Pitkin County felony case filings suggest sharp decline | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County felony case filings suggest sharp decline

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times

In this photograph from early March, Deputy District Attorney Andrea Bryan, seated left, and Pitkin County Sheriff's Office personnel await the start of a press conference following arrests of suspects in the murder of Nancy Pfister.

Although a high-profile murder investigation resulted in three arrests and one conviction earlier this year, evidence suggests that major crimes have declined dramatically in Pitkin County.

So far in 2014, the 9th Judicial District Attorney's Office has only started 37 case files involving felonies. If that pace continues over the remainder of the year, then the office will have recorded an estimated 50 felony filings — a 44 percent decrease compared with 89 cases in 2013.

Comparatively, felony filings numbered 80 in 2012, 117 in 2011, 94 in 2010 and 98 in 2009.

District Attorney Sherry Caloia and area law enforcement officials offered potential reasons for the lower number of felony cases in Pitkin County. Caloia, a Democrat, took office in January 2013 after defeating former District Attorney Martin Beeson, a Republican, in a close November 2012 election.

Is Pitkin County getting a break from major crimes this year?

"It's hard to say exactly why there are fewer felony filings," Caloia said earlier this week. "The numbers do fluctuate from year to year. I think it has to do with our office being more proactive on the charging end — charging according to what we believe we can prove at trial, rather than trying to get the highest charge we can."

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But there are other factors that may be resulting in lower numbers, she said.

"I think crime may be down a little bit for now, which is a good thing for Aspen," Caloia said. "Hopefully, that will continue."

The 9th Judicial District also includes Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. The district attorney said felony filings also are declining in Garfield this year, but not as significantly as in Pitkin. The decrease in Garfield was more noticeable at the end of 2013 compared with 2012, Beeson's final year after more than seven years in office.

"I think it's the same thing; we're being more proactive on the charging end in Garfield," Caloia said. "Things that could go either way — felony or misdemeanor — we're looking at all the circumstances, and possibly charging a little bit less depending on those circumstances."

A stronger local economy following the Great Recession of 2008 to 2010 also might be playing a role, Caloia said.

"More people are employed right now, things are looking up, and I think that may be helping to keep crime down," she said.

The reduction in felony filings by the District Attorney's Office throughout the three-county district, however, has not led to a significant rise in misdemeanor cases, she said.

"We haven't seen a remarkable jump, but we haven't really seen a decline in those misdemeanor numbers either," Caloia said. "DUIs remain about the same, with some fluctuations, and other misdemeanors remain about the same, as well."

As for Rio Blanco County, the most rural community of the three counties in the district, the felony and misdemeanor caseload has been low for the past few years without much variance, she said.

A Pitkin County District Court assistant clerk separated the 37 felony filings by law enforcement agency: Aspen Police Department, 19; Pitkin County Sheriff's Office, 11; Snowmass Village Police Department, three; Basalt Police Department, two; Colorado State Patrol, one; and state Department of Labor and Employment, one.

Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said while countywide felony filings are lower this year, his office has still been extremely busy.

He pointed to the large amount of time his office spent on the investigation into the murder of Nancy Pfister in late February, a case that resulted in first-degree murder charges against three people in early March. A former Denver-area anesthesiologist, William F. Styler III, ended up confessing to the crime and was convicted and sentenced in June. The charges against two other suspects — his wife and an Aspen bank teller — were dismissed by the district attorney following Styler's admission that he acted alone.

"I can't really offer an explanation as to why felony filings are down," DiSalvo said. "We've never really been a major crime capital to start with. Any decrease is positive.

"It might have something to do with an improving economy. I'd like to think that we're a civilized community, and we're just not committing the crimes that you see all over the country. It could be lack of population."

Another possibility could be the change in leadership in the District Attorney's Office and a different approach by Caloia, DiSalvo said.

He added that while there are fewer felony filings, his deputies and Mountain Rescue Aspen personnel have had their hands full with backcountry rescue missions — many more this year than in recent memory.

Aspen Police Department spokeswoman Blair Weyer said the department has logged 111 felony investigations in the first nine months of this year, a decline from 2010 to 2013, when city police had about 200 annually.

A felony investigation does not necessarily result in an arrest. Also, in many cases, a person is arrested on suspicion of a felony crime but the charges are re-evaluated and reduced by the District Attorney's Office.

Caloia said the decrease in felony filings in Pitkin and Garfield counties doesn't mean that her deputy district attorneys have less work to do. With lower caseloads, they are able to spend more quality time on each case in lieu of handling too many files.

"We have a good investigative staff now, and I think our deputies are spending more time looking at cases and trying to develop evidence to make them stronger at trial. I'd say there's more of that going on than juggling a number."

andre@aspentimes.com

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