ASPEN - The seemingly fragile relationship between the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and local-law enforcement departments was addressed in a private meeting Wednesday in the office of Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, with little headway being made.
A special agent with the DEA, along with DiSalvo and Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor, said they failed to find any common ground, other than re-affirming that their long-standing drug-enforcement philosophies are starkly opposed. In other words, the next time the DEA penetrates Pitkin County to make an arrest, the Sheriff's Office likely won't be called on to help because the federal agency doesn't trust it.
"What it comes down to at this moment is that if the DEA comes to Aspen, they would not notify the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office, but they might notify the Aspen Police Department," DiSalvo said. "That's a bridge we're trying to build so in the future they will notify us so we can help them make their operation successful by our community standards."
The issue boils down to the DEA's lack of trust in the two agencies, namely the Sheriff's Office, said Jim Schrant, a DEA special agent out of Grand Junction.
After last Thursday's arrest of six Aspen-area residents, five of whom were snared in Pitkin County, DEA officials told local and state media outlets that Aspen and Pitkin County officials weren't notified of the drug sweep because of former Sheriff Bob Braudis and DiSalvo's "close ties" to the targeted suspects. They also said the suspects were part of an organization that funneled more than 500 pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Aspen over the last 15 years.
The DEA made the local arrests with the aid of agents from the IRS, the U.S. Marshal's Office, the FBI, Homeland Security and the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team, which is made up of police departments in Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Rifle and Vail, along with the Garfield County Sheriff's Office.
A sixth Aspen-area suspect was arrested in Dallas, while three Los Angeles residents were detained in California. A fourth Los Angeles-area resident remains a fugitive.
The DEA won't elaborate on the alleged closeness between Braudis and DiSalvo and some of the suspects. But it's not backing off its statement either.
Schrant noted that it's unusual that the DEA didn't contact local authorities about the arrests until they were under way. Four of the five suspects were taken into custody while they were at their residences, early in the morning. The fifth was arrested at work. The arrests were the result of a federal grand jury's nine-count indictment handed down April 19; it was unsealed Friday.
"Oftentimes we work with other jurisdictions and we've actually integrated them into our investigations because usually there's a local narcotics task force that we're working with hand-in-hand from the inception of the case," Schrant said. "Unfortunately, that does not exist in the city of Aspen or Pitkin County."
He added: "Unfortunately, we were not in a position to make the standard notification in this case other than trying to de-conflict it and make it as safe as possible for the community and the agents involved. And the reason we weren't able to do that fuller notification was because of the relationship of Joe DiSalvo and [former sheriff] Bob Braudis and several targets of this investigation who were being arrested."
A DEA agent, however, was stationed outside the local communications office as the arrests took place. The agent was there as a preventive measure in case word of the arrests, which were made early in the morning, leaked out.
DiSalvo would not comment directly about the DEA's characterization of his ties to some of the suspects. He said he wants to move forward, but he also did not appear confident that the DEA and his office or the APD are close to reaching a consensus agreement about how to handle local drug probes and arrests.
"There still seems to be a trust issue that I'm working on with the DEA," he said. "Those trust issues still exist. I think those trust issues around the acquaintances or people I know or see - I'm not as close with them as they think I am."
Braudis, who is retired and lives in Aspen, said the DEA's claims about DiSalvo have no merit.
"Despite what a member of the national police force, the DEA, said about Joe DiSalvo, he is as pure as the driven snow. I'm proud of him and the community should be, too," Braudis said.
The former sheriff of 24 years said the DEA has, "by inference, tarnished" the image of DiSalvo, who was elected in November and succeeded Braudis in January.
"I want to polish that sterling reputation of Joe DiSalvo," Braudis said. "It's not about me."
Braudis and DiSalvo worked together for more than 15 years at the Sheriff's Office. The two, like their predecessor, the late Dick Keinast, have held the mutual philosophy that drug problems in Pitkin County should be treated more as a medical issue than a criminal one, an approach that is at odds with the DEA's.
DiSalvo said the DEA's trust issues are with the Sheriff's Office, not the APD.
"And I don't think we've done anything to deserve that lack of trust," he said.
Said Pryor: "While the trust may not lie with the Sheriff's Office, [the DEA does], to some degree, not trust the Police Department. And that lack of trust is because of our close relationship with the Sheriff's Office, and I think our community absolutely demands that close relationship and that won't change because of this operation last week."
Pryor said the APD and Sheriff's Office have demonstrated that they won't shy away from drug cases. However, when it comes to arrests like the ones made last week, they are not equipped to handle the alleged high-level dealers reeled in by the DEA. But, Pryor noted, both local agencies could have provided some sort of back-up or aid. Safety concerns, DiSalvo and Pryor said, were the primary reasons they felt the DEA should have notified them before the apprehensions took place.
In its press release issued Friday, DEA Acting Special Agent in Charge Kevin Merrill said the arrests "make Aspen and its surrounding communities safer by taking significant amounts of drugs off the street and putting violent criminals behind bars."
Federal authorities say the drug ring spanned from Los Angeles to Aspen and was connected to cartels in Mexico.
When asked to provide specifics about the violence in Aspen, Schrant said, "We don't know if they are [violent] or aren't. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that the organization in Los Angeles is extremely violent and that the kilos being consumed in Aspen - and the kilos being trafficked by this organization - essentially sent money to that organization committing this egregious violence."
As far as Aspen's role in the alleged network, Schrant said that "the consumers funded it. The traffickers paid for it directly with Aspen dollars in excess of at least 500 pounds of cocaine. This cocaine appears to be consumed entirely in Aspen. This was the end of the ramp in Aspen. So all that dope was coming here, and this cocaine being bought and paid for in Aspen was going directly to this organization in Los Angeles."
Schrant said it appears that the Aspen community, for the most part, has a passive attitude toward cocaine use.
"Communities like Aspen are consuming these copious amounts of cocaine and their dollars are fueling violence in places like Los Angeles, places like Mexico," he said. "The analogy to use is you can take your average, well-educated, highly-informed, local thinking Aspen resident and they could very clearly articulate some of the issues surrounding blood diamonds and blood tuna. And to us, this is blood cocaine, which is these dollars are being spent at the customer level just like they're fueling the diamond-related violence and exploitation, and what's fueling the terrible violence in Mexico, and in this case, all over the globe.
"I think there's something of a disconnect between this global thinking on certain issues and a lack of global thinking on these drug issues. This case demonstrates clearly that it is more direct than anybody can imagine."