Brother’s keeper: How a quaint Keystone hotel turned into a hotbed of meth addicts, 911 calls and sibling rivalry
April 26, 2018
The place is cleaned up now.
Walking the halls, it's hard to imagine the squalor and dysfunction described in eviction papers or the chaotic episodes documented in dozens of police reports.
Mattresses leaned up against guest room doors. Garbage piled up uncollected, its smell wafting through the building. At one point, nearly a quarter of the rooms weren't rentable, eviction documents allege.
Since 2016, the Summit County sheriff's deputies have been called to the Alpine Slopes Lodge in Keystone at least 180 times, easily making the hotel the biggest crime hot spot in all of unincorporated Summit County.
Sometimes, deputies made several visits to the hotel in a single day. Few were pleasant.
In February, a cheated bail bondsman showed up at a room to collect from his client, who allegedly kicked him in the chest and leapt out of an open window, fleeing across Highway 6.
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There were allegations of illegal evictions that got violent. One employee is said to have stolen tens of thousands of dollars from the hotel over roughly six weeks.
Most of the chaos stemmed from drugs, specifically methamphetamine. Addicts weren't just living at the hotel — they were running it. Sometimes they were recruited directly from jail, investigators say. Often, it didn't take them long to go back.
The biggest troublemakers were thrown out earlier this year, thanks in part to Von Utz, the on-and-off general manager of Alpine Slopes. A few weeks before starting the job, he was homeless in Grand Junction, a low point after struggling for years with alcoholism.
To be sure, the job was opportunity for Von, but his boss could be an unpredictable manager. He was rarely at the hotel. Instead, he monitored its comings and goings from Florida through a camera system.
Von didn't always get along with his older brother Eric, but together, they overcame their conflict with meth addicts, if not their own sibling rivalry.
Eric took over Alpine Slopes in 2012 from Roman Kowalewicz, who built the hotel on an idyllic spot at the base of Keystone Resort.
It was once called the Arapahoe Inn, but Eric changed the name after he took over the business in 2012 under a lease with Kowalewicz, who still owns the property.
The past year has strained the relationship.
"Things really deteriorated last fall," said Kowalewicz, who splits time between Summit County and Chicago. "When I arrived in November, we saw the first signs that something was really wrong."
Kowalewicz is trying to evict Eric. In court filings, he outlines a litany of management lapses, including failure to serve breakfast, repair broken appliances or pay for basic services. Kowalewicz alleges that nearly one-quarter of the rooms were unrentable during the worst of it.
The eviction filings also allege that the hotel became a den of criminal activity, ranging from drug dealing to harassment and even prostitution.
"During my stay people were constantly being arrested, discharged, arrested again," Kowalewicz said. "It was a madhouse."
The hotel's reputation suffered.
"I can't imagine the disappointment of those who had to check in… to find (the hotel) abandoned by all staff, occupied only by forgotten, helpless and frustrated guests," one online reviewer wrote. "What a waste of a great location."
"If you are looking for a nice, comfortable room — this place is NOT for you!" another reviewer wrote.
Eric denies Kowalewicz's allegations, casting the eviction as a strong-arm negotiation tactic. The hotel's revenues nearly quintupled after he took over thanks to improvements he made, he noted. He is proud of the thousands of happy guests he's served over the years.
Still, he admits that the hotel's rotating cast of drug addicts and criminals in the past year was a problem.
"I was not present at the hotel and that was probably a mistake," Eric said. "It's been a nightmare."
It started with one bad hire, a "pure criminal" and meth addict whose orbit carried in a web of fellow drug abusers and thieves.
"They were all sort of connected in this circle," Eric said. "When they participated in the operations of the hotel, it was the demise of the business."
The frequency of calls was unprecedented for Summit County, the sheriff's office said. Towards the end of last summer, deputies began keeping track.
"The calls just spiked — all hours," said detective sergeant Rob Pearce. "It's the number one spot that our patrol deputies respond to in Summit County. We've responded well over a hundred times there in the last 10 months or so. It's absolutely a burden on our patrol division."
There were 29 responses to Alpine Slopes in 2016, compared to 110 in 2017. By late March this year, deputies had been sent to the hotel 41 times, although the calls have decreased since the old employees were evicted.
Many of the calls originated with Eric Utz.
CALLS FOR SERVICE
Eric is a savvy businessman, Kowalewicz admits. The improvements he made to Alpine Slopes — better TVs, linens and memory foam mattresses, to name a few — transformed the business.
But Eric's fortunes declined as his legal troubles mounted. Problems at the hotel fell to his brother, who lacked Eric's business experience.
"Eric was having his own problems and couldn't deal with a lot of this stuff," Von said.
In February, Eric was arrested in Florida and charged with aggravated stalking, burglary, robbery and criminal mischief. He said the charges are trumped up and stem from a legal dispute with his mother, who has partnered with him on a pair of business deals.
The rap landed him in a Broward County jail for 57 days. In the meantime, the Summit County Sheriff's Office was preparing felony charges against him over an alleged "swatting" call, or a bogus report designed to send police swarming after an unsuspecting victim.
On Jan. 9, investigators say Eric called Summit County dispatchers from Florida, telling them that an employee was threatening guests with a gun.
Deputies rushed the building, suspecting a hostage situation. When they entered, there was nothing out of the ordinary, according to an arrest affidavit. They suspected Eric was retaliating against the employee for getting Von arrested the day before.
Eric denies wrongdoing and said he never told dispatchers the man had a gun — just that it was possible.
"I believe the police may have some sort of vendetta against me," he said. "I'm not the bad guy."
But Pearce said the incident fit a pattern.
"He will call dispatch from Florida because he'll be watching things that are taking place on his surveillance system he has inside there," he said. "He has cameras and microphones inside the facility."
Eric would often ask deputies to remove resident employees who were causing problems, skirting the legal eviction process, Pearce said.
When that didn't work, Eric turned to his brother.
Von is a big man but shares the same, gentle voice of his older brother. He is by turns candid and cagey when he talks about the long, crazy hours he worked trying to keep his brother's hotel in order.
"I couldn't get maintenance done because I had to check my room every 15 minutes to make sure there weren't meth heads going through my stuff," he said.
Employees stole compulsively.
Sometimes the items were valuable, like Von's tools. They had originally been his dad's, and he fondly remembered working on BMX bikes with them as a kid.
Sometimes they were worthless, like the box of hotel shampoo Von found in a bald employee's room.
But despite his gentle manner, he sometimes contributed to the mayhem at the hotel, getting caught in a cat-and-mouse game of employees trying to get each other arrested.
One afternoon, Von was trying to evict a severely meth-addled employee suspected of stealing thousands of dollars.
"Bedbugs! Bedbugs!" the man started howling. A scuffle ensued. Von was charged with third-degree assault, although he claims the incident was overblown. He and Eric both say that the witness in the case, who was the other man's roommate, is legally blind.
"I was physical sometimes throwing people out, and I know that's bad, but when you're dealing with drug addicts and criminals that's what you've got to do," Von said. "And I did it."
Von picked up seven criminal cases while at Alpine Slopes, although he pleaded down to one misdemeanor and a bond violation to settle them.
His court trouble may have saved his life. A judge has prohibited him from drinking and forced him to wear an ankle bracelet that monitors his system for alcohol.
"In all of the chaos, I thrived," he said. "But I couldn't have done any of this without getting sober."
Judge Karen Romeo sentenced him to four years probation and recovery court, citing the unique nature of his offenses.
"The common denominators are you, alcohol, Alpine Slopes and your brother, and those are some unusual circumstances," she said during a hearing.
Eric is highly intelligent but lacked common sense at times, his brother said. From Florida, he couldn't seem to keep the bad apples away from his business.
"You don't put a meth head behind the front desk of a hotel with families with kids checking in," Von said.
So Von did his best to deal with it, one meth addict at a time. He evicted at least five of them this year with the help of a local attorney.
All the while, Von wrestled with his own alcohol addiction in a hotel crawling with drug abusers, cops and bewildered guests. He hasn't had a drop of booze in four months, a condition imposed by the court. He has a girlfriend and an apartment. He has the alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet that he says saved his life.
It might not last. His past is checkered and riddled with relapses. But he's hopeful for the first time in a while. He wants to start a business. He wants to start over.
"I'm sober now, and I can do anything I want," he said. "I'm doing yoga, working out and riding my bike. I've lost 44 pounds in four months."
His time at Alpine Slopes damaged his relationship with his older brother, but not beyond repair.
"I love my brother dearly," Eric said. "But he wants a pat on the back, and he wasn't always the best brother or the best employee."
Eric is looking forward to getting his hotel back on track. He has big plans for the place.
"I'm going to have to rebuild the hotel's reputation in the eyes of local police, and I'm willing to do that with actions — not words," he said. "I'm looking forward to doing everything I can to help the hotel in its recovery."
But whatever happens to the hotel, Von doesn't plan to be there. His work there is done. And now the work of his own recovery is just beginning.