Theatre Aspen robber arrested for theft of safes from Highlands
Police: DNA match broke open case
A Roaring Fork Valley man with a notorious local criminal history was arrested again Monday in connection with theft of three safes from the Aspen Highlands ticket office three years ago.
Yuri Ognacevic, 39, who only recently finished serving a jail sentence after pleading guilty to using a screwdriver to rob the Theatre Aspen concession stand in July 2019 and was part of a crew of Aspen teenagers responsible for a string of local robberies and burglaries in 1999, was arrested Monday in connection with the safe thefts.
Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn on Monday credited investigative efforts by his officers, especially Detective Ritchie Zah, and a lucky break in October when two leaf-peepers discovered two of the safes discarded near the top of McClure Pass, for breaking the 3-year-old case wide open.
“In police work, oftentimes either the crime is evident on scene and you know who did it or, with this case, it’s a long-term grind where you’re looking for bits and pieces,” Linn said. “In this case, Detective Zah kept at it, we got a break in the case, and that was it.”
Ognacevic, who is serving six years of probation for the Theatre Aspen robbery, was arrested late Monday afternoon at the Pitkin County Courthouse after showing up for a meeting with his probation officer, Linn said. He was charged with felony second-degree burglary, felony theft and misdemeanor criminal mischief in connection with the Aspen Highlands burglary, according to an arrest warrant affidavit filed in Pitkin County District Court.
Aspen Deputy District Attorney Don Nottingham also praised Zah and investigative efforts by Aspen police, noting that the three-year statute of limitations on the safe robbery is set to run out Friday.
“APD did a very thorough job of investigating the (safe robbery) scene,” he said Monday.
The Highlands burglary allegedly occurred during the late night of April 8, 2018, the day the ski mountain closed for the season, and early-morning hours of April 9, 2018. Video surveillance of the ticket office showed a man repeatedly entering and exiting the building through a side door, though only his shoes, a bare, fair-skinned hand and a hand wearing a purple disposable glove were caught on camera, according to the arrest warrant affidavit.
A man who happened to be in the building around 11:30 p.m. looking for a friend also reported seeing a white, skinny man about 6 feet tall enter the building around that time, though he only noticed him quickly out of the corner of his eye, the affidavit states. Ognacevic is 6-feet-2-inches with fair skin.
During the suspect’s final trip out of the building about 1:30 a.m., he can be “seen smoothly pushing the Guest Services safe with a purple gloved right hand as if the Guest Services safe was riding on a tray or moving dolly while leaving the building,” according to the affidavit. That safe was not anchored to the wall, though safes containing receipts from the on-mountain Merry-Go-Round restaurant and the Cloud Nine restaurant had both been ripped from bolts that secured them to the wall in the Guest Services office.
The three safes contained a total of $7,704, as well as items that had been turned into the mountain’s lost-and-found, including cellphones, a driver’s license, credit cards, a wallet and a gold wedding ring.
The robber was able to gain entrance to the Guest Services office through an unlocked lower floor side door and take the elevator, which should have locked out the Guest Services floor but was “inconsistently locked,” according to the affidavit. The Guest Services office was usually locked, but could be accessed with a key stored in a hidden, locked key box, which was drilled open.
One of the key bits of evidence gathered by Zah at the crime scene was the tip of a purple glove found near the entrance to the elevator on the building’s second floor, where Guest Services office is located. However, none of the evidence found allowed police to make any headway in the case until Oct. 15.
That was when a brother and sister looking to take photos of the fading fall colors near the top of McClure Pass spotted a lone aspen tree “that still had its color at the bottom of a steep slope approximately 200 yards from the road,” according to the affidavit. The two climbed down to the tree, where they found what turned out to be the Guest Services safe, some of the lost and found items that had been inside it and three different-colored bank bags also reported to have been inside the safe.
When Aspen police investigated the scene, they also found the Merry-Go-Round safe. Both safes appeared to have been rolled down the slope from the top of the pass, the affidavit states.
The location of the safes immediately put Ognacevic on investigators’ radar as a person of interest in the case because his father lives about 2 1/2 miles from the area.
“As soon as the safes were found near his dad’s house … I was like, ‘This definitely has a direction to go now,’” Zah said Monday. “When I heard about (the discovery), I was like ‘I gotta get to work.’”
Police also knew that Ognacevic had worked as a ski patroller at Aspen Highlands, a job that ended in January 2018, according to the affidavit.
At the time the safes were discovered, Ognacevic was in the Pitkin County Jail. He’d been sentenced in August to 270 days behind bars and six years of probation after pleading guilty to aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon and two counts of possession of a weapon by a previous offender for the Theatre Aspen robbery and snatching two purses around the same time.
In November, Zah and Nottingham visited Ognacevic in the jail. He told them at the time that he recognized the area where the safes were found as close to his parents’ house, but that he didn’t know anything about the safes.
“Ognacevic said that he felt that it ‘didn’t look good’ that the safes were in the vicinity of his parents’ house,” the affidavit states. “Ognacevic said that it ‘frightened’ and ‘bothered’ him that we were questioning him about the found safes because he didn’t want to go to jail for longer.”
He asked for a lawyer soon after, and the two law enforcement officials left.
On Jan. 11, Zah submitted the tip of the purple glove to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for DNA analysis. He said Monday that he didn’t submit it earlier because CBI had instituted a rule about not testing property crime evidence for DNA because of a backup in DNA testing for items associated with violent crimes.
“We asked them to consider (testing the glove) before and they said no,” Zah said. “But with the statute of limitations running out, we asked if they would take a look at this one thing and they were able to give us an exception.”
Meanwhile, in phone calls from the jail to his mother and father, Ognacevic said that while he didn’t have anything to do with the theft of the safes, he was nonetheless “stressing out” and didn’t trust police, according to copies of phone calls obtained by Zah in January and quoted in the affidavit.
When his mother told him DNA evidence had been submitted for testing, Ognacevic “said he felt like he was going to have a ‘heart attack’ because of this recent development,” according to the affidavit.
In the phone calls, he also told his parents he was familiar with the location of the safes in the Guest Services office through his duties as a ski patroller, which ended Jan. 16, 2018.
On March 30, CBI’s analysis came back with a confirmed match of Ognacevic’s DNA from the tip of the purple glove found outside the elevator entrance, the affidavit states. The database with his DNA sample contains at least 2 million DNA profiles and the only match found was for Ognacevic, who was in the system because of his previous convictions.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Zah said Monday. “(The match) was a miracle.”
Ognacevic spent time in prison in the early 2000s after being identified as one of 12 Aspen teens who committed several robberies and burglaries in Aspen and Snowmass Village in 1999. He was convicted of robbery in 1999 for his role in the armed holdup of Clark’s Market in Aspen and sentenced to four years in prison.
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The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office is taking the lead in trying to close a gaping hole in the investigation of crimes in the upper Roaring Fork Valley by purchasing license plate-reading cameras likely to be used at the chokepoint entry and exits to Aspen.