A downhill slide
“The only moment I really love is during a race, and afterwards I fall into a sort of hole, and it is not worth talking about.” Francois BonlieuAs a wildly successful French ski racer in the 1960s, Francois Bonlieu knew the highs of his chosen sport. He was the giant slalom gold medalist at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck and was quoted as saying he’d continue racing until he was “40, 50, 60 years old.””Ski racing is the most beautiful thing in the world,” he said. But Bonlieu also knew the lows. He reportedly died years later, beaten to death while living on the streets of Marseilles, a port city in southern France. Aspen has seen many ski racers over the years, professional and recreational. Bonlieu likely passed through the Roaring Fork Valley during his time in the limelight, as have many groundbreaking racers, some of whom made Aspen their home.Which brings us to Josef Odermatt. A Swiss ski racer in the 1960s and ’70s, Odermatt came to the United States and took the professional skiing tour by storm at a time when the French all but dominated ski racing.
Three decades later, Odermatt is now a fugitive, on the lam from criminal charges in Eagle and Pitkin counties. His last brief stay in jail was in January 2003, and then the former ski racer and Aspen resident vanished. In late September, Odermatt appeared on Eagle County’s most-wanted list for two warrants when he failed to appear in court.His Aspen friends remember Odermatt as a charismatic, personable guy with incredible skiing talent, and yet local cops have a long list of arrests beginning in 1995 and ending with a domestic violence incident with an ex-girlfriend in early 2003.”He was a great guy with a heart of gold who always wanted the best for anyone who was his friend,” said Aspenite Jim Mickey, who once tuned Odermatt’s skis on the pro tour. “He has not had good relationships with women for some reason – I don’t know what the deal was there.”Basalt Police Chief Keith Ikeda says Odermatt’s record is typical of a man who got caught up in substance abuse and a volatile relationship. What resulted were charges that escalated from DUIs and harassment to burglary and resisting arrest.It all adds up to a former ski racing champion whose life swerved radically off course, and who left wildly different impressions in the Aspen area – that of a racing hero, and that of a runaway from the law.A racing phenomJosef Odermatt was a member of the Swiss racing team who competed in World Cup races and routinely placed in the top 10. Born in 1952, he was raised in the small town of Dallenwil, Switzerland. His family’s business was window-making, and Odermatt grew up skiing, eventually joining the Swiss national team.”When Josef was 16, he was a phenom in Switzerland,” said one source in Aspen who asked to remain anonymous. “If I remember correctly, he broke his back at Kitzbuehel, and was in the hospital for six months.”By the time he had healed, the Swiss team had lost interest and Odermatt decided to join the pro tour in the United States. He came to the United States with a childhood racing friend, and the two drove from race to race in a used car they bought together.
“It was ragamuffin racing,” the source said.Jim Mickey met Odermatt in the mid-’70s, when he began tuning the racer’s skis. Most of the pro tour took place in North America, but there were occasional races in Japan and Austria. The tour featured head-to-head competition in slalom and giant slalom, with a $20,000 cash prize for the winners.The tour was regularly broadcast live on NBC, CBS or ABC, and announced by Aspen resident and former U.S. Ski Team coach Bob Beattie. Odermatt was fast, but often finished second to French racer Henri Duvillard.”He was a very talented athlete,” Mickey said of Odermatt. “I used to call him Smoke because he was a smokin’ ski racer, but he had a lot of different nicknames.”Jon Reveal, a former mountain manager at Aspen Mountain, met Odermatt in the mid-’70s while staging pro races at Bear Valley, Calif.”I thought he was a great guy who would always be extremely good at what he did,” Reveal said. “He had an intensity that was marvelous.”But in the ’70s, skiing hard sometimes went hand in hand with partying hard.”The attitude around Aspen then was that drugs are good, and [Odermatt] might have gotten caught up in that,” said another person who wanted to remain nameless. “Some got out of it, and some got sucked in and ruined their lives.”
People interviewed for this article disagree on where Odermatt went after he left ski racing. Some believe he was jailed in Europe for drug charges; others say he returned to his Swiss hometown to work for the family business, get married and open his own gym.Whatever the case, Odermatt returned to the Roaring Fork Valley in the early ’90s and soon ran afoul of the law.Charges add upReveal is almost at a loss to explain the former racer’s downfall.”Nowadays you might say someone like him had a bipolar disorder,” Reveal said. “But that happens to people – like the executive who spends 30 years running General Motors, and then one day someone takes his job and he’s sitting on the outside looking in, wondering, ‘Now what do I do?’ But I really didn’t see any of that in Josef.”Odermatt called Reveal at the Aspen Skiing Company in the early ’90s, looking for work. Reveal introduced the former racer to some of his colleagues, with confidence that Odermatt would dive headfirst into a Skico job.Reveal left Skico in the mid-’90s for a resort in Montana and lost touch with Odermatt. But Aspenite Dave Durrance said Odermatt wound up teaching skiing to “people of the highest caliber, who had the best skiing skills, since Josef had the rare ability to take them even further.” Durrance sometimes skied with Odermatt for fun, and said he never lost his talent.But Odermatt’s contacts with law enforcement began in the mid-’90s, when he was charged by the Colorado State Patrol for driving under the influence and possession of marijuana in September 1995.
The Aspen Police Department first met Odermatt in August 1998, when a woman accused him of exposing himself to her and her granddaughter at Herron Park in Aspen. Odermatt told police he was drinking beer in the park and didn’t think anyone else was there, but he was cited for indecent exposure and possession of marijuana.Odermatt was charged again with driving under the influence by Pitkin County in 1999, and his roommate at Lazy Glen trailer park reported that he had shoved her around as she tried to remove some of her belongings from the house. It was categorized as a domestic violence incident, but Odermatt was never arrested.In 2002, however, a string of arrests in Basalt arose from a relationship apparently gone awry. Odermatt was arrested in March for harassment and domestic violence incidents that allegedly occurred at his girlfriend’s home. That May he was charged with disorderly conduct when a neighbor told police that Odermatt was intoxicated, yelling obscenities and threatening people with a rock in his hand. When he was arrested, he was taken to Eagle County where police allegedly found marijuana and a pipe in his pocket.The charges against Odermatt escalated quickly in July 2002 when his ex-girlfriend told police that he had broken into her house and was threatening her roommate. The former ski racer was charged with criminal trespass, second-degree burglary, domestic violence, harassment, criminal mischief and resisting arrest.He was also charged with possession of cocaine after Eagle County deputies allegedly found a bindle of the drug in his pocket. Odermatt posted $18,000 bail to be released from Eagle County, but that’s not where his arrest record ends.In late July his ex-girlfriend obtained a restraining order against Odermatt, but according to court records, Odermatt violated the order twice, either by calling the woman repeatedly or appearing at her house.His last contact with police occurred in January 2003, when he was charged with a handful of crimes in Pitkin County District Court including third degree assault, second degree burglary and resisting arrest.
According to an arrest report, his ex-girlfriend had moved to unincorporated Pitkin County, and was home one night when Odermatt broke in and assaulted her, yelling at her while punching and kicking her.This time, Odermatt posted a $20,000 bail in Pitkin County and was released with help from a Glenwood Springs bondsman. His first court appearance was scheduled for Feb. 10, but Odermatt never appeared.Judge James Boyd of the 9th Judicial District upped Odermatt’s bond to $50,000, but the warrant has yet to be served. Odermatt hasn’t been seen in the Roaring Fork Valley since.”To be honest with you, I don’t think he’s still alive,” said one of the nameless sources. “If he didn’t get killed or die of alcoholism, hopefully he went somewhere to get help.””On the outside I know it looks like he’s the bad guy, but I know him better than that,” Mickey said. “I think he got set up. He’s not a perfect person – but none of us are. He just got on the bad side of the police.”Chief Ikeda in Basalt said he expects Odermatt’s friends to side with the racer. But he also sees Odermatt in light of the many arrest reports – as someone who tried to control a relationship to the point of becoming violent, and let substance abuse get the best of him.”He was a good skier, but he’s just one of those abusers that fits into that profile of power and control,” Ikeda said. “Since he’s from Switzerland, he’s probably there.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org