Aspen remembers Bob Braudis as a caring, unconventional sheriff

Braudis died in the early morning hours of June 3

DJ Watkins talks during a memorial service for former Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen. Braudis died June 3. He was 77.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Bob Braudis was remembered on Saturday by a defense lawyer, a weed doctor, a spiritual academic, a sheriff, two artists, a former girlfriend, a godson and a granddaughter who spoke fondly of the towering, pacifist figure who stitched together the community through compassionate law enforcement.

An intellect. A freak. An activist. A free-thinker. A listener. A problem solver. A father and grandfather. A hippy. A lawman. A conflict resolver. The Philosopher King. Braudis checked all of those boxes and more, they said.

“He was my best friend,” Gerry Goldstein told the audience gathered under the Benedict Music Tent during an early-evening memorial service. “But, then again, he was everybody’s best friend.”

The service drew hundreds of people who paid their respects to Braudis, the counterculture lawman whose style didn’t fit the traditional Western-sheriff stereotype. Former and current elected officials, retired and current law enforcement, friends, residents and admirers — all a little bit grayer — attended.

Braudis died in the early morning hours of June 3 at his Aspen residence. He was 77.

He was born Nov. 28, 1944, in Boston, Massachusetts, where he grew up Catholic and, at one time, wanted to be a priest. He later moved to Buffalo with his family and graduated from Canisiuis High School in 1962, earned his college degree from the University of Buffalo in 1968 and briefly attended law school and worked in finance in New York City before heading west to Aspen in 1970 with his wife and two daughters.

He was part of the generation that opposed the Vietnam War and championed civil rights, and he gravitated toward Aspen’s ski-bum lifestyle of the ’70s. He taught skiing and got to know the community and its characters.

“We were all in serious protest, and we all believed that we could actually make America a better place,” recalled Ed Bastian, a friend of Braudis’, former Aspen resident and founder of Spiritual Paths Foundation in Santa Barbara, California. “And, a lot of us showed up here. Aspen became the destination for hundreds of disillusioned young Americans determined to make America live up to its ideals. … We wanted to make Aspen an example of idealism.”

A painting and picture of former Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis were on display during a memorial service for Braudis on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

He was close friends with Woody Creek gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who chronicled his own 1970 campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County for Rolling Stone magazine. Braudis and friend Michael Cleverly would later write a book chronicling their tales with the writer in “The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson,” published in 2008.

Braudis also found an Aspen and philosophical mentor in Sheriff Dick Kienast, who was elected sheriff in 1976. Kienast would later hire him as deputy. The two abhorred undercover investigative work, and they advocated for the decriminalization of recreational drugs. They both admitted they were soft on drug enforcement and were peaceniks also, viewing policing through a community lens. They hired deputies who lived locally, and their approach toward law enforcement was non-confrontational.

The way Deputy Braudis once defused a potentially violent situation is even cited in self-help and business books.

“While Deputy Braudis was the patrol director, a dispatch came through that an armed man was holding all the patrons hostage at a local restaurant called the Woody Creek Tavern,” according to “How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age,” an adaption of self-help author Dale Carnegie’s best-selling book. “Braudis was the first to arrive on the scene, and, from outside the building, he was apprised of the situation. The man’s estranged wife was prohibiting him from visiting his daughter, whom he had seen in the restaurant. Rather than attempting a peaceful greeting, something clicked inside the man. He yanked out a gun and forced everyone inside to comply with his wishes.

“Deputy Braudis assessed the danger and took a different tack. He peacefully approached the window unarmed. Sensing the deputy’s affability, the gunman allowed him to enter the building. Braudis then proceeded to address the man in a civil manner, asking him to consider the consequences of his actions, which could ultimately lead to him never seeing his daughter again.”

Then, wrote David Shaner in “The Seven Arts of Change: Leading Business Transformation That Lasts”: “Bob’s placid demeanor, his rational discussion of the real issues and his empathy toward the man’s rage validated the suspect. And, the more the man talked with Bob, the more he realized that much of his anger was with himself. He eventually put down his weapon. The man’s whole demeanor then changed. … Bob explained that exiting the tavern with cuffs on would put all the law enforcement people outside the tavern at ease, so that neither Bob nor the suspect would run the risk of being shot. The man complied, and the conflict was ended peacefully.”

Current Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo talks about his predecessor and friend Bob Braudis during a memorial service on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

In 1986, Kienast was retiring, and he convinced Braudis, who was county commissioner at the time after having been a deputy for eight years, to run for Pitkin County sheriff. He won the seat that year and held the same post through 2010 and into early 2011.

“Towards the end of his career, reflection and introspection were increasingly along for the ride,” said DeDe Brinkman, who met Braudis in 1976. The two were close friends and also dated. “Bob was the sheriff of our town, but he was so many things to so many people. He was highly visible and sometimes controversial. He was also a mentor, a mediator, a dependable advisor, a confidant and a good friend. Bob, our philosopher king, would probably want us to remember his mantra: Live and let live.”

Joe DiSalvo, who has been Pitkin County sheriff since Braudis retired, spoke of a mentor who surrounded himself with bright minds.

“In short, I had front seat to a fantastic and sometimes very weird show,” said DiSalvo, who has worked for 35 years in the Sheriff’s Office. “And, it was a free education.”

Braudis and DiSalvo spent a lot of time together the past dozen years, DiSalvo said, noting Braudis struggled after a cardiac arrest in July 2012, but his mind remained sharp.

“In preparation for this day, I remembered how much time Bob and I spent together,” DiSalvo said, “especially in the last 12 years.”

Braudis’ political popularity was undeniable. In November 2000, Pitkin County voters abolished term limits for the sheriff (along with the assessor and clerk) in a campaign that was centered around keeping Braudis in his seat.

Yet, Braudis, in a 2010 interview with The Aspen Times, said he was no puppet master.

“No one has control over Pitkin County,” he said. “This county is way too complex to be controlled by any one thought or any batch of Kool-Aid. Pitkin County is a free-thinking county. What I think I’ve done, if you ask me what my legacy should be, I think it is the team that I have created and maintained for 24 years. I’ll say it again: I think they’re the finest human beings and compose the finest public-safety team on the planet.”

He didn’t go without criticism, however. Candidates running to unseat Braudis said he was too laissez faire, too soft on drugs and there was too much looking the other way. In that same 2010 interview, Braudis said if he were in their shoes, he would have done something about it.

“If I had a message I wanted to deliver to an elected official, I’d make an appointment, even if he was an ogre, even if I considered him a monster. I’d want to come in his cave and tell him why I didn’t like his decisions.”

As Aspen changed over the years, its characters became fewer while its prices soared. Braudis was among those characters and let his hair grow out during his retirement years. He enjoyed photography and the company of his daughters, grandchildren and friends and formed a close alliance with Aspen gallerist and art collector DJ Watkins, whose Gonzo Gallery in Aspen specialized in Hunter S. Thompson posters and memorabilia. Watkins served as the emcee of sorts for the memorial service.

In that interview 12 years ago, Braudis remained one of Aspen’s greatest ambassadors.

“I think it’s done nothing but get better,” he said. “You’re going to have change, so what we did was we channeled this change in a very intelligent manner. Yeah, we’ve got a few mistakes on our land use and environmental legislation, but, for the most part, we’ve tried to preserve what brought us here, which is a beautiful natural setting combined with an intellectual dynamo. Things like arts, music, the Aspen Institute, the high level of education that most of the people that live here possess. Good schools. All those things that people want, we have. Yes, a few mistakes, but what city doesn’t make mistakes? I think it’s just as exciting for the freshmen coming here as it was for me 40 years ago.”

One of his observations about Aspen rang especially prescient.

“If the big financial apocalypse comes, there will be people fleeing here to weather it out,” he said. “It will make it more exclusive here, and they’ll want a very good sheriff.”