Aspen man’s aggressive cough toward woman on trail prompts more serious charge
An Aspen man who allegedly coughed in a woman’s face on purpose in March after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Pitkin County has been charged with criminally violating the county’s public health order, according to court records.
If convicted, Tom Patierno, 34, faces as many as 18 months in the Pitkin County Jail and a fine of as much as $5,000, said Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Richard Neiley. Patierno is next due in court July 30.
An Aspen police officer initially charged Patierno with the petty offense of disorderly conduct after his allegedly aggressive behavior toward the 68-year-old woman, who asked him to move over as they approached each other on the Rio Grande Trail, according to a March police report.
However, about 10 days after the March 29 incident, Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann — through the county attorney’s office — charged him with the misdemeanor count of violating the March 23 county public health order, according to Pitkin County Court records.
Patierno was “engaging in an ‘essential activity’ without complying with ‘social distancing requirements’” in violation of the public health order, according to court records.
On Monday, Koenemann said she made the decision because Patierno’s act appeared to be intentional.
“The facts seem to indicate that this was a purposeful act that unfortunately impacted someone who is in a vulnerable population,” Koenemann said in a text message to The Aspen Times. “We are looking at egregious violations and someone purposefully coughing on someone certainly fits that bill.
“The (Pitkin Board of County Commissioners) felt this was a clear violation … and crossed the line and directed the attorney’s office to pursue a violation of the (public health order).”
Pitkin County Board Vice Chair Kelly McNicholas Kury said the case struck commissioners as particularly egregious.
“It was so deliberate,” she said Monday. “His actions were not accidental. They seemed like they were in retaliation for request for space.”
Patierno’s attorney, former District Attorney Sherry Caloia, declined Monday to comment on the case.
The COVID-19 virus disproportionally affects adults 60 years old and older, making members of that population a higher risk for severe illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The incident in question occurred March 29 in the early afternoon when the woman, her husband and a friend were walking on the Rio Grande Trail, according to the March police report. The woman told police that Patierno is a “large man” and was walking in the middle of the trail with a female friend.
“As they got closer to each other, (the woman) stated she said to Patierno, ‘Could you please just move over, give us some room?’” the woman said, according to the report. “(The woman) told me that when she said this, Patierno came up close to her, got in her face and intentionally coughed in her face.”
The woman said Patierno was 1-to-2 feet from her face and that she felt either spit or his breath when he coughed, the report states.
“(The woman said) that she was very frightened by this incident, and was very scared that she would get sick because of it,” according to the police report.
Patierno admitted to police that he “got in her face” and made a “coughing gesture,” the report states. He said he was frustrated with people’s reaction to the virus.
“I’m just so sick and tired of all these people and their paranoia,” Patierno said when the officer asked him why he approached the woman. “They didn’t have to say anything to me. I was in the middle of the trail and there is only so much room.”
Patierno said he was already on-edge because just before the confrontation, a woman yelled at him for smoking a cigarette. He later told the police officer he was stressed because he’d lost his job as a result of the pandemic and was “just aggravated at how people are reacting during this crisis,” according to the police report.
“Tom stated that he was sorry for his actions and stated that he knew he definitely overreacted,” the report states.
On Monday, the victim said she didn’t develop COVID-19 after the interaction with Patierno.
“I had a very scary two weeks though,” she said. “And more than that … I was concerned that someone was feeling this way about the virus and being a threat to the community.”
Pitkin County Court Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely recused herself from the case because her husband, John Ely, is the Pitkin County attorney. The case is being handled by Garfield County Court Judge Paul Metzger.
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