Drug busts, past and present
Despite its reputation as a city that never sleeps thanks to the copious consumption of chemical stimulants, Aspen has seen relatively few large-scale drug busts.
The most recent was last month’s raid on two downtown restaurants, which resulted in 10 drug-related arrests and 11 arrests on immigration law violations.
The Dec. 2, 2005, bust involved more than 50 officers from various law enforcement agencies, including the Aspen and Snowmass Village police departments, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (formerly Immigration and Naturalization Service) and the Colorado Department of Revenue.Roughly half of those operatives swept in the front and back doors of Cooper Street Pier and Little Annie’s Eating House, igniting a citywide controversy (see related story).
Debate continues to rage over the tactics used, the timing of the sweep, and concerns that the amount of illicit drugs and cash seized – approximately 5 ounces of cocaine with a street value estimated at $20,000 to $40,000, as well as about $5,000 in cash – was not worth the risk or the effort.Another sore spot is the fact that Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis did not know of the raid until jailers called to tell him the jail was overflowing with arrestees. When the local jail reached its capacity of 32 inmates, five of the arrestees were transferred to the Garfield County jail.
The only similarly sized drug raid in recent Aspen history was on Oct. 20, 1994, at the Valley Hi apartments, a long-gone, rundown complex on East Hopkins Avenue. Like the more recent raids, the Valley Hi bust involved local police working with state and federal authorities; in this case, however, Braudis was notified and deputies were at the scene.
Other drug busts have happened over the years, of course. In some cases, individuals were arrested for non-drug-related offenses but had drugs on them; other times, short-term investigations or tips from citizens led to arrests.
In 1992, for example, the Aspen Police Department, working with the DEA, INS and Denver Police Department, arrested eight locals and seized a pound of cocaine at the Park Meadows apartments in Aspen. The bust came at the end of an investigation centering around a Basalt man and his circle of associates; it involved undercover work by the DEA.Going further back in time, the late Steven Grabow, along with numerous others in Aspen, Wisconsin, Florida and Hawaii, was charged in 1984 with being part of an interstate operation that funneled large amounts of cocaine and cash through Aspen.
And back in the dim recesses of the early 1970s, then-Police Chief Dick Ritchie brought in an undercover cop named David Garms. According to local lore, Garms made friends all over Aspen, partied like a Viking on shore leave, and then busted a number of his acquaintances. He later became a city cop, the story goes, until communitywide hostility drove him out of town.
On Jan. 9, 1984, federal agents seized the homes of Grabow and fellow Aspenite John David Rauch, alleging they were bought with drug profits. The feds also seized $1.4 million in cash, records and several cars from Grabow and others; they reportedly uncovered only a small amount of drugs in searches of various homes in Aspen and elsewhere.Then-Aspen Police Chief Rich Rianoshek said he was told of the raid on the day it happened; he recommended then-Sheriff Dick Kienast be told as well, but Kienast said he was never notified. According to The Aspen Times, the suspects themselves apparently knew weeks in advance that they were being watched.
Over the next two years, federal agents worked to tighten their case against those involved in the drug ring, of which Grabow was the alleged leader. Grabow and two other locals, David Raines and David Word, along with five other defendants, were indicted by a federal grand jury in late November 1985. All but Grabow pleaded guilty in return for sentencing concessions, according to news accounts; Grabow was killed in December 1985 by a bomb placed in a borrowed car he drove to the Aspen Club for a tennis match. The murder case, which was taken over by federal agents within days, remains unsolved.
The raid on the Valley Hi apartment complex is remembered by many locals because federal agents boasted about confiscating a bag of heroin, which turned out to not be drugs at all.According to court documents, the arrests at Valley Hi were the culmination of an eight-month investigation by the DEA and the Western Colorado Drug Enforcement Task Force. The probe began in February 1994 after a tip from an informant who, according to the DEA, infiltrated a drug trafficking group working out of the Valley Hi. In some instances, the informant met with drug dealers wearing a wire.The DEA observed innumerable drug deals at the apartment complex, including a one-day high of 18 transactions. In most instances, the DEA told The Aspen Times, individuals would drive, bicycle or walk into the apartment enclave, go up to a door and knock to be admitted, then emerge a few minutes later and leave. DEA agents reported actually observing transactions in some cases.On the day of the raid, as many as 40 federal, state and local agents and officers descended on the apartment complex at 7 a.m. It was a knock and enter-style raid, in which DEA agents identified themselves and waited for a response. If there was no response, the agents broke down the door.Aspen officers participated in the raid, although strictly to maintain the perimeter, according to one published report. Braudis said a few of his deputies also provided perimeter security, meaning they were there to keep civilians from wandering too close to the action and to prevent anyone from leaving the Valley Hi complex.Preliminary reports indicated the DEA collected a kilo of heroin, more than 44 grams of cocaine, an undisclosed amount of marijuana and a small amount of crack cocaine, as well as $13,600 in cash and a variety of drug-related paraphernalia.Subsequent analysis showed that the suspected heroin actually was tortilla flour stored in a plastic baggy. The cocaine, marijuana and crack cocaine tested positive.Though 24 people were arrested in the sweep, only 13 were ultimately charged with drug-related offenses. The charges against eight of those people were dropped for lack of evidence, although all eight were immediately deported.Felony charges were pursued against the five remaining suspects. According to the DEA office in Denver, at least four of them were convicted, receiving either prison time or suspended sentences. Those who went to prison were sentenced to anywhere from two to eight years. One man against whom charges were dropped and who was deported, Gabino Palayo, returned to the United States. He was arrested in 2000 for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and was then sent to prison.
The Dec. 2 raids at Cooper Street and Little Annies, like the Valley Hi affair, were the result of months of undercover work by the DEA, with logistical support from the APD.In this case, Assistant Police Chief Glenn Schaffer was the local point man, with the blessing of his boss, Chief Loren Ryerson.Although the operation essentially was run by Schaffer, DEA agents did all the undercover work; they also were involved in the actual raids. Schaffer oversaw record-keeping between the APD and DEA, and he determined the logistical details of the raids.It was as much their operation as it was ours, Schaffer said last week, referring to the DEAs role in making undercover drug buys over a six-month period.But it was Schaffer who decided to send 26 officers into the two restaurants at the same time.It was the only way I could think of to do it safely, he said, explaining that it was not some show of force but was meant to convince the targets of the raid that they could not escape.According to Schaffer, the bust broke down like this: 16 officers entered Cooper Street, 10 entered Little Annies, and six officers were split between two patrol cars at either end of the alley between the two businesses. Meanwhile, four officers searched a residence at the Copper Horse employee housing, three officers searched the Alpina Haus employee housing, three officers searched a home in Aspen Village and two officers performed traffic control in the area of the busts. In addition, two officers were on general duty to respond to calls for service from the public and four officers were at the command center in the APD offices. Those four included Schaffer, Assistant Chief Richard Pryor, Ryerson and a uniformed officer.There have been conflicting reports as to whether any officers had their guns drawn as they entered the buildings. Some claim at least one or two guns were flashed by officers heading through Little Annies toward the kitchen. Schaffer confirmed guns were drawn in the kitchens of the two restaurants, which were the targets of the raids. And APD Det. Jim Crowley said he pulled his gun as he went through the door to the Cooper Street kitchen, because he saw men holding large knives inside.Regardless, Sheriff Braudis said after the raids the operation unnecessarily endangered the lives of officers and civilians.Schaffer said the investigation began with a focus on Cooper Street, based on years of drug-dealing rumors and some more concrete tips that came in to both the APD and the DEA, roughly simultaneously.He said numerous locals including school kids, arrestees found to have cocaine in their pockets, and concerned citizens had been saying for years that drugs were being openly dealt at Cooper Street.Asking someone where they bought a bindle of coke, he said, was almost on the level of a stupid question. In most cases, the answer would be Cooper Street.Drug busts had been made at Cooper Street over the years, including one in 2002 that began when a woman claimed a man had stolen jewelry from her. When she pointed out the alleged thief to police the following day, APD officers showed up in force, arrested him and found 42 bindles of cocaine in his possession, Schaffer said.The APD and DEA decided to mount the joint operation early in 2005, and ultimately uncovered the purported link between Cooper Street and Little Annies. According to Schaffer, most of the alleged drug dealing took place Cooper Street, but the suspected dealers were frequently observed heading across the alley to Little Annies for a short visit, returning with the drugs.So the investigation widened to include both establishments, leading to the Dec. 2 sweeps.John Colsons e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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