‘Mistakes’ in bust create tension | AspenTimes.com

‘Mistakes’ in bust create tension

John Colson

A dramatic police raid of two downtown Aspen restaurants last week has caused a rift between law enforcement agencies, thanks to Aspen Police Chief Loren Ryerson’s admitted failure to do the job that was his alone to do.Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, the county’s top law enforcement official, was not informed of plans to bust drug dealers allegedly doing business out of two of Aspen’s oldest restaurants; he only learned of the operation when the county jail was swamped with new prisoners.It was an oversight that has Braudis feeling “angry” and “insulted” about the incident and about Ryerson’s conduct.”There is scar tissue between the Aspen Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office, and I would like to promote some healing,” a still-perturbed sheriff said Monday, three days after more than 50 law enforcement officers stormed Cooper Street Pier and Little Annie’s Eating House, arresting nine employees between the two establishments.Ryerson acknowledged on Monday that, “I made some mistakes. I know it. I didn’t call him, and I should have. I was concentrating on calling my council people and my city manager.”Conceding that informing Braudis was a specific part of his role in the operation, Ryerson said, “If this were to ever occur in the future, we would definitely do it differently,” meaning he would inform the sheriff of the impending operation well in advance.Both men said they would work on mending fences between their departments in the near future.Braudis encountered a similar problem a year ago, when the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team, a regional task force known as TRIDENT, raided the Redstone Inn. Braudis complained at that time to TRIDENT and the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s office and was told he would be informed of all such future operations.Braudis said he has worked willingly with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and TRIDENT in the past, specifically in the 1994 bust of residents at the Valley Hi apartment complex on Aspen’s east side. In that operation, sheriff’s deputies kept the public from getting too close to the complex.Braudis also was angered over the release of “erroneous” information that Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies took part in the late afternoon bust on Dec. 2.A press release from the APD stated that deputies were part of the operation, along with agents of the DEA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Revenue and police officers from Aspen and Snowmass Village.Braudis said no one in his department even knew of the raids until they were under way, although Sheriff’s Investigator Ron Ryan was called to watch over a private home that police were planning to search as part of the operation.Braudis did not learn of the operation until he got a call from the county jail about a sudden influx of prisoners.”We were full, and double-bunking,” Braudis said. Jail Administrator Don Bird said that five of those arrested on drug charges are being housed temporarily in the Garfield County Jail. The 11 people arrested on immigration charges, he said, have already been taken away by the ICE and are being held elsewhere.Bird also said that three of those arrested on drug charges – Jesus Gabriel Soto-Sandoval, Jaime Gamez-Acuna and Raul Enrique Bustamante-Garcia – were arraigned Monday in district court and are to appear again Dec. 19.Worried about officer safetyBraudis said his unhappiness with not being informed about the operation has mostly to do with officer safety.Posing a hypothetical question, Braudis asked what might have happened if one of his deputies had happened to be dining at one of the restaurants that was raided, and had seen men bursting into the place with guns drawn, as some witnesses described.”It could have been tragic,” he said, if a deputy had mistaken the raid for some kind of crime and reacted based on that misperception. Braudis has often voiced this concern in his years as sheriff, cautioning that such confused situations could result in injury or death for a citizen, as well as for a law officer.He also questioned the wisdom of carrying out such a raid on two restaurants at 4:15 p.m. on a Friday, as the après-ski crowd was just beginning to trickle down from the ski hills. He wondered why the APD did not wait to move on its list of suspects until a time when they would be alone at their homes.Ryerson, however, said the late-afternoon timing was critical because, “In many cases, we didn’t know where [the suspects] lived … some of them moved around quite a lot … a number of them switched cars a lot.”So his officers chose late afternoon because they deemed it to be a “relatively quiet time of their business day,” in between the “busy lunch business” and the even busier dinner crowd.Plus, he said, the restaurants were “where the [drug dealing] activity was occurring” and so it was where the suspects could be apprehended in one sweep, at a time and place where they were expected to be in possession of drugs and money.Ryerson said the operation netted “a couple of ounces” of cocaine and “around $3,000” in cash believed to come from drug sales.Regarding the safety of the public, Ryerson said, “We are always concerned about the safety part of it.” He said the operation was planned so as to “minimize” any danger to the public and the suspects.”I don’t believe … guns were flashed,” he said, responding to press reports that officers charged in with guns drawn and frightened some customers. “It wasn’t part of the plan to go in with guns displayed.” He said he has received no formal complaints indicating that guns were drawn, and that if such complaints were lodged he would look into it.Ryerson also revealed that his department managed the operation, with Assistant Police Chief Glenn Schaffer in command; the DEA acted in a supporting role. The investigation began when Aspen detectives went to the DEA with information about drug-dealing activities in Aspen and were rewarded with cooperation from federal agents.Ryerson explained that during the investigation, which began last spring, DEA agents did all the undercover work while Aspen detectives performed other duties, wrote arrest warrants and did some surveillance work.”None of our officers were involved in the undercover work, specifically,” Ryerson emphasized during an interview with The Aspen Times on Monday.Since the operation was part of an APD investigation, the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s office will try the cases in Pitkin County District Court, rather than in federal court.Braudis and Ryerson both said they have no faith in the ability of the federal “War on Drugs” to eradicate drug use in the United States, and both said they will not use their officers for undercover drug-enforcement work.Braudis, however, went a step further, saying, “I espouse the legalization of all illicit substances. Prohibition didn’t work, the War on Drugs is a loser. People with addiction problems should go to a doctor, not to prison.”He termed undercover work “a deception to the public, for whom we all work,” but added that while he has heard little in the way of objections to his views, “I do believe the community doesn’t, in a large way, condone … drug dealing out of the back doors of the local restaurants.”And Ryerson, defending the actions of his department, noted that when he was hired as chief four years ago he was specifically directed to cooperate with outside law enforcement agencies when dealing with crime in Aspen.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com