Pubdate: Fri, 01 Dec 2006
Source: Aspen Daily News (CO)
Copyright: 2006 Aspen Daily News
Author: Troy Hooper, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Drug Raids)


Exactly one year ago, gun-wielding police teams stormed two popular 
Aspen eateries and rounded up a list of suspected drug dealers and 
illegal immigrants.

The raids polarized the community. Some believed they were 
overzealous and potentially dangerous. Others praised the raids as 
long overdue and necessary to ensure the safety of schools and neighborhoods.

A year has passed, but aftershocks from the raids have continued to 
hang around this so-called party town like high PM-10 levels above 
Aspen's streets.

Gail Nichols, the assistant district attorney who worked the cases as 
they wound their way through the legal system, says the raids were a 
prosecutorial success, even if drug trafficking hasn't left Aspen.

"You're never going to completely wipe out that type of business. All 
you can do is hope to diminish it by making people realize it's 
against the law and you can go to prison for it," she said. "These 
types of prosecutions were unlike a lot of what I normally do because 
they were aimed at people who were more than simply users. But if you 
go to drug court, you see the damage and destruction that is done by 
these drugs."

The Verdicts

Of the nine drug defendants, seven were convicted of 
controlled-substance violations, four of whom received prison 
sentences, while charges were dismissed against one suspect and 
another was exonerated in the only case that reached a jury trial. 
The raids occurred at Little Annie's Eating House and the Cooper Street Pier.

The three men who pleaded guilty to drug charges but did not go to 
prison were put on felony probation and deported to Latin America 
since they were living here illegally. One of those men, however, 
Jesus Soto-Sandoval, came back across the border, returned to Aspen 
and was busted with cocaine at Campo de Fiori, where he worked in the 
kitchen. The second time around, Soto-Sandoval received two years in 
state prison, plus he faces two more years in federal prison.

"Some of these guys were first-time offenders. It's not uncommon to 
receive lighter sentences in your first go around," said Tom Gorman, 
the resident agent in charge of the Western Slope for the U.S. Drug 
Enforcement Agency.

"It's hard to look at the sentences and say it was successful or 
unsuccessful. Once a case goes into the court system, there are so 
many different factors that come into play. What I look at is the 
fact they're not selling out of those bars anymore. Now that they 
know we've been up there and know we do operations up there, they 
take a second look now," he said. "They're not as willing to do that 
out in the open. That was one of the biggest things that came out of 
that. It sent a clear message that the DEA is working in Pitkin 
County, Eagle County and the Roaring Fork Valley. This is an 
organization that intentionally set up shop in Pitkin County. The 
more and more successful we are in these operations, the more they 
know Pitkin County is not a safe haven."

Gorman said the busts at Little Annie's and Cooper Street Pier 
provided police with intelligence that led to a cocaine-distribution 
bust at a car wash at the Aspen Airport Business Center in September 
and that "anecdotal information is that (the 2005) operation created 
a vacuum, a short-term shortage, and now people are vying to fill the 
roles of the people we took out in that organization."

Linked to Election

While the raids are credited with interfering with drug dealing and 
sending a message that the activity won't be tolerated, they also 
came with negatives.

Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis is still bothered that Aspen Police 
Chief Loren Ryerson told him he "fell through the cracks" and that's 
why he was never informed about the raids even though other agencies, 
such as the DEA and the Snowmass Village Police Department, were 
informed about them and invited to participate. The sheriff maintains 
it could have endangered the safety of his deputies, who sometimes 
dine at Little Annie's and Cooper Street, as well as the public at large.

"The fishhooks in my skin vis-a-vis the raids were officer safety, 
the lack of notification and the David-and-Goliath approach of 
50-plus police personnel being sent to make nine drug arrests," said 
Braudis, who was reelected in November.

Even though the drug raids were rarely mentioned specifically during 
the sheriff's latest reelection, the debates around them were sometimes evoked.

"My opponent said he would conduct undercover drug investigations 
in-house and I said I never have and never would," he said. "I think 
the vote tally supports the community's wish that the war on drugs 
was declared over. The drug war causes more casualties than the drugs 
themselves. It's a major loser. I still say keep chemicals and kids 
separate. And I still say abusive chemicals are unhealthy but use by 
educated adults is not something the law should govern."

Braudis added: "I'm not a legislator but I am a police executive and 
I prioritize the laws that my community wants enforced aggressively. 
But there really isn't a lot of drug dealing in rural Pitkin County. 
The DEA is pretty hip to what's going on. And my guys and the DEA 
guys have renewed the accord that we established in the '70s. I want 
to know if there is a buy bust that puts people in danger. And if 
there is any assistance they need, they're going to get it."

'Uncomfortable for Everyone'

While the sheriff said he feels the DEA and his office are back on 
the same page, he said there remains work to do with Aspen Police 
Chief Loren Ryerson.

"The events of Dec. 2 magnified beyond any of my fears the mistrust 
that was existent at the time," said Braudis, who also is troubled by 
Ryerson's well-publicized call for an investigation into one of the 
sheriff's deputies even though an internal investigation and the 
parties directly involved commended the deputy's work.

"Administratively and philosophically, the chasm between the 
sheriff's office and police department has broadened to a point where 
it's become uncomfortable for everyone," he said. "We've got a 
project here. I want to work with the police department, the city 
manager and some of my command staff to break down these barriers. As 
we identify problems, I think we should share them with the public 
and get some feedback."

Ryerson did not return phone messages left for him this week. One 
downtown bar manager wondered if the busts had an effect on drug 
dealing in Aspen.

"I think drug laws should be enforced. But I thought it was silly for 
Loren Ryerson to say he forgot to tell Bob Braudis. Everyone knows 
that wasn't the case," said Red Onion manager Dave "Wabs" Walbert. "I 
don't think the raids stopped drug dealing or made any change but you 
can't just overlook drug laws."

Were Raids Worth It?

Whether positive or negative, the raids definitely made an impact.

"Were they worth it? Were they worth it for who? We're certainly glad 
to have a bad activity gone out of Little Annie's," said that 
restaurant's spokesman, Mike Otte. "But it was unfortunate we had to 
learn about it this way. A lot of the Little Annie's team experienced 
extra stress and hassle over the last year because of the 
consequences of the raids and there were a lot of people who didn't 
deserve that. It's unfortunate but we're all happy we are back up and 
running. Business is good, our patrons supported us and by the looks 
of everything and everything I'm hearing, we're going to have a great season."

Like the Cooper Street Pier, the state pulled Little Annie's liquor 
license for a month in connection to the drug arrests made at the 
eatery. Additionally, Little Annie's kitchen manager was the 
defendant who won acquittal in a jury trial.

Because the investigation was ongoing and involved different agents 
at different period of time, Gorman said he did not know how much it cost.

"The amount of money we put into that investigation was worth it," he 
said. "We got those criminals off the street and sent a message to 
drug dealers." 
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