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Echoes linger 20 years after car bombing

Alleged cocaine trafficker was killed shortly before trial in still-unsolved case

Published December 8, 2005 at midnight

Steven Hunt Grabow finished playing tennis and climbed into a borrowed Jeep outside a posh Aspen health club 20 years ago tonight for the final ride of his life.

He traveled no more than 15 feet before the bomb went off.

Grabow, 38, who was facing imminent trial in federal court for allegedly running a $35 million-per-year cocaine trafficking network, managed to crawl from the Jeep.

According to some accounts, Grabow was on his feet, walking around in shock, when paramedics arrived. He was rushed to the Aspen Valley Hospital, but died from blood loss about 90 minutes later.

Grabow's slaying remains unsolved.

Ronald Kelly Young, a fugitive wanted in Aspen on charges of theft, forgery and embezzling, was arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Nov. 21. By some media accounts, Young is a possible suspect in Grabow's death.

Aspen police officer Jim Crowley traveled to Fort Lauderdale following Young's arrest, but Young refused to speak with him.

"They (Young and Grabow) ran in the same circles, and they knew a lot of the same people, and once you start having car bombings stack up, and you always happen to be around, it starts to become a little more than a coincidence," Crowley said.

Crowley was referring to the status of Young, 63, as a person of interest in a car-bombing on Nov. 1, 1996, that killed Arizona real estate developer Gary Triano.

Young was nabbed just two days after his case was featured on Fox TV's America's Most Wanted.

He is alleged to have swindled several Aspenites, including a woman named Pamela Phillips - Triano's ex-wife.

But several sources knowledgeable about Grabow's case doubt that Young is to blame for the Grabow hit.

They believe instead that it was an assassination ordered by major narcotics traffickers with ties beyond U.S. borders.

No hint of cutting a deal

Grabow had given no indication that he was ready to make a deal by informing on his alleged suppliers. Just four days before he died, he discussed his trial strategy over dinner in Denver with his lawyer, Joseph Saint-Veltri.

"Steven never contemplated that he would cooperate," Saint-Veltri said.

"It was not in Steve's nature to cooperate," agreed David Olmsted, a private investigator based in Aspen, who worked on preparing Grabow's defense.

Grabow is survived by a brother, Ira Grabow, who lives in Miami. He declined to be interviewed.

Steve Grabow's widow has married three more times, twice to the same man, and is now married to actor James Caan. She could not be reached.

It may well be that, in relation to the enduring Grabow mystery, Young's recent arrest may do little more than stir memories of a chapter in Aspen's colorful history that now seems as dated as a John Denver ballad and as outrageous as the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson's "Freak Power" candidacy for sheriff.

"I'd rather be broke and washing dishes in Aspen than be the king of France," Grabow once told a friend, according to an article published in the Rocky Mountain News shortly after he met his violent end.

At the time he died, however, it's unlikely that Grabow - who graduated with honors in finance from the University of Miami - was scrubbing many pots and pans.

A well-dressed skier

"In the early '70s, both he and I were hundred-day-a-year skiers, and I would see him every day on Aspen Mountain," said Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis.

"He had this big hairy chest and a big smile. A nice guy, warm, affable and outgoing. He always had more stylish ski suits than I did, and on warm days he'd have the zipper down, down to his navel."

Grabow was reported to have owned 200 ski outfits. A closet at his McSkimming Road home was filled with customized suits from Milan. A police search of his Aspen residence turned up 30 pairs of handmade shoes, some worth $1,200 a pair.

Also seized, on suspicion that they were obtained with drug profits, were his Porsche, two Jeeps, $1.5 million in cash and 243 Krugerrand gold coins.

"He lived in a house with a heated driveway, drove expensive cars and had no visible means of support," said Braudis. "I'd see him in the phone booth of the (Hotel) Jerome a lot, with a stack of quarters.

"The prevailing rumor was that he was a trust-funder living large, like a lot of them did. And then it came out that he might have been involved in the commerce of cocaine. And then he got indicted."

Grabow was named in a 59-page federal indictment unsealed in Denver on Nov. 10, 1983, charging him under the so-called "kingpin" statute for his part in running an alleged continuing criminal enterprise, Specifically, it was alleged that he and seven co-defendants trafficked in $25 million to $35 million worth of cocaine a year.

Grabow was slapped with 11 counts of drug trafficking and income tax evasion. His indictment implicated 47 people - 27 of them Aspen-area residents - and revealed that the case against him was built, in part, on 240 hours of wiretapped conversations.

Mick Ireland, at that time a young Aspen journalist and now a member of the Pitkin County Board of Commissioners, recalls those times in a small town that had earned itself the label - to some - of "Sin City."

"I remember once I was on a softball team, and me and this other guy, other than the two of us, we couldn't think of anybody on the team who hadn't dealt drugs or done some time for dealing drugs," he said.

In the months following the indictment, most of Grabow's co-defendants entered into plea bargains in return for sentences up to five years in length.

Because he was killed 44 days before his trial, the closest Grabow came to facing justice was a November 1984 trial in Pitkin County Court for alleged animal cruelty.

According to a police report - a report even the prosecutor believed to contain errors - he stabbed a German shepherd outside an Aspen delicatessen with a ski pole.

The jury deliberated only 30 minutes before acquitting Grabow.

One juror, Lon Porter, was quoted at the time as saying, "I think most people looked at him as they would a rum-runner in the '20s. They said, 'Hey, this guy's beating the law. Good for him.' Steve Grabow didn't know everybody. But everybody knew him."

The prosecutor in the animal cruelty case was Chip McCrory, now in private practice in Carbondale.

I little more than two weeks later, McCrory was one of those responding to the scene of the slaying the night Grabow died.

"He was extremely unlucky. When you do a car bomb, my understanding is that you want to have the whole car go up. This one did not," McCrory said.

"There was one tiny little sliver of metal that went up through the bottom of the car.

"It could have well turned out that he could have walked away without any injuries. Some people thought it could have just been meant as a warning."

Separate case offers clue

Olmsted, the investigator who worked on Grabow's drug case on behalf of Saint-Veltri, was retained on a separate drug case six years later. That 1991 case provided a possible answer to the Grabow murder mystery.

In that case, filed in Miami, Robert Louis Erra and Alberto San Pedro were named in a racketeering, drug-trafficking and money- laundering indictment. The indictment, Olmsted said, implicated Erra - as a predicate act in support of the overall racketeering scheme - in Grabow's murder.

A predicate act, in the language of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, is an act required to prove that there was organization involved in the crimes that are being alleged.

"If you read the indictment in that case, they allege a fairly involved RICO case" for Erra and San Pedro, said Olmsted.

"The scheme they lay out involved several crimes, including drug trafficking," he said.

"It was clear to me from the Erra indictment that they had a belief that Bobby Erra had some connection and involvement in Steven's death.

"But he was not charged with conspiracy to murder. It was not one of the substantive offenses."

Olmsted is one of a small number of people with intimate knowledge of the cases against both Grabow and Erra.

"I'm familiar with all the discovery in Steven's case, and I am familiar with the investigation in the Southern District of Florida, and there was nothing to my knowledge whatsoever in either of those investigations that involved Ron Young," said Olmsted, referring to the man arrested last month in Fort Lauderdale.

Erra pleaded guilty in Miami to conspiracy to engage in a pattern of racketeering, was sentenced March 27, 1992, to 11 years in prison, and was released on Jan. 27, 1998. Now a free man and once again living in South Florida, Erra was contacted for comment on the Grabow case.

"Are you crazy?" he asked, when told the subject of the call.

"If you think that you can call my house and talk to me about such ridiculous things - the answer is, don't call my house anymore."

McCrory, the former Aspen prosecutor, has never held out strong hope for a solution to the Grabow mystery.

"My feeling throughout was, this was going to be one of those things where, over a period of time, we'd learn who did it, but probably there wasn't ever going to be a prosecutable case to come out of it," said McCrory.

"You have these shadowy figures, everything from the Medellin (Colombia) cartel, right down to local dealers," he added."I don't believe the Aspen Police Department has any sources in Medellin."

Bob Chadwell, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Denver assigned to Grabow's drug case, is now in private practice in Seattle.

He wouldn't rule out an eventual solution to Grabow's murder.

"My sense of it at the time was that whoever did it was someone who was pretty good at what they were up to," Chadwell said.

"It was something you expect to see in Chicago, or New York, and maybe even Miami. But it was completely out of the blue for Colorado."

Crowley, the Aspen officer, didn't sound optimistic.

"Part of the problem is that there are so many people that were connected to Grabow who didn't like him," said Crowley.

"The list of suspects starts to look like a phone book."

Steven Hunt Grabow

• Killed by a car bomb 20 years ago in Aspen. He was 38.

• Named in a 59-page federal indictment unsealed in Denver onNov. 10, 1983, charging him under the so-called "kingpin" statute for his part in running an alleged continuing criminal enterprise. The indictment charged that Grabow and seven co-defendants trafficked in $25 million to $35 million worth of cocaine a year.

• Was facing 11 counts of drug trafficking and income tax evasion. Grabow's indictment implicated 47 people - 27 of them Aspen-area residents.

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