Former Aspen bus driver acquitted in gun case
ASPEN – A 12-person jury on Thursday found a former Aspen school bus driver not guilty of unlawfully carrying a weapon on school grounds.
Defendant Stephane M. Peltier closed his eyes, bowed his head, took a deep breath and then wept as Judge James Boyd of the Ninth Judicial District Court read the verdict.
“I really thank the jury for believing the truth,” he said on the stairs of the Pitkin County Courthouse shortly after the verdict. “The truth shall set you free, and I really believe that.”
Peltier, 59, was arrested May 21 for allegedly carrying a weapon onto the Aspen School District campus; the previous day, he brought a rifle on school property and displayed it to another individual.
Peltier’s rifle was found in the hatchback of his car, which was parked near the school bus barn area on the Aspen school campus.
During closing arguments Thursday, at the close of a three-day trial, public defender Stephen McCrohan argued his client had a constitutional right to bear arms in Peltier’s home, which happened to be a car.
“He has the right to protect himself, his home and his property,” McCrohan told the jury during closing arguments Thursday.
Peltier had been living in his Volkswagen Sirocco, and often times parked it off road around Aspen at night. He said he bought the gun May 20 to protect himself from bears and potential thieves.
Jury foreman Brad Spooner said while it was clear that carrying a weapon onto school grounds is illegal, the argument of Peltier having the right to protect himself in his home ultimately won out.
The jury was split three ways when it began deliberating Thursday morning, with some members believing he was guilty, some believing he was innocent and others who were undecided, Spooner said.
“Was there a lot of back-and-forth? Yes,” he said. “There was a lot of mind-changing.”
But after three hours, the jurors were unanimous that the prosecution didn’t adequately prove that Peltier carried the gun onto school property for reasons other than to protect himself in his home.
“It was a no-brainer having a gun on school grounds, but if he brings his home onto school grounds … this was the loophole,” Spooner said.
“It was an insanely stupid mistake,” he added.
Peltier testified Wednesday that he had brought the rifle to the school campus on May 20 and May 21 but didn’t know it was against the law.
He also admitted that he lied – out of embarrassment and fear – to Aspen School District Superintendent Diana Sirko and Fred Brooks, transportation director, when they confronted him about the gun on May 21.
The two learned about the gun when a carpenter, Steve Saunders, who had been working on the campus at the time, told them Peltier had shown him the rifle May 20.
Peltier showed Saunders the gun when Saunders was complaining about an ex-lover. Saunders reportedly told officials that Peltier said he would shoot the ex if he wanted him to.
Peltier denied that while on the stand.
Prosecutor Richard Nedlin argued in his closing statement that there was never testimony that the weapon was brought onto school grounds for protection. He also pointed out to the jury that Peltier had two cars and $7,000 in cash.
“Ask yourselves, what was the point for the defendant to bring this on school grounds?” he said, adding that not knowing it was a crime to do so isn’t a valid excuse.
Nedlin also argued that it’s not plausible that an individual can carry a gun anywhere, anytime and any place under the guise of protection.
“It’s not believable that he brought a gun to school grounds to protect himself and his property,” Nedlin told the jury. “There are no bears on the school grounds during the day.”
Peltier had lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for the past 30 years before moving to Florida last summer.
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Aspen High School girls soccer coach Chris Ellis could have told you the team would be facing a strong opponent in the first round of the state playoffs well before the bracket was released on Sunday. With only a 16-team field this spring, any squad that found itself among those few had to be solid.