Can't Buy a Thrill
Aspen school superintendent Tom Farrell visited several of the robbers in jail: "Every little kid in town knew who they were."The youngest of the Aspen robbers, Cody Wille was handed one of the harshest sentences. Now a resident of the state's Youthful Offender System, he turned eighteen last month.Raoul Wille (right), Cody's father, was a legendary risk-taker who died in the Himalayas. Following her son's arrest, Kim Wille (above) embarked on a quest to bring restorative justice programs to the Roaring Fork Valley.His first burglary was such a rush that Yuri Ognacevic agreed to be the wheel man on an armed robbery.Jacob Richards (top) helped Moses Greengrass (center) and others plan the Clark's Market robbery. Two weeks later, Wade Hammond (bottom) joined Greengrass in a similar robbery in Snowmass.
Cody Wille stands flat-footed outside the back door of Clark's Market in Aspen. He fumbles with his mask, trying to get the eyeholes right with one hand while clutching a BB gun in the other.
The gun is a surprise. His friend Moses Greengrass handed it to him moments before. "Here, you take this," Moses said. "I've got the safe."
It's a cool, magical summer evening in the Roaring Fork Valley, just a month past Cody's seventeenth birthday. The parking lot is deserted except for the two masked young men hurtling toward the supermarket. Leaving Cody behind.
This is not happening, Cody tells himself. This is -- well, a goof, right? Somebody's going to burst out laughing, and we'll just take off.
But then Moses crosses the threshold of Clark's, pushing an employee in front of him, and Cody hustles to catch up. He goes into the store and points his realistic-looking pistol at the clerk behind the register, who grabs a bag and begins to fill it with cash. Nobody is laughing.
Moses cleans out the open safe. The third robber, later identified by police as seventeen-year-old Stefan Schutter, trains a .22 rifle on the rest of the employees and a few late-night customers. Cody glances around and sees a man who looks a lot like the minister of his church. The man stares at him.
Cody goes numb all over. He's not sure he can move. Then he feels the .22 being jammed in his back, hard, with a sharp command to get it together.
Cody turns. His friends are already out the door. Cody takes the bag of cash and runs after them.
It's already too late to ask, How did I get here? Where the hell am I going?
Last fall, the citizenry of Aspen was stunned by the arrests of twelve teenagers for a string of burglaries, armed robberies, car thefts and home invasions. The nine-month youthquake was the biggest crime story to hit the Western Slope's bubble of privilege since the romance between actress Claudine Longet and skier Spider Sabich ended with a bang a quarter-century ago.
Compared to big-city mayhem, the robbery spree was relatively tame. No shots were fired, and the weapons used in the robberies were apparently unloaded. But the hurt put on the town's pride and its wallets was considerable; the haul in the Clark's Market robbery, for example, came to more than $21,000. And the threat of violence seemed to increase with each heist, spreading fear and outrage in the business community. One store clerk was pistol-whipped during a stickup. A shop owner closed her business after two break-ins. Whether the guns were loaded or not, employees who had those guns stuck in their faces suffered nightmares just the same.
But the real shock was the identity of the thieves. They were Aspen's own -- familiar faces from the slopes, the pedestrian mall, the bike trails. They were popular students or recent graduates of Aspen High, for the most part, including some star athletes and scholars thought to have exceedingly bright futures.
One was the mayor's son. Others bore the names of prominent second- or third-generation Aspen families, families deeply involved in civic life and community service. Only one or two could be considered wealthy by Aspen standards, but none were less than solidly middle-class. A few had prior juvenile records, but most had never been in trouble before. Several had worked in stores that were robbed, and were now being prosecuted as finger men.
The town's sense of betrayal was profound. In a place where the social ills of the wider world are scarcely felt -- where city council members make impassioned arguments to ban charcoal lighter fluid or to provide free parking for electric cars, where the gulf between rich and poor translates into the gap between a government-subsidized condo and a 10,000-square-foot second home -- why would some of the best and brightest turn to crime?
It was a puzzle. For months the debate raged on in the courtroom and the taverns, in the lodges and the shops. There was talk about broken homes and drugs, inadequate parental supervision and the "permissive" atmosphere at the high school. There was talk of eroding values and of the need for busy, self-absorbed folks to spend more time with the young. Most of all, there was talk of consequences -- or the lack of them.
"Not one kid honestly thought he would serve time for all of this," says Tom Farrell, superintendent of the Aspen school district, who visited several of the teens in jail. "The reality is, our kids do not get a lot of consequences. We don't correct them the way we should -- the school doesn't, the community doesn't, law enforcement doesn't. If a kid steals a piece of candy and gets caught, the idea is to give the candy back. The next thing you know, they're stealing CDs, shoplifting -- they never see the consequences."
The dirty dozen are seeing plenty of consequences these days. Five of them accepted plea bargains that sent them to prison, their sentences ranging from three to twelve years. Four others received probation, with various conditions for community service, restitution or credit for time spent in jail. Three are still awaiting trials, slated to begin in late August and early September.
Those yet to be tried, including alleged Clark's Market gunman Stefan Schutter, continue to deny any involvement in the crimes. But interviews with several convicted defendants, parents and associates, as well as police and court records, offer a troubling insider's view of Aspen's youth problem. The group was not really a gang but a loose-knit confederation of would-be rebels, linked by a common sense of audacity -- audacity that comes from being raised in a place like Aspen, where daredevil stunts and a certain social insularity are taken for granted.
Many of the robbers harbored fierce resentments of their town and what it stood for. But money, it seems, was the least of it; they were juiced on adrenaline, the kind of rush they could get only by ripping off their neighbors. And the bond they formed with each other, however briefly, turned out to be more powerful than anything they had been taught by adults. It gave them a reason to lash out, where others would see no reason at all.
"Here's one thing these kids had in common," says the mother of one of the young men, who asked that her name not be used, fearing reprisals against her son. "They all had people in their lives who loved them a lot. They all knew right from wrong. They all had opportunities to do lots of positive things.
"All this stuff about bored teenagers -- no way. Not in this town. Walk out the back door, you have a million things to do. These kids did it because they wanted the thrill. And one other thing."
One other thing?
"They were very angry."
If you want to understand what an Aspen teenager might be angry about, if you want to fathom the good-kid-gone-bad thing and how it played out in this Gucci-padded wonderland, you have to start with Cody Wille.
Cody was the youngest of those charged in the crime spree. His active participation consisted of two bad moves in a 24-hour period. Yet he ended up with one of the stiffest sentences, and he and his family have paid severely for his part in the affair -- in public shame and humiliation, private loss and remorse.
In Aspen, most kids are either upvalley or downvalley. Upvalley means you live in town or its immediate environs. You're a princeling ensconced in a palace on a hill, or your parents are "old Aspen" and nailed a modest half-acre back in the BC (Before Cher) era, or they're well-entrenched worker bees fortunate enough to score affordable housing close to the slopes, like Mayor Rachel Richards, who lives in a two-bedroom, one-bath condo she purchased twelve years ago.
Downvalley means you live in Basalt or Carbondale or one of the other commuter enclaves huddled along state highway 82. Your parents may work in Aspen, but they can't hack it there, financially or otherwise, so you shlep on the bus to Aspen High and rub shoulders with princelings and shlep back to your mobile home or whatever and miss out on all the fun and pine for the day you get your own Pathfinder and cell phone and can blow off the old folks entirely.
Because of his family and circumstances, Cody Wille managed to be both upvalley and downvalley. He was a trust-funder who was well off on paper but sometimes strapped for cash. He'd lived in the ski lodge in town that his father managed and in his mother's modest home in El Jebel, thirty miles away. He got along with all kinds of people -- too many, really, for his own good.
Cody's grandfather is Lou Wille, one of a group of artists and entrepreneurs who came to Aspen in the 1950s and transformed the sleepy mining town into a cultural and recreational mecca. Lou Wille's distinctive chrome-bumper sculptures are an indelible part of the Aspen scene; one gleaming eagle hovers over the Tyrolean Lodge on Main Street, part of a complex of buildings owned and operated by the Wille family.
If Lou Wille seemed to embody a certain era in the town's development, his oldest son, Cody's father, was the quintessential figure from a later, more troubled time. Raoul Wille was an exceptional cross-country skier, much admired for his competitive spirit and coaching skills. But he also had a capacity for substance abuse, so characteristic of Aspen in the glitz-pocked 1970s, that blighted his career.
"Raoul was very charismatic," says Kim Wille, Cody's mother. "When he was clean, he'd be out doing the adrenaline thing -- hiking in Nepal, parasailing in France. To the day he died, he could still win any race he was in. But addiction problems and the level of denial in families can be immense. I think that had a lot to do with what happened to Cody."
Raoul had no trouble landing a spot on the U.S. Nordic ski team, but a minor marijuana charge knocked him out of contention for the Winter Olympics. Years later, as part of his rehabilitation efforts, he drew a multicolored chart, chronicling his bouts with cocaine, psychedelics, speed and harder drugs. The chart showed long periods of abstinence during his ten-year marriage to Kim and other stable relationships, followed by relapses.
Occasionally he had brushes with the law over his drug use, but no serious jail time. Locals still talk about the day in the early 1990s when Raoul, in an altered state, whipped an oversized van across narrow Castle Creek bridge on two wheels. The police pulled him over on Main Street and handcuffed him just as the cross-country boys' team -- Cody included -- that he was supposed to be coaching that morning drove by. "It was never in the paper," Kim notes. "All he had to do was go to rehab."
"He was the king of the good old boys," says another veteran Aspenite. "The town revered him. He was a rebel. He was a legend. If anybody suggested he shouldn't be coaching kids, well, that person wasn't too popular."
Raoul and Kim divorced in 1990, when their son was seven. The split did not deprive Cody of either parent. For years he shuttled between them, although as his mother moved farther from town -- first Aspen Village, then El Jebel, building her own business as a caterer while working up to three jobs at once -- he tended to spend more time with Raoul at the Tyrolean. Their relationship was particularly close, if sometimes combative.
Raoul wanted his son to get serious about cross-country racing; Cody took up karate instead, becoming a state champion in his age group. And as he got older, Cody was more inclined to confront his father about his furtive addictions, taking him to task whenever he found spoons with "melted stuff" on them. Cody himself was adamantly drug-free, a true-blue, just-say-no kind of kid. When he was fourteen, he and a buddy found a wallet containing $800 and turned it over to the police, like real heroes. At a party school such as Aspen High, clean-cut Cody was much in demand -- as a budding composer and DJ and, later, as a designated driver.
As her son grew older, Raoul was "hitting and verbally abusing Cody in front of people," Kim would claim. One of the most public scenes occurred on Cody's sixteenth birthday. Cody had been looking forward to the day for a long time; his dad had promised him a car. Instead, Raoul showed up at Kim's place with nothing but a glazed look in his eyes. He started an argument, tossed the cake against a wall and stormed off.
"Everybody ended up crying in the driveway, with Raoul yelling at us," Kim recalls. "Two days later, Cody called him on his drug use."
Cody soon reconciled with his father, but the two had little time left. In the fall of 1998 Raoul joined an expedition seeking to climb Mount Baruntse, a 23,688-foot peak in the Himalayas. At 16,000 feet, he began to succumb to pulmonary edema, an acute swelling of the lungs associated with altitude sickness. He collapsed and died before he could be transported off the mountain. He was 45 years old.
His father's death plunged Cody into a chronic state of depression. It also hurled his living arrangements into confusion. Kim wanted her son to live with her, but Cody pushed to stay in town as much as possible, close to school and his friends. A compromise called for Cody to spend some time in El Jebel and some at the lodge in Aspen, cared for by his uncles and Kim, who would commute when possible. But for several reasons, the arrangement rarely worked the way it was supposed to, and Cody was often at the lodge with minimal supervision for days at a time.
He wasn't really alone, of course. He had a few friends he'd known since he was a toddler, friends who became even more important to him after Raoul died. They were snowboarders, mountain-bike racers, risk-takers. Guys like Yuri Ognacevic, whom Cody considered practically a brother -- a tall, earnest athlete who'd frequently stayed with Cody and Raoul. Yuri's parents moved to California during his junior year, but Yuri wanted to finish school in Aspen and had come back on his own and was living with friends. And guys like Jacob Richards, the mayor's son, and Alex Cassatt, son of the Aspen Times cartoonist. They were his family now, Cody figured.
Two months after Raoul's death, Cody showed up unexpectedly at Kim's workplace. He was exhilarated, more energetic and upbeat than Kim had seen him in a long time. He announced proudly that he'd been suspended from Aspen High for streaking the school Christmas concert.
Kim was bewildered. This was not the old Cody. She says, "I remember thinking, 'This is a total Raoul Wille thing to do.'"
Sabra Van Dolsen didn't see much of Cody Wille after his father died. But what she did see alarmed her. Every time she came by Cody's place, across the alley from the Tyrolean, it seemed like there were more teenage boys hanging around than had been there the last time. More boys, and no adults.
Van Dolsen was Raoul's longtime girlfriend. She had lived with him for years, and had always related well to his son. After the tragedy in Nepal, things got a bit awkward -- Van Dolsen moving out of the Wille family complex and Kim moving back in with her former in-laws to look after Cody -- but Van Dolsen made a point of checking in with Cody when she could. Yet she never had a chance to talk to him alone. There were always other boys there, listening to music or playing video games.
"It was unbelievable," Van Dolsen says. "It was even more unbelievable that the community tolerated it. I would go over there and find from eight to sixteen adolescent boys, unsupervised, at any hour of the day or night. I knew it was going to lead to trouble."
Cody didn't see anything wrong with the situation. He'd assembled an awesome collection of vinyl, and his friends were a ready audience for his deejaying efforts. They'd turned a storage area into a place they called the Green Room, a place to talk and just...hang. The Green Room smelled funky and wasn't always that clean, but so what?
"Not too many girls like to go in there," one of the visitors, Wade Hammond, later told police. "It's not really a great place, but it's somewhere to go."
Van Dolsen knew that the Willes were trying to cut Cody a little slack, slipping the grief-struck kid a few bucks, giving him his own space. "Cody's fine," Yuri Ognacevic told Van Dolsen hotly. "We don't need parents."
She was struck by how much the teens resented her inquiries. One time Jacob Richards answered the door, took one look at her and hollered, "Sabra alert!"-- as if to warn the miscreants within to hide the weed and the Jack Daniel's, pronto.
"These kids had no boundaries," Van Dolsen insists. "They'd lost the sense of having adult authority. It was Lord of the Flies. Some of these kids would have gotten in trouble anyway, but the Willes created a black hole for these guys."
In Aspen circles, Raoul's family and Kim Wille have been sharply criticized for letting the Green Room turn into a den of thieves, a place the robbers could meet to hatch their schemes and then divvy up the loot. But it isn't that simple, Kim says. She was there frequently and did monitor activities in the Green Room, but saw nothing awry. Much of the planning of crimes may have happened elsewhere; in any case, Kim says, the larger issue has to do with the number of teens who had no parents watching over them at all.
"There were a lot of kids in there who had rich parents who weren't around," she says. "We had so many kids coming by, and parents never called to see where they were. I fed up to twenty kids every night. I was kicking kids out at eleven every night."
Mayor Richards did check up on her son and even visited the Green Room. But she was the exception. Several of Cody's friends, like Yuri, no longer lived with their parents. Others had grown up in a constant state of transition from one stepparent's household to the next and had achieved a high degree of independence by the age of seventeen or eighteen. They had friends, wheels, jobs or generous allowances. What did they need parents for?
By February, Van Dolsen was so distraught over Cody's situation that she sought out various advisors to the Wille family, including a psychologist and two attorneys involved in managing Raoul's estate and Cody's trust fund. She says one of the lawyers told her, "I'm not responsible for Cody, I'm only responsible for his money." None of them pursued her contention that Cody might be a victim of neglect. She believes she was regarded with suspicion because of possible common-law claims she might make against the estate.
"Everyone's concern centered around money instead of Cody's daily welfare and safety," Van Dolsen says. "I recently discovered that all three of those people are what you call 'mandatory reporters.' They're required to report [suspected] neglect to the authorities. There are now five kids in prison because professionals in this community didn't execute their professional responsibilities."
By May of 1999, Cody's junior year, the Green Room had become a regular stop for a certain crowd, mostly graduating seniors at Aspen High. The school's open-campus policy and undemanding schedule gives some seniors entire days off, and spring, from an eighteen-year-old's perspective, is a particularly boring time in Aspen. "You can't snowboard," notes Yuri. "It's too muddy to bike. There's not much to do. Kids get wild."
Many of the kids in the Green Room had already hiked every peak, jeeped every jeep trail, fooled around every abandoned mine in their vicinity. They began to talk about outrageous things they could do before heading off to college -- brainstorming, Jacob Richards called it. It might have remained just talk, if someone hadn't come along who could turn the talk into reality.
He wasn't a leader, exactly. More like an inspiration. Someone who could stir your curiosity about what it felt like to go a little crazy. Someone you might follow into the wilderness.
His name was Moses.
When the gentle people of Aspen talk about their sons getting mixed up with a bad element, the bad element they tend to have in mind is Moses Greengrass. But Moses didn't consider himself to be truly bad. Exuberant, perhaps, and weak in the face of temptation, but not bad.
"Like I said," he told the police last fall, "it was greed. The devil stepped up in front of me, and I was going in his direction, and he was liking it."
Moses had an extensive juvenile record, the sort of sheet you'd expect on a kid with drug and alcohol problems in a town the size of Aspen, where the police always seem to be around whenever you're driving without your license or engaging in a little underage drinking. But he usually wound up with probation.
Lots of people were willing to give Moses another chance and then yet another. He was smart and disarming, loyal and funny, with large, sad, puppy dog eyes. He knew the names of all kinds of obscure plants, birds and rocks. He was also terribly accident-prone. He broke his back as a freshman, his tailbone as a sophomore. During his junior year he sustained a head injury in a car crash, which some believed altered his personality in subtle ways and made him more intent on criminality.
"He had an appealing side of him that made you want to help him," says Kim Wille. "But at some point, he took over."
In January 1999 Moses drafted a letter of apology to the judge for his part in a rumble at a kegger the previous summer. He'd slipped away after police arrived to make arrests, then been charged with escape.
"Since I was arrested I have learned a valuable lesson," Moses wrote. "Laws exist, and they must be obeyed. If they are broken, then one must pay a penalty. The process you go through is expensive and humiliating."
They were just words. Three weeks earlier, on the second day of the new year, Moses had pulled off a solo heist, the first armed robbery in Aspen in years.
It was like this: Moses threw a party, and the party was so weak. He blew his last $200 on a hotel room and had some friends over, and it was the lamest whoop-de-do ever. He woke up broke and hungry and wondering how he was going to get money. He went to see a friend. The friend had a handsome replica pistol that shot plastic pellets. It occurred to Moses that he could rob somebody with a gat like that.
He went to the late show at the Stage 3 movie theater and ducked into the men's room. He put on a mask and gloves, pulled out the gun and studied himself in the mirror. In his khaki pants and flannel jacket, he decided he "looked like a Mexican gangster or something." He kept peeping into the hallway, waiting for the manager to come upstairs to the office with the evening's take. A little girl passed by on her way to the women's room. She waved at the funny man in the mask.
Then Donald Blake, the 54-year-old manager, was pulling out the key to the office and Moses was behind him. He said, "Give me the money," the cash bag was in his hand, and he was out the door with close to $1,200, no problem.
Moses bought a hefty stash of pot, his drug of choice. He bought $500 worth of ecstasy and handed it out to girls at a party. He bought clothes and bragged about having a ready source of cash.
Before long, the money was all gone. In May, when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace hit town, Moses decided it was time to visit Stage 3 again. This time he had two partners. According to police reports, two of Greengrass's closest friends, Anthony Rizzuto and Thomas Colver, are the prime suspects. But Moses has never identified his accomplices, and Rizzuto and Colver, who have yet to go to trial in connection with another holdup, have never been charged in the crime.
The haul in the second theater robbery was said to be around $4,200. Moses insisted that the robbers didn't get nearly that much. And months later, Don Blake was charged with theft and false reporting after investigators found money in the trunk of his car, believed to be part of the cash Blake had claimed was stolen in the robbery. (Blake later pleaded guilty to a single count of obstructing a peace officer and received six months' probation.)
Down in the Green Room, some kids wondered if Moses Greengrass and Blake had some kind of arrangement. Moses denied it. Still, the whole affair was greeted with typical cynicism by the in crowd: See? Stealing, it's no big deal. Everybody's doing it, doing it.
Yuri and Cody had known Moses since grade school. They'd drifted apart when Moses started smoking dope; Yuri and Cody just weren't into it. But early last year, after he'd graduated from an alternative downvalley school, Moses started coming around again.
Moses seemed in good spirits, Cody thought. He brought with him some older teens Cody didn't know all that well: Wade Hammond, who was living in Denver but visiting Aspen frequently; Anthony Rizzuto, the son of a local hairdresser; and Stefan Schutter, an angel-faced attorney's son who'd been in and out of jail on juvenile charges. Most of them were, like Moses, the children of divorce.
Schutter was a particularly intriguing addition to the Green Room. He'd lived in Hawaii and had a passion for hip-hop. He scribbled out his own gangsta lyrics -- rich in jailhouse affectation about bitches and snitches -- and asked Cody if he could put the words to music:
I hear some spray that I'm weak or I'm phony
Thinking I'm weak just because I look bony
But they can't hold me my heart is getting cold C
I'll knock out your teeth just for the gold G...
The first time Stage 3 was robbed, Moses boasted to Yuri that he was the culprit. The second time, nobody had to tell Yuri that it was Moses and two of his buds. "I figured it was them the minute I saw the paper," Yuri says. "They were the only ones who would do it."
Yuri was curious what it felt like, to pull a job like that. It seemed like everyone he knew had worked for places in town, shops that kept a lot of cash on hand and were pretty careless about it. It was becoming a popular topic of conversation -- different ways to knock off a place, special tools you might need, whether any of the employees might try to play hero, how to make an inside job look like a random burglary.
Late one night during the Fourth of July weekend, Yuri showed up outside Cody's bedroom window with a seventeen-year-old juvenile (not named here because his case went to juvenile court). They asked to borrow a pair of bolt cutters, one of several the group had found in their foraging of mine sites and tool sheds in the mountains. The two rode their bikes from Cody's to the deserted parking lot of Take 2, a video-rental store where Yuri used to work.
Yuri's key no longer worked in the main entrance. That was cool; he wanted to make it look like a break-in, anyway. He told the juvenile to watch for cops, broke the glass door with the bolt cutters, ran around the counter and snipped the padlock on a wooden money box. They were on their bikes, headed home, in seconds. Yuri gave half of the $2,650 he stole to the juvenile.
"It was quick cash, easy money," Yuri recalls. "But the thrill was 90 percent of it. Robbery, burglary -- it's a rush. I didn't need the money. I could use it, but I didn't need it...I figured the owner was insured. I liked her."
Yuri and the juvenile decided they weren't going to make the mistake of bragging about their crime. But they were so tight-lipped that Moses grew suspicious. When Moses told them it was obvious who had done Take 2, Yuri admitted it.
A few weeks later, on the night of August 4, Moses and Jacob Richards took a run at Take 2 themselves, with a key borrowed from Alex Cassatt, who still worked there. But Alex's key didn't work, either, and the haul was only $450 this time.
That same night, egged on by Moses and Jacob, Alex and Cody went looking for adventure, too. Accounts vary as to the exact sequence of events, but it's undisputed that Alex waited in the car while Cody, the just-say-no kid, smashed the window of a liquor store and emerged with as much booze as he could carry.
The Clark's Market robbery went down the following night. Jacob Richards, who'd worked at the market, had given Moses the inside dope on where the money was kept and other key details. Cody says that Moses and Stefan Schutter approached him and Yuri about joining them in the heist only hours beforehand. They'd hoped to enlist others, they said, but some of the older youths were out of town at the moment, and the score promised to be juicy.
Yuri said he'd drive but wouldn't go inside. Cody figured if his bro Yuri was going, he'd go, too. Armed robbery is a quantum leap from a smash-and-grab at a liquor store, but Cody had decided to take it. He was facing some temporary financial setbacks -- an irregular allowance, a trip to a music seminar in Atlantic City he didn't know how he was going to pay for, his mother in the midst of a complicated bankruptcy -- but there were other concerns, too. Later, he would declare to the court that there were 25 reasons for what he did, "but not one excuse."
"I was in a very weird frame of mind," Cody says now. "All my friends were leaving to go away to college. All my friends were screwing up right then. Me and my mom were in bad arguments. I was just pissed off at the whole world."
"I think Cody lost his mind for 24 hours," says Kim Wille. "He wanted to do one last, legendary thing with his friends before they left him behind."
Yuri went in first. He scoped out the place, came back out -- and ran into Alex Cassatt, who was just closing up Take 2. He strongly suggested that Alex might want to vacate the vicinity. Alex booked. Yuri hid in the bushes, watching people filter out of the supermarket, then called his crew, who were waiting with a cell phone in Yuri's Jeep Cherokee a short distance away.
"If you guys are going to do it, now's a good time," he said.
The robbery went off without a hitch, except for the way Cody kept freezing up and lagging behind. Yuri had a police scanner in the Cherokee, and they were already pulling up at Cody's place with the loot by the time the 911 call went out. Jacob and Alex were in the Green Room, listening to another scanner. They didn't say anything. They didn't have to. Anyone could look in the feverish, totally wired eyes of these desperadoes and see what they were about. They were stoked.
They split the money four ways, more than five thousand bucks apiece, and slipped $100 to Jacob for his valuable information. ("I just took it," Jacob told the cops. "I mean, a hundred bucks. I needed to get my bike fixed.") Yuri bought a motorcycle and a kayak. Moses invested in a quarter-pound of pot. Cody went on his trip to Atlantic City, took a bunch of friends to the Little Nell for lunch, bought a CD burner to add to his DJ equipment.
But Cody had trouble sleeping. The day after the robbery, he threw masks, gloves and other evidence from the heist down a mine shaft on some family property. He still couldn't sleep. In his mind, he saw the faces of the people he'd robbed. He went into Clark's all the time. His mom swapped jokes with the clerk behind the register; the manager had once pulled Kim out of a car wreck. These were the people he'd held at gunpoint.
He felt horrible every time he looked at the CD burner. The rest of the money disappeared quickly, and he didn't know where it went. He stuck a wad of cash in a hole in the ceiling of his closet, and then it was gone -- liberated, maybe, by Moses or one of his other friends.
He was learning. Too late, maybe, but the lesson was unmistakable. There is no honor among thieves. Not even in Aspen.
The day after the robbery at Clark's, two masked men robbed the office of the Aspen Alps condominium complex, getting away with more than a thousand dollars. Anthony Rizzuto and Thomas Colver have been charged with the crime; Colver had previously worked in the Aspen Alps office. Wade Hammond would later tell police that the pair borrowed his BB gun and seemed "pissed" at being left out of the Clark's job. Jacob Richards would say that the two "joked about how they should have just shot" the female clerk.
A week later, on August 14, Colver, Rizzuto and another youth were stopped by Aspen police officers after reports that their silver Audi had been seen streaking into town from the direction of Independence Pass at close to 100 miles an hour. A search of the vehicle and its occupants turned up a small quantity of marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms. A total of seven officers were involved in the traffic stop. Colver and Rizzuto were already on a list of robbery suspects police had assembled, and the bust was handled with a high degree of caution.
On August 19, it was Wade Hammond's turn to catch the wave. He joined Moses and a third youth in an assault on the Village Market, a grocery store in Snowmass. Wearing masks made from T-shirts, the trio burst through a back door, ordered the clerk to the floor, and emptied the wide-open safe of approximately $11,000. As they were leaving, one of the robbers -- according to statements Wade and Moses made to police, it was Stefan Schutter -- struck the clerk on the head with the butt of his BB gun, possibly because he feared the clerk was reaching for an alarm. Schutter's lawyer, Denver attorney Scott Robinson, has denied any involvement by his client and hinted that the robbers are protecting someone else.
The pace cooled over the next few weeks as several of the teens headed off to college. In late August, while Cody was attending the music conference in Atlantic City, Kim Wille followed her nose to the Green Room and found a group of eighth-graders who'd broken in and were smoking pot. They were ejected, and the room was closed for good.
But the crime wave was far from over. There were some latecomers to the party, including eighteen-year-old Nathan Morse -- whose brief association with Moses and company would wind up cracking the case and sending a pack of teens fleeing to Canada.
The son of the executive director of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, Nathan was a champion Nordic skier and one of the more enigmatic figures in the youthquake. He'd been accepted at prestigious Middlebury College in Vermont but had moved out of his parents' house and was living on his own, working as a laborer with the 10th Mountain Division hut system, when he began to drift into larceny. Some of his friends believed Nathan had raided old mining camps and had access to dynamite, and there was loose talk about a group of youths plotting to blow up power stations and the Castle Creek bridge on New Year's Eve, leaving Aspen to welcome the year 2000 in bitter darkness.
The crimes Nathan was actually charged with were much more mundane. He'd had no car since his split with his parents. One day he was hoofing it back to his place a mile outside of town, lugging groceries, when he came across a rich tourist standing outside the Aspen Club, cell phone in hand, a white Jeep Cherokee idling nearby. He returned on a subsequent errand and the Jeep was still there, still burning up precious natural resources, while the tourist gabbed and gabbed.
Nathan abhorred waste. He figured the Jeep was a rental. Suddenly it didn't seem like a bad idea, relieving this cell-head of his wheels -- because, as he later explained to police, "Aspen is infested with people like that. And I needed to get to college, and my parents are not really in a relationship -- I don't live there anymore, so it's up in the air who's going to pay for college...So, just like that, it happened."
He hopped in when the gabber wasn't looking and drove the Jeep into the hills, where he could stash it for later use. Then he walked home.
On September 20, Moses was looking for a ride to Denver for a doctor's appointment the next day. Jacob Richards had been talking about a house on Twining Flats Road that was ripe for the picking; he used to work there, and he had a key. Among the spoils were a Range Rover and three shotguns.
A grand idea emerged: Why not a road trip? They could find a chop shop in Boulder that would buy the Rover and Nathan's stolen Jeep, visit Yuri and other pals from Aspen who were now attending the University of Colorado, and Moses could keep his appointment.
That night Moses, Jacob, Nathan and Anthony Rizzuto headed over to Twining Flats. Jacob grabbed the shotguns and a bottle of champagne from the fridge. It took three different drivers to maneuver the Range Rover out of the garage, scraping its side in the process. Nathan waited in the Jeep.
They reached Boulder in the middle of the night, woke up Yuri and Jason Albert, another recent Aspen grad, and tried to figure out where to park the hot wheels. While they were caravaning around town -- Nathan and Anthony in the Jeep, Yuri and Moses in the Range Rover, Jacob and Jason in Jason's Yukon -- an alert Boulder police officer located the Jeep's plates on a list of stolen vehicles.
Nathan was pulled over. He handed the cop his driver's license, then impulsively took off. The Jeep crashed into a parked car a few blocks away. Nathan and Anthony ran. But there was nowhere for Nathan to go. The cop had his ID, and he soon turned himself in.
Tearful yet oddly defiant, he gave the Boulder cops an account of his crimes and others that would soon have them on the horn with the Aspen police. His confession was laced with eat-the-rich statements that would cause an uproar back in his hometown, statements he recanted a few days later in an apology published in the Aspen Times.
"Well, it makes perfect sense," he told the cops. "I mean, a bunch of poor little kids like us running around, dealing with rich people every single day, multibillionaires. It just starts to click in your head, 'Why am I getting paid eight dollars an hour and these people are treating me like crap?' So we just got fed up with them."
Within hours of Nathan's arrest, Jacob, Yuri, Moses and Anthony blew town in Jason Albert's Yukon. Jason drove; although he was not implicated in any of the robberies or burglaries, Nathan had accused him and Yuri of trafficking in stolen bike parts. (No charges were ever filed as a result of the allegation.)
They crossed the border north of Eureka, Montana, and checked into a Holiday Inn in Whistler, British Columbia. The lamsters had no coherent plan beyond visiting a friend in the area, but a few of their associates had been told of their itinerary. After discovering that her son was a suspect and possibly on the run, Mayor Richards started calling Jacob's friends, pleading for information. Within days she was on a plane, along with Jason Albert's father and Yuri's mother, to bring them home.
Not all of the youths were ready to come back. Not all of their parents had the resources to fly to Canada to persuade them to return. Moses, for one, made the trip home on his own.
In August, when the robberies were at their peak, Aspen Times cartoonist Chris Cassatt drew a caricature of a businessman for the editorial page. "Let this be a notice to you armed robbers out there," the man said in the first panel. "This kind of behavior is totally unacceptable in our valley. It's totally against the way we do things."
Panel two: "Here we do our robbery with cash registers."
In October, after the identity of eight of the robbers became known, Cassatt produced another cartoon on the subject -- a map of the Roaring Fork Valley, with Aspen designated the "City of Broken Hearts."
At the time, Cassatt did not know that his own son, Alex, would later be charged as a peripheral player in the crime spree.
Piece by piece, the investigators sorted it out. Some of the suspects insisted they were innocent. Others were willing to admit their own role in the crimes but refused to give up their accomplices. A few agreed to testify against the others as part of a plea deal.
Cody came in for questioning with his mother and no attorney. At first he denied being involved in the Clark's robbery. But Kim urged him to tell the truth, and Joe DiSalvo, the investigator for the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office, assured him, "You're still a juvenile. You don't get treated like we do." Soon he was copping to Clark's and the liquor store, giving DiSalvo plenty of ammo to use in other interrogations.
Wade Hammond brought a pipe and marijuana and a few grams of ecstasy to his police interview. He was searched, the dope confiscated. He told the police he'd spent his robbery money on food, drugs, hotels, clothes from the Gap and the fleeting attentions of the dancers at Saturday's, an all-nude strip club in east Denver.
Moses had blown his share of the take, too. "The thing that boggles my mind is, I don't have anything to show for all the money that I had," he complained.
Investigators asked him if he knew anything about the theft of thousands of dollars' worth of snowboards from a Snowmass shop a couple of years before. Moses was outraged. Other people's money, okay. But even the king of thieves had a line he would not cross.
"I'm not a saint," he said, "but stealing snowboards is way against my -- if someone stole my snowboard, I'd be pissed. I have a feeling if I was riding someone's stolen snowboard, I would probably break my neck."
Letter from Moses Greengrass to Jacob Richards, sent from the Garfield County Jail, October 1999 (original spelling retained):
"Open your eyes to reality. If you go to the big house on a 12-year sentence, you're going to be out in six or less cuz it ain't a violent offense. Let's say they add two or three years for contempt of court or purgery. You'll do a 1/3 of that. So all together you do six or seven years, you'll be out when you're 25, 26 -- still young, dumb and full of cum...
"Let's assume I plead not guilty and go to trial. They're going to subpeona your ass for sure. And this is where I give you the guilt trip. How are you going to feel, burying me for twenty to sixty years. Not to good huh. So I'm saying sacrafice those two to three for that contempt or purgery and make these evil corrupt DA's loose...I know you were taught me first, but fuck that. I'd sacrafice my life for you...
"Let's say you point that finger in the courtroom and bury me. You're never going to see me again and you're going to have to live with that guilt until you die. You make the call brotha. Smoke a fatty with me one day fairly soon or live the rest of your paranoide life lookin over your shoulder, dealing with that awful guilt."
Letter from Jacob Richards to Cody Wille, January 2000:
"What's up Codfish...This last year was out of control eh. I wouldn't trade it for anything, but I would do business a little differently... You and Yuri and Wade are going to have a rough time of it in prison being a narc, snitch, rat, whatever is a tough jacket to get rid of. My advice is to be antisocial and lie and say your from Denver. If you say Aspen they'll know all about our cases.
"You cannot testify. Period. Invoke your 5th amendment rights or purger yourself. Purgery is only a 6-18 month sentence, don't finger anyone. I'm not Wade ain't Yuri isn't, so refuse or fuck up your statements. Peace."
Letter from the Wille family to Pitkin County District Court, January 2000:
"We loved Cody's father Raoul very much, as did many people. The same qualities that made him so well-liked and admired did not translate into being a good father. Raoul was the ultimate risk-taker and adrenalie junkie... [Kim Wille] had her own emotional and financial problems...They both loved Cody very much but were unable to care for themselves, let alone a child...
"Through no fault of his own, Cody was often unsupervised, had no role model and saw the law broken by his father. None of us realized how bad the situation really was."
The first to confess, Nathan Morse was the first to accept a plea bargain. Facing multiple charges, last December he pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit second-degree burglary, a felony, and was sentenced to four years of probation. He spent a total of 84 days in jail.
Other minor players cut similar deals for probation, including Alex Cassatt and the juvenile who joined Yuri in the first Take 2 burglary. Nineteen-year-old Shea Treadwell Estes, a former employee of the Village Market who admitted to helping plan that robbery, also received probation.
Wade Hammond, Yuri Ognacevic and Jacob Richards each pleaded guilty to a single felony for their role in the armed robberies. Although they faced possible prison time, there was a general expectation, shared by Pitkin County Assistant District Attorney Lawson Wills and Judge J.E. DeVilbiss, that the young men might qualify for a Colorado Department of Corrections boot-camp program that could reduce their time.
They were mistaken. By charging the youths with crimes of violence at the outset, the district attorney's office had made the defendants ineligible for boot-camp consideration -- even Richards, who'd supplied information used in the Clark's Market robbery but hadn't joined in the actual heist.
Hammond got three years in prison. Ognacevic and Richards got four each. They may be called to testify against Stefan Schutter, Anthony Rizzuto or Thomas Colver, whose trials on charges of armed robbery are still pending.
Moses Greengrass refused to identify his accomplices in the second robbery of Stage 3. A plea offer with a minimum four-year sentence was withdrawn, and suddenly Moses was facing a minimum of ten years. At his sentencing hearing, prosecutor Wills made a strong case that Moses was the epicenter of the entire youthquake, a principal in four armed robberies who was always quick to supply others with ideas and guns. Gary Lozow, the defendant's Denver attorney, lamented his client's "false concepts of loyalty."
A letter from Moses's mother asked where she had gone wrong. A letter from his father noted, "Moses consciously and admittedly chose to ignore my advice...I don't know what I could have done differently."
While a gallery of young female supporters looked on, a tearful Moses apologized to his victims, blamed his addictions -- and then abruptly conceded, "I don't really want to change. I like drinking and doing drugs."
Judge DeVilbiss gave him twelve years.
Assistant DA Wills has no trouble defending the prosecution's strategy or the sentences that were meted out. "In almost any jurisdiction," he says, "people in masks committing armed robberies is going to mean prison time. I don't see that we did anything differently."
In Aspen, though, there are sharp and often clashing opinions about the way the cases were handled. Some believe the sentences were too harsh, particularly for the first-time offenders. Others think the group got off easy, considering all the charges that were dropped and rumors of other criminal activities that were never prosecuted.
"The camps have been pretty evenly divided from the beginning," says Terry Lewis, a paralegal and friend of the Willes. "On one side were a lot of older people and men who thought it was all black and white, the kids need to be punished, throw away the key. On the other side were a lot of mothers, medical professionals, social-work types. I know a lot of people in the legal community who think this is not the answer."
Doubts linger about what parents knew and kept quiet about, or whether a much wider circle of kids may have been up to no good but didn't get caught, either because they were lucky or their families had some kind of "influence."
"The typical reaction right now is that this is about twelve bad families," says the mother of one of the defendants. "What a different conversation it would be if they knew how many kids were really involved in this. Some of the parents don't even know -- and don't want to know."
For those families whose kids were charged, she adds, the outcome has been more far-reaching than simply a court sentence. "This has destroyed my family, my business, my marriage, my reputation," she says simply. "Most people don't know what a felony is. My son will never be in a position of trust. He will never be hired by 90 percent of the organizations in this country. He will carry this the rest of his life, no matter what kind of person he turns out to be.
"People say to me, 'Your son got off easy.' I look at them and say, 'My son is screwed for life.'"
Mayor Richards declined to comment on her son's case, but she says she's encouraged by the way the community has rallied in support of youth programs and projects, including the construction of a new recreational facility and youth center in town and efforts to instill more ethics-oriented and mentoring programs in the school system. "A lot of parents are wondering, 'Am I spending enough time with my kids? Is this amount of freedom appropriate?' They're looking at ways to make kids feel valuable, to listen to them and lead by example," she says.
One of the most heated debates has been over the fate of Cody Wille. Based on comments investigators made during his police interviews, he and his mother say that they believed he would be treated as a juvenile, but his case was filed in adult court. Wills says his office made no promise of juvenile placement.
Facing a possibly lengthy prison term, Cody pleaded guilty to one count of robbery. Despite a strong show of support by family and friends at his hearing, and despite Cody's extensive cooperation in the investigation, Judge DeVilbiss sentenced him to five years in prison, with a catch: The five years would be waived if Cody successfully completed three years in the Youthful Offender System, the state's controversial "last-chance" program for violent teens.
Its own creators have attacked the viability of YOS, which has suffered tremendous staff turnover and high failure rates in recent years ("A Failure to Rehabilitate," December 2, 1999). The program poses particular problems for someone like Wille, a white boy from Aspen thrust into a peer culture dominated by inner-city gangbangers. While some of his co-defendants in the Clark's robbery could be up for parole in a matter of months, YOS offers no such breaks -- and few classes, Wille says, that are of any use to him.
One requirement for advancement in the highly regimented program is to assume a "leadership" role. "I don't know how to talk to these guys here," Wille says. "I don't have any of their slang, their background. But I won't screw up. I'll do my time and get out."
At Cody's sentencing, Kim Wille delivered a guilt-ridden apology for her part in letting "these kids and the community down." Since watching her son struggle in YOS, though, she has turned her anger on the hypocrisy of the local justice system.
"I understand why the town wanted harsh sentences, but laws are being broken every day in Aspen," she says. "I know people who are dealing drugs and cheating on their taxes, sitting on barstools and then driving drunk, who expect a different standard for these kids."
Over the past nine months, Kim has devoted much of her energy to trying to develop restorative justice programs in the Roaring Fork Valley -- programs that offer an alternative to traditional sentencing options, particularly for first-time offenders, with a focus on restitution to the victim and rehabilitation of the offender. The effort has raised her spirits and given her hope that something positive might come out of the dismal crime wave.
"In this valley, we think of ourselves as such a utopian culture -- so intelligent, so advanced," she says. "Well, it's time to open our minds to the fact that justice as we know it doesn't work. It's costly and punitive and doesn't truly help the victim or society. There's got to be a better way."
For his part, Cody has sent a series of letters back home, published in the Aspen Times, meditating on the senselessness of his crime; describing life on the inside, as seen by a bewildered first-timer; and commenting on the jaded and unrepentant nature of his fellow inmates. The response has been encouraging, he says: "People hang them on their refrigerators and discuss them with their kids. I want people to know that this could happen to anyone, and that I would do anything to take back last year."
But the letters have stirred criticism, too. Some skeptics have suggested that the mea culpas are a shameless bid for a reconsideration of his sentence, while others fret about the implications of Cody's continued notoriety. "Are we continuing to put him up on a pedestal by giving him all this recognition?" asks school superintendent Farrell. "It bothers me that these boys still get the recognition; every little kid in town knew who they were. Our valedictorians have never been front-page news. I know Cody's goal is an admirable one, to help other people, but I hope he focuses on himself first, that he pays his dues and comes back and makes a difference."
It's tempting to see in the robberies and their aftermath a parable of the old and new Aspen. In the old days, bad behavior by adolescents, even burglaries, was widely regarded as youthful hijinks or, at worst, a brief flirtation with delinquency, a rite of passage in this glitterburg.
These days Aspen is more ostentatious than ever. "It used to be, if you came to this town and you had money, the cool thing was to let no one know," says one longtime resident. "Now you flaunt it." It's also less forgiving of its homegrown criminal element. Yet the town's egregious wealth only seems to breed envy and spite, the why-not-help-ourselves attitude Nathan Morse described after his arrest. And the perps don't seem to see much difference between hijinks and armed robbery. ("At the time, I didn't think robbery was much worse than burglary," Yuri Ognacevic says. "I do now.")
Whether the punishment meted out to the wayward teens will have any tangible deterrent effect on them or anyone else is an open question. Last spring a string of juvenile burglaries in Glenwood Springs followed the Aspen youthquake, like an aftershock. Despite the hollow apologies, several of the Aspen defendants seem primarily remorseful about being caught.
"I wish I could tell you that my son has realized the error of his ways," says one of the parents. "He is still an extraordinarily angry young man. I wish I knew why. This is not over for these kids in any way."
Even before the robberies, everybody in Aspen knew who Cody Wille was. Except Cody Wille.
The night he robbed Clark's, Cody was wallowing in a sense of loss. His father's death. His mother's money problems. The impending departure of his closest friends. His biggest regret, he says, is that he didn't think more about what he still had, what could be lost in a few thrill-crazed seconds.
"These kids growing up in Aspen all their lives don't see how privileged they are," he says. "Like me. I took everything for granted. Now I've had a chance to see just how fortunate we were."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.