At Squirm Night in Aspen, sheriff, candidate spar over sex-crime reporting
A juvenile boy who was arrested this week in connection to an alleged sexual assault was the same individual who a sheriff’s candidate failed to report in a child sexual-abuse case he allegedly heard about three years ago.
That connection was revealed at Thursday’s Squirm Night, a political debate pitting incumbent Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo against challenger Walter Chi, a longtime member of the Aspen Police Department. The two face off in the November midterm elections.
DiSalvo, responding to Chi’s defense for not reporting what he might have known about the alleged crime, referred to Tuesday’s arrest of a 17-year-old boy and 20-year-old man.
Both suspects are in custody on $100,000 bonds — the younger defendant is in a Grand Junction juvenile detention facility — and face pending felony charges of sexually assaulting a teenage girl. Details about the events surrounding the accusations are limited because the cases are sealed.
During hearings for the suspects Wednesday in Pitkin County District Court, prosecutor Don Nottingham said he expects the suspects to be arrested in nearby counties for similar sex-crime accusations.
“The cases you are seeing come to fruition today in the paper, a lot of these cases will be prosecuted,” DiSalvo said Thursday during Squirm Night. “I think Walter will have some questions he needs to answer about why he didn’t report this.”
Law enforcement officials, as well as medical personnel and others who have contact with children, are required to report child abuse if they hear about it. The state has an 18-month statute of limitations for them to report child abuse.
Chi said, “I’m embarrassed if something bad happened to that person, and I didn’t take part to change it. But I do take sexual assault very seriously, and when I investigate them, what I try to do is re-empower people.”
According to an Oct. 3 story in The Aspen Times, Chi learned about an incident three years ago from a grandmother. She told investigators in June of this year that she saw the boy with his pants down in her granddaughter’s room.
Chi told the Times the grandmother didn’t say the incident involved child sexual crimes and that he didn’t hear information he thought should be reported.
The incident came under the Sheriff’s Office purview this summer when it was investigating the now 17-year-old for a similar offense Chi allegedly did not report. During the course of the investigation this year, sheriff’s investigator Bruce Benjamin interviewed the grandmother who told Chi about the incident. Benjamin learned that the grandmother had already spoken to Chi about it three years ago; the grandmother decided not to report it herself at the time out of fear of ruining the boy’s life.
In a report from Benjamin, Chi said he advised the grandmother to call the Sheriff’s Office and that the investigation “would probably start with a forensic interview of the granddaughter at the River Bridge Regional Center,” the report states.
DiSalvo said he found that problematic.
“In Walter’s statement, he said he told her there would probably be an investigation that goes through River Bridge,” DiSalvo said. “River Bridge does one thing: It investigates child sex. If he didn’t know it was about sex, why did he bring up River Bridge?”
Criminal charges could have been pursued against Chi for failing to report the alleged crime, but the 18-month statute of limitations for filing such charges already expired by the time the Sheriff’s Office learned about the matter.
The Aspen Times discovered the case through an election-season request to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office seeking any “involvements” seven candidates for public office this November might have had with the agency in the past two years. Chi’s name popped up because the Sheriff’s Office had looked into Chi for not reporting the matter.
Chi said the Sheriff’s Office should have known about the statute of limitations before it investigated him.
“I think it was very blatant for the Sheriff’s Office to take it on as a crime,” he said Thursday, citing the combined law enforcement experience of more than 60 years between DiSalvo and Benjamin.
DiSalvo wasn’t receptive to Chi’s defense.
“What Walter did, there’s no excuse for it. Inexcusable,” the sheriff said.
In other matters, Chi and DiSalvo showed their philosophical differences on how to address drug use at the Aspen schools.
Chi has floated the idea of having a drug-sniffing dog at the high school to counter teen substance abuse, an idea DiSalvo opposes. The challenger said he is more in touch with issues at the schools because he has children.
“I’m a parent, Joe’s not a parent, and I’ve raised two kids in the valley,” Chi said, noting the dogs would not be used to arrest the users but to help them.
“What I want to do is give is give them a tool to eliminate the risk at school,” Chi said.
Said DiSalvo: “I think dogs are an extreme response to an extreme problem. I meet with the school administrators regularly, as does the school resource officers, and not one time have they given me any indication there is an extreme drug problem at the school.
“If they come to me and say, ‘Sheriff, we think we have a problem,’ then I’ll collaborate with them.”
Chi also said the Sheriff’s Office needs to hire more deputies and have a greater presence during the 3-to-7 a.m. graveyard shift, when there’s one officer on duty.
Citing budgetary constrictions, DiSalvo said that is easier said than done.
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