Jury acquits suspect in cocaine bust case
September 15, 2006
A jury acquitted the lone defendant to go to trial as a result of Aspen’s December drug raids Friday. After nearly three hours of deliberation, a jury exonerated Fernando Leal-Ruiz on one count of conspiracy to sell cocaine and a second count of possession with intent to sell.Ruiz was at first unmoved by the decision, but later hugged his attorney, Arnie Mordkin, embraced his family and said one word in two languages: “Feliz. Happy.”Gail Nichols, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, said she was “obviously disappointed” with the verdict but added that she believes in the jury system and said that that the jury brought back “without a doubt” the right decision.”There was not enough evidence,” said one juror who asked not to be named.Ruiz had faced felony charges of both conspiracy to sell and possession with intent to sell cocaine in connection with the Dec. 2 raid of Little Annie’s Eating House. Aspen police, along with DEA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, stormed the restaurant, as well as Cooper Street Pier, in search of alleged cocaine traffickers. Ruiz was the only one of the nine suspects charged to plead not guilty and go to trial – seven others pleaded guilty, and one had charges dropped.Ruiz was calm when he took the stand Friday. Speaking through a interpreter, he talked of his 18-year career at the restaurant and related the events of the December raid. Ruiz denied involvement in drug trafficking, and said he had no knowledge of the 44 “bindles,” or half-gram packets, of cocaine. He said he did not know what a bindle was until he first came into the courtroom.In previous testimony, Martha Byron, a self-professed cocaine addict, implicated Ruiz and claimed he had sold her cocaine. Ruiz denied knowing Byron and said the first time he saw her was in his first court appearance.Friday deliberations focused on Ruiz’s alleged possession of the 44 bindles stashed in a small dry-goods room. Debate centered around whether Ruiz reached for the bindles during the raid, as police testified, or whether they were out of his reach and he had nothing to do with the cocaine.ICE officer Dan Fitzgibbon, who detained Ruiz in the raid, was initially alarmed when he first entered the narrow back entry of the restaurant Dec. 2. Fitzgibbon said he couldn’t see Ruiz’s right arm. Fitzgibbon said Thursday that he thought Ruiz was going for a gun.Nichols said she believes he was reaching for the stash.The defense hired Pam Sudmeier, a local architect, to make a scale drawing of the back room and adjacent dry-goods area. Sudmeier also produced scale models of both Ruiz and Thomas Woodman, then the head chef at the restaurant, who was next to Ruiz when police burst in. Both attorneys used the scale models, as well as crime scene photos and testimony, to recreate the body position of the two men at the time of the raid.”He just won’t fit,” Mordkin said in Ruiz’s defense. Mordkin said that it would have been impossible for Ruiz to reach for the cocaine from his prone position in the tight space.In closing arguments, Mordkin claimed that Byron’s testimony about Ruiz came with benefits of a lighter sentence, what he called “a sweet deal.”Ruiz plans to be at work at Little Annie’s first thing this morning.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.