Aspen housing board chair found not guilty of feeding wildlife

Despite a history of feeding foxes near his home at the base of Shadow Mountain, the chairman of the Aspen-Pitkin County housing board was found not guilty Wednesday of feeding wildlife.

The verdict, handed down by Aspen Municipal Judge Brooke Petersen, came after an at-times contentious three-hour trial, in which four neighbors testified to seeing foxes and/or food near Ron Erickson’s home last summer, though none could say they actually saw him feed the animals.

“I cannot conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Erickson fed the wildlife,” Petersen said.

Before rendering the verdict, however, Petersen noted that feeding wildlife is not only against city law, but also is “dangerous” to the animals, city residents and people’s pets.

“It is simply not an appropriate thing to do,” he said. “If you think that it is the right thing to do – it is not.”

Erickson, 74, was cited by city police for feeding wildlife in 2013 and again in August, said Bobby Schafer, an Aspen police community resource officer. Erickson also was cited for feeding wildlife in May by a game warden for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Kurtis Tesch, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife game warden for the upper Roaring Fork Valley, testified that in the May incident, Erickson was captured feeding foxes by a camera installed by a neighbor. He said he went to Erickson’s office to talk to him about it.

“He explained that his wife made him do it,” Tesch said. “I said it’s illegal. I said we had video of him feeding foxes.”

Erickson testified that he paid the $70 fine for the May incident, though he didn’t admit guilt.

“I accepted responsibility and paid the fine whether I was guilty or not,” Erickson said.

“You weren’t guilty?” asked attorney Lawson Wills, who acted as prosecutor in the case because City Attorney Jim True, a friend of Erickson’s, was expected to testify on his behalf but did not.

“I didn’t say that,” Erickson said.

“Did you see the video depicting you feeding wildlife?” Wills said.

“Yes,” Erickson said.

“Are we trying to be tricky with words here, Mr. Erickson?” Wills countered before Petersen urged him to move on.

Erickson said he did not feed the fox or leave food for it after the Colorado Parks and Wildlife citation in late May.

Neighbors disagreed.

Esther Nabias, who lives two houses down from Erickson’s condo complex, said she saw Erickson on Aug. 14 walk to an area behind their homes she called “a grassy knoll,” where she saw a fox come within 3-to-6 inches of him. She said she didn’t see him actually feed it.

Erickson later cast doubt on her testimony, saying that Nabias’ deck is too far away and the fox is only 8 to 12 inches high so it could not have been seen in the tall grass.

“I think she was put up to it by some of my neighbors,” Erickson said. “I don’t think she lied. I think she saw something she didn’t.”

Alice Black, who lives two units down from Erickson in the same complex, testified that she was on her deck in late August and saw a fox run by from the direction of Erickson’s unit with a rib bone in its mouth.

On Sept. 1, she said her two young children found pieces of apple and meat near Erickson’s deck. Black said that as she was taking pictures of the food, Erickson’s wife came out and watched her. The next day, Black found the pieces of apple and meat, along with a pound of bacon, egg and a piece of bread, had been placed on her deck. She said she didn’t see who put them there.

Ben Black, Alice’s husband, said he put a camera outside Erickson’s deck in April 2016, which recorded Erickson feeding the foxes and was the basis for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife citation. He said he took the cameras down after giving the footage to Aspen police but later reinstalled it in May. That camera went missing soon after and was never recovered, Ben Black said.

All three neighbors said the fox or foxes appear regularly around the Erickson deck, often in both the morning and evening.

Meredith Carroll, an Aspen Times columnist and wife of The Times’ managing editor, testified that she lives next door to Erickson and has seen foxes near his condo unit frequently during the past eight years. Wills asked how frequently.

“It’s like saying how many times did the sun come up?” Carroll said. “(The fox) is like a dog. It’s like a pet.”

Schafer said he responded to Erickson’s house six times in 2016 for wildlife feeding complaints. He said he called the Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer because city police-issued tickets “didn’t change the behavior.”

Petersen urged neighbors to get together and figure out a resolution.

“This matter has been going on for a great deal of time,” the judge said. “Whatever judgment I render is not going to solve the problem. Only neighbors can solve those issues.”

Erickson is the longtime chairman of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority Board, which governs the area’s nearly 3,000 deed-restricted, affordable housing units.