By Megan Tackett
Sopris Sun Staff
Prosecutors asked Pitkin County Deputy Parichat Robles outright why she didn’t shoot the fleeing suspects who had jumped from a RFTA bus emergency exit near Basalt during her trial testimony Monday.
“I wasn’t going to shoot somebody that wasn’t a threat to me,” Robles said flatly.
Nicholas Ameral, 20, pleaded guilty to felony aggravated robbery with an armed confederate in July. He was on a downvalley Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus on Feb. 21 last year, five days after robbing the Valero gas station in the Carbondale Cowen Center. Ameral received a six-year prison sentence; his alleged accomplice was his cousin, Benjamin Weeks, 20.
Weeks, who has pleaded not guilty, is currently facing four felony counts of aggravated robbery and two felony counts of menacing in what is scheduled to be a 10-day trial, through Jan. 17. After going through the process in Colorado, he will be extradited to Las Vegas, where he is wanted for first-degree murder.
Weeks and Ameral evaded arrest when police pulled over the bus near Holland Hills by fleeing on foot, kicking off what would become a dramatic two-day manhunt.
Owen O’Farrell, who was driving the bus that day, first realized something was amiss when he noticed a police cruiser was following him, he said during his testimony. “Being a 10-year bus driver, you always notice when police cars are following you,” he said. Shortly thereafter, his dispatcher contacted him via radio and instructed him to answer his cell phone when it rang despite RFTA’s strict protocol against employees using their cell phones while on duty.
Less than a minute later, he estimated, a Pitkin County dispatcher called his personal cell and informed him that two criminal suspects were riding the bus and that he should ignore any stop requests while police organized a response.
O’Farrell, now with at least a dozen police cruisers in his rear view mirror, he said, received a second phone call to his personal cell phone to inform him that he was going to be pulled over. When he stopped, there was some commotion from other concerned passengers, and that’s when the two men jumped out of the emergency window exit.
“I breathed a sigh of relief,” O’Farrell said about their departure. “My concern was that there was going to be a hostage taken, since I’d heard that there was an armed robbery that they were suspected in.”
While Ameral and Weeks fled the scene into the woods uphill of the Roaring Fork Club, one of the passengers found and turned in Ameral’s wallet, which had been left on the bus.
“The officer showed amazing restraint, I thought,” O’Farrell said of Deputy Robles, the officer with a shot on one of the men. “I heard them yell three or four times to stop, and [Ameral and Weeks] didn’t. [The officers] were very well trained, I thought.”
Police set up several search and containment operations that included a K-9 unit and drone, but those efforts proved unsuccessful, as arrests weren’t made until the following night on Feb. 22.
Benjamin Sydoryk, 22, originally opted to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination while the jury was dismissed for lunch. When the prosecution offered him immunity in exchange for a full testimony, however, he agreed.
Sydoryk, who lived in the Upper Woodbridge complex in Snowmass Village last February, housed Ameral and Weeks for several nights immediately after the robbery — of which Sydoryk had no knowledge, he said during his testimony. He had met Ameral at a skatepark several years ago, considered Ameral a friend. The two lost touch until Ameral called on Feb. 17 looking to “hang out,” Sydoryk said. Ameral and Weeks stayed at his residence until the morning of Feb. 21, when Sydoryk learned through a Facebook article that had published both suspects’ photographs that the two were wanted by the police.
“[I] told Nick, ‘Look, you guys gotta leave.’” They left within 15 or 20 minutes without incident, he said, adding: “They didn’t deny anything [when confronted].”
In July of 2016, Sydoryk sold Ameral a 9mm Glock — possibly the same gun later used to hold up the Valero gas station during the robbery, District Attorney Chip McCrory implied by asking if Sydoryk recognized the firearm, an exhibit in the case.
“I don’t know if that’s the same gun, honestly. It looks like a Glock,” Sydoryk said
“I take it you didn’t record the serial number?” McCrory asked, to which Sydoryk confirmed that the gun he sold Ameral had never been registered to either party.
Under Colorado law, a private seller who does not adhere to proper protocol —which includes arranging for a licensed firearms dealer to obtain a background check but not registration — may be held liable for civil damages subsequently caused by the buyer.
All Alicia Jackson, Ameral’s mother and Weeks’s aunt, wanted in the chaos was a nonviolent solution, she told the court. Police arrived at her house the day after the robbery and she confirmed her son’s identity in a photograph — the two had been staying at her home. She had even taken a few days off of work to help Weeks, from California, procure the necessary documents to get an ID card for employment, since it was clear his intent was to relocate to Colorado. Until police informed her they were investigating a robbery and that they had warrants for arrest, she was unaware of the Cowen Center incident.
While Weeks’s cell phone number had apparently been disconnected, Jackson was able to make contact with her son via text and sporadic phone calls while the two were at large.
“I asked him what happened. I told him he needed to turn himself in,” she said of her conversations with Ameral. “I didn’t talk to Ben at that time,” she said, though she noted in her testimony at one point that when Ameral later seemed more amenable to doing so, Weeks had responded with, “That’s not an option.”
Jackson consulted with her pastor and church network, which included an Aspen police officer, regarding trying to facilitate a peaceful conclusion to the manhunt.
On Feb. 19, at 6:44 p.m., Jackson sent her son a text message: “What would you do if Ben hurt or killed me? Would you still care for him the way you do? Do you think he’s capable of doing so? I do.”
“Do you recall sending him that message?” Deputy District Attorney Zac Parsons asked, to which she replied simply, “I do.”
Days later, on Feb. 22, Jackson worked with Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan when a ping on Ameral’s cell phone confirmed their location: Toner Creek. In an effort to continue collaboration and a nonviolent conclusion, Jackson discussed going to pick up her son and nephew by herself and bring them back to police custody. In a nod to the tension between minorities and police, Jackson said, Ryan agreed to let her retrieve the teenagers unescorted.
It was nighttime in February, and Jackson’s was the only car on Frying Pan Road, and Weeks and Ameral were expecting her. She came equipped with wool blankets and the heat on full blast, as the young men had spent the previous night exposed to the elements. Weeks had suffered an injury to his leg or foot — it was unclear which — and both were later taken to Valley View Hospital before the Garfield County jail.
After taking both into custody without incident in Basalt, police searched Jackson’s vehicle and found a submachine “target gun,” as Jackson described it, and ammunition.
“I knew those were in my house,” she said of the tumultuous time that her family members were missing. “I didn’t know where the boys were, and if they came back to my house with police around… if [police] saw that in my house, then they’d kill my son for sure” she said of her reasoning for temporarily keeping the firearm in her car.