Public sentiment won’t sway DA
The lead prosecutor in Aspen’s robbery and burglary cases said Friday that several factors will influence how he handles the suspects, but community sentiment won’t be one of them.
“Community pressure is nothing new to us and I don’t think it will play any part in a plea bargain,” said Deputy District Attorney Lawson Wills.
Any time local youths are involved in a crime, community sentiments seem to be stronger than with a typical case, noted Wills, who has served with the local district attorney’s office for seven years and as a prosecutor for nine years.
Emotions are especially strong over the Aug. 5 armed robbery of Clark’s Market and Sept. 20 burglary of a Twining Flats home. Six Aspen men, all between ages 17 and 19, and most from well-known local families, have been arrested on charges related to one or both of those crimes. One other is being sought.
“We have charged two 17-year-olds as adults. I think that’s indicative of how we will approach this case,” said Wills.
Those arrested on charges related to the robbery only are Yuri Ognacevic, 18; Stefan Schutter, 17; and Cody Wille, 17.
Nathan Morse, 18, was arrested on charges related to the burglary only, as well as the theft of another vehicle. Anthony Rizzuto, 19, who turned himself in Sunday, is expected to face similar charges.
Jacob Richards, 18, has been arrested on charges related to both the robbery and burglary. Moses Greengrass, 19, is wanted on charges connected to both crimes.
Hot topic in town
The fate of the suspects has been the hot topic in bars, restaurants, coffee shops and the newspapers’ letters pages.
One community contingent believes the youths, if found guilty, should be punished harshly but locally – not sent to a state penitentiary. Another contingent says they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for their violent acts – even if it means a trip to the state pen.
The opinions of Wills, District Attorney Mac Myers and District Judge J.E. DeVilbiss might be the only ones that really matter.
If any of those three are facing community pressure, it’s the judge, according to Wills. “He’s the one who will have to make the decisions” on how the suspects are punished, if found guilty, Wills said.
But Wills understated the influence his office will have on the case. Plea bargains, or the lack of them, often influence the sentences of people convicted of crimes.
Three critical factors
Wills said his office will examine three critical factors in the prosecution of the seven suspects. Those factors are:
n Level of involvement. In the case of the armed robbery, did each particular suspect take an active role, such as brandishing a weapon, or a more passive role, such as driving a getaway car or helping with planning?
n Criminal history. The backgrounds of each of the youths will be examined to see if they were previously in trouble with the law. Schutter, for example, was being held in a juvenile youth facility for a probation violation when his name surfaced in alleged connection to the robbery and burglary.
n Cooperation. Are the suspects talking with authorities?
Related to cooperation is the way they were apprehended. Richards and Ognacevic fled to Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, before their mothers convinced them to return with them and surrender.
Authorities said they believed Rizzuto and Greengrass were holed up in Canada as well, though Rizzuto returned and surrendered yesterday.
“Running to Canada is certainly a factor,” said Wills. “Coming back is also a factor.”
`Progression of violence’
Wills noted that he is particularly interested in the “progression of violence” that occurred during a series of armed robberies in the upper valley in August.
“At the final one in Snowmass, the clerk was pistol-whipped after he handed the money over,” said Wills.
After Clark’s was hit on Aug. 5, the Aspen Alps condominium project office and the Village Market in Snowmass Village were also robbed at gunpoint.
No arrests had been made as of Sunday in the latter two robberies, but authorities said they were getting close. The comments of Wills and other law officials suggest at least some of the suspects could be linked to other crimes.
Five of the suspects in custody as of Friday were scheduled to appear in court Oct. 18, when Wills anticipates filing formal charges.
If plea bargains are arranged, sentencing could occur as soon as January or February, Wills said.
If cases go to trial, he expects them to stretch into next summer.
Talks with defense attorneys over plea bargains will likely start in earnest after formal charges are filed. In a case of this magnitude, any plea deals will be made with Myers’ approval, according to Wills.
“Not every plea bargain is made with Mac, but in a case as serious as this, I would not like to make the decision without talking to Mac and others in this office,” Wills said.
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