Aspen Newsmakers 2014 — Part 2

Nancy Pfister

Yesterday and today, The Aspen Times, in continuing a tradition that began 11 years ago, takes a look back at the biggest local newsmakers of the year. Today, we publish our selections of spots one through five as well as a photo page featuring some of the people we lost in 2014.

No. 1

Pfister, Lopez murders

Rarely do murder cases become the talk of the mid- to upper-Roaring Fork Valley, only because they are rare in the first place.

But in 2014, the February murder of a well-known Aspen native at her West Buttermilk home and July’s double-slaying of El Jebel parents sent chills through an area that’s not accustomed to such violent crime. Pfister’s death was the first homicide case in Pitkin County since 2001.

The deaths of Nancy Pfister and Eliseo and Mayra Lopez had some common traits: Both murders happened at the victims’ homes, and the crimes were committed by people who also resided there.

Yet they were different in even more ways. Pfister, 57, hailed from a wealthy Aspen family with a local household surname. Her father, Art, was the co-creator of Buttermilk ski area. Her mother, Betty, was a member of Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, during World War II. Pfister was known as an Aspen party girl who hobnobbed in the town’s most social of circles. News of her murder became fodder for tabloids — her death was covered by publications such as the New York Post and National Enquirer and at least two television tabloid programs. At a press conference, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo called her death “a big, big deal for our small community.”

The Lopez couple, meanwhile, were working-class parents who had immigrated to the valley from El Salvador. They left behind two sons who moved to Aspen, where they now live with relatives.

On June 20, about three weeks before the Lopez couple was killed, William Styler, 66, was given a 20-year state prison term for his confession to the second-degree murder of Pfister. Styler said he killed Pfister while she was asleep in her bed. The onetime Front Range anesthesiologist admitted he used a hammer to bludgeon her to death.

His wife, Nancy, also had been a suspect, as had local Katherine Carpenter, who was a personal assistant of Pfister and discovered her body Feb. 26. Nancy Styler and Carpenter were set free, but not before they made several court appearances in connection to first-degree murder charges.

Styler’s apparent motive: ongoing disputes with Pfister over rent. The Styler couple had moved to Aspen in late 2013 and rented out Pfister’s home while Pfister was living in Australia.

The Lopez case, meanwhile, isn’t over yet. The suspect, Williams Amaya, who was 33 at the time of the incident, faces two charges of first-degree murder and two counts of criminal attempt to commit murder in the first degree. He had been living with the Lopezes in the midvalley subdivision of Sopris Village when he allegedly shot his uncle and aunt to death. Defense attorneys have suggested that psychological issues precipitated the alleged double homicide. They say he purchased a .380 caliber handgun the day he shot and killed his relatives.

Investigators contend that he fired shots into the beds of the Lopez boys, intending to kill them. The boys fled the house when their parents were shot, and one of them called 911.

Amaya, who was arrested at his place of work in Glenwood Springs the morning after the deaths, is supposed to undergo a mental evaluation and has not yet entered a plea.

Mayra Lopez was 40 and Eliseo Lopez was 42.

— Rick Carroll

No. 2

Drivers exploit city parking meters for hundreds of thousands of dollars

Exploiting a glitch in Aspen’s antiquated parking-meter system, drivers racked up between $600,000 and $800,000 in free parking between 2010 and 2014.

Installed in 2007, Aspen’s 81 parking meters were susceptible to a scam where people fraudulently paid for parking using maxed-out debit cards. Because the system employed batch processing, the cards weren’t declined until the end of the day, even though parking was granted.

In September, The Aspen Times obtained internal emails between the city’s Parking Department, Finance Department and the City Manager’s Office that revealed that officials knew about the scam as early as 2009. In 2011, when declined transactions totaled about $38,000, city management agreed it was not worth spending $360,000 to update the system, which was scheduled for replacement in 2016.

Annual declines grew to $78,000 in 2012 before ballooning to $227,220 in 2013 and $460,000 in 2014. In September, when the extent of the scam was revealed, the Aspen City Council agreed to spend $600,000 on a new system, which was installed in November.

When the council addressed the issue publicly in September, one resident equated the city’s handling of the scam to stealing public funds. City Councilman Dwayne Romero countered that participation in the scam was much more “malicious” than the city’s procedural failure. Councilwoman Ann Mullins reasoned that the focus should not be on the scammers.

“It’s not entirely their fault that this has happened. The city is very accountable for what happened, too,” Mullins said.

Shortly after, City Manager Steve Barwick announced the reassignment of Parking Director Tim Ware, who was moved into a supervisor role at the city’s two ice rinks, cutting his salary from $87,520 to $58,340.

In November, Barwick announced another change: the restructuring of the city’s senior-level management. This redistribution of responsibility resulted in Capital Asset Director Scott Miller’s promotion to a position heading a new Public Works Department. Assistant City Manager Randy Ready, who oversees the Parking Department, relinquished duties related to the utilities and streets departments.

While the Aspen Police Department has opened an investigation into the fraud, the city is in the process of hiring a third-party auditor to review government financial systems. The goal is to have a report back by late winter, officials said.

Whether Aspen police can identify and charge offenders will depend heavily on information from the banks that issued the debit cards used to fleece the system, police spokeswoman Blair Weyer said recently. Police have compiled a list of debit cards that registered the most declined transactions between September 2013 and November 2014, with the No. 1 card racking up $7,035 in unpaid parking and 177 cards each posting amounts greater than $1,000. Weyer said confidence is “neutral” on the potential for charges.

— Karl Herchenroeder


Aspen Art Museum

The art-world fanfare surrounding the opening of the new downtown Aspen Art Museum in August was nearly matched by the local controversy about the building.

The opening of the privately funded $45 million building, designed by famed Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban, included a 24-hour party that boasted a concert by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, a “silent disco” and throngs of locals and tourists getting their first glimpses of the museum and its exhibitions through the night and morning. The opening festivities kicked off with a daytime firework designed by artist Cai Guo-Qiang titled “Black Lightning,” which exploded over Aspen Mountain, forming the shape of a lightning bolt as crowds of museum patrons, tourists and Aspenites looked on from gondola plaza.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony brought Ban and Gov. John Hickenlooper to town. Mayor Steve Skadron told the Times in August that he hoped the opening would end the years of local debate and controversy over the building’s height, size and modern woven Prodema design.

“It’s here, and it’s time to move forward,” said Skadron, who was the lone dissenting vote against the museum’s construction when it was approved by the Aspen City Council in 2010.

But the opening, it turned out, wasn’t the end of headline-grabbing debate for the museum.

An installation by Guo-Qiang, titled “Moving Ghost Town,” which featured three live African tortoises with iPads affixed to their shells on the museum’s rooftop patio showing footage of Colorado ghost towns, drew the ire of animal rights activists near and far. The “Tortoise-gate” mini-scandal drew protest in a local petition and a glut of letters to the Aspen newspapers, while a petition to close the exhibition from the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity drew 12,000 signatures and a vocal board member of the Turtle Conservancy — which had assisted with making the art installation — condemned it.

Scheduled to stay on view through early October, the tortoises were removed in late August due to unseasonably cold temperatures.

All the squabbling over the building and its shelled inhabitants threatened to overshadow its reason for being: exhibiting contemporary art. Opening exhibitions included a groundbreaking joint show of French post-war artist Yves Klein and American postmodernist David Hammons that brought together works from collections around the world.

“This show only could have happened right here, right now, for the opening,” said Heidi Zuckerman, the Aspen Art Museum director, in August.

As it turned out, the controversy didn’t keep people away from enjoying the Kleiin-Hammons exhibition, other shows from the likes of Tomma Abts and Rosemarie Trockel and the museum’s rooftop café.

In September, the museum reported that 25,000 visitors had made their way through the museum, which has free admission endowed in perpetuity. In little more than a month, the popular new museum had topped its average annual visitor total in its old riverside building and appeared to be a hit.

In November, The Aspen Times reported that Zuckerman was one of the most handsomely paid art museum executives in the country. In 2013, her total compensation package was worth nearly $900,000.

— Andrew Travers

No. 4.

Recreational pot businesses embrace Aspen in 2014

Two young men walked by Green Dragon’s new recreational marijuana outlet on the East Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall last week. They peered through the window, then looked at each other and laughed.

“This is incredible,” one friend said, whose amazement indicated he was new to the area or an out-of-towner.

“There are shops all over town,” said the other man, who appeared to have the knowledge of a local. “It’s the hot story of the year.”

The influx of recreational marijuana retailers in Aspen may not be the biggest story of the year, but the brief conversation between two friends walking through downtown on a snowy evening certainly suggests that the fledgling industry has a lot of people talking.

For the most part, Aspen has been considered a marijuana-friendly locale for decades. But until Colorado voters passed a statewide referendum in November 2012 legalizing pot for recreational use and sales, it was still against the law to purchase and consume the drug — that is, unless you had a state-issued medical-marijuana card.

Now, anyone 21 or older with valid government-issued identification can walk into any of the town’s four recreational marijuana shops — Alternative Medical Solutions, LEAF Aspen, Green Dragon and Silverpeak Apothecary — and purchase a variety of products ranging from bud and hash oils for smoking to THC-infused drink and food products, commonly known as “edibles.”

In early March, Silverpeak Apothecary became the first business to sell marijuana for recreational purposes in Aspen. It was considered something of a late start, considering that several shops opened around Colorado at the beginning of January.

“It was a great first day,” Silverpeak owner Jordan Lewis told The Aspen Times on March 5. “If our early returns are any indication and with more advertising and word of mouth, I think we’re going to do real well.”

Apparently, business has been good, since two more shops are expected to enter the Aspen market soon. Stash, which currently has a shop outside of town in the Aspen Business Center, moves Jan. 9 to the Durant Mall near City Market. And Native Roots, a company with marijuana dispensaries across the state, has received a local license to open in a former restaurant space on South Hunter Street.

The pot shops opened one by one throughout Aspen during the year — it took time, because existing medical-marijuana shops had to line up supplies and get their paperwork in order before they were eligible for state and city licenses allowing them to sell to recreational users.

As the businesses were gearing up to open early in the year, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, Silverpeak owner Jordan Lewis and others joined forces to speak with parents, students, business owners, professionals and newcomers about the industry and its potential impact on the community.

The informational discussions were hosted by the Valley Marijuana Council, a group of local stakeholders brought together by DiSalvo for the purpose of educating people about the myths surrounding the drug as well as its benefits and drawbacks.

Various newspaper stories throughout the year focused on the do’s and don’ts of marijuana use. In Aspen as well as unincorporated areas of the county, it remains illegal to smoke in public; Streets, sidewalks, alleys, parks and open spaces are off limits. The drug may only be consumed on private property, such as a house or a lawn, with permission from the property owner.

The city of Aspen, in adopting local rules governing recreational marijuana sales and consumption last year, prohibited the establishment of private marijuana clubs. The city made it illegal for pot to be consumed inside any commercial property that holds a business license.

— Andre Salvail

No. 5

Mark Hunt makes unprecedented real estate run

Mark Hunt’s name appeared over and over in Aspen newspapers in 2014, each time tied to another multi-million-dollar real estate purchase.

Following a splashy run in Chicago during the late 2000s, Hunt and investors set their sights on Aspen. The prominent developer is now linked to $93.8 million in purchases across 13 commercial properties, with most of the transactions taking place in 2014.

City officials and residents have followed the unprecedented run, wondering what Hunt has in store for all this real estate. The only building he has redeveloped so far is the $13.3 million Aspen 1 Building, which sits on the lot formerly occupied by the Gap Building at East Hopkins Avenue and Galena Street. The building’s ground-level retail spaces are occupied by Theory and Dolce & Gabbana, while a restaurant space sits unused.

In June, Hunt spoke with The Aspen Times, saying, “I have a huge responsibility because of the sheer number of buildings. I expect to be held to a high standard to give people the comfort they deserve.”

He and his development team have since unveiled conceptual plans for five properties, including two lodge proposals and three retail projects. The two lodges, proposed on Main Street and Cooper Avenue, respectively, would add 81 hostel-style lodge units.

Supporters have praised the concepts as a unique approach in addressing Aspen’s need for economy lodging. They’ve applauded his plans — which are absent free-market residential units — as launching pads for young tourists.

Others have regarded Hunt and his design team as “hired guns,” asking for too many variances in proposals that are out of scale. They’ve attacked his requests to forgo requirements on parking and affordable housing, while comparing one of the lodge designs to the Aspen Art Museum.

His Main Street concept, Base2, is headed for Aspen City Council review after gaining support from the Historic Preservation Commission. With the Planning and Zoning Commission on the verge of recommending the council deny his Cooper Avenue concept, Base1, Hunt and his team were granted a continuance.

“Based on this type of product, this really is our best effort,” Hunt said recently. “At the end of the day, if this is the type of product that’s needed, we need your help. We need the help of the community, the help of city council. And if it’s not the right use, then that’s fine, too.”

— Karl Herchenroeder