Not so `dirty’ anymore
Aspen Times Staff Writer
It was a crime spree that made national news: Aspen teenagers brandishing weapons in grocery stores, burglarizing local businesses and some fleeing to Canada to avoid their inevitable capture.
“It was like a bunch of kids playing cops and robbers,” one of the parents said recently. But as they occurred over the course of eight months during 1999, the crimes were very real and very scary for victims and the community at large.
Police were stumped in early 1999 by two armed robberies of Stage 3 Theatres, but by August a true burglary and robbery trend had developed. Gunmen heisted cash from Clark’s Market one night, and the Aspen Alps condominium office the next. A store clerk was pistol-whipped during a holdup at the Snowmass Village Market, and doors were forced open at businesses all over Aspen so cash drawers could be cleaned out.
It was not an average Aspen summer.
Investigators were tight-lipped about the multiplying details of their probe, so when they disclosed that a dozen teens took part in the spree – from the black-clothed, masked gunmen to the getaway-car drivers – the community was stunned.
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For months, images of the 12 local teens charged and convicted with the crimes filled the local media.
Police mug shots and news photos of the walk outside the courthouse tended to portray the young men as common criminals. But the parents point to the children’s lives before 1999 – they were popular and charismatic guys, from star athletes to computer whizzes.
Many were well-known as members of longtime local families. And, according to the assistant district attorney, a number of their classmates who attended the legal proceedings saw the defendants as righteous, rebellious young men.
But by the time punishments were delivered, any hero worshipers had fallen silent. Sentences ranged from one year of probation to 12 years in prison, along with five years of mandatory probation. All 12 men left Aspen for unknown futures.
Plea bargains and “deals” were offered to suspects who cooperated with police investigators, and if the teens pleaded guilty to one charge, other charges were dismissed but taken into consideration during sentencing.
As a result, says Assistant District Attorney Lawson Wills, the kids involved “on a major level” are still serving prison sentences while most others are free or finishing their probation terms.
But the wide variation in sentences remains a hot topic, especially for the families whose sons are still locked up. Peter Rizzuto, the father of convict Anthony Rizzuto, recently announced a hunger strike to protest his son’s sentence.
Almost four years after the crime spree, three men including Rizzuto remain in prison, and nine others are scattered throughout Colorado and other western states developing their identities and moving on. One may join the military, one wants to become a novelist.
Another is headed to a specialized music production school in San Francisco; still another has reportedly become a vegan, and is attending college aiming to end world hunger.
Those who are free are difficult to find, and when tracked down some say they want to be left alone. They’ll have to live with the lessons they learned, so they’d rather get on with their lives than drag the issue up again in public.
In the end, the 1999 Aspen crime spree hurt the victims, the perpetrators, their families and the entire community.
Many of those convicted realize that now. But they seem to be choosing positive paths, and they hope the Polaroid images of them in prison-issued clothing will eventually fade from public memory.
“Every one of those kids has the ability to go on and have a very productive life,” Wills said.
“They have to disclose that they are felons to their employers, and they’ll have a tougher time that way, but I think that if they keep progressing, then this will distance itself and eventually become part of their past, and not their future.”
In 1999, before police arrested their first round of suspects responsible for the crime spree, Jacob Richards was known primarily as the mayor’s son. So when Jacob was arrested, it shocked and infuriated the town. Some even called for Mayor Rachel Richards’ resignation.
Jacob heard it all loud and clear.
“When I think about that whole summer, I think, `What were we doing? Why were we doing all this stuff? Why wasn’t someone the voice of reason?’ Mostly, it just makes me sad,” he said recently. “In looking back, some people did say something in the middle of it all, but they didn’t stick with it. And I think we had kind of already set our path and knew it.”
After arrest, Richards’ path led to a guilty plea on burglary charges, and it was 38 months before he completed his sentence. He first spent time in Arrowhead Correctional Center in Canon City, a minimum security prison where fellow inmates ranged from young men his own age to “old murderers who have done 30 years.”
He also resided in Delta Correctional Center and Skyline Correctional Center in Canon City until his sentence was reduced and he was sent to a community corrections center in Grand Junction. There he was allowed to leave for school, therapy and work, while also checking in periodically with probation officers.
On Oct. 27, 2002, Jacob Richards became a free man.
Richards now lives in Grand Junction with Connie, his fiancee. For the past five semesters he has maintained a 3.4 grade point average at Mesa State College, and he plans to get a bachelor’s degree in creative fiction. He recently published some poems in the college’s literary review, and he hopes to eventually get a master of fine arts degree.
Richards read a lot during his time in prison, and said his favorite authors were Edward Abbey, Herman Hesse and poet Octavio Paz.
“When you have nothing, it’s easier to build a new you,” he said. “[In prison] there’s nothing you have control over except for your personality and yourself, so you focus on that and rebuild that.”
Richards recently decided to leave his full-time job at a pizza restaurant, where he is the night kitchen supervisor. He’s looking for a new job in a restaurant, bookstore or bike shop, and says he hasn’t ruled out moving back to Aspen.
“I don’t feel like moving back until I’ve made it in the real world, and I can say `Look at me now,'” he said.
Yuri Ognacevic was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Colorado in Boulder when he was arrested. He turned 22 this month. He lives in Grand Junction and studies business at Mesa State, but what he really wants to do is join the military.
After pleading guilty to robbery, Ognacevic spent a little less than a year in Skyline Correctional Center. Like Richards, he completed his sentence in the community corrections program. For part of the time he wore an ankle monitor, which told his supervisors if he was in his apartment when he was supposed to be.
But on Dec. 8, 2002, Ognacevic completed his sentence and was officially “off paper,” as he calls it.
“I’m glad it all happened the way it did,” he said. “I have a lot more direction now than I did then. We were definitely going nowhere.”
Ognacevic said he liked the structured environment that community corrections provided, and it seems natural that he aspires to join the U.S. Army this fall.
“I’d like to participate in something that’s a collective effort of so many people,” he said. “That’s what democracy is. We voted someone to office, and we have to back them up.”
Ognacevic is ready to serve his country as a member of the military, but he reflects on 1999 as a time when he and his peers were on a more destructive path.
“It was a temporary lapse of pro-social thinking,” he said. “We were doing bad stuff that we thought was just mischief, but it crossed the line and we realized that afterwards.”
Cody Wille lives in Boulder, but is preparing to leave this fall for a school in San Francisco that specializes in multimedia music education.
For Wille, known as DJ Wicked Won in Boulder and Denver club circles, that means studying how to be a professional disc jockey. He’s already well on his way, lining up three to four club gigs per week and teaching a class on record scratching at You Know Me DJ Academy in Denver.
“I’m very happy,” he said. “Everything is going really good for me right now.”
Wille pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to 13 months in the Youth Offender System in Pueblo. He was the youngest one involved in the 1999 crime spree and took courses during his time in Pueblo in order to graduate from a correspondence high school.
When his sentence was reduced to five years of probation, Wille spent four months with a monitor strapped to his ankle, living with his mother, Kim Wille, in El Jebel. He moved to Boulder to attend Front Range Community College, where in two years he’s attained an associate degree in art.
He comes back to Aspen occasionally to visit family, but doubts he’ll return for good.
“A lot of people don’t realize that I’ve moved on with my life, and I’m sorry for what I did, but it’s done, and now I’m trying to do something and trying to create positive change,” he said. “I’m not trying to go back somewhere where I’m labeled and judged.”
Thomas Colver lives in Aspen, but did not want to share the specifics of his life right now.
Colver did say that he has a job and is “doing very well.” A representative from the St. Regis hotel in Aspen confirmed that Colver is employed there in the purchasing department of shipping and receiving.
“That was four years ago,” Colver said of the crime spree. “I’ve made a few mistakes, but I’ve grown and matured because of them.”
Colver pleaded guilty to theft and robbery, and was sentenced to six years in jail for both the robbery and unrelated drug charges. In November 2002, Colver’s sentence was reduced to five years’ probation.
Colver said his probation officer and lawyer have asked that he refrain from media interviews about the crime spree, and he’d rather avoid the exposure anyway.
“From my point of view, this is my life we’re talking about,” he said. “I want to leave this behind me, taking away from it all of the positive things I’ve learned.”
Alex Cassatt finished three years of probation in April, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit second-degree burglary. Cassatt, 22, has attended Front Range Community College for a couple of semesters, according to his dad, Aspen resident Chris Cassatt.
“He’s looking forward to a career in sound engineering, although it’s taken him a while to decide what he wants to do,” the elder Cassatt said.
Alex refused to be interviewed for this article. But his dad said Alex has invested time and money in software to develop an advanced recording studio on his desktop computer. He’s looking into specialized music schools in San Francisco, Tennessee and Florida like the one that Cody Wille will soon attend.
Since Chris Cassatt is the cartoonist for the nationally syndicated comic strip Shoe, Alex is also the “color dude” for his dad, adding color for the Sunday strips on the computer. He has been the night manager of a sandwich shop in Boulder, but has lined up a new job for the summer since the shop recently reduced its staff.
“I think he feels the same way I do – he wasn’t interested in dragging this back up again,” Chris said. “Considering all of his friends are graduating from college, he’s got a big hill to climb before he gets his life back and is totally on track. He has a felony conviction following him around, and as far as I’m concerned, it wasn’t necessary.”
Stefan Schutter, who pleaded guilty to robbery in exchange for dismissal of two counts of armed robbery, resides in Huerfano County Correctional Center in Walsenburg. He is serving a 10-year sentence, reduced from 13 years after his own reconsideration hearing.
Carole Schutter said her son has told her he went into jail at 17 addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol.
“Unfortunately, this was a very severe wake-up call, but he is determined to stay off of drugs and booze,” she said, noting that when Stefan recently got his wisdom teeth pulled, he declined prescription pain pills. “He said painkillers are what got him in there.”
When Stefan went to prison he stood 5 feet 10 inches and weighed 130 pounds. According to his mother, he is now 6 feet 1 inch and weighs 175 pounds. At 21 years old, Stefan is winning weightlifting competitions at the facility by dead-lifting 475 pounds, she said.
“His only protection is to be strong – mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally,” she said. “He’s gotten strong in every way.”
She said he is taking college courses, hoping to major in marketing.
“He said `Mom, I needed to go to prison. I needed to get straight, because I would have become just one more drunken college student,'” Carole Schutter said. “His number-one short-term goal is to finish college and finish his education. I think he feels very alone.”
The Department of Corrections has strict rules about speaking with inmates, but Stefan passed this statement to The Aspen Times through his mother:
“I’ve changed my life around for the better, but statistically the longer a person sits in prison, the more they regress because that’s just how it is. You can only be your own man in prison for so long – it’s like a full circle, and you go back to the end of the circle.
“There’s only so much you can do to keep yourself untouched by your surroundings. I needed to be punished for what I did, but prison is a hard place to grow up.”
Anthony Rizzuto, 22, is serving a 12-year prison sentence from within the walls of Sterling Correctional Facility in Sterling. He was convicted during two jury trials of conspiracy to commit burglary and armed robbery, and learned earlier this month that a judge denied his request for a sentence reduction.
Rizzuto’s parents, Ellyn and Peter Rizzuto, both of whom still live in the Roaring Fork Valley, say this denial is like the light at the end of Anthony’s tunnel flickering out.
“How do you say to him now, `Don’t give up hope?'” Ellyn said. “How do I look forward to a holiday without hope? I look at his sentence as how many more Christmases and Mother’s Days without him.”
Ellyn and Peter Rizzuto speak with Anthony frequently on the phone, and make the 10-hour round trip to Sterling as often as possible. The medium-security facility keeps a constant watch on all inmates and includes an electrically charged fence around the perimeter.
Although the Department of Corrections doesn’t offer many courses, Anthony has received certificates for classes in victims awareness and anger management. He recently qualified for a scholarship to Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, completed a philosophy class with an A and is embarking on a world history class.
Ellyn Rizzuto said Anthony’s younger sister wrote the judge a letter that said, “Prison has nothing more to correct in Anthony. If [his time in prison] is prolonged, it will only make the good that’s been brought out in him die.”
The family is concerned that Anthony’s sentence is extremely long and unjust compared to the sentences of his co-defendants. Peter Rizzuto says he has been on a hunger strike for the last week and a half in protest.
In a letter, after learning about the denial of his reconsideration request, Anthony wrote, “While I watch my co-defendants go back home for a second chance at life, I’ve realized that justice is inconsequential for some, yet I continue to search for an answer in a punishment with no purpose. I deserved to come to prison, but after 10 straight years in prison, what else will I know?”
Moses Greengrass resides in Rifle Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison that allows him to go on work projects with other inmates, but does not allow him to take phone calls or make calls to people who are not on his approved calling list.
Carole Schutter said she gets regular letters from Greengrass, because of the close relationship her son had with him. She said he has become a Messianic Jew – a faith of people who consider themselves Jewish but also believe Jesus Christ was the son of God. Schutter said Moses’ letters to her are “all about Jesus,” that he is eating kosher and that he’d like to be a minister of the faith someday.
“Moses is a very likable, charismatic person – he’ll be a great preacher because he draws people to him,” she said.
Greengrass has completed a course at Rifle on driving heavy machinery and is also studying Hebrew.
Ognacevic said he’s also written to Greengrass at Rifle, a facility that isn’t too bad, he said. He said he is aware that Greengrass has turned to spirituality for strength.
“Whatever is going to help him, I’m down with,” Ognacevic said. “It’s not my way, but if it works for him, that’s cool.”
Morse, Ukraine, Treadwell and Hammond
Four other men involved in the 1999 spree could not be reached for comment in this article. Attempts to contact their parents were also unsuccessful.
Nathan Morse is on the student directory at Fort Lewis College in Durango, and both Richards and Ognacevic say they’ve heard he is taking classes at the four-year school.
Richards said Michael Ukraine was attending college at the University of California in Santa Cruz, where he had become a vegan and was working on a class project on food production, including “how to increase food production to end world hunger.”
“He seemed to be doing good,” Richards said.
Carole Schutter said she’s heard through Shea Treadwell’s parents that he is living elsewhere in Colorado and has become a born-again Christian. He is now off of probation, she said.
None of the young men know the whereabouts of Wade Hammond, although Richards said he may be living in Denver.
Overall, Richards said he’s watched many of his friends come through the experience with deep regrets, but also with positive attitudes.
“We were all honest, good people who were just way off-kilter for some reason. We all realize and recognize how huge our mistake was, and how uncurable,” Richards said. “We can say we’re sorry a million times, but things will never be healed. I think everyone has now made the best of what they’ve gotten. [In prison] you develop your spirituality, take some college courses, and get the most out of it.”
Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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