Eagle County middle school students get probation for Alpine Arms theft
The two defendants face “deferred adjudication” sentences
The sentencing of two Eagle County middle school students for the theft of five handguns from Alpine Arms in Eagle represented what can happen when compassion meets justice, the judge presiding over the two cases said Wednesday.
The two young men were sentenced to a kind of conditional probation called “deferred adjudication” Wednesday afternoon after they both pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit burglary and multiple counts of illegal possession of a firearm at the beginning of February.
“What we just saw today in this courtroom is unique,” said Chief Judge Paul R. Dunkelman of the 5th Judicial District.
It is not often that the prosecutor of a case reads off personalized statements of encouragement to defendants, Dunkelman said. It is not often that a seasoned defense attorney is brought to tears by the facts of a case and the progress shown by her client. It is not often that the gallery of the courtroom is filled, not just with family and loved ones, but with the same local police officers who arrested the two defendants just seven months earlier.
“Just know that you are better than your worst moment. This choice does not define who you are,” Deputy District Attorney Daniel Steinhauser of the 5th Judicial District said to one of the defendants Wednesday. “You have potential at a young age, and this sentence allows you to really show the court and show us that you are capable of being trusted in this community.”
The deferred adjudication sentence negotiated between the prosecution and the defense attorneys for the two juveniles means that their convictions for the main charge of conspiracy to commit burglary will be put on hold for a certain period of time — two years in the case of the first defendant to appear in court Wednesday and 18 months for the second.
If they satisfy the terms and conditions of their sentences during this time, the crimes will be wiped from their records. If they fail to fulfill the requirements, they will come back before the court to be given a new sentence and could be sent back to a juvenile detention center.
This is an arrangement commonly afforded to juvenile defendants, so crimes committed in their youth do not deter them from getting back on the right track in life, according to Dunkelman.
In this case, the terms and conditions of the two defendants’ probation include engaging in counseling and other rehabilitation programs as well as adhering to restrictions on social media and internet use. They will also be required to pay $4,500 in restitution, split equally between the two defendants, to cover the damages that Alpine Arms incurred in relation to the Aug. 23 incident.
‘Every community’s worst nightmare’
Dunkelman recalled what it was like when he first received the news that three middle school students had broken into the Alpine Arms gun store in Eagle and stole five guns. He made sure that each defendant was aware of the fear and the pain they have caused their families, their school, and their entire community.
“This is every student’s, every parent’s, every police officer’s nightmare. … Their worst nightmare is Columbine,” Dunkelman said.
“That’s every community’s worst nightmare, and that was the impact this case had originally,” Dunkelman continued. “…To me, this case is about second chances.”
Both defendants were solemn in responding to Dunkelman’s statements. “Whenever I was at school, I felt bad for all the students there,” the second defendant said. “And I’m sorry to all the parents, too, that they have to feel frightened for their kids at school and scared that something might happen.”
“…I don’t know what I would do if I would have hurt someone,” he added.
“Three children were involved in something that was horrible, that scared everybody here in the community, that scared even me — I never thought my son would do something like this,” the second defendant’s grandmother said in court Wednesday.
The Eagle Police Department brought charges against three Eagle Valley Middle School students in connection to the Aug. 23 incident, all three of whom pleaded guilty to different charges depending on their level of involvement in the crime.
The youths, ages 12 and 13, used rocks and other tools to break into the gun store, shattering a display case and stealing five guns that they divided among themselves to hide in their homes, Steinhauser said Wednesday.
In the past seven months, Steinhauser said he came to understand that the incident was relatively impulsive and “driven by trauma,” but still “was a conspiracy of major proportions.”
The first defendant was charged with a “violent juvenile offender” sentence enhancer. This means that, if he does not adhere to the requirements set forth for him in his sentence, he will be automatically required to spend at least one year in a rehabilitation or juvenile correctional facility.
The sentence enhancer was handed down after it was discovered that the defendant had made statements to another person telling them that they were at the top of his “kill list,” according to Steinhauser. This also resulted in protection orders and a total of 15 original charges being brought against the defendant.
The second defendant, who was not charged with any kind of sentence enhancer, was originally charged with 14 counts related to the theft.
The two defendants were booked into a juvenile detention center in Lakewood before being placed on probation with 24-hour ankle monitoring units to ensure in-home detention. The terms of their probation slowly loosened as the youths exceeded all the expectations placed on them.
Paving a new path forward
Everyone who testified during the hearings Wednesday, including Alpine Arms Owner Steven Grindel, expressed no ill will toward the two defendants.
“It’s more important that these kids learn from their mistakes and hopefully make more positive choices in the future,” Grindel said.
Eagle Police Chief Joey Staufer and other members of the force attended the hearings Wednesday, and Eagle Police’s school resource officer Dominik Scriver stood up to speak on behalf of one of the defendants, who he has been mentoring over the last few months.
“You are the captain of your own ship,” Officer Scriver said to the second defendant. “You make sure you steer that ship in the right direction, alright?”
The second defendant thanked his parents, teachers, the probation department, and Officer Scriver for all they had done to support him.
“I would love for him to be my mentor too,” the boy said of Scriver. “Maybe one day I can even become a police officer like him.”
“I made a stupid, impulsive decision that night and I genuinely regret it,” the first defendant said, adding that he has changed his behavior a lot since then.
“Honestly, I’m very grateful, as weird as that might be to say, that this happened because all the support that has come around us since it has happened and everything, all the services that have been afforded to us, it has really helped (my son) improve and grow,” the first defendant’s mother said.
The guardians of both defendants said the incident was a wake-up call to the support that their children needed and the impacts they had been suffering from childhood trauma. “I didn’t know,” the grandmother of the second defendant said. “I thought I knew but I didn’t know.”
Both guardians asked for continued understanding and forgiveness from the community as the two youths try to pave a new, more positive path for themselves.
Email Kelli Duncan at email@example.com