Crime Roundup for November 20

Police: Alleged drug dealer stiffed undercover operative

A Gunnison man not only sold drugs to an undercover operative, tried to skip town without delivering the goods, investigators allege.

Austin Choate, 27, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of distributing cocaine, driving under revocation and misdemeanor theft. He is also suspected as a special offender because drugs were allegedly a substantial source of his income, and because the conduct as alleged is said to have involved a conspiracy.

Formal charges are due by Dec. 3.

Acting on tips in October, 7th Judicial District Drug Task Force agents worked with an undercover operative to conduct controlled buys of cocaine from Choate, his arrest affidavit says.

He allegedly agreed to sell 5 grams of cocaine to the operative and eventually, after some back and forth about arrangements, sold approximately 8 grams in the parking lot of a Montrose business on Nov. 6. During earlier phone conversations with the operative, Choate said he would be available because “I ain’t got no job. This is my job,” the affidavit also says.

During the Nov. 6 encounter, Choate also is alleged to have discussed selling heroin and LSD.

On Nov. 12, the operative again arranged to conduct a controlled buy for the task force, which was to have entailed paying $1,500 for 28 grams of cocaine.

The following day, Choate informed the operative that he was waiting on his supplier and eventually agreed to sell the cocaine on Tuesday, per the affidavit.

That morning, Choate allegedly agreed to take $750 as a down payment and fetch the drugs from his supplier’s house in Montrose.

The task force watched as Choate arrived at the meeting spot, took $750, and then proceeded out of town, not going to the home he had identified as where his supplier was staying, authorities allege.

The Colorado State Patrol stopped and arrested Choate near Cerro Summit on U.S. 50.

Brief jail term imposed after house fire case ends in misdemeanor plea

Proof challenges led prosecutors to drop felony charges filed against Bruce Steele in a house fire on Uncompahgre Road last year.

Steele, who had been charged with first-degree arson, animal cruelty, reckless endangerment and violating bail conditions in other cases, pleaded guilty to second-degree arson as an act of domestic violence, a class-2 misdemeanor. He was sentenced Oct. 25 to 364 days in jail, with credit for time served prior to sentencing of 355 days and is now free.

In October of 2019, Steele was accused of setting ablaze the home of a woman he had a history of abusing after threatening her, including with threats to burn down her house. The 2019 fire destroyed the home, outbuildings and vehicles; additionally, it was suspected four dogs had perished in the blaze.

Steele’s plea agreement reflected the evidence, District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller said; continued investigation showed “significant challenges” in proving the original charges beyond reasonable doubt. That included a lack of evidence as to what happened to the dogs, as no canine remains were found in the debris.

“Importantly, while one eyewitness claimed to see the defendant present at the location where the fire likely began, that person did not claim to see the defendant actually start the fire,” Hotsenpiller said.

“Further, the report prepared by the arson investigator was inconclusive as to the cause of the fire; he could neither state it was arson, nor could he rule it out.”

Prosecutors did not feel as though they could prove first-degree arson or animal cruelty, but the evidence did support second-degree arson, he said.

The plea deal constituted a successful resolution of five cases against Steele during the time of a pandemic, which has thrown up “significant hurdles” in resolving criminal cases, Hotsenpiller also said.

Man formally charged with robbery

Donald Labarr III, accused of taking cash from the Golden Gate gas station in August, and of then attempting to rob fueling stations in the Durango area, has been charged formally with aggravated robbery, felony menacing and motor vehicle theft. He was also charged with possession of a weapon by a previous offender.

Labarr allegedly came into the South Townsend Avenue fueling station this past summer, displayed a gun in his waistband and demanded cash, departing with about $480. Police say video surveillance showed a man matching his description at the store, as well as a vehicle that was allegedly stolen from a relative.

Labarr reportedly communicated with the relative, trying to convince her to leave with him so they could do “Bonnie and Clyde things.”

Labarr was pulled over in Kansas days after the alleged robbery. He is separately accused of attempting to rob two different convenience stores in La Plata County.

Labarr is currently being held on a $60,000 bail. He is set for a bond hearing Dec. 3.

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