Plea bargain in Branstetter case


Attorneys may be close to reaching a plea agreement for Grand County native Stephen “Rusty” Branstetter, according to statements made before Grand County Court Judge Nicholas Catanzarite on Monday.

Branstetter is facing a felony menacing charge and six attempted murder charges, all related to a 24-hour standoff with statewide law-enforcement late last year, during which two shots were allegedly fired by the defendant.

Branstetter, Defense Attorney Chad Oxley, and 14th Judicial District Attorney Matt Karzen all appeared remotely for the previously-scheduled status/preliminary hearing on May 3. Oxley made an early motion, requesting that the case be bound over to District Court “as the parties are close to reaching disposition for District Court.”

“Disposition,” in Colorado courts, refers to resolution of a criminal case, most often through means of a plea agreement.
Branstetter waived his right to preliminary hearings in each of the cases, and Catanzarite re-scheduled arraignment for both at 10:15 am, May 13, before Grand County District Court Judge Mary Hoak.

Branstetter has been held in the Grand County Jail on two separate bonds totalling $520,000 since being taken into custody on December 1, 2020. He has been denied any reduction of bond on several occasions.

The most recent request for reduced bond was turned down in spite of Oxley’s attempts to demonstrate Branstetter’s minimal risk of leaving the county before resolution of charges, due to his deep ties to the Grand County community–including property and business ownership, family support, and job opportunity–and in spite of arguments that Branstetter would not have access to appropriate mental health and substance abuse treatment as long as he remains in jail.

At the time, both DA Karzen and Judge Catanzarite noted continued concern around potential risk to the community and a lack of adequate resources within Grand County to provide needed supervision and services were Branstetter released on bond.

A plea is also possible in the case of Thomas “Chase” Hill who faces a class 2 felony charge of 2nd-degree arson and a class 3 misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment, after claiming responsibility for unintentionally starting a fire on private property at the south edge of Kremmling with a discarded cigarette on October 9, 2020.

The fire threatened two nearby homes and came within yards of each but was quickly controlled by Kremmling Fire Protection District. It was started just days before the East Troublesome fire was initially reported and during a Stage II fire ban prohibiting outdoor smoking at the time.

This last circumstance is what resulted in the felony charge, which carries potential penalties of up to 12 years in the Department of Corrections and/or up to $500,000 in fines.

In a plea agreement and sentencing recommendation filed with the Court on May 3, Chief Deputy District Attorney Kathryn Dowdell agreed to amend the felony charge down to a class 3 misdemeanor of 4th-degree arson and to dismiss all other charges.

Dowdell recommended an open sentence with two years of supervised probation and up to 45 days in County jail. She also stipulated mental health and substance abuse evaluation and treatment, “including any recommended in-patient treatment,” and that he “comply with all state, federal, and local fire restrictions, regulations, and rules.”

The document contained conformed signatures for both Hill and his attorney, Public Defender Abby Kurtz-Phelan. However, when laid out before Judge Nicholas Catanzarite in a virtual hearing on May 4, Hill indicated that he may not be in agreement with the presented terms.

Hill seemed to have not understood clearly that the agreement would give discretion to the sentencing judge–in this case, Catanzarite–to impose anywhere from zero to 45 days in jail.

Upon the suggestion of Kurtz-Phelan, Hill agreed that he would benefit from more discussion and advice on the matter. The Judge continued the hearing to May 11 at 8:45 a.m.