Suspect in Basalt assault, kidnapping case reverses course, accepts plea deal
Mufasta Muhammad could face as many as 10 years in state prison
One of two suspects in a Basalt kidnapping and assault case withdrew his not-guilty plea in court Wednesday and said he will agree to a disposition that could put him behind bars for as many as 10 years.
Suspect Mufasta Muhammad also angrily criticized the prosecutor in the case for alleging he is a “gang member” because of certain tattoos and prior actions.
Muhammad interrupted Assistant District Attorney Johnny Lombardi of the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and Eagle County District Judge Paul Dunkelman on at least five occasions in a video conference hearing to complain about how he was being characterized by Lombardi. Muhammad attended the hearing via video from a conference room at the Eagle County jail and courthouse.
“You should have your facts straight, man, you should have your facts straight,” Muhammad said while Lombardi spoke to the judge.
The hearing started peacefully enough when Muhammad’s attorney, public defender Kevin Jensen, disclosed it appeared a plea bargain had been reached. Muhammad pleaded not guilty Dec. 23 to the 16 charges he is facing. He reversed course Wednesday.
“It would be a plea to a Class 4 felony, second-degree assault with a stipulated time range of seven to 10 years in the Department of Corrections,” Jensen told Dunkelman.
Lombardi added, “It appears we finalized that just a couple of minutes before court this morning.”
The assault charge is enhanced by a crime of violence charge. That increases the possible range of the sentence, Lombardi said.
The plea deal would result in significantly less prison time than if Muhammad took the case to trial on the long list of charges and was convicted. One felony charge enhanced as a crime of violence would have exposed him to a maximum of 32 years in prison, while another charge would yield 16 years. The terms would be served consecutively, meaning as many as 48 years in state prison.
Muhammad and another man, Daniel Wettstein, are accused of holding a man against his will and beating him at the townhouse the suspects shared during a night of partying in the Willits neighborhood of Basalt on the night of Aug. 27. The alleged victim escaped the following morning from the residence after exiting a second-story window onto the roof, calling for help and jumping down. Police from multiple agencies responded to the scene because of the victim’s report that weapons were in the house. Wettstein surrendered almost immediately. Muhammad surrendered after a SWAT team responded with an armored vehicle.
Muhammad has remained in jail since the incident occurred, unable to pay the $25,000 bond. Wettstein posted bond and is in a treatment center for U.S. military veterans facing addictions.
Wednesday’s hearing turned tense after Jensen asked the judge to reduce Muhammad’s bond amount to $5,000 cash or a surety bond.
“He does have some ties to the local community,” Jensen said.
He noted that Muhammad has a child in the area, was working at a moving and storage business before his arrest, attended church in Glenwood Springs and had successfully completed prior rehabilitation programs.
Lombardi countered by suggesting Muhammad could be a risk to flee since he is facing seven to 10 years in prison for this case and is awaiting sentencing on two felony cases in Garfield County, for burglary and assault.
“He’s a violent individual,” Lombardi said. “We have identified him through his tattoos as having ties to a Crips gang in South Central Los Angeles.”
Muhammad responded with an audible sigh of disbelief. Lombardi continued, “He has no ties to this community other than the crimes he’s been committing here. It’s very dangerous for this individual to be out on the street. We object to any bond reduction whatsoever,” he said as Muhammad attempted to interrupt him.
“And just from the display of the defendant right here from jail shows he should not be released,” Lombardi added.
Muhammad interrupted Lombardi again and said, “Because I’m Black and have tattoos, I have gang affiliations? That’s racist, dude.”
Dunkelman tried to assure Muhammad that Lombardi’s comments about the alleged gang affiliation wouldn’t weigh into his decision on bond, but Muhammad was agitated by that point and kept interrupting the proceeding.
“You want to know what the problem is judge? Excuse me, but the problem is the fact that he says that — I know that the type of offer that he’s trying to give me has a lot to do with him thinking I’m a gang member,” Muhammad said. “That’s probably why he doesn’t want to come down on (prison time in the) deal.”
The judge responded, “I’m not going to reduce bond but it’s not because of anything that’s been argued to me at this point. As of right now, the charges against you are significant. I’ve been advised that there is a plea agreement and that is something I consider, but ultimately the plea agreement involves a Department of Corrections sentence, which means there is a concern about appearance in court. You have some ties to the community but not a ton of ties to the community.”
Dunkelman noted that any jail time Muhammad serves prior to disposition of his case would apply to a potential prison sentence.
The discussion continued along those lines for a few more minutes before Dunkelman concluded, “I’m not judging a person by tattoos. I’m not judging a person by the color of their skin. That is my job to not do that.”
Muhammad responded, “I appreciate your honesty. You have my full respect.”
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Despite nearly a month of intense investigation by two APD detectives, two investigators with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and help from an FBI agent in Glenwood Springs, the case is progressing slowly.