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Trials resume in 5th Judicial District courts

EAGLE — After a roughly three-month hiatus, courts within Colorado’s 5th Judicial District saw jury trials resume on Monday, with a full day of jury selection for a pending criminal case against Enrique Echevarria-Castro.

The 5th Judicial District spans Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties, where trials have been on hold since mid-November because of public safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Small groups of potential jurors wore face coverings and kept 6 feet apart as they were ushered into and out of Eagle County District Court Judge Paul R. Dunkelman’s courtroom in several phases on Monday, as attorneys worked to select 12 jurors and one alternate for Echevarria-Castro’s trial, which is expected to run through Friday.

The process involved two courtrooms at the Eagle County Combined Courts building, with health assessments and temperature checks as potential jurors checked in. Plexiglas dividers were set up inside the courtroom, with hand sanitizer set out for people to use.

“I want to thank you all for being here today, for honoring your civic duty to come help us do jury trials under very challenging circumstances,” Judge Dunkelman told the first round of potential jurors. “We’ve taken every step we can to make sure we do this in a manner that is safe to you guys and to everybody. We’ve been planning these trials for a long time.”

A backlog of trials has built up within the district, with trials on hold for the last few months and for much of last year.

Echevarria-Castro’s criminal case dates back to October 2018.

According to police, Echevarria-Castro was a passenger in a car that Eagle County Sheriff’s Office deputies investigated in late September of that year, after seeing it stopped in a turn lane in Edwards.

The occupants of the car reportedly told deputies they were traveling from Utah back to Kentucky. During a search of the vehicle, deputies found a backpack on the rear floorboard of the car where Echevarria-Castro was sitting with about 5 pounds of methamphetamine inside it, according to an affidavit.

Echevarria-Castro, 38, faces felony drug and bail bond violation charges, as well as a charge of false reporting to authorities, a misdemeanor. He is being represented by attorney John Scott.

Echevarria-Castro reportedly failed to show up for a three-day trial in Eagle County District Court back in May 2019 while free on $50,000 bond. The driver of the car, Jorge Alcolea-Arcote, 35, reportedly pleaded guilty to two drug felonies in his case and was sentenced to four years in prison.

Jury selection for Echevarria-Castro’s trial was still ongoing as of 5:30 p.m. Monday, with opening arguments scheduled for Tuesday morning.

Town of Vail planning manager sentenced for third DUI

EAGLE — The town of Vail’s planning manager was sentenced to two years of supervised probation and 60 days jail Tuesday after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence — his third DUI conviction.

While driving south on state Highway 131 on July 4 of last year, Jonathan C. Spence, 50, reportedly veered into a northbound lane and sideswiped another car, pushing it into a guardrail, and then continued driving off. The other car braked and left 34 feet of skid marks on the road, according to police reports.

Colorado State Patrol responded to a report of the hit-and-run crash and about 15 minutes later, at approximately 2:29 p.m., found Spence asleep in his damaged car, which was parked but left running in a dirt parking lot on the east side of the highway.

When a trooper approached Spence’s parked car, he noticed several open beer bottles in the vehicle and a strong odor of alcohol coming from the open windows. According to the incident report, Spence did not remember the crash, was initially unable to exit his car because of damage to the driver’s door, and failed roadside sobriety tests, almost falling over several times.

Spence’s BAC was .309 and he has two prior DUI convictions in 2003 and 2011, prosecutors told the court Tuesday.

Spence’s attorney, Terry O’Connor, told the court that the town is “aware of this situation and fully supporting” Spence, who has already done “a tremendous amount of work” and been “extremely proactive” to address his alcohol issues. “He knows this could have been tragic, how it ended,“ O’Connor told the court. ”He is doing everything possible to correct what was going on in his life.“

Spence told the court he is deeply remorseful and ashamed of his actions, and is using this incident as “a stepping stone to ensure this never happens again” and to recommit himself to his community.

Eagle County Court Judge Rachel Olguin-Fresquez sentenced Spence to two years of supervised probation and four years of monitoring to make sure he is not consuming alcohol. She also sentenced Spence to the mandatory minimum 60 days in jail, but offered him the ability to do 120 days of electronic home monitoring instead. Another 365 days in jail was suspended, pending Spence’s successful completion of probation, and restitution was left open for 60 days.

Denver man gets 4 years community corrections for seventh DUI

EAGLE — A Denver man arrested for his seventh DUI after police saw him driving the wrong way on an Interstate 70 on-ramp and the wrong way through a roundabout in Avon was sentenced to four years of community corrections Tuesday.

David L. Castorena, 53, who reportedly did not have a driver’s license at the time, pleaded guilty to a charge of DUI with three-plus priors for the October 2018 incident.

“This was a very dangerous situation,” Deputy District Attorney Amy Padden told the court.

Castorena’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Kevin Jensen, told the court that “this is a last chance if I’ve ever seen one, and I believe Mr. Castorena is fully aware of that as well.”

“If he is unsuccessful, god forbid he is in another situation where additional DUI charges are filed. I have no doubt in my mind it’s a one-way stop to (Colorado Department of Corrections) for a lengthy amount of time,” Jensen said.

At the sentencing hearing Tuesday, Castorena told the court he knows he made a bad mistake that evening, stopping at a liquor store while he and his fiancee were visiting a timeshare property in Eagle County.

“I just wanted to say sorry. I made a bad choice again,” Castorena said.

Judge Paul R. Dunkelman agreed, but told Castorena that this was his seventh DUI, and something that goes well beyond any one individual bad choice.

“I agree this is an underlying alcohol issue, but a lot of people with alcohol issues don’t get behind the wheel and drive,“ Dunkelman said, adding that he struggled with the community corrections sentence even with two attorneys telling him it was the right thing to do, noting that Castorena has failed on probation and parole before.

Dunkelman also imposed a six-year state prison sentence, but suspended it, pending Castorena’s successful completion of treatment and community corrections.

“You’re getting a chance at community corrections, but that’s the chance you get,” he said.

Castorena was also recently sentenced to 30 months of community corrections after pleading guilty to a felony menacing charge in Jefferson County.

Lake County coroner, wife face more felony charges after body found at former funeral home

Shannon Kent
Photo courtesy of 5th Judicial District Attorney
Staci Kent
Photo courtesy of 5th Judicial District Attorney

Lake County Coroner Shannon Kent and Staci Kent, his wife and deputy coroner, were arrested Thursday in Leadville after law enforcement found a deceased person in a coffin at their former Kent-Bailey Funeral Home in Silverthorne.

Each is now charged with attempted tampering with a deceased human body, a class 4 felony, the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office announced Friday evening.

Authorities said they believe the deceased body had been in the Silverthorne location, at 561 Blue River Parkway, for several months. Bond is set at $10,000 and the Kents are scheduled to appear in court on March 9.

Shannon Kent was also charged with a violation of bail bond conditions, a class 6 felony, the district attorney’s office announced Friday. That alleged violation stems from an arrest on Dec. 6, 2019, in Lake County. In that case he is charged with official misconduct, a petty offense, and perjury, a felony, after a grand jury indicted him for allegedly having his wife act as a deputy coroner without proper authorization. She is charged with perjury and forgery, both felonies, in that case.

Shannon Kent, elected Lake County coroner in 2014 and reelected in 2018, voluntarily signed an agreement with state regulators in December that required him to permanently exit the funeral home and cremation businesses in Colorado, revoking his license for a chain of funeral homes. That agreement was entered after a search warrant found unsanitary and possibly unlawful conditions at his funeral home in Leadville.

The Kents are also facing a civil lawsuit in the 5th Judicial District for allegedly co-mingling the cremains of a Leadville couple’s stillborn infant.

Two women facing felony charges for alleged theft of $179K worth of art, van

EAGLE — A Rifle woman who prosecutors allege helped steal $179,670 worth of art from a storage unit in Eagle last year saw her bond reduced from $7,500 to $5,000 on Tuesday.

Brittany N. Davis, 27, and Shanna L. Salazar, 38, of Grand Junction, were both briefly detained by police in De Beque last May after a license plate check determined that a 2004 Chevy Astro van they left running while they went inside a gas station there was reported stolen out of Eagle, according to an arrest warrant affidavit filed Nov. 25, 2020.

When police later searched the van, they found bolt cutters as well as bronze statutes and various pieces of art, some with tags on them. The 16 recovered pieces of art were valued at $179,670 in total and traced back to an art gallery in Vail and to a storage unit in Eagle, according to the affidavit.

Salazar was detained after leaving a restroom at the gas station, when she requested an attorney and was not questioned further. Davis was located inside the gas station and agreed to speak with police. Both women were eventually released because the Mesa County jail would not accept them due to COVID-19 precautions.

According to the affidavit, Davis told police she was helping Salazar move the van, which had already been loaded when Salazar picked her up. She said she noticed tools and artwork in the van when she got in, but maintained she did not know the van was stolen or anything illegal was inside it. Davis also told police, however, that they were taking the van to a location in Grand Junction where vehicles stolen in Garfield County go before heading to a chop shop somewhere in California.

When the owner of the art gallery later responded to his storage unit with police, he noticed that the padlock on the door was different. His key to the missing lock, however, fit into a cut padlock that was also found inside the stolen van, according to the affidavit.

Prosecutors have since charged Davis with motor vehicle theft and conspiracy to commit vehicle theft, theft and conspiracy to commit theft, burglary and conspiracy to commit burglary, and possession of burglary tools, all felonies. Her next court appearance is set for March 2.

On Tuesday Davis’ attorney, deputy public defender Jessica Dennis, requested that Davis’ bond be reduced to $2,000 so she can get out of custody and return to work — a request prosecutors opposed, noting they had originally asked for Davis’ bond to be set at $15,000.

Eagle County Court Judge Rachel Olguin-Fresquez lowered Davis’ bond to $5,000, noting her nearby residence in Rifle as well as the seriousness of the allegations against her.

According to prosecutors, Salazar was recently sentenced to four years in community corrections after pleading guilty to identity theft in a separate case.

In this case, prosecutors have charged Salazar with three counts of motor vehicle theft, charges of theft and conspiracy to commit theft, burglary and conspiracy to commit burglary, possession of burglary tools, and two charges of bail bond violations, all felonies. Her next court appearance is set for Feb. 23.

Bad jail behavior gets Gypsum man state prison time

EAGLE — A Gypsum man saw a possible sentence to probation and residential treatment for drug abuse problems turn into a two-year prison sentence Wednesday because of his behavior in the Eagle County jail.

According to court records, John C. Brown, 30, was arrested in August for breaking into a semi-trailer at a Gypsum tow yard and stealing items, and charged with burglary, theft, trespass, possession of burglary tools and introduction of contraband to the jail for possession of suspected methamphetamine while being booked, all felonies.

While in jail for four months before bonding out, prosecutors said Brown had nine major disciplinary write-ups and saw two new felony assault charges filed against him for spitting on two deputies.

Brown allegedly spit on the deputies as they tried to put him in a restraint chair after he had been “donkey kicking” his cell door for an extended time. Brown had refused to stop, resulting in deputies pepper spraying his cell and donning gas masks to get him out.

At a sentencing hearing Wednesday, prosecutors requested four years in prison for Brown, who pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree assault and theft, felonies, and a misdemeanor drug charge. They noted Brown had not only spit on the jail deputies during a pandemic, but also sexually harassed jail staff, made derogatory racial comments, and threatened to hurt or kill them and their families.

“I’ve been working in jails over 16 years, and in my experience this was an extreme case that my staff and I dealt with,” Eagle County Detentions Capt. Greg Van Wyk told the court. “At no point was there a demonstration by Mr. Brown that he would be compliant. We had to use force a number of times to extract him from his cell due to excessive pounding, and the verbal threats and assaults was beyond anything someone should have to endure.”

Brown’s attorney, public defender Kevin Jensen, argued for probation and drug treatment, noting these are Brown’s first felony convictions, that he had already been punished for the write-ups in the jail, and that the original burglary case was a result of substance abuse problems.

“That is something he is trying to work on and fix. I don’t think (Colorado Department of Corrections) will be helpful to Mr. Brown to get a handle on these substance abuse issues and try to improve himself. He’s asking for the opportunity to show the court he can be successful,” Jensen said.

Brown apologized to the court for his “unacceptable” behavior in the jail. He said the jail time was overwhelming as he missed the first birthday of a child, adding he was “absolutely mistreated on several occasions.”

“Deputies didn’t need to gas me out, and I have pictures of lacerations on my arms from being cinched into the restraint chair. I know my action of spitting was unacceptable. I did it in the heat of the moment out of anger, but in my honest eyes I feel like I was assaulted,” Brown told the court.

Considering Brown’s sentence, Judge Paul R. Dunkelman ultimately ordered Brown to two years in state prison because of his behavior in the county jail, giving Brown credit for 133 days already served.

“I’ve had the captain come address the court before, jail deputies. Generally they are addressing the court for a reason most people wouldn’t guess, to come to be supportive of someone residing in the jail. To have the captain come and give those statements, that gives me pause. I struggle with that. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that before,” Judge Dunkelman said, adding that in considering a probationary sentence for Brown, “I can’t get there.”

Vail Police make arrest in felony menacing case

Trevor Fournier

Vail Police arrested Trevor Fournier, 23, of Minturn, on Wednesday for charges of felony menacing, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct and harassment.

The arrest was the result of an ongoing investigation of an incident at La Cantina restaurant in Vail last Sunday, and was made with assistance from the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.

The incident involved a suspect threatening a patron at the restaurant. The suspect became increasingly aggressive and twice attempted to assault the victim with chairs, damaging restaurant property, before brandishing a switchblade-style knife and threatening the victim before fleeing on foot, police said.

Vail Police received several phone calls and emails after asking for the public’s help identifying the suspect. Anyone with additional information about this incident is asked to contact Officer Craig Westering at cwestering@vailgov.com or 970-479-2201.

Kent Funeral Home lawsuit hits snag with criminal investigation

EAGLE — An ongoing criminal investigation into Lake County Coroner Shannon Kent and his wife, Staci Kent, is causing temporary setbacks for a civil lawsuit against their former funeral homes in Colorado.

Kent’s attorney, Amy Johnson, requested a stay on depositions for the lawsuit in Eagle County District Court until that criminal investigation into the Kents is closed because of a concern they might incriminate themselves in depositions yet to be taken for the civil lawsuit, or have to take the Fifth Amendment.

“My clients can’t testify in this case, especially when they don’t know what those charges are yet, and this (criminal) investigation seems to be very slow moving,” Johnson told Judge Paul R. Dunkelman during a Feb. 5 hearing.

A criminal investigation into the Kents by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office reportedly started nearly one year ago after a complaint about their former Leadville funeral home’s handling of human remains. No charges have been filed to date.

The civil lawsuit was filed in July 2020 on behalf of a Leadville couple. It alleges that Kent’s funeral homes delivered co-mingled cremains for their stillborn infant, providing them with unlabeled cremains far in excess of what was expected for an infant, with no contract, receipt or other paperwork.

The cremation is believed to have been done at the Kents’ former funeral home in Gypsum, and an analysis found the infant’s cremains co-mingled with at least one other person, containing bone fragments from an adult as well as surgical material, jewelry and other metals, according to the lawsuit.

Remington Fang, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Leadville couple, told Judge Dunkelman that he doesn’t want to see the civil lawsuit “drag on forever” because of the unresolved criminal investigation.

“We can’t sit around and simply wait for the Lake County sheriff to indict the Kents, file charges, have the case go through motions, to appeals, all the way up to the Supreme Court, theoretically,” Fang said. “If they are asking for a stay until all possible exculpatory evidence can’t be obtained, this could go on forever, frankly.”

Judge Dunkelman declined to issue the full stay that was requested. Instead, discovery and depositions in the civil lawsuit can continue, but for now without the depositions of Shannon Kent or Staci Kent. The parties will then meet again in two months to see if anything has changed in regard to the investigation and potential criminal charges or the Kents’ ability to be deposed.

The goal in issuing the partial stay, Judge Dunkelman said, is to balance the rights of the Kents with the Leadville couple’s interest in seeing the lawsuit move forward. “I think that is the most appropriate way to move forward right now,” he said.

Operations at Kent’s funeral home and cremation businesses in Leadville and Gypsum were temporarily suspended last October, after the execution of a search warrant at the funeral home in Leadville.

The search warrant reportedly found unsanitary and possibly unlawful conditions at the Leadville funeral home. Those included used body bags, medical gloves and surgical equipment with dried bodily fluids on them piled on the floor; a body bag containing a decedent that was not refrigerated and leaking fluids; numerous bags of unlabeled cremains; several bodies in refrigeration wrapped in sheets or blankets without identifying tags or paperwork; a small unmarked casket containing a stillborn infant Kent told police had been “abandoned“; and paperwork scattered several feet deep on the floor.

Kent who remains coroner in Lake County, voluntarily signed an agreement with state regulators in December, requiring him to permanently exit the funeral home and cremation business in Colorado.

Both of the Kents already face criminal charges in Lake County.

Shannon Kent is charged with second-degree official misconduct, a petty offense, and perjury, a class 4 felony, while his wife Staci Kent is charged with perjury and forgery, a class 5 felony. The charges stem from grand jury testimony about Shannon Kent allegedly allowing his wife to act as a deputy coroner without proper authorizations.

Prosecutors have said a criminal investigation is ongoing for possible state mortuary code violations.

Vail Police searching for criminal mischief suspect

Vail Police are asking for the public's help identifying this man.

Vail Police are searching for an unidentified white man who reportedly walked into the La Cantina restaurant at at Vail Transportation Center at about 8:25 p.m. Sunday and began threatening one of the patrons.

The victim did not know the suspect and appeared to be targeted randomly, police said. The suspect became increasingly aggressive and twice attempted to assault the victim with chairs, damaging property belonging to the restaurant, and brandished a switchblade-style knife and threatened the victim before fleeing on foot, according to police.

The suspect is described as 25-30 years old and approximately 5 feet, 8 inches tall with bright blue eyes, dark brown facial hair and blonde dreadlocks. He was wearing a black hoodie, jean jacket, black pants, and black and white sneakers, and carrying a black satchel. A witness also reported the suspect has a black star tattooed on his right cheek.

People who can identify the man shown in the surveillance photos or have any information on the incident are asked to message Vail Police on Facebook or contact Officer Craig Westering at cwestering@vailgov.com or 970-479-2201.

Florida man implicated in El Jebel drug deaths gets suspended sentence

EAGLE — A South Florida man suspected of selling pills containing heroin and a powerful synthetic opioid that caused or contributed to the drug overdose deaths of two El Jebel men in March 2017 finalized a plea agreement with prosecutors Wednesday in Eagle County District Court.

Samuel Brunelus, 26, of Deerfield Beach, entered an “Alford plea” to three counts of second-degree assault, a class 4 felony, pleading guilty to the charges.

According to the agreement, Brunelus was sentenced to two years of probation and to five years in Colorado Department of Corrections on each charge. The concurrent prison sentences were suspended, which means Brunelus will not serve them if he successfully completes his probation. Brunelus was also given credit for 519 days already served in jail, and ordered to pay $1,850 in restitution and $2,279 for the cost of his extradition from Florida.

Brunelus allegedly played a role in getting the pills into the hands of Camilo E. Sanchez. The pills were shipped via UPS from Florida. The morning after the pills arrived, on March 24, 2017, Sanchez, 30, and a roommate, Michael J. Martinez, 26, were found dead from a drug overdose in their home in the Blue Lake subdivision near El Jebel. A third roommate suffered a near-fatal drug overdose, but recovered.

A Colorado Bureau of Investigation analysis of the pills found in Sanchez’s home determined they contained a mixture of heroin and carfentanil, a powerful synthetic opioid, according to a police affidavit.

A coroner determined Sanchez died accidentally as a result of mixed drug intoxication, with acute carfentanil toxicity and recent cocaine use. Martinez also died accidentally from mixed drug intoxication, with carfentanil, cocaine, alcohol and possible morphine and hydrocodone found, according to the affidavit.

Carfentanil is used as a tranquilizing agent to rapidly immobilize elephants and other large mammals. The drug is reportedly 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl. The drug was linked to an outbreak of nearly 1,200 overdose deaths in Florida in 2016 and 2017, according to research published in February 2020 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and DEA investigated the overdoses and where the pills came from. A UPS envelope sent to Sanchez from Florida, cell phone data, and interviews eventually led police to Brunelus, with a warrant issued for his arrest in July 2017.

A district court judge reportedly dismissed manslaughter charges against Brunelus during a preliminary hearing in November 2017, finding there was not enough evidence to support them. A grand jury later indicted Brunelus on the assault charges.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Brunelus asked the court if he can have his probation transferred to Florida, and that is something he can apply for, the judge said.

Johnny Lombardi, a deputy district attorney with the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, told the court prosecutors think the plea agreement is an appropriate resolution for the long-running case after consulting with victims and their families. “He is pleading guilty to three felonies, and should he violate any terms or conditions (of probation), he would have extended time in DOC to serve,” Lombardi said.