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Armed robbery leads to manhunt

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Update: A notice from Pitkin County indicated that two robbery suspects had been safely taken into custody around 11 p.m. Feb. 22.

By John Colson

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Sopris Sun Staff Writer

Authorities as of press time were still looking for two suspects in a Feb. 16 armed robbery in Carbondale, after two men thought to be the robbers eluded police on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 21, by jumping out of an emergency window on a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus stopped at the Holland Hills area on Highway 82 near Basalt.

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An all-day pursuit of the two suspects ensued in the mountainous terrain south and east of Basalt along the Arbaney-Kittle Trail. That manhunt yielded no results, despite use of K-9 police dogs, two drones equipped with cameras and an airplane borrowed from the Colorado Division of Fire Protection and Control in Denver.

All told, according to Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Jesse Steindler, approximately 25 officers from “every law enforcement agency within a 50-mile radius” responded to a call for assistance to find the two men.

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The men were identified as Nicholas Ameral and Benjamin Weeks, both 19. Both were described by clerks at the Valero Cowen Convenience Store as black males wearing mostly black clothing, speaking English in “an urban inner city dialect” and carrying at least one handgun between them.

Ameral was described as being about five feet, eleven inches tall with brown eyes and black hair, weighing perhaps 140 pounds.

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Weeks, according to police, was described as about five-feet, six-inches tall, weighing about 140 pounds, with brown eyes and black hair.

Both men were said to be wearing black “hoodies,” with the hood drawstrings pulled close about their faces at the time of the robbery.

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The men are considered armed and dangerous, police reported, and area residents are being advised to use caution and take personal security measures at home and while traveling.

Steindler said at 11 a.m. the next day that the search effort had been suspended because “at this time, there’s no indication that they’re still in Pitkin County.”

The robbery

According to surveillance video from the convenience store, the two suspects walked into the store, located at 980 Cowen Dr. in north Carbondale, at about 11 p.m. on that Thursday night.

One of them, dressed in a “black-only” jacket, pointed a pistol at the clerks who were sitting “in the sitting area inside the store,” according to an affidavit for an arrest warrant written by Off. Randy Rodgers of the Carbondale Police Department.

At the same time, the other suspect, dressed in a black jacket with “white lettering on the left chest and down the left arm,” jumped over the counter and started pulling cash out of the register’s drawer.

The gun-wielding suspect, after escorting the clerks to the area near the register and telling them to lie down on the floor, also began pulling cash from the drawer.

The two men stuffed the cash into jacket pockets and left the store, and were last seen heading toward Highway 133 where it passes the convenience store.

A Carbondale officer, after the department issued a “be-on-the-lookout” or BOLO alert to area jurisdictions, got a call from a Basalt police officer who said he knew the pair and “who used to live in Basalt and now lived in Carbondale,” according to officer Rodgers’ affidavit.

The Basalt officer gave the name of Ameral’s 24-year-old brother, but police later concluded that he was not involved. A search of the home of their mother’s home, according to Carbondale police, turned up a Glock 9 mm pistol magazine, loaded with bullets, next to a spot where the mother told police that Nicholas and his cousin, Benjamin Weeks, had slept on the night following the robbery.

The two robbery suspects were not regular occupants of the house owned by Nicholas’ mom, Carbondale police were told.

Alert bus driver

It was not until Feb. 21 that police got a break in the case, after an alert RFTA bus driver on the Snowmass Village – Highway 82 Intercept lot thought he recognized the suspects and called for the police.

The two had bought tickets to Glenwood Springs, according to RFTA official Kent Blackmer, and the bus got to the lot before the police could get there so the two got on a downvalley bus.

Police and the downvalley bus driver kept in contact, and at one point the driver was instructed to not stop unless police directed him to do so, Blackmer continued.

But as the bus passed the Holland Hills area a passenger called for it to pull over at the next stop. At the same time, Blackmer said, police relented and told the driver he could stop, but only two officers were actually present at the stop when the bus pulled off the highway.

Meanwhile, Blackmer said, the two suspects apparently “realized something was up” and kicked out an emergency window at the back of the bus and jumped out, running away before police could capture them.

They then ran up an embankment, across a portion of the Roaring Fork Club’s golf course and into the area between the Arbaney-Kittle Trail trailhead and the Basalt cemetery, pursued by police officers.

At that point the suspects disappeared, leaving police to mount an unsuccessful search of the area that was to last all day.

According to Deputy Steindler, who was the Incident Commander for the search at one point and later was named Public Information Officer, there were at least 25 officers from numerous jurisdictions involved in the search.

But by about 6 p.m., as night fell and there was no sign of the suspects, the search was called off, Steindler said. Area residents were cautioned to lock their homes and vehicles and take precautions when heading outside.

By Wednesday morning, Steindler said, area law enforcement had concluded the two had somehow escaped from the Basalt area. As of 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, deadline for the Sopris Sun, the pair remained at large and were still considered armed and dangerous.

Criminal history

A check with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation indicated that only one of the suspects, Nicholas Ameral, has a criminal record under the name identified by police.

According to the CBI, Ameral was arrested by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office on March 11, 2013, when he was 15, and charged with possession of marijuana. That charge was dismissed by the district attorney.

The CBI records show that he was arrested again in April, 2016, by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office on a warrant out of Pitkin County, on charges of menacing and contributing to the delinquency of a minor involving alcohol, both felonies. He also was charged with possession of marijuana, a petty offense, according to the records.

That arrest resulted in a conviction, for which he was sentenced to six months’ probation and 24 hours of community service.

His latest arrest came on May 3, 2016, for failing to comply with court orders from the previous conviction, also a felony.

No further information was available from the CBI concerning Ameral, and the state had no records of criminal activity under the name of Benjamin Weeks.

Published in The Sopris Sun on February 23, 2017.

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