Arrest made in Basalt bottle case after cops stake out dumping ground
The Aspen Times
Basalt police arrested a man Friday after he was caught in the act of allegedly dumping bottles filled with a suspected toxic fluid into the Roaring Fork River shortly before dawn.
Ricardo Parras-Membreno, 43, was arrested without incident as he exited a pedestrian underpass of Highway 82 and prepared to catch a public bus upvalley, according to Basalt Sgt. Aaron Munch. He was charged with three counts of violating Colorado’s hazardous waste spill statute, a class 3 felony, Munch said.
Law officers from multiple agencies converged Friday at 5 p.m. at the residence where Parras-Membreno lived in the Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park. Four members of the All-Hazards Response Team from Garfield County entered the trailer with hazmat suits, body armor and weapons drawn after evacuating 15 people from surrounding residences. They were allowed back into their homes at 6:20 p.m.
After establishing itself behind an armored vehicle called the Bearcat, the team repeated messages in English and Spanish that it was there to execute a search warrant and ordered any occupants out. Other officers were stationed in front and behind the trail.
After several minutes of making the announcement, the team circled the structure and checked every door and window for signs of anybody inside. After seeing no one, the team cautiously entered the front door. Munch said the team goal was to determine if it was safe for Basalt officers without hazmat suits to enter the trailer to search for evidence of drug making or any activity connected to the bottles. A search warrant was signed Friday by a Pitkin County judge.
Authorities suspect Parras-Membreno is responsible for dumping sealed bottles filled with a liquid numerous times since January. They believe the bottles were used for a “one-pot cook” method of making methamphetamine, Munch said.
The police department is awaiting results from tests of the contents in the bottles by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
The first bottles were discovered in January and fresh batches were discovered and recovered every few weeks. The dumping spot was always at the 7-Eleven Bridge in Basalt. Police set up two motion-detecting cameras around the site several weeks ago and finally captured images of a man dumping bottles March 9, according to Munch.
Video showed the man carried a bag with four bottles to the riverside, then departed with an empty bag. They established the man boarded a bus at the upvalley stop on Highway 82 in Basalt. They learned that he used a pass to board so they were able to establish an identity.
Officers adjusted the cameras Sunday and captured additional video of the man dumping an unknown number of bottles early Monday. Officers staked out the site in subsequent days but no dumps were made Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.
The surveillance team struck pay dirt Friday morning.
“This morning around 6:20, we [observed] a male matching the description,” Munch said. “He threw the bottles in the river.”
Munch and another officer were in the bushes and trees by the riverside. Munch said he was close enough to hear the splash of the bottles.
Three other officers were in the area. Police Chief Greg Knott apprehended Parras-Membreno after he walked through the pedestrian underpass and started going toward the bus stop. He is being held in Pitkin County Jail.
Friday’s act was caught on video, as was Monday’s, thus the three counts. “Friday we had the camera pointed perfectly,” Munch said.
It is unknown how long Parras-Membreno has lived in Basalt. Munch said he has a criminal history dating to the early 2000s in the area, though not specifically in Basalt. The crimes were not drug related, he said. His residency status was unknown as of Friday.
The Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park, just off the roundabout at the main entrance to Basalt, was abuzz with action shortly before 5 p.m. with school kids playing outside and people returning from work. A convoy of law enforcement vehicles, a fire engine and an ambulance swarmed the area at 5 p.m. and immediately sealed off access.
It was unknown if dangerous substances were inside the trailer so two residences on either side were evacuated. An elderly woman was placed in a police car and driven a short distance to the Basalt Store. The other occupants walked out, including three adults hoisting baby carriers.
Ten additional residents were denied access to their homes, according to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. “At no point during today’s operation was the public placed in harm,” a news release said.
The sheriff’s office said 40 public safety personnel participated in the operation. They were the All-Hazards Response Team, Basalt Police Department, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s investigations officer, the Pitkin County Incident Management Team and Basalt Fire Department.
The operation was led by Pitkin County because the mobile home park is located in the county, even though it appears to be part of Basalt. However, since the search of the residence was an extension of Basalt’s investigation, officers from the police department were preparing to search the residence after the All-Hazards Response Team established that it was safe to enter.
Knott said 74 bottles of the mystery liquid have been recovered from the Roaring Fork River since January. Three other bottles have been reported but not yet located.
The concern is that multiple other bottles are in the river and will be washed down once spring runoff starts.
“Who knows how many are in there?” Knott said. At least it appears the source has been found and shut off, he said.
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