Officers of the Delta Police Department and Mesa County Sheriff's Office force Justin Ritter out of the apartment with the use of tear gas in October, 2020.

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

Montrose Daily Press

Although prison may offer only slight opportunities to help change his life, Justin Ritter was on Wednesday told to take advantage of them all and endeavor not to break the law anymore.

“There are just too many past incidences involving criminal activity,” Delta District Judge Steven Schultz told Ritter, in sentencing him to four years in prison on a slew of cases, including a menacing case last October that brought out a SWAT team. “You need to turn this around now.”

Ritter was accused last year of pointing a gun at a woman and another person, then of holing up inside a Delta apartment and refusing to come out for police. The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office Special Weapons and Tactics team responded and eventually brought Ritter out by deploying tear gas.

Ritter subsequently pleaded guilty to felony menacing. He also pleaded guilty in other cases to possession of a weapon by a previous offender, a class-6 felony; driving under revocation and third-degree assault, both misdemeanors.

His plea agreement contemplated community corrections, but the screening board rejected him, leaving probation or prison as alternatives.

Assistant District Attorney Rob Zentner argued for five years in prison, in part because Ritter’s conduct fell into the aggravated range, since he had been out on bail in a felony case when the standoff occurred.

The maximum sentence under the plea deal was six years in prison.

“The criminal behavior and thinking has not changed over the years. Mr. Ritter has had plenty of opportunities to avoid this kind of sentence,” Zentner said.

A man, who was identified in court as one of the victims in the menacing case and as the father of the other victim, asked Schultz to sentence Ritter to the maximum.

“We gave him plenty of chances. We tried to help him out,” the man said. “I fear for my daughter.”

Public defender Erin Maxwell took issue with some of the information the judge was using to sentence Ritter.

Maxwell said prior to her representing Ritter, Ritter met with Zentner and his then-attorney to discuss plea agreements and was given every indication that he was most likely looking at a community corrections sentence. But ultimately, acceptance was up to the community corrections board, whose members said no to Ritter’s application.

In reading the letter she had intended to present to the community corrections board, Maxwell said the pre-sentence investigation report was written with “almost a vendetta in mind,” and it came across more as an angry and rambling closing argument than a valid assessment of Ritter’s criminal history, risk and other factors.

Further, the evaluator included cases that had been dismissed or that had ended in acquittal, Maxwell said.

Long-term treatment, with structure and accountability, will benefit not only Ritter, but society at large, she further indicated. Although Ritter has been imprisoned before, he has never had the opportunity for long-term treatment, which he would be highly motivated to complete, knowing that prison awaits if he fails, Maxwell also said.

“It is truly a substance abuse issue at the heart of all this,” she said, telling the court that Ritter began drinking at the age of 9 and had become an alcoholic by age 11.

Since community corrections was not an option and since she did not think prison was appropriate, Maxwell asked for her client to receive a sentence to probation with long-term residential treatment as a condition. Failing a probationary sentence, Ritter should receive no more than three years in prison, Maxwell said.

Ritter apologized when it was his turn to speak.

“I’m sorry for everything I’ve done. I tore apart my family and I wish I could rebuild it,” said Ritter.

Schultz, in imposing the sentence, said he reviewed more than the pre-sentence investigation report. He also reviewed such information as Ritter’s criminal history, including Ritter’s previous interactions with his court.

Ritter has three adult felonies on his record in addition to the two felonies for which he was being sentenced Wednesday, as well as juvenile cases, the judge said.

The cases at hand adversely affected Ritter’s family and the two new felonies involved allegations of violence.

“Mr. Ritter has been walking along the edge of this community for a long time and things have caught up with him,” Schultz said.

He acknowledged Ritter’s substance abuse issues, but also pointed to ongoing criminal behavior and said that even if community corrections had been approved, he might have sentenced Ritter to prison anyway.

“I’m concerned. You’ve been unsuccessful in the community. … You couldn’t have done more damage if you had tried to your family and kids,” the judge said.

Ritter was sentenced to four years in prison, less 132 days of pre-sentence confinement credit, on the felony menacing plea and to 18 months, concurrent, for the weapons offense.

He received 18 months in county jail, concurrent, for the misdemeanor offenses, with credit for pre-sentence confinement.

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