Vanishing Point

Whatever was going down in Lakewood on the morning of August 11, 1999, it was enough to give Jon Carter, a 54-year-old grill chef from Aspen, and his lifelong friend David Ziemer a bad case of the jitters.

The two men entered and exited Carters room at the Ramada Inn on West Colfax Avenue several times. They paced back and forth across the welcome mat and made calls from a cell phone. Throughout the late morning and early afternoon, the pair appeared to be waiting for something to happen.

Finally, at 2:15 p.m., something did happen: A drug dealer named Sean Richards drove into the lot, steering his brand-new silver SUV, a luxury GMC Yukon Denali.

Richards exchanged cool greetings with the men, then disappeared with theminto Carter's room for a few minutes. When the trio emerged, they got into separate cars; Ziemer took off on his own, Richards drove three blocks up Colfax to the Octopus Car Wash, and Carter followed him, driving a black SUV.

Once there, Richards and Carter simultaneously backed their wagons up against a fence and swung open the cargo doors.

Richards handed large brown U-Haul moving boxes to Carter, who immediately slid them into the back of his SUV. The transfer took just a few minutes -- there were only six boxes.

With a handshake and a slam of the cargo doors, the two men completed the exchange. Carter popped back into his vehicle and sped away. He met with his chum Ziemer at the Freedom Harley-Davidson parking lot just up the road.

Richards didn't get the chance to take off. Agents from the Denver field office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration surrounded him before he could punch the gas pedal. They searched his Yukon and found a blue money bag, which they claimed had been passed to Richards by Carter, with $35,000 in cash inside. Another $10,000 was stashed in Richards's pocketbook. The agents also removed a wad of $2,720 from Richards's front pocket -- some hundreds, but mostly twenties.

Inside a black duffel bag, agents discovered two blank birth certificates from a Philadelphia hospital and various forms of identification that pictured Richards with different aliases; one ID card and checkbook claimed that Richards was Paul Robles of Urbandale, Iowa. Agents also recovered a handwritten ledger containing a meticulous list of "boxes" Richards had distributed and the names of the buyers -- but only their first names. The debts lowballed at $45,572 and topped out at $340,887. In all, nearly a million dollars was still owed to Richards on thousands of boxes that had been moved.

DEA agents made a big score when they nabbed Sean Richards. At the same time, a few blocks away, agents rounded up Carter, Ziemer and a third buddy from Aspen, Wayne Reid, who had loaned Carter his black SUV. When the feds opened the cargo door and tore open the boxes, they found 212.5 pounds of marijuana -- enough weed to smoke out all of Boulder. Twice.

After hours of questioning, all three of the men from Aspen were released and sent back to their snowcapped town. They have never been charged with a crime, and Carter staunchly proclaims their innocence. Richards, however, stuck around a little longer -- long enough to seduce his captors with promises of bigger busts to come.

Since the fall of 1998, DEA Special Agent Richard Hardman and task force officer Brian Taylor had been trying to shut down the pot pipeline that services Colorado. Richards was, by far, their greatest catch. The 43-year-old smuggler bragged that he was responsible for moving between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of weed into the state each month -- a multimillion-dollar operation every thirty days. He told the agents he was dialed in to all of the region's kingpins, including the suppliers in Mexico. He offered to become an informant in exchange for his immediate release.

The two agents couldn't resist the deal. They asked Richards to call agent Hardman the next day, and Richards happily agreed.

But Richards didn't show the next day, or the next. By the end of the week, the two agents realized their new "informant" had just pulled off the greatest deal of his life. The scammed feds raided Richards's LoDo apartment but came away with little more than a pile of ashes in a cold fireplace, the remains of fake passports and bogus checking statements. Months later, with Richards's trail all but invisible, his pursuers caught a lucky break: U.S. Customs agents arrested Richards's 26-year-old girlfriend, Mitra Hagh, at the Canadian border. A search of her car provided a small clue that touched off a race between Richards and DEA agents to recover nearly $6,000,000 in hard cash sitting in a storage locker in Fort Collins.

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Justin Berton