Judge denies request for release of man charged in standoff
September 22, 2012
ASPEN – Pitkin County District Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely on Friday denied a request from public defender Laura Koenig to release Snowmass Village resident Edward Russ Armstrong on a personal-recognizance bond so that he can live on a family farm in New Mexico while also seeking attention for physical and mental-health issues.
Armstrong, 36, remains in the custody of the Pitkin County Jail on separate $100,000 and $6,000 bond amounts that Judge Gail Nichols set on Monday. He faces misdemeanor and felony charges related to an 18-hour armed standoff with Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies on Sept. 9 and 10 near his rental home at 1370 Owl Creek Road as well as altercations he allegedly had with his girlfriend in the days leading up to the standoff.
With Nichols unavailable for Friday’s follow-up proceeding, Fernandez-Ely presided over the hearing to consider Koenig’s request. Armstrong was present, handcuffed and sitting calmly in a wheelchair, having been rolled into the small third-floor courthouse hearing room by deputies. He followed the discussion quietly and scribbled notes on a brown envelope. His father, Joe Armstrong, of La Mesa, N.M., also attended the hearing, along with three local friends who were there to lend support.
After hearing nearly two hours of comments from Koenig, prosecutor Arnold Mordkin, a Sheriff’s Office investigator and Ed Armstrong’s father and friends, Fernandez-Ely said the treatment plan that Armstrong and his supporters presented to the court was lacking. His father had spoken of trying to obtain private and government insurance coverage for Armstrong sometime over the next month to assist with his son’s recovery from a broken left ankle, a possible brain injury, prescription-drug addiction and other issues.
But numerous questions arose about details of that plan and how soon Armstrong – whom authorities described as potentially suicidal – would begin treatment.
“I think we need a more solid plan in this case,” Fernandez-Ely said, adding that releasing someone who is deemed a threat to the community or themselves to the custody of family members “is usually the worst choice.”
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She noted that the Pitkin County jail was the nicest jail facility in the nation and that many different treatment options in the Roaring Fork Valley could be made available to Armstrong if he is intent on obtaining help for his various conditions.
Her decision came after Brad Gibson, an investigator with the Sheriff’s Office, testified that Armstrong damaged his girlfriend’s car on the evening of Sept. 7, two days before the Owl Creek standoff. According to an affidavit filed by Gibson with the court, the girlfriend was trying to get away from Armstrong and his home with her belongings following a two days of acrimony.
Prosecutor Arnold Mordkin entered into the court record a photograph of the front of the vehicle, a Kia, with four strike marks that suggest the windshield was punched.
Gibson said he took the car into custody because the picture didn’t accurately reflect the damage.
“When you look at the picture, you can just see a smashed windshield, you really don’t get the reality of how thick the windshield is,” Gibson said. “When I saw it in person I was pretty shocked at the level of damage that somebody was able to do with just a fist.”
Friends spoke of how Armstrong was a good person who had been dealt some serious blows in life, such as his ankle injuries. One commented that he didn’t think Armstrong could ever harm anyone.
Gibson testified that at one point during the standoff, Armstrong, who was armed with rifles, made specific threats toward law-enforcement officers, and at one point even said he had a police officer “in his crosshairs.” Mordkin said that Armstrong fired more than 20 shots during the standoff, which ended peacefully when a friend who was able to enter the residence during the incident talked Armstrong into surrendering.
The alleged gunfire led authorities to close are large portion of Owl Creek Road for most of the day on Sept. 10.
“His character and reputation, while good, is also very combative, very dangerous in terms of his actions as well as his words toward law enforcement officers,” Mordkin said. “The nature of this offense, although a misdemeanor, is extremely serious. Well over 20 some-odd shots were fired that night (Sept. 9) by Mr. Armstrong.”
It was a miracle, and a testament to the kindness of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, that Armstrong was even able to be present for his bond-reduction hearing, Mordkin said.
“In almost any other community outside of this valley … we would be talking about his funeral, not his treatment,” Mordkin said.
Armstrong was charged Sept. 11 with prohibited use of weapons, harassment and reckless endangerment, all of which are misdemeanor offenses.
Later, the prosecution filed felony charges – criminal mischief, first-degree trespass and harassment – stemming from claims made by his girlfriend. Those charges, coupled with a domestic-violence count, arose from a string of confrontations Armstrong had with ther before the Owl Creek incident began, authorities said.
According to the affidavit filed by Gibson, Deputy Sara Roush met Gibson’s girlfriend on Sept. 10. The woman said that she and Armstrong had been in an intimate relationship since February, but things soured on Sept. 6 when the two got into a verbal argument.
During that Sept. 10 interview, Roush learned that at one point on Sept. 6, Armstrong threw a computer across a room in his rental home. On Sept. 7, when the woman returned to pick up some belongings, the two got into another argument, the affidavit says, and “Armstrong grabbed a kitchen chair, smashed it, and then threw one of the legs at (the woman).”
However, the woman “implied he missed on purpose,” Gibson wrote in the affidavit.
Soon after, she got into the car to try to flee, and that was when Armstrong punched the windshield on the driver’s side of her Kia and twice punched the trunk area, the affidavit says. The woman then left, the affidavit says.
At Koenig’s request, Fernandez-Ely asked newspaper reporters to leave the hearing room for about 10 minutes Friday as all of the parties involved discussed Armstrong’s alleged mental-health issues. The reporters complied, although The Aspen Times raised an objection.