2010 Newsmakers of the Year
ASPEN – News is a strange thing.Usually those of us in the media, who produce the actual stories and photos, decide what belongs in the headlines. But often, to our surprise, the public will pick up on a person or story that we may or may not have deemed important, and elevate it through letters, e-mails and appeals to their elected officials.Among our 2010 Newsmakers of the Year are both kinds of stories. When The Aspen Times learned that Ice Age bones were discovered in Snowmass Village, for instance, we immediately put it on page 1, and readers ended up sharing our gleeful fascination with the continuing discoveries there. Other stories were driven primarily by readers, such as the Aspen Art Museum; all we had to do was report that the City Council had approved this project, and citizens took it from there, writing letters and mounting a months-long debate about development and neighborhood character.Still other stories become big news because people outside Aspen decide that news is happening in our community. So it was with Charlie Sheen, who happened to assault his wife in Aspen but became a nationwide story by virtue of his celebrity. The Sheen case triggered discussions in Aspen and beyond about domestic violence and how justice is administered (or not) with the rich and famous.Every year we publish a Newsmakers of the Year edition, and here it is for 2010. It’s not a popularity contest and it’s not a comprehensive list of what happened here. It is, however, a view from the newsroom of what stories struck social or emotional chords, positive or negative or somewhere in between, in Aspen.Enjoy, and happy holidays.
Some 12,000 years after it walked the earth, an Ice Age creature unexpectedly emerged as one of 2010’s biggest local newsmakers – both literally and figuratively.The bones of a Columbian mammoth turned up at the site of a reservoir excavation near Snowmass Village in October, turning the resort town on its ear and capturing headlines around the country. In the weeks that followed, the layers of earth at Ziegler Reservoir produced about 600 bones and bone pieces, including 15 tusks, plus hundreds of pounds of plant matter. The stunning tally included parts of eight to 10 mastodons, four Columbian mammoths, two Ice Age deer, four Ice Age bison and one Jefferson’s ground sloth (the first ever found in Colorado), plus one tiger salamander, insects and small crustaceans.Scientists also carted away distinctly chewed wood – evidence of Ice Age beavers.Many of the tusks, jaw bones, leg bones and other specimens were displayed at the Snowmass Village Water and Sanitation Department in the initial days, dazzling hundreds of locals who lined up in the department’s parking lot for a close-up glimpse. Department employees, armed with spray bottles, kept the bones moist as gawking locals paraded through.The Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the permanent repository for the collected specimens, has only begun to study the finds, but already new exhibits featuring the Ziegler bones are among its displays. Further excavation is expected to occur next spring, before the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District fills the newly expanded reservoir with water, but next year’s potential discoveries aside, Snowmass Village is already on the paleontological map. The significance of the bones unearthed at Ziegler was quickly apparent to scientists, who believe the initial mammoth found there dates back 12,000 to 15,000 years. Carbon dating, however, places the bones extracted from the deeper layers of the site at more than 43,000 years old, and the geology of the ancient lake bed suggests it was formed about 120,000 years ago.The high-altitude setting of the reservoir – 8,874 feet – is consistently underrepresented in the Ice Age fossil record, noted Dr. Daniel Fisher, a mastodon expert from the University of Michigan who was summoned to consult at the dig site.”There have been suggestions that high-altitude environments might have harbored different communities, or had a different story of change, but since fossils representing them are so rarely found, no one has known for sure. Now is our chance to see what they are like,” he said in a museum press release.”The discovery near Snowmass Village is one of those once-in-a-lifetime finds,” added Dr. Kirk Johnson, the museum’s chief curator and vice president of the Research and Collections Division. The fossil site will shape scientific understanding of life in the Rockies during the Ice Age, he predicted.And, the fossils may reshape the image of a town best known, at least until now, as a ski resort.By year’s end, Snowmass Village was forming a task force charged with figuring out how to best capitalize on its new claim to fame. At the very least, the town must figure out how and where to showcase a cast of the first mammoth found at Ziegler – a juvenile female, scientists have determined.- Janet Urquhart
The media circus over Charlie Sheen’s domestic violence came to Aspen the day he was arrested – Dec. 25, 2009. And it didn’t leave until a rainy day in August, when Sheen offered an unceremonious guilty plea to assaulting his wife as part of a deal that included no jail time. There would be no courtroom drama starring Sheen, now 45. Nor would there be a tear-filled testimony from his alleged victim, Brooke Mueller Sheen.Instead, after pleading guilty to the misdemeanor domestic-violence charge of third-degree assault, the star of TV’s “Two and a Half Men” left the Pitkin County Courthouse – where hordes of reporters and TV satellite trucks were stationed – flashed the peace sign, and boarded a limo en route to a private jet bound for L.A. While he left with a misdemeanor on his record, Sheen avoided the more serious counts: the prosecution dismissed felony charges of menacing and criminal mischief.The trial was off but the speculating began, casting a spotlight on celebrity justice in Aspen: Was Sheen getting special treatment because of his stature, or was his case handled like any other one?It seemed everyone had an opinion, from CNN Headline News’ Nancy Grace (she thought Sheen got a plum deal) to letter writers to Aspen’s two newspapers. For the most part, they, too, thought Sheen skated.But Chief Deputy District Attorney Arnold Mordkin stood by his office’s decision, saying Sheen got the same treatment received by other first-time domestic violence offenders. For sure, the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office – which represents Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties – realized the case would be scrutinized in the court of public opinion. Which probably explained why District Attorney Martin Beeson, who rarely attends criminal proceedings in Pitkin County, attended Sheen’s plea hearing.”Nobody on their first offense goes to jail for 30 days,” Beeson said after Sheen left the courtroom that August day. “And I’m hoping he’ll take advantage of the treatment and get the help he needs.”Apparently Sheen already had. By spending 93 days in the Promises Treatment Center in California after the Christmas Day incident, Sheen had already fulfilled the plea-agreement requirement that he undergo 30 days of rehab. He also was sentenced to three months of supervised probation and ordered to complete 36 hours of domestic violence treatment.”I’m very grateful to the court and to the people of Pitkin County,” he said in a statement after the hearing. “I look forward to complying with the court’s decision, getting on with my life and putting this behind me.”Sheen’s plea deal ended months of legal wrangling. A disposition in the case had been expected in June. Attorneys on both sides had reached a plea agreement stipulating that Sheen would spend 30 days in the Pitkin County Jail, and perform community service at nearby Theatre Aspen.But when Sheen, a chain smoker, learned that jail rules prohibited inmates from lighting up while performing community service, the actor backed out of the deal. The case made Sheen the butt of late-night talk show jokes and a mainstay in the tabloids.But for many, a domestic-violence case was no laughing matter. After his plea deal was announced, high-profile attorney Gloria Allred staged a press conference outside the Pitkin County Courthouse.She was joined by Valerie McFarlane, a former APD officer who interviewed Sheen’s wife on Christmas Day, and said: “We’ve heard of sweetheart deals, but this sweetheart sentence only reinforces what people believe – that there are two levels of justice. One for the rich and famous, and a different one for everyone else.” Allred, who earned notoriety over the years by taking on star-powered cases, including those of some of Tiger Woods’ mistresses, also said “the public has the right to expect that the rich, powerful and famous will get their just due, not a sentence in the theater of the absurd.” She called Sheen’s disposition an “extremely laughable and unacceptable light sentence.”Sheen has since filed for divorce from Brooke – his third wife – and his off-screen trouble continues. Most recently, on Oct. 26, he was hospitalized in New York after a reportedly drunken tirade with a porn star at a Manhattan hotel. This Christmas, Sheen was said to be spending the holiday with one of his ex-wives, Denise Richards, and their children. – Rick Carroll
Aspen loves to debate development proposals, and has created an unusually laborious land-use process to ensure that citizens and public officials get a good look at all projects, and may voice their opinions. But the proposed new Aspen Art Museum didn’t go through the normal channels. Both that and the building’s size angered a lot of locals. So Aspenites have been arguing over the new museum ever since the City Council approved it in August.In most Aspen land-use battles, the arguments precede the final decision; in this case, the council’s decision triggered the arguments.First, some background.In 2007, the council denied an application to redevelop the current site of the Wienerstube restaurant with 47,000 square feet and three stories of commercial and residential space. The owner/developer of the site, 633 Spring Street LLC, contested the decision with a lawsuit.In July 2010, however, city officials announced a settlement with the plaintiffs, in which the overall square footage was scaled back and the museum – which has wanted a larger, downtown location to replace its existing building on North Mill Street – became the chief occupant on the property. As a legal settlement, however, the deal didn’t go through the usual planning and zoning procedure. Instead, after some “brown bag” lunch meetings to answer questions and hear comments from the public, the council voted on Aug. 2 to approve the settlement.And that was that.At least until the complaints began. Despite the lack of any formal action on the museum proposal since Aug. 2, the museum has appeared regularly in Aspen’s newspapers ever since, garnering both stern criticism and ardent support.Supporters of the museum, and architect Shigeru Ban’s design, have called it an “incredible opportunity” and an “amazing gift” to the community. Critics, in turn, have maligned the structure as a “view-blocking hulk” and a giant “Kleenex box,” referring to the building’s cube-like shape.The opposition was impassioned enough to give themselves a name – “Saving Aspen’s Character” – and to appear before the council in September, asking the city to back out of the settlement agreement. The group, which said it had collected 1,000 signatures in the hope of changing the council’s mind, has complained mainly about the structure’s size and the lack of opportunity for public comment.In a letter printed Oct. 1 in The Aspen Times, Julia Hansen, Susan O’Neal, Steven Ferrell and Richie Cohen said, “Saving Aspen’s Character formed in response to the Aspen City Council meeting on Aug. 2, during which a vastly oversized art museum on the Wienerstube site was approved without a normal review process and without public input.”Cohen said this week that the group will not pursue the issue any further, given the members’ unwillingness to get involved in an “open-ended legal fight.” At the Art Museum, they’re going full-steam ahead with plans to break ground in October 2011 and open the new location in summer 2013.- Bob Ward
There will be a new sheriff in town for the first time since 1987 when Joe DiSalvo takes office Jan. 11.DiSalvo won a commanding victory in the Nov. 2 Pitkin County sheriff’s race over Patrick “Rick” Leonard for the right to succeed his boss, mentor and friend, Bob Braudis.Braudis, who first won election in November 1986 and took office the following January, was perhaps the most popular Pitkin County elected official in history. DiSalvo, 50, has been with the department since 1987 and said little will change when he takes the helm. He said last week he feels no pressure following in the footsteps of Braudis or Braudis’ own mentor, former sheriff Dick Kienast.”I’ve been a member of this office for 24 years and I feel Bob and Dick have created a good foundation, keeping in mind I also had a role in its construction,” DiSalvo said. “I learned from both Bob and Dick. I think the advice both men would give me is to create my own path and don’t let any pressure from their legacy get in the way of that path.”DiSalvo began his law enforcement career with the Aspen Police Department in 1985 as a patrol officer. He joined the sheriff’s office as a patrol officer two years later, then was promoted to investigator and, later, lead investigator. Braudis selected DiSalvo as his undersheriff, the second in command, in January 2006. Braudis openly acknowledged he was grooming DiSalvo as his successor.Voters liked the choice. DiSalvo gathered 5,182 votes to 1,358 for Leonard, a margin of 79 to 21 percent.DiSalvo said it is inevitable in the years to come that there will be “Monday morning quarterbacks” who will say one of his decisions isn’t what Braudis would have done. He’s prepared for that and claims it could be a healthy learning experience.”The decisions I make will always be based on what is best for the public safety of this community,” DiSalvo said, adding that “what makes sense and what is reasonable is usually a good barometer.””I also have a veteran upper-management support team and we work very well together,” DiSalvo added. “Each member of the team has logged some significant public safety hours and have been part of some serious decision-making.”- Scott Condon
Tear-stained cheeks and sullen stares filled the camera frame.The Aspen High hoops players could not hide their disappointment as they posed for one final team photograph on the floor of Colorado State University’s Moby Arena last March. The program’s most successful season in history had come up agonizingly short. Many soon would take off their Skiers jerseys one final time.One man was grinning, however.”I know this was a great thing, a great experience,” said Coach Steve Ketchum after his squad’s loss to Faith Christian in the 3A state championship. “Who cares that we lost by 10 points? … The opportunity to play in the biggest game you can ever play in as a high school player is a dream come true.”This year has been quite a dream for area sports fans.This small town, long known for its hockey and skiing prowess – of Aspen High’s 12 state titles, 10 have come in those two sports (the other two were cross country) – is no longer an afterthought in sports like basketball and football. In fact, Front Range bias and domination, longstanding hallmarks of prep sports in Colorado, has dissipated. The Skiers have arrived. Fans packed gyms and football bleachers and braved the elements to cheer on Aspen in 2010. They were treated to quite a show.The senior-laden, star-packed Skiers boys basketball team won their first 26 games a season ago and were state’s second-ranked team in 3A from November until March. With league and district titles already secured, Aspen swept through the early rounds of the state tournament to book a third consecutive trip to the Great 8 at Fort Collins.Nothing could keep the Skiers faithful from making the trip to share in the moment. Not even a Glenwood Canyon closure, which turned a routine jaunt into a lengthy ordeal.They were rewarded; Aspen pulled off wins over Manitou Springs and Buena Vista to earn its first championship-game appearance. They came up short, but the Skiers impressed many.”This was probably the best team they’ve ever had,” said Mayor Mick Ireland, who covered sports for The Aspen Times in the 1980s and who has supported area teams for three decades. “Doctors, bankers … we were all there. For $5, you can’t beat the entertainment value.”The same could said of Coach Mike Sirko’s football team, which fulfilled its postseason hype this fall. Hard-nosed play and poise helped the Skiers ascend to the top of The Denver Post’s 2A poll at midseason for the first time in program history.An injury to star tailback Nicky Ufkes and two October road losses could not derail Aspen’s quest to secure a fourth consecutive postseason berth. Once there, the Skiers knocked off Platte Valley and advanced to the quarterfinals.The team failed to upset Kent Denver on a brisk November day in front of its home crowd, but Aspen proved it could compete with the state’s elite. Stories of the overtime thriller are sure to live on.”I knew we were going to be in for all we could handle. I can’t say I’m surprised the game went the way it did,” Devils head coach Scott Yates told The Aspen Times. “They were ranked No. 1 for a while this season for good reason. They’re not anything but a class act and a great team.”A team that made a school and a community proud.What a year.- Jon Maletz
Following a massive two-week search, the body of Snowmass Village resident George Aldrich Jr. was found beneath the Maroon Creek Bridge by members of Mountain Rescue Aspen on Dec. 13.Aldrich, 28, a native of Rhode Island, died from an accidental fall from the bridge, the Pitkin County Coroner’s Office determined. He had not been seen since the bitterly cold night of Nov. 27, when he was hanging out with friends at Eric’s Bar until around 10 p.m. At that point, he decided to leave downtown Aspen and boarded a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus at the Rubey Park station. A conversation Aldrich had with another passenger suggests he mistakenly got off at Truscott Place on Highway 82, just outside of town, well short of the Brush Creek intercept lot, where he would have needed to transfer to a Snowmass Village bus.He had been living in the area since early November, working as a lift operator for Aspen Skiing Co. He was reported missing on Nov. 29, when he didn’t show up for work.Friends and family members claimed Aldrich had not been drinking excessively on the night of his disappearance. However, the coroner’s office toxicology report listed his blood-alcohol level at .294, more than three times the legal limit to drive in Colorado.Pitkin County Coroner Dr. Steve Ayers said Aldrich’s body was well-preserved when it was found and was not producing ethanol, which naturally happens during decomposition following death. Therefore, claims that Aldrich’s blood-alcohol level was elevated because of ethanol in his blood are unfounded, he said.”We took a reliable blood sample,” Ayers said. “The toxicology test indicates a large consumption of alcohol. It didn’t get there artificially.”The autopsy showed no signs that Aldrich was struck by a vehicle or that he hit part of the bridge on the way down.The 14-day search involved numerous law-enforcement and emergency personnel, including Aspen and Snowmass police, Pitkin County and Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies, Aspen and Garfield County search-and-rescue teams and others. It also involved bloodhounds, helicopters, underwater remote-operated vehicles and dozens of community volunteers.Volunteers turned out by the dozens to help search for Aldrich, and readers hungered for information throughout the two-week period. Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor said Aldrich was found in an area that had been previously searched. His body may have been overlooked during initial search efforts because it was partially obscured by snow and branches from a nearby tree. Also, his body was found in a slight depression in the ground. Though speculation in the community abounds, police said there was nothing to suggest his death was anything other than an accident.- Andre Salvail
The protest song may have had its heyday in the Greenwich Village coffeehouses of the 1960s. But Aspenite Dan Sheridan proved that a good, biting, satirical tune still has the power to provoke authority, illuminate societal ills, and rally the public.On the first day of 2010, the gentle-natured Sheridan responded to requests from the aprs-ski crowd at Sneaky’s Tavern, a Snowmass Village spot owned by the Aspen Skiing Co., and performed his song “Big Money.” It is one of his best, and best-known tunes, and spotlights a local issue – how extreme wealth has damaged the values of community and funkiness – that wouldn’t come as news to anyone who’s been in Aspen for more than a few days.Essentially proving the song’s point that carefree Aspen is a thing of the past, Sheridan was abruptly fired from his gig. A Skico exec happened to be in the crowd, and even listening to the words – “I think big money sucks, please write that down/ Please take a look what it did to this town” – and thought the sentiment inappropriate for the holiday crowds.When a story appeared in The Aspen Times, however and support for Sheridan began raining down, Skico quickly backpedaled, explaining that the dismissal resulted from a miscommunication. Sheridan was offered his job back.But the nerve had been exposed. In the days following the incident, Sheridan was greeted like a hero, even getting an ovation upon boarding a RFTA bus. For weeks, the papers were filled with letters addressing the matter – some speaking in lofty terms about free speech, some praising Sheridan’s ability to capture a vital issue in a catchy, clever song, some mercilessly beating up on Skico.The episode even made the pages of the Los Angeles Times and The Denver Post, and a Wall Street Journal blog.For his part, Sheridan remained above the fray. His own letter to the local papers actually praised the Skico for “gracefully handling a touchy situation.”For a month or so, Sheridan was something that is in short supply in Aspen and elsewhere: a folk hero.- Stewart Oksenhorn
The Roaring Fork’s propensity for producing Winter Olympians is nothing new. But sending seven to one Games? That is something to celebrate.The roster was impressive, and their stories were captivating. There were newcomers, like 21-year-old skier Alice McKennis of Glenwood Springs and Jake Zamansky, who had to fight his way back onto the U.S. Ski Team by going it alone and paying his own way for a full World Cup season. Then 28, Zamansky was the oldest of 13 first-timers on the country’s Olympic alpine squad.There was 22-year-old nordic standout Simi Hamilton, one of the surprise selections who at this time last year was focusing on schoolwork at Middlebury College in Vermont instead of competing full-time. And there was two-time national figure skating champion Jeremy Abbott, an Aspen native who blossomed into a true medal favorite.There were accomplished veterans. Gretchen Bleiler, the charismatic cover girl, X Games legend and 2006 Olympic silver medalist; Chris Klug, a liver transplant recipient, 2002 parallel giant slalom bronze medalist and tireless organ-donation advocate, making his third Olympic appearance; and Casey Puckett, a 37-year-old former alpine standout and five-time Olympian trying to chase glory in the inaugural skiercross competition – despite a serious shoulder injury.The Vancouver Games did not go according to plan, at least not from an Aspen standpoint. Bleiler fell on both of her halfpipe runs. Klug (seventh place) and Abbott (ninth) produced the only results of note.In the end, however, that was of little consequence. These athletes gave us a reason to tune in each night. They gave us someone to rally behind, and gave a region an overwhelming sense of pride. Now that’s as good as gold.- Jon Maletz
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The blizzards of January and February seem like distant dreams to Colorado water managers. What started as a promising year for water supply — with above-average snowpack as of April 1 — ended Sept. 30 with the entire state in some level of drought.