DA: Pitkin County sheriff candidate may have broken law
An Aspen police officer and candidate for Pitkin County sheriff was under criminal investigation this summer for allegedly not reporting a child sexual assault he heard about three years ago, according to law enforcement sources.
However, Walter Chi was never charged with misdemeanor failure to report child abuse because the 18-month statute of limitations had run out, according to a Sept. 8 letter from District Attorney Jeff Cheney to Pitkin County Sheriff’s investigator Bruce Benjamin.
“Accepting all of the facts contained within your investigative report as true, I believe there was probable cause that Mr. Chi did fail to make a report mandated by (Colorado law),” Cheney wrote. “Therefore, based upon the facts presented in your investigative report and the law, at this time, we decline to initiate criminal prosecution against Mr. Chi.”
On Wednesday, Chi said he was never contacted by the Sheriff’s Office or the DA’s Office and told he was under investigation. In addition, he said the person who told him about the incident three years ago never mentioned that it involved child sexual crimes and that he didn’t hear information he thought should be reported.
“The issue is I didn’t know what it was,” Chi said. “I didn’t have any knowledge to make a mandatory report, so I didn’t.
“(If the charge had been filed) I would totally fight it because I’m not guilty at all.”
Further, Chi said he suspected political chicanery with the release of the information coming a month before the November election in which he is challenging Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo.
“I’m not surprised this is coming out … because it’s an election year,” he said. “No one interviewed me about it. I’ve been honest with anyone who’s asked me about it.
“I don’t know why it’s turned into this.”
The Aspen Times obtained information about the case through a standard election-season request to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office seeking any “involvements” seven candidates for public office this November might have had with the agency in the past two years. The same request was submitted to the Aspen Police Department and the Snowmass Village Police Department. No other issues were found in those requests.
Benjamin, the longtime juvenile crimes investigator for the Sheriff’s Office, said Wednesday he did not pursue the case with an eye toward the election. He also said DiSalvo did not suggest he do anything different with Chi’s case than any other.
“Such matters are difficult because I’ve worked with Walter for many years, as I have with Joe, and I consider Walter a good friend,” Benjamin said.
DiSalvo said Wednesday he knew about the case and referred it to Cheney for an opinion when Benjamin brought it to him. He said he treated the case as he would any other.
The situation came to light in June, when Benjamin began investigating an incident that occurred three years ago between a 5-year-old girl and a boy who was at least 15 years old at the time, according to Benjamin’s report and Cheney’s letter. The incident had recently come to the attention of someone at the county Department of Human Services, according to his report.
The girl’s grandmother told Benjamin she walked into her granddaughter’s room at that time and found the boy with his pants down. The grandmother also shared “very detailed” information “that her granddaughter shared with her soon after about having sexual contact with the … juvenile,” Benjamin’s report states.
Benjamin asked her why she didn’t report the incident three years ago, and the grandmother said she didn’t know what to do at the time so she called her friend, Chi.
“(The grandmother) then told me that Officer Chi explained to her that she can report the incident to the Sheriff’s Office and explained to her the general steps involved in an investigation of this sort,” according to Benjamin’s report. “(The grandmother) then added that she did not want to ruin the (boy’s) life, so she chose not to report the incident.”
The same June afternoon he interviewed the grandmother, Benjamin later ran into Chi outside the Pitkin County Courthouse. Chi told him he remembered the grandmother’s call, though he thought it was about two years ago.
“Officer Chi went on to tell me that (the grandmother) did not supply him details of the incident, but he was told who the assailant was and that it was a sex-related assault,” Benjamin wrote in his report. Chi also said he told the grandmother she should call the Sheriff’s Office and that the investigation “would probably start with a forensic interview of the granddaughter at the River Bridge Regional Center,” the report states.
River Bridge Regional Center is a Glenwood Springs-based nonprofit child advocacy center dedicated to the “prevention, assessment, treatment and investigation of child abuse,” according to its website.
Benjamin noted that he submitted his report on Chi’s alleged actions at Cheney’s request.
On Aug. 29, Cheney held a meeting about Chi’s alleged actions with his chief deputy, two investigators from his office, Benjamin and Aspen-based Deputy District Attorney Don Nottingham, according to Benjamin’s report.
“After a great deal of discussion and legal research involving the Failure to Report Child Abuse charge, I was asked by Mr. Cheney to create a separate case report” and forward it to him, Benjamin wrote in his report.
On Sept. 13, Cheney wrote the letter to Benjamin declining to prosecute Chi based on the expiration of the statute of limitations, the report states.
Law enforcement officers, medical personnel and others who have contact with children are known as “mandatory reporters,” who, by law, must report child abuse if they hear about it.
Chi said Wednesday he is well aware of his duty to report such information but heard nothing from the grandmother that would have triggered it.
She told him “it was a babysitter-versus-kid incident,” Chi said. “She said they walked in on something. The kid was acting really suspicious. They didn’t know what happened.”
He said he doesn’t remember telling Benjamin in June he heard from the grandmother that the incident involved child sexual assault.
“I’m happy to take responsibility for my actions and am willing to defend them when needed,” Chi said. “My recommendation to the grandmother was to report to the sheriff’s department if she felt that something had happened, and to guide her through the process of what would happen if she did so. They chose not to.”
Benjamin, DiSalvo and Cheney declined to comment Wednesday on whether the 3-year-old allegations are currently under investigation. Information about juveniles is restricted in Colorado.
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As of Sunday, everyone in the 970 area code has to dial all 10 digits in a phone number. The change in Colorado is part of a national switch that will enable the national rollout of 988, which will be the National Suicide Hotline. That number will take callers to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which will go live July 16, 2022.