Aspen Highlands lift-pusher released from state hospital

A former Aspen resident who threw a man off an Aspen Highlands ski lift four years ago was ordered released from the state’s psychiatric hospital Tuesday to live on his own in Pueblo.

Thomas Proesel, 35, had asked to be able to live in an Aspen condominium he still owns during the release, which would be closely monitored by state officials, but Pitkin County District Judge Chris Seldin ruled against that course of action Tuesday.

“It does seem to me that Mr. Proesel has made significant progress at (the state psychiatric hospital in Pueblo),” Seldin said during a hearing Tuesday in which Proesel and his doctors appeared via video link from Pueblo. “This is a significant achievement for Mr. Proesel and I commend you for all your hard work.”

Proesel was riding up the Loge Peak Lift at Aspen Highlands on Jan. 17, 2016, with a local photographer and another man when the incident occurred near the top of the lift. The reason Proesel, who’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia, pushed the photographer off the lift was unclear, though he may have misinterpreted a seemingly innocuous remark or thought he was laughing at him.

The photographer fell 20 to 25 feet, but landed in a pocket of deep snow — it had snowed 5 to 6 inches the night before — and was not injured.

Seldin found probable cause to charge Proesel with attempted first-degree assault, but found him not guilty of the crime by reason of insanity and committed him indefinitely to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo in July 2016.

The photographer, who still lives in Aspen, remains leery of Proesel and believes he “tried to kill him,” prosecutor Don Nottingham said in court Tuesday. And while the victim said he would be nervous if Proesel was walking around Aspen, he also told Nottingham he believes Proesel should have a chance to get out if mental health professionals think it’s appropriate.

Seldin said he didn’t think Aspen was appropriate for Proesel because of a lack of mental health professionals who remain in the area long enough to establish a long-term relationship with him.

In Pueblo, Proesel will live by himself in an apartment, be monitored for sobriety, and will continue to take the anti-psychotic medication and will be closely monitored by a case manager. He also must get a job.

According to Pueblo hospital professionals, Proesel is at low risk to reoffend and commit a crime of violence and has no history of violence except for the incident at Aspen Highlands, said Ashley Andrews, a public defender. In addition, he has strong family support, with regular contact with his parents, she said.

Proesel has been allowed out of the hospital for six hours or more at a time for the last year and a half without any problems, Andrews said.

Proesel has a history of abusing alcohol and marijuana, and his psychiatrist said marijuana can trigger psychotic reactions even in people taking anti-psychotic medication. For that reason, Seldin ordered that he be tested three to four times a week for drugs and alcohol for the first six months of his release. After that, the testing can taper off for the next six months, the judge said.

Proesel will also be allowed to travel out of state for a maximum of 14 days under the release protocols. Seldin said he’d like Proesel to eventually be able to settle in the Chicago area where his family lives, though that can’t happen unless the judge decides to unconditionally release him from custody of the state hospital.