Aspen’s tenacious Jan Hamilton and her courtroom crusade
ASPEN – It seemed awkward and uncomfortable to interview someone in a place of worship, but that’s what Dr. Jan Barton Hamilton insisted we do.
Originally we’d scheduled the interview in the basement conference room of Aspen’s Christ Episcopal Church; Hamilton persuaded me to join her in the sanctuary instead.
Perhaps by obliging, I would learn more about her mission, or so it seems, of filing lawsuits and restraining orders in the local court system; routinely registering complaints with the Aspen Police Department; fighting an eviction from Aspen Country Inn; arguing her cases to a Pitkin County judge; and filing discrimination claims based on her lesbianism.
As we sat in the pew, Hamilton, as usual, was well put together, her hair neatly in place. Her one-piece, black ski suit was zipped down far enough to display the crucifix she wore around her neck. Hamilton had been in yoga class that morning, she told me. Also part of her daily routine, she said, is to find solace in the sanctuary of Christ Episcopal Church.
Then Hamilton cracked open the Bible to read me a passage from Romans. Already, the interview had gone awry.
• • • •
That morning of April 22 was nothing like the morning of nearly five weeks earlier, on March 17. Then, the 68-year-old Hamilton seemed a broken woman. Sitting in the Pitkin County courtroom, she buried her makeup-free face in her hands, occasionally bursting out in audible sobs. Instead of wearing her usual, neon-colored clothing, the disheveled Hamilton donned orange and white prison wear, while a jail deputy stood guard.
Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely, who has been hearing cases involving Hamilton since 2002, advised her that she faced a felony stalking charge and a misdemeanor count of false reporting, after a series of episodes at Aspen Country Inn, a senior housing complex governed by the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA).
The judge also informed Hamilton – a registered dietitian who’d earned a Ph.D. in human nutrition from Louisiana State University and performed her post-doctoral fellowship at Georgetown University – that she faced prison time if convicted.
“I can’t believe this is America and this is happening to me,” Hamilton cried, her voice rising. “I’m innocent!”
Hamilton had spent the previous night in Pitkin County jail, after Fernandez-Ely ruled she had violated the terms of a protection order filed in July by one of her Aspen Country Inn neighbors.
Hamilton will have her chance to prove her innocence in Pitkin County District Court, where, on April 8, the district attorney filed the charges. Meanwhile, she is free on $1,000 bond. The court has appointed her a public defender.
• • • •
What’s not in dispute is that Hamilton knows her way around the Pitkin County Courthouse, including both the basement level – which houses the Aspen Police Department and Sheriff’s Office – and the top floor, home of the county and district court, and the clerk’s office.
There is an apparent strain for those government officials who regularly deal with Hamilton, who once admitted to Judge Fernandez-Ely that “I’m high maintenance.”
So far this year, Hamilton has been involved in 20 civil disputes in Pitkin County’s combined courts system. The disputes range from restraining orders to multi-million dollar lawsuits.
Her litigious nature recently prompted Carolyn Jemison, clerk of court, to instruct Hamilton to conduct her business on Thursdays only, for 15 minutes. Hamilton has filed her civil court actions pro se, meaning she does so without an attorney.
“She has a right to file lawsuits like anyone else, as long as she pays her fees and files in the accepted style and manner,” Jemison said. “However, since there are so many filings there’s a stress on the clerks at the courthouse because we’re trying to manage cases for other customers of the court, since they also have rights.”
Hamilton has cooperated since the new limits took effect, said Jemison, who works directly with Hamilton.
“This has proved to be more efficient time-wise and has eliminated a lot of the hassles,” Jemison said, adding that as a court clerk, she can explain the legal procedure to Hamilton, but she can’t give legal advice to Hamilton, whose ex-husband is an attorney in Texas. Hamilton also has two sons who are lawyers.
Through April 29 of this year, the Aspen Police Department opened 23 cases involving Hamilton, according to records supervisor Cathleen Treacy. Just one or two remain active, Treacy said.
Most of the calls originated from Aspen Country Inn, where Hamilton had lived until recently. The calls chiefly concerned Hamilton complaining about her neighbors, or the neighbors complaining about Hamilton.
But it’s not just phone calls to the APD. Hamilton also has made it a point to visit the cop shop when she feels she is having problems or needs help. Patrol officer Chip Seamans has become – in the same manner as court clerk Jemison – Hamilton’s APD “point person.”
“She has made a habit of contacting me directly,” Seamans said in his office. He then displayed an 8-inch-thick paper file dedicated solely to Hamilton. “And I have welcomed her to use me as a conduit.”
Hamilton’s history with the department dates back to 2001, after she moved here from Vail. But this year it has intensified, Seamans said.
“I have spent a great deal of hours with her,” he said. “There’s a lot of redundancy with what she says.”
• • • •
Based on court filings alone, the longer Hamilton makes Aspen her home, the more difficulty she has finding places that will accept her. She was banned from First Baptist Church, and now Crossroads Church, because of her behavior – though Hamilton has alleged in court documents it’s because the pastor said she had a “mental problem and had been ‘deceived by the devil.'” She also has sued various congregation members, including the pastor.
She’s been evicted three times from her housing, sometimes inhabiting the St. Moritz Lodge between rental stints, court documents show.
And in February, APCHA filed an eviction against Hamilton in Pitkin County Court, after she was served with a notice to vacate Aspen Country Inn in January. Hamilton had been living at the senior affordable housing complex on a month-to-month lease at a rate of $786 a month, after living on a one-year lease from July 2008 to June 2009.
Hamilton consistently paid her rent on time, but the eviction came after a slew of Hamilton-related police visits to Aspen Country Inn. She also complained to the housing office that some tenants broke rules by being loud, using abusive language, trespassing and defacing the door to her unit, among other allegations. The allegations rarely, if ever, were found to have merit, much like the 10 restraining orders she has filed over the years. A judge dismissed each one of them.
According to APCHA attorney Thomas Smith and APCHA Executive Director Tom McCabe, tenants’ quality of life had deteriorated to the point that eviction was the only option.
“We decided it was in the best interest of Aspen Country Inn and the affordable housing program that the lease not be renewed,” Smith said. “And she told us she wouldn’t move out, so APCHA filed an eviction.”
Through mid-April, McCabe said, Smith’s legal fees connected to the eviction case and other court actions involving APCHA stood at approximately $25,000 – a cost that taxpayers will absorb. APCHA, however, has filed a motion for attorneys fees and court costs totaling $14,000, according to Smith.
Last month, Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely ordered Hamilton to leave Aspen Country Inn – not because of the eviction, but because of an ongoing battle with fellow tenant Joanna Green, who has a restraining order against Hamilton. The judge ordered that Hamilton could not return to her apartment because she had violated the protection order; Hamilton was allowed to retrieve her belongings only with the assistance of law-enforcement officials.
Even so, Hamilton has waged a campaign claiming discrimination by APCHA, based on her sexuality. On March 5, she sued APCHA for $1 million, alleging it evicted her because she is a lesbian.
That same day she sued seven Aspen Country Inn tenants for $15,000 each. The seven tenants had all signed a letter to Fernandez-Ely, supporting Hamilton’s eviction.
Hamilton’s claim: “defamation of character, slander and conspiracy to have Jan B. Hamilton evicted from her apartment at the Aspen Country Inn.” She also has accused tenants of committing “hate crimes” by removing a Human Rights Coalition bumper sticker and an equal rights insignia from the door to her unit.
In turn, Smith said he has agreed to handle all of the tenants’ cases on a pro bono basis, meaning they won’t have to pay for his representation. Smith noted that APCHA will not absorb those legal bills either.
• • • •
Hamilton’s propensity to sue isn’t restricted to just Aspen Country Inn tenants. She filed a protection order against her ex-husband, a Texas attorney, claiming he engaged in abusive behavior toward her. Filed in January 2009, the case was later dismissed.
In February 2008 she sued the pastor of Crossroads Church for $5,000, accusing him of libel and slander. The suit was dismissed the same month.
She also sued members of her Bible class at the church, including siblings Nancy and Charles Wall. The two were sued for $12 million in damages in the defamation and slander lawsuit. The Walls have a restraining order against Hamilton, whom they claimed stalked and made threats of physical assault toward them. Hamilton violated the restraining order in 2008, leading to a two-year deferred criminal conviction.
Hamilton alleged the Walls “played a pivotal role” in having her banned from the church (she was arrested for trespassing its grounds in 2005, according to Hamilton’s court exhibits). Her claims for relief from the Walls include: $1 million in Philip Morris stock; a new Range Rover every three years; “perpetually stocked wine cellar, with the best European wines, champagne and Cuban cigars”; a fully stocked freezer with lobster, caviar and organic Limousin beef; a full pass to the Aspen Music Festival, and a $1 million donation to the St. Benedict’s Monastery in Old Snowmass. The suit was dismissed this month.
And at a competency hearing Feb. 24 in Pitkin County Court, which was held to determine if Hamilton was capable to represent herself in court, 84-year-old Ralph Melville testified to Judge Fernandez-Ely that he liked Hamilton and found her to be an affable person. He also suggested that she might have a split personality.
In turn, Hamilton sued Melville and his wife, Marian, for $1 million. Among Hamilton’s claims were that the two were instrumental in having her banned from Crossroads Church.
• • • •
At a court hearing in March, Pitkin County Judge Fernandez-Ely noted that “not in my 10 years as a judge” had she seen someone as litigious as Hamilton.
However, the judge has remarked, more than once, that Hamilton is bright and savvy, and has managed to navigate through the court system without an attorney, albeit with minimal success.
Fernandez-Ely has ruled that Hamilton is competent enough to maintain her presence in the court system. Yet the judge also has made it clear that Hamilton consumes much of the court’s time with overlapping arguments that aren’t relevant to the cases being heard. The judge has also told Hamilton she is not taking responsibility for her problems.
“You have confused and muddled so many issues that it’s hard to see the straight line,” the judge told Hamilton at an April 21 hearing, during which time Fernandez-Ely granted summary judgment to APCHA in its bid to evict Hamilton.
Hamilton’s competence also has been subject to the scrutiny of the court, but Vince Savage, a local psychologist and director of Valley Information and Service, testified in March that she has the ability to make sound decisions, and doesn’t pose a physical threat to herself or others.
“Is she irritating? Yes,” Savage testified.
Hamilton had undergone therapy with Savage as part of a sentence for a misdemeanor trespassing conviction involving Nancy Wall. Savage, in a letter to the court in September 2008, wrote that “it seems that social-system constraints [have] frustrated Jan into adopting an attitude of entitlement leading to some violations of commonly accepted mainstream behavior boundaries.”
Often an advocate of mediation, Fernandez-Ely said she did not see that possible with Hamilton and her adversaries.
“The reason I think mediation is hopeless is that I know of at least 15 lawsuits you have,” the judge told Hamilton at a recent hearing.
Replied Hamilton: “When I try to communicate I’m accused of harassing people.”
Seamans, the police officer, called Hamilton “smart and pleasant.” But he wondered if Hamilton’s energies are misguided.
“I question her mantra, which is: ‘I need to realize justice.’ She works, she works, and if she put as much time in any other endeavor as she does this, she’d be at the forefront of her career, or the career she has chosen.”
• • • •
After Hamilton read the Romans passage from the Bible to me, I was ready to proceed with a series of questions I had prepared.
But our stay in the sanctuary came to an abrupt end when Father Bruce McNab learned we were there. Kindly, yet sternly, he asked us to leave the chapel, saying it was “totally inappropriate” for us to conduct an interview there.
He did not get an argument from me or Hamilton. McNab said we could do the interview in the room next door.
We then resumed our business, which included Hamilton reading me a six-page autobiography of her life, which she’d written the night before. She shepherded me through her upbringing in West Texas all the way to her role as “a pioneer in preventive nutrition.” Hamilton still conducts fee-based seminars and workshops related to nutrition, and is the CEO of Nutritional Biomedicine Inc., for which contact information is listed for both Aspen and Plainview, Texas, according to the company website.
But her career has been dealt setbacks, namely by what she calls a perception of “foul play,” which comes after she was accused – and sanctioned with a permanent injunction – by the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners for practicing medicine without a license. Hamilton persistently denies and continues to fight the allegations. In court filings she claims to have even testified to the state House of Representatives, asking that the injunction be removed. She also sued the Board of Medical Examiners and its staff in December 2009 for $34 million in alleged lost wages. The suit, filed in Denver’s federal court, was dismissed one month later.
She declined, however, to field questions from me about the lawsuits, the complaints and the Aspen Country Inn eviction.
Instead, she asked me to sign an agreement stipulating that no pictures of her would be taken without her permission; no story would be printed without her approval; and no story about current lawsuits would be printed “due to the HIPPA privacy act of those involved.”
“Any violation of this agreement will be considered a breach of trust and result in a potential lawsuit against the guilty party,” concluded the agreement.
I told Hamilton I would not sign the contract. She didn’t seem surprised, then later offered, “I have no animosity or hate toward anyone.” Similar declarations had been made in the courtroom, where she once called Smith her friend, and at one of her criminal proceedings remarked: “I want to be a valuable citizen of this community.”
At another hearing, an Aspen Country Inn tenant testified, while glaring at Hamilton: “I dislike you immensely.”
Hamilton, who is suing the tenant, William Leonard, replied: “Well, I am OK with you. I want us to learn to live together peacefully.”
At the end of our meeting, Hamilton and I shook hands. She hugged me as well, expressing her desire for us to build a friendship.
Later that day, I saw her at the courthouse, where she was in the clerk’s office, apparently reviewing legal documents. We chatted briefly before a court official told us to move our conversation into the hallway.
Both times I met Hamilton that day, we’d been instructed to take our discussion elsewhere. For Hamilton, it seemed to be business as usual.
“There’s a divine order to all of this,” she said, exuding a confident, knowing smile. “God has a plan for me.”
$34 million – Amount of Jan Hamilton’s counterclaim against Chicago Insurance Co. for alleged noncoverage
$12 million – Amount of Jan Hamilton’s lawsuit against Charles and Nancy Wall *
$25,000 – Legal fees incurred by Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority in its eviction and other actions involving Jan Hamilton
23 – Number of police cases involving Jan Hamilton in 2010 **
10 – Number of civil restraining orders filed by Hamilton in Pitkin County Court
10 – Number of restraining orders dismissed by judge
7 – Number of Aspen Country Inn tenants Jan Hamilton is suing in Pitkin County
3 – Number of restraining orders filed against Hamilton in Pitkin County
2 – Number of restraining orders granted
* Suit has been dismissed
** Through April 29
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