Mother details delicate resolution of manhunt
Trial testimony from the mother of Nicholas Ameral, convicted in a 2017 Carbondale armed robbery, revealed details of a tense ending to a manhunt that she feared would end in violence.
While the 20-year-old Ameral pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years prison in July, the trial of his cousin and accused confederate, 20-year-old Benjamin Weeks, continued on Monday. He faces four felony counts of aggravated robbery and two felony counts of menacing.
Investigators say that on Feb. 16, 2017 the cousins robbed the Carbondale Cowen Center, a Valero gas station, at gunpoint, and later led authorities on a two-day manhunt. Ameral’s mother and Weeks’s aunt, Alicia Jackson, was required to testify under court order to her experiences surrounding the robbery, the manhunt and ultimately her drive into the mountains to retrieve the two young men herself.
When Weeks came to the Roaring Fork Valley from California, Jackson tried to help him get his documents together to get a job. Weeks and Ameral were not living with Jackson full time, but they were staying at her residence from time to time, she said.
Jackson said that she was at home in bed the night of the robbery, and that her son and nephew had also stayed there that night. She said that she had fallen asleep watching TV. She told prosecutors that she woke up around 10:30 p.m. and saw that they were lying down at the house as well. Ameral and an accomplice prosecutors say was Weeks, with concealed faces, robbed the Valero with a handgun at about 11 p.m.
Police came to Jackson’s house the next day with a photo of a young man that she would identify as her son. She also allowed police to search her home, where they would ultimately find clothing matching those worn by the robbers and a 9 mm Glock handgun, consistent with the weapon used at the Valero robbery. Jackson told investigators that she believed Weeks would have been involved in the robbery with her son.
When she learned that her son had a warrant for his arrest, Jackson says she started trying to get in touch with him.
After obtaining immunity against any self-incrimination, 22-year-old Benjamin Sydoryk testified that he had let Ameral and Weeks stay at his Snowmass apartment for a few nights right after the robbery. Sydoryk said he initially knew nothing about the robbery, and that he immediately kicked them out after seeing a Facebook post that they were wanted in the crime. Prosecutors said that this would have been sometime soon before the pair fled authorities by leaping from a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus and running into the hills near Basalt.
Jackson was able to talk to her son while he was hiding out, and had sporadic phone contact while he was on the run near Basalt. In the days that the two young men were missing, the mother feared the worst — largely because they are some of the few black people in a very white valley. Jackson said that she worked with law enforcement to ensure the situation ended without violence.
“Because I didn’t want them killed by the police department or sheriff’s office. That’s what happens to black boys,” she testified.
“I repeatedly told them to turn themselves in,” she said.
At one point, Jackson testified that Ameral indicated he would, but Weeks said, “That’s not an option.” Jackson said that she didn’t feel like she was getting through to her nephew, though she had been conveying the danger they were in.
Deputy District Attorney Zac Parsons asked whether the mother thought Ameral could say no to Weeks while they were on the run, to which she responded, “I don’t know what his frame of mind was or what he was capable of.”
Jackson said she spoke with her pastor to connect with an Aspen police officer she knew from the congregation, in an effort to find some way to end things peacefully. After spending a cold night in the open, the two fugitives agreed to let Jackson pick them up. They would both ultimately suffer exposure-related injuries.
While Jackson was talking with Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan, authorities got a ping on the young men’s cell phone, indicating they were at Toner Creek. Jackson testified that the undersheriff gave her directions to the location and let her drive her vehicle by herself to pick them up, while authorities stood by in Basalt.
The risk of a violent end if law enforcement tried to apprehend the two young men, “This is why Ron let me go,” Jackson said outside the courtroom. “Two black boys coming out of the shadows, what do you think would have happened?”
At Toner Creek, Jackson got the two young men, shivering and soaking wet, into the car. She testified that they didn’t say anything major at that time. She blasted the heater and covered them in wool blankets. Weeks had injured his leg or foot.
“They were alive,” she told prosecutors. Parsons characterized Jackson’s actions as going into “mom mode,” to ensure her son’s and nephew’s safety. The prosecutor’s questions also suggested that Jackson could have been putting herself in danger by going herself. Asked whether she was concerned about Weeks jeopardizing her safety, she said “it was a possibility.” She later clarified that she had not been afraid that Weeks would hurt her.
However, Jackson did testify that when she picked up her son and nephew, she asked, “Guess what came in the mail?” All that work to get Weeks’s documentation in order had finally made progress, including arrival of his baptism and school records and other documents to get a Colorado ID.
Some of the prosecution’s questions focused on which of the two young men was more in control of the situation. But Jackson did not offer much damning testimony, saying, “I don’t know who was the master mind in this case; I don’t have an opinion.”
When officers spotted her vehicle driving back down Frying Pan Road, they pulled Jackson over in town. Both young men would be treated at Valley View Hospital before being jailed.
In the car, officers also made the surprising find of a submachine gun, which Jackson said was only coincidentally in the car. The mother repeatedly called this a “target gun,” which she had bought but that her son used most often. After police apparently overlooked the weapon when they searched her home, she put it in her car. Jackson testified that she was afraid that if law enforcement saw that gun in the house “they would kill my son for sure.”
Outside of the courtroom Jackson said the year following the robbery has been a hard one for her family, and she hoped that Monday would be the end of it for her.
Weeks’s trial, scheduled to run through Jan. 17, will pick up again on Wednesday – when Ameral is also expected to testify.