DEA kept Aspen police, sheriff out of loop
ASPEN – While it was business as usual Thursday for both the Aspen Police Department and Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, federal agents were busy making five arrests in the Aspen area in connection to an alleged cocaine trafficking ring.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency launched the probe more than a year ago, and had worked with the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team (TRIDENT), which is made up of police departments in Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Rifle and Vail, along with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.
Also participating in the arrests were agents from the IRS, the U.S. Marshal’s Office, the FBI and Homeland Security, said DEA Special Agent Jim Schrant.
The arrests prompted U.S. Attorney John Walsh to make the following statement Friday: “Thanks to the hard work of the Drug Enforcement Administration with assistance from the HIDTA Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team (TRIDENT), Aspen cocaine dealers have been arrested, significantly reducing the supply of cocaine in that community.”
Left in the dark about the investigation were the APD and sheriff’s office, until the DEA notified them Thursday morning as the arrests were being made.
It’s a familiar story when it comes to high-profile drug raids in Aspen. In the past, TRIDENT made busts in Pitkin County without notifying – and to the chagrin of – then-Sheriff Bob Braudis, an outspoken opponent of the war on drugs.
Joe DiSalvo, Braudis’ successor who was elected in November, and Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor said they would have preferred being notified of the busts in advance, instead of the morning they occurred.
However, Schrant said he was concerned that discussing the matter with local law enforcement could have compromised the investigation.
“Frankly, based on our investigation, we had revealed close ties between the current sheriff and several of the targets that were arrested,” he said.
Schrant said “there were no connections” between Pryor and the defendants.
Public records show that two of the Aspen residents arrested, Joseph James Burke and Jack Fellner, gave $100 and $75 to DiSalvo’s campaign, respectively. DiSalvo’s campaign last year raised more than $40,000.
But DiSalvo said just because he knew some of the suspects, or even took contributions from them, does not mean he was in cahoots with them.
“In Aspen, I think there’s 2 degrees of separation between most people, 3 degrees tops,” he said. “It’s inevitable that a good guy is going to cross paths with bad people every once in a while.”
DiSalvo said he considered some of the suspects “acquaintances” and nothing more. He likened the relationships to Sheriff Andy Griffith, of 1960s TV fame, knowing Ernest T. Bass and Otis, the town drunk of Mayberry.
“I’m not ashamed of that,” he said, “and I would not say our ties our close. I don’t know what [Schrant] means by that.”
For his part, the sheriff said he would have been willing to share resources during the arrests.
“We could have provided perimeter work,” he said. “As far as going through the door, my guys don’t have that kind of experience.”
In the meantime, DEA officials will meet with DiSalvo and Pryor next week about the investigation.
“I’m disappointed we weren’t notified sooner,” Pryor said. “But the special agent was open and reasonable and wants to get together with us and discuss the operations. I think that’s a good thing, and hopefully we can build on that and hopefully underscore that we are a professional organization and we can be trusted.”
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