Anatomy of a controversy
November 20, 2006
The Aspen Times stirred up quite a hornet’s nest last week with a story about Police Chief Loren Ryerson’s call for an investigation into the actions of Pitkin County Sheriff’s Investigator Joe DiSalvo.Today we’d like to explain why we did what we did, discuss at least one thing that we did not do, and voice some other thoughts on the whole affair.It all started with a letter from one “June Tramwell, Basalt, CO,” which was sent to media outlets, government officials and law enforcement agencies. It accused DiSalvo of criminal conduct and various kinds of bad behavior, in connection with a Nov. 9 incident at the courthouse between the deputy and a local teen.Several readers have criticized the Times for running the Tramwell letter before verifying who wrote it.Let us be clear: The Aspen Times never published the letter.What did we do?When we first saw the letter, we were deeply skeptical but didn’t know what to think. So a reporter walked over to the sheriff’s office to speak with DiSalvo and anyone else with knowledge of the allegations.Officers interviewed by the reporter said that elements of the letter – the people involved, an altercation of some kind – were correct. But nobody knew June Tramwell, or where she had obtained her information. DiSalvo, for obvious reasons, wouldn’t comment. But Ryerson called for an investigation.So the Times had an inflammatory but at least partially factual letter. We also had a police chief calling for an outside agency to investigate the letter’s allegations.The next day, the newspaper ran a story saying Ryerson was urging an investigation. The letter was mentioned in the story as the reason for Ryerson’s statement, but it was not quoted directly and did not run as a letter to the editor.We still believe it was news when the local police chief called for an investigation into the conduct of a senior member of the sheriff’s office. It was also news later in the week when a sheriff’s investigator suggested that the letter was written by, or informed by, a member of the police department. Publishing these stories was the right thing to do.However, we also admit that both our first story (Wednesday, Nov. 15) and Thursday’s follow-up were not perfect. We should have cast more doubt on the letter by stating simply that we couldn’t verify Tramwell’s existence. We also should not have used the term “sexual harassment” in describing the letter. Sexual harassment was among the letter’s various allegations, but those words are so vague and so charged that they only introduced confusion.At this point, the letter’s author is still unknown. The mother of the alleged victim has debunked nearly all of the letter’s allegations and says DiSalvo, despite losing his temper at the courthouse, has actually been a positive influence on her troubled son. This affair has benefited nobody, and we’re especially sorry for the trouble it caused Deputy DiSalvo.But good may come from this mess if it prompts further discussion between the police department and the sheriff’s office. If, as many suspect, this letter came from within the police department, then this incident is just one sign of a much deeper and more troubling interagency rift that requires immediate, focused action.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.