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New details emerge in drug bust

Chad Abraham

Relying in part on statements by a woman caught with a crack pipe in the home of Aspen’s police chief, a judge ruled Monday there is enough evidence to try a man on cocaine distribution and conspiracy charges.Fernando Leal-Ruiz of Carbondale was arrested, along with nine others, in the Dec. 2 drug raids on Little Annie’s Eating House and Cooper Street Pier.Leal-Ruiz, a chef at Little Annie’s, allegedly had 44 bindles of cocaine, totaling just less than 26 grams, ready to sell from the restaurant’s kitchen. Monday’s preliminary hearing saw testimony by the Aspen police detective who led the raid on Little Annie’s, a DEA agent and an immigration officer.After her arrest in October, Martha Byrum explained to police how she would buy cocaine from Little Annie’s, Detective Chris Womack said on the stand. She said she would call the restaurant, ask for Fernando and, if he was working, go to the eatery’s back door and knock, Womack testified. Whoever answered would sell her cocaine.Byrum pleaded guilty in January to cocaine possession, second-degree trespassing and a probation violation. She was arrested after walking into Police Chief Loren Ryerson’s Aspen home while trying to elude officers.Byrum is serving four years in a community corrections facility in El Paso County. Womack told Judge James Boyd that Byrum identified Leal-Ruiz from a surveillance photo taken by the DEA.Dave Storm, a 15-year DEA agent, said he provided that photo to the Aspen Police Department. He testified that he bought drugs from Jaime Gamez-Acuna, who was also arrested, while investigating employees and patrons of the two restaurants. The operation involved video as well as photographs.Storm’s testimony revealed the origins of the controversial busts. The arrests, 11 in all, forced the police department to re-evaluate its drug-fighting policy after some Aspenites criticized authorities for the handling of the operation. The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office was not told about the raid, and many felt that storming the landmark restaurants during après-ski was not in line with Aspen’s mellow ethos. Others supported the action.Storm said he got to know Gamez-Acuna while playing pool at Cooper Street Pier. He later saw him smoking a joint in the alley between that restaurant and Little Annie’s, he testified.When Storm walked up to Gamez-Acuna, whom he called Jimmy, the suspect said, “You don’t do weed.””No, but the other,” Storm responded, referring to cocaine.Gamez-Acuna said he had a friend who sold “eight balls,” slang for an eighth of an ounce of cocaine, for $160. He pointed to the back door of Little Annie’s, Storm testified.The agent gave him the cash, and Gamez-Acuna disappeared into Little Annie’s, returned with the drug and then went back into Cooper Street, Storm said. The back doors of the restaurants are across an alley from each other.Storm said he engaged in another drug deal on Oct. 21. While playing pool with Gamez-Acuna at Cooper Street, they agreed to another buy and walked down the back stairs and into the alley, where Storm again produced $160.Gamez-Acuna went back into Little Annie’s and returned with five bindles of cocaine worth $30 apiece, the agent told Boyd.”It’s better than what they’re selling up there,” Gamez-Acuna allegedly said, referring to Cooper Street.Storm acknowledged that he did not know who Gamez-Acuna was allegedly getting the drugs from inside Little Annie’s. But he said there was “a lot of activity in the alley.” During surveillance, he noticed many people quickly going in and out of Little Annie’s rear entrance without food. Vehicles also pulled up and people leaned into the windows briefly, he said. Leal-Ruiz was among those Storm said he saw meet vehicles and people in the alley.During the Dec. 2 operation, Womack led four other law enforcement officials into the back of Little Annie’s. The two employees they initially encountered, one of whom was Leal-Ruiz, were ordered to lie face-down. Dan Fitzgibbon of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency accompanied Womack during the operation. He testified that Leal-Ruiz, lying prone in a storage area, reached out of his line out of sight. He shouted at Leal-Ruiz at gunpoint to show his hands because he was concerned the suspect may have been trying to get a weapon.Fitzgibbon then checked the area and saw a Ziploc bag stuffed behind a pile of shoes. He called Womack back, who said the bag contained the 44 bindles. He said there were 20 other bindles in the front of the kitchen, near where the wait staff picks up food for customers.Prosecutor Gail Nichols told Boyd that Leal-Ruiz had no reason to reach near the shoes other than to try to hide the drugs.But Leal-Ruiz’s attorney, Arnie Mordkin, argued that it had not been proven the bindles were his client’s. He grilled Storm on how he handled the bindles and whether they were fingerprinted. Storm said fingerprinting of bindles is rarely done because the paper yields inconclusive prints.Mordkin also questioned Womack at length about the dimensions of the storage area and whether he moved the shoes to get to the bindles. The defense attorney appeared to be trying to cast doubt on how Leal-Ruiz could have shoved the Ziploc behind the shoes if he was prone on the ground.Nichols said it was “pretty obvious” that Leal-Ruiz was trying to hide the bag. She also cited Byrum’s statements to police – that others were involved in the backdoor sales – as enough justification for the conspiracy charge.Cocaine was being dealt out the front and back of the tiny restaurant and it would have been impossible for Leal-Ruiz to not know it was going on, she said.Mordkin countered that there wasn’t “any evidence at all” to try his client on the possession or conspiracy charges. The cocaine was on the floor of the storage area and not in Leal-Ruiz’s possession, he said. As for reaching in the area where the bag was found, Mordkin said Leal-Ruiz could have been adjusting his shoes – “could have been doing a gazillion things.””How can he conspire if we never have possession?” he asked.Mordkin added that there’s no evidence Byrum ever bought cocaine from Leal-Ruiz.”There’s no connection. There has to be a connection,” he said. Mordkin then sat down heavily.Boyd disagreed. He said Byrum’s statements to police, while hearsay, were admissible in a hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to try him on the charges. He also cited that Byrum identified him in the picture and mentioned his name in describing how she obtained the cocaine.Boyd said Leal-Ruiz was not complying with orders to show his hands and reached into an area where the cocaine was found. Both the conspiracy and distribution charges are warranted, he ruled.Five of the 10 men arrested in the raids are still in the court system. Charges against an 11th man, who was arrested a week after the operation, were dismissed and he was deported. Of the five men whose cases already have been considered, at least three have pleaded to guilty to possession of cocaine and received probation.Edubiel Hernandez-Cruz, who faces similar charges as Leal-Ruiz, also was in court. His hearing was continued, as was the arraignment of Gamez-Acuna. His lawyer said he and Nichols are close to reaching a plea deal.Leal-Ruiz’s next court date is April 17.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com


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