Drug trial of Craig man begins in Eagle County | VailDaily.com

Drug trial of Craig man begins in Eagle County

Prosecutors say Curtis Dean Shewfelt is a reckless drug dealer, defense says evidence is lacking

Curtis Dean Shewfelt, front left, walks down the hallway of the Eagle County Justice Center on Tuesday in Eagle.
Kelli Duncan/kduncan@vaildaily.com

The trial of a Craig man accused of trafficking drugs in Eagle County began Tuesday after more than four years of dismissals, an appeal, and a mistrial.

In the first day of the trial of Curtis Dean Shewfelt, the prosecution characterized Shewfelt as a reckless drug dealer who was found in a car containing heroin in 2017 and later arrested on evidence that he was on his way to deliver to another dealer in Gypsum.

Shewfelt and his friend Holiday Sanchez were delivering heroin “across the Front Range” from Loveland to Gypsum, arriving in Vail in the early morning hours of July 13, 2017, lead prosecuting attorney Johnny Lombardi said in his opening remarks.

“Unfortunately for them, law enforcement stayed one step ahead of them,” he said.

Lombardi said the events of that night, along with evidence pulled from Shewfelt’s car and cell phone, provide sufficient proof to convict Shewfelt on two charges: conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and possession with intent to distribute, both Class 3 drug felonies.

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The 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office may have had enough evidence to convict Sanchez, who was driving the car that night, but Shewfelt’s defense attorney, Jesse Wiens, said they lack the proof needed to implicate Shewfelt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

After all, Sanchez was driving that night, Wiens said. It was Sanchez who evaded police, crashed the car and ran into the woods for fear of the warrants out for her arrest. Even the three small containers of heroin pulled from the truck were found behind the driver’s seat, where she had been sitting, he said.

Shewfelt was asleep on the ride and “woke up to the horror of someone else driving his car, evading the police,” Wiens said.

Beyond the heroin and other paraphernalia pulled from the car, the prosecution’s main evidence is a series of texts and Facebook messages found on Shewfelt’s cell phone in which he discusses buying and selling drugs with two locals: Sam Fightlin or “Sam Fight” and Sara Watkins. According to police reports, Fightlin has been known to distribute heroin and methamphetamine across the region.

While the prosecution has forensic evidence proving the phone is Shewfelt’s, they have no way of proving that he was the one sending those messages, Wiens said Tuesday.

Two other charges initially brought against Shewfelt — possession of a controlled substance and violation of bail bonds conditions — were dismissed as repeat charges from a previous felony complaint in what has proven to be a very complicated, four-year ordeal.

Lombardi and Deputy District Attorney Amy Padden must prove that, after all this time, they finally have the evidence to prove Shewfelt’s guilt.

The testimonies of the first witnesses called Tuesday, the two officers who responded to the scene that night, set the scene for the jury, outlining what happened in the period of time after a black Chevy pickup truck was flagged as a potential drunk driver around 3:30 a.m. on July 13, 2017.

Vail Police Officer Greg Schwartz was in the area when the call was received and immediately positioned himself on I-70 in Vail to head off the driver, who was traveling westbound, he said.

The truck went by him, speeding in a construction zone, and swerved repeatedly as Schwartz followed it along I-70, he said. When he turned his lights on to initiate a traffic stop, the truck responded by speeding up and cutting off a semi-truck to exit at the EagleVail exit ramp.

The truck then ran a red light and turned left to head westbound on U.S. Highway 6, reaching speeds of 80 mph, Schwartz recalled.

At this point, the truck had “gained quite a bit of distance on me,” Schwartz said. After watching the driver go “up and over” a roundabout rather than around it, Schwartz said he decided it was too dangerous to continue the pursuit.

He kept the vehicle in sight as they traveled along Highway 6 into Avon where then-Avon Police Officer Eric Benson responded to the Avon Road roundabout to head them off, Benson testified.

Benson recalled watching the black pickup truck enter the roundabout at speeds of an estimated 60 mph, once again going up and over the center of the roundabout, but this time catching a good bit of air before crashing into the sidewalk, he said.

Officer Benson parked behind the vehicle and saw a woman run from the truck into a nearby grassy area, he said. He followed the woman, later identified as Holiday Sanchez, and found her sitting in a creek.

“Her ankle was obviously out of place, possibly broken,” Benson said.

When Schwartz arrived a few minutes later, the cab of the truck was filled with “gray, powdery smoke” from the deployment of the air bags, he said. He approached the vehicle from the passenger side with his gun drawn due to the “high-risk” nature of the situation.

Schwartz opened the passenger door and found Shewfelt groggily slumped over towards the center console, he recalled. He immediately handcuffed and detained him.

At this point Lombardi asked Schwartz to identify Shewfelt and he motioned towards the defendant, a thin man in a light gray suit.

Benson conducted the initial search of the vehicle that night and found a butane torch, burnt tin foil and a glass pipe with residue, which he said he believed were used to consume drugs.

He also found three small containers full of a dark, “maroon-colored substance” underneath the driver’s seat. Based on his training, Benson said he believed the substance to be “black heroin.”

The rest of the prosecution’s case seems to rely on three expert witnesses, whose testimony was precluded from an earlier trial set for Shewfelt in August of 2018, according to court records.

These witnesses are Detective Aaron Veldheer of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, who also works with the regional drug task force, Heather Sczech, a forensic scientist with the Colorado Bureau of Investigations, and Tim Rhodes of the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.

Veldheer is the detective who interviewed Shewfelt and Sanchez after they were arrested in 2017 and reviewed the messages pulled from Shewfelt’s phone.

Sczech is the scientist who confirmed that the dark substance found in the containers pulled from Shewfelt’s car was indeed heroin and Rhodes conducted the forensic analysis of Shewfelt’s phone, according to police reports.

Leading up to the first trial set for Aug. 6, 2018, the defense filed an objection to these witnesses on the grounds that the prosecution failed get them endorsed as experts in their fields within the required timeline. The objection was sustained by the judge, and, without these key witnesses, the prosecution moved to dismiss the case due to insufficient evidence.

The District Attorney’s Office appealed the judge’s ruling on the objection through the Colorado Court of Appeals, which overturned the ruling, according to court records. This allowed the District Attorney’s Office to reopen Shewfelt’s case and a new complaint was filed in January of 2020.

Proceedings were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a trial was ultimately set for April 5 through 9 of this year. This trial was once again met with complications, however, when one of the prosecution’s witnesses failed to disclose the existence of dash and body cam footage from the 2017 incident.

The defense filed a motion to dismiss the case based on this improper presentation of evidence, but the prosecution objected. The prosecution and defense agreed to declare the April trial a mistrial and set a new date to do the whole thing over.

Now, after four years and countless motions filed, both parties are back to see it through this time, aiming to hand the case over to the jury for deliberation by Thursday morning.

Lombardi said the prosecution is hoping for an appearance by Sanchez, who currently has a warrant out for her arrest that Judge Paul R. Dunkelman said he plans to quash if she appears to testify.

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