel like all too often around here the people who have never had a break in life don’t get one from the criminal justice system and that the people who have had every opportunity in life and have never been held accountable for any of their actions continue to not be held accountable,” Bradley told The Aspen Times via email.
While Wettstein’s prior crimes are misdemeanors, they show a pattern of criminal behavior, Bradley said.
“When he was arrested for kidnapping and torturing, it was his ninth arrest,” he said. “Several of his crimes were violent in nature. Many of these arrests preceded his military service and it seems like this behavior was well set in before his military service.”
Bradley also feels it is important to establish who broke out the gun in the incident. If the weapon was Wettstein’s, he should be viewed more harshly, Bradley said. He stressed he doesn’t know Wettstein personally, but he was disturbed by the violent nature of the crime.
“I have heard from the police officers involved that this was the worst beating of a human being they had ever witnessed,” Bradley said. “Are we at the point in this community where you can kidnap and torture someone on your ninth offense to the criminal justice system and walk away without ever staying a day behind bars?”
McCollum doesn’t see the situation that way. While the DA’s Office hasn’t disclosed the specific sentence it will seek June 30, the prosecutors have reserved the right to see prison time.
“I’m not making excuses for Mr. Wettstein,” McCollum said.
Both defendants are culpable for the treatment of the victim, she said.
McCollum won election as DA in November. She previously served as an assistant DA in the office. She stressed that the color of a person’s skin doesn’t influence how her office approaches a case.
“That has no bearing into any sentence we seek,” she said.
McCollum noted that the defendants also took different courses of action after they were arrested for the Basalt incident. Muhammad was unable to post bond and he remained in Eagle County Jail. He has been charged with assault for an incident with another inmate since his arrest in the Basalt case.
Wettstein waived his right to a preliminary hearing, where the DA’s Office would have been forced to prove that the charges were justified. Instead he attended an addiction treatment center for military veterans.
“One was at least attempting self improvement,” McCollum said.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Lawyers involved in the case against a former Aspen couple accused of allowing teenagers to drink alcohol and party at their home spent Thursday arguing motions in the case.