ASPEN - In a strongly worded letter signed by all five Pitkin County commissioners, the county has asked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration fully cooperate with local law enforcement agencies when it's conducting local operations.
The letter, forwarded Tuesday to Kevin R. Merrill, acting special agent in charge for the DEA at its Denver-area office, urges the federal agency to put aside any political disagreements it has with Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and "reconsider the directive you've given to your field agents and employees that places innocent people at risk."
The letter is a response to last month's DEA bust of an alleged cocaine ring, which snared six Aspen-area residents and targeted four other individuals in Los Angeles. After the arrests, 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 local suspects.
The arrests would not have been particularly noteworthy, according to the county's letter, except that the DEA elected to conduct the operation without the cooperation, or even notification, of the county Sheriff's Office and Aspen Police Department - a departure from "accepted law enforcement protocol."
After the arrests, DiSalvo and Police Chief Richard Pryor met privately with Jim Schrant, a DEA special agent out of Grand Junction, to discuss the relationship between the federal officers and local authorities.
"They were informed by Agent Schrant that he was brought into our community to 'clean up ... Aspen.' Our law enforcement representatives were told that the DEA tactics were necessary because he could not trust law enforcement in Pitkin County or the City of Aspen," the county's letter reads. "Our law enforcement officials were told that if anything catastrophic were to happen that the 'blood would be on their hands.' This is of course an incorrect assessment of legal liability."
County Attorney John Ely said Tuesday that he drafted the letter, originally dated June 9, and brought it to commissioners for consideration during an executive session. Commissioners made minor tweaks and agreed, in a brief public action, to send it, he said.
DiSalvo declined Tuesday to discuss the direct quotes, attributed to Schrant in the letter, which Ely said were voiced by the DEA agent in the private meeting. But, the sheriff said he hopes the letter helps lead to a working agreement with the federal agency.
"What I want is notification when they're coming to Aspen - what they're planning as far as public safety, and that's it," he said. "We don't have that right now."
DiSalvo said he played no role in drafting the letter, but said he was flattered by the commissioners' support.
"I'm glad they see this situation in the same way I do and in the same way the community feels," he said.
According to the letter, the lack of coordination between the DEA and local officers could have "catastrophic" consequences. It notes a 1975 event in Aspen in which federal agents, acting alone in attempting to make an arrest, resulted in a confrontation with Aspen police who were responding to a report of men with firearms walking around a residence.
"Officers from both agencies confronted each other with weapons at the ready," the letter states. "Luckily, no one was hurt."
The letter is the county's attempt to address what it feels is a public safety issue, according to County Manager Jon Peacock.
"We hope the DEA listens to it," said Commissioner Michael Owsley, the board's vice chair. "We're very sincere about the cooperation between the DEA and our enforcement officers.
"If the DEA is saying something about Joe DiSalvo, they need to address that issue in a forum that doesn't endanger public safety," Owsley added.
Reads the letter: "The DEA's judgment that it cannot trust local law enforcement, based on your agent's rhetoric, seems more an indictment against an entire community than just our law enforcement officials. We urge you to set aside any political disagreements you may have with our sheriff, appreciate the law abiding nature of our citizens and reconsider the directive given to your field agents and employees that places innocent people at risk."
Police Chief Pryor is out of town and could not be reached for comment Tuesday. DEA agent Merrill also could not be reached for comment, but special agent Mike Turner, public information officer for the DEA, said the agency would not comment publicly on the letter. If it is to be addressed, the DEA will do so directly with the Sheriff's Office, Turner said.
"That's between our agency and the Sheriff's Office, basically," he said.