‘Mixed drink’ Aspen court case equals mixed jury verdict

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – It took a Pitkin County jury less than four hours to acquit a man on a felony burglary charge and convict him of misdemeanor theft.

Keith Ames, 43, a former local resident who currently lives in Grand Junction, left the Aspen courtroom having avoided not only a felony conviction, but also potentially violating his bail-bond conditions from a previous conviction.

The jury’s two-pronged verdict, which came after hearing a full day of testimony Tuesday and closing arguments Wednesday, drew support from presiding Judge Gail Nichols.

“To be honest with you,” the judge told both the defense and prosecution after the 12-member jury left the courtroom, “the verdict was consistent with the evidence.”

The trial came nearly a year after Ames was arrested in Aspen on the afternoon of July 9, 2010 for walking through the unlocked doors of the Matsuhisa in Aspen, pouring himself a shot of gin, and leaving with an employee’s backpack.

The District Attorney’s Office slapped him with a felony burglary count, alleging that even though he did not break into the upscale sushi restaurant, he remained there unlawfully intending to commit a crime. The theft charge, which the jury determined to amount in less than $500 in stolen goods, stems from Ames drinking the gin and taking the backpack, whose owner said it contained two iPods, a cell phone, keys and other items.

Ames’ lead attorney, Public Defender Matt Morris, contended he was intoxicated when he took the backpack, believing it was his. Ames also placed a five-dollar bill on the downstairs bar after he downed some of the gin he’d poured, to the chagrin of other employees who were prepping the restaurant for its 5:30 p.m. opening.

“Is he guilty of impatience? Is he guilty of being presumptuous? Is he guilty of being rude? Yes. Is he guilty of committing a crime? No,” Morris told the jury.

During closing arguments, Ames also took a shot at the prosecution’s case, likening it to “a mixed drink, and a poorly made mixed drink. If this case were a Bloody Mary, you’d wind up with a $9 glass of tomato juice.”

Morris also pointed to testimony that showed that when Aspen Police Sgt. Dan Davis arrested Ames after he left the restaurant, the suspect told the officer twice that it was his backpack.

“He believed that the backpack was his – part of this mistake was because he had too much to drink,” Morris said.

In order to prove Ames committed felony theft, Deputy District Attorney Richard Nedlin was taxed with proving that Ames entered Matsuhisa with the intent to commit a crime.

“The action of Mr. Ames shows his intent … his intent was to get a drink by whatever means,” Nedlin said, adding that “there’s no mistake: Mr. Ames knew it was not his backpack and it’s rather convenient to say ‘I have a backpack that looks just like that backpack.'”

The jury, however, was only persuaded that Ames committed a low-level misdemeanor theft. He’ll be sentenced on that conviction at a later date, but he dodged a felony conviction that could have sparked more legal difficulties for the longtime local painter.

That’s because on Dec. 16, a Pitkin County jury found him guilty on one felony count of possession of less than 1 gram of cocaine. The cocaine arrest was made on March 10, 2010, four months before the Matsuhisa incident. Bail-bond conditions for the cocaine arrest stipulated that Ames could not commit a felony while on probation, which he’s currently serving. The Matsuhisa arrest triggered a potential violation of bail-bond condition charge, but because Ames was acquitted on the felony burglary count, that’s one less legal concern for him.