An incident in Hot Sulphur Springs resolved in what officers called a “peaceful surrender” at about noon on Tuesday, December 1, ending a nearly 24-hour standoff with a barricaded individual that forced the evacuation of the Town Hall and Post Office, prompted a Code Red shelter-in-place request for nearby residents, and involved two rounds of gunfire by the individual.
According to the arrest affidavit, the incident began at around 11:30 am on Monday, November 30, when a woman called 911 to report being threatened by Stephen “Rusty” Branstetter, owner of Rusty Pipes Plumbing & Mechanical, Inc. in Hot Sulphur Springs.
Sheriff’s deputies responded to the Hot Sulphur Town Hall, across from Branstetter’s home, where the woman, another town resident, stated that, upon seeing Branstetter outside his home, she had stopped to inform him that she’d hired another contractor to complete a recent plumbing emergency job that he had left unfinished.
The woman alleged that Branstetter then “charged” her van, calling her names and saying, “I will kill you,” while pointing to a holstered gun on his hip and hitting her vehicle with a power drill held in the other hand. She indicated that he had returned to his home just before deputies arrived on-scene.
Sheriff deputies set up a perimeter around the home, evacuated the Town Hall and Post Office, and notified the Grand County Emergency Response Team (GCERT) “in an abundance of caution.”
An arrest warrant was applied for and granted, citing probable cause to believe that Branstetter had committed an act of menacing, a class 5 felony, and was therefore in violation of two previous bail bonds, each violation being a class 6 felony.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team and multiple other agencies responded on Tuesday to help serve the warrant. In all, the Jeffco SWAT team, GCERT, Fraser Winter Park Police, Granby Police, and Grand County EMS would work in collaboration with the Grand County Sheriff’s Office (GCSO) to resolve the situation.
A GCSO press release following the incident reported that “As law enforcement officials gave Branstetter verbal commands to exit his house and surrender, Branstetter fired two rounds from a gun from inside the residence. No law enforcement officers discharged their firearms.”
Witnesses indicated that they saw a bottle thrown from the house and that law enforcement threw a phone into the home. The press release explained that “communication was established with Branstetter, and negotiations lasted approximately two hours. At approximately 11:26 am Branstetter exited the house on his own and surrendered without further incident.”
The Code Red, in place since about 9 o’clock that morning, was lifted at 11:45 am.
“The Grand County Sheriff’s Office takes all threats of violence within our county seriously,” stated Sheriff Brett Schroetlin. “We understand how these situations can be very scary and appreciate the community’s compliance when asked to remain in their homes and shelter in place.”
Rusty is a Grand County native and well-known across the community. He is a member of the Grand Catholic parish and was raising his son in Hot Sulphur until he lost custody and contact in August of 2019. He has loyal customers who report on his professional knowledge and skill. He has more recent reviews on Google complaining about lack of reliability and irritable behavior.
Rusty is known by local authorities to be “anti-establishment,” and he has made claims of harassment by local law enforcement and the court system for many years and in public forums. His recent history shows numerous run-ins with police and six active cases in the Grand County courts prior to this recent incident, including the two cases in which he’s alleged to have violated bond conditions.
Rusty has concerned friends who report on his well-being having deteriorated rapidly in the time since he lost custody of his son. His Facebook posts of the last six months consist of primarily long rants against the family court judge or a reposting of body cam footage taken during a traffic stop last summer.
The footage shows a quiet Rusty asking to speak to a sergeant before he will offer insurance and identification. Following his refusal to immediately identify himself, an officer attempts to physically pull Rusty from his vehicle less than 45 seconds into the interaction.
He was arrested just two weeks prior to the standoff for eluding police when he was pulled over in an attempt to serve a protection order and already has a three-day jury trial scheduled in April on charges of possessing two grams of a controlled substance along with other charges, including driving with an open container, although a voluntary roadside breathalyzer showed 0.000 breath alcohol concentration.
But when examining this complex history and its most recent events, Hot Sulphur Mayor Bob McVay notes, “Rusty is a prime example of our abysmal lack of mental health care–not just here, everywhere. But up here, we’re really in a bind.”
“I just hate to see [Branstetter] in jail,” continues McVay. “Yes, he did a criminal act. But he needs help. It’s terrible to watch a productive member of society go down the tube like that. We’ve missed many opportunities to help him, because we don’t have the resources available to us.
“We should have mental health professionals in the police departments and in the [district attorneys’] offices. I think, if we’d had the capacity to help him, the story would have been different. We’ve dropped the ball as a society. Unfortunately, it’s the police who have to catch it, and they’re not equipped or trained to deal with this stuff.”
McVay then commended the actions of law enforcement this week, saying, “We cannot have one person hold the whole town hostage. What happened–closed Town offices, clerks sent home, a closed post office–that shouldn’t happen. It was a precarious situation. The Sheriff really kept us well informed. I give him kudos for that.”
This most recent incident is under ongoing investigation and is also under review by the District Attorney’s Office, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
No court dates are currently on the docket in relation to the standoff. Branstetter has arraignments scheduled in both County and District court on February 16, 2021, for a number of previous charges. The previously-scheduled jury trial is set for April 19-21, 2021 in Grand County District Court.