DiSalvo, Leonard spar in Pitkin County sheriff’s race
ASPEN – Pitkin County Sheriff’s candidates Joe DiSalvo and Rick Leonard tangled with one another to define their differences at a forum Wednesday night while Rick Magnuson tried to grab the mantle as the “non-traditional candidate” best-suited to follow the colorful characters who have held the post.
Leonard took the offensive – and a calculated risk – by attacking the professionalism and policies of the department and even taking swipes at Bob Braudis, the popular sheriff who is stepping down after 24 years.
DiSalvo, 49, a deputy and undersheriff in the department since 1987, and Leonard, 54, a former lawman who moved to the Roaring Fork Valley four years ago, first sparred over undercover drug operations.
No law agency likes to undertake the undercover work because it chews up time and money, “and it’s inherently dangerous,” Leonard said. “I stand with the agency heads that say it’s really a last resort in terms of enforcement activity to root out a drug problem.
“But at the end of the day, the decision often comes down to I am wrong to do an undercover investigation or am I going to do nothing?” Leonard said. “And I say, you have to do something.”
DiSalvo disagreed. “I do not support undercover work in Pitkin County,” he said. “I do think it violates local trust in a small community, it is labor intensive, it takes expertise, it’s dangerous.
“[Leonard] said it’s a last resort,” DiSalvo continued. “We’re not at a last-resort level on the war on drugs in Aspen to make these kinds of adjustments to our enforcement.”
Magnuson, 45, supports undercover work for an unconventional reason. He said it’s already carried out in Pitkin County by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and a local task force called TRIDENT.
“I don’t want federal drug enforcement agencies enforcing drug laws here,” Magnuson said, noting they “don’t consider marijuana to be a legal drug.”
“I’m not going to farm it out to them,” he continued, referring to undercover work. “I want to be involved in the decisions and know what’s going on.”
In response to a question about changes the candidates will bring to the office if they win, Leonard targeted the existing investigative services. He called the investigation of the carbon monoxide deaths of the Lofgren family over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2008 a “mess.”
“It’s doesn’t surprise me the sheriff doesn’t want it to go to trial,” Leonard said. “It’s a mess and a shame.”
The department let too many days slide by before it got a search warrant for the house where the family of four died, he said. Some potential evidence likely won’t be admitted because of the alleged lack of diligence and “mishandling,” he said.
DiSalvo defended the sheriff’s investigators and said they have gotten high marks from judges and prosecutors for more than two decades. Magnuson also defended them and said it was “reckless” for Leonard to “spout off” about a case when he wasn’t sure what evidence a grand jury working behind closed doors looked at to produce indictments in the carbon monoxide deaths.
Leonard didn’t back off his contention that the professionalism of the sheriff’s office – as well as the Aspen Police Department – needs to be improved. Later in the forum, he sparked a sharp exchange when he targeted the core approach of Braudis and DiSalvo to law enforcement – that hiring locals rooted in the community builds great rapport and understanding between residents and the police.
“I’ve heard the sheriff and undersheriff talk about this notion that our detectives or our police officers are residents of the valley here that just happen to wear a badge,” Leonard said. “That a nice idea, but, you know, in 2010 [agencies must] make your cases really, really sound and solid. It’s become a very difficult thing. Case preparation has become a very sophisticated thing. In order to get good at it, it’s essentially that you have some experience at it. You can’t learn it at the academy or read it in a book. You have to learn it at the hands of a master.”
DiSalvo pounced on what seemed to be Leonard’s suggestion that he would import outside law professionals to help shape the department.
“It’s my philosophy that I would rather take a longtime Pitkin County citizen and make them into a cop instead of taking a cop from Denver and making them a Pitkin County citizen,” DiSalvo said.
The majority of deputies are longtime locals who migrated to the sheriff’s office after working other jobs and racking up different experiences before getting trained in law enforcement, according to DiSalvo.
“I think that’s the type of police officers this community wants and you’re going to continue to get,” he said.
Leonard appeared to be in a conundrum of touting his experience at outside police agencies while at the same time battling suggestion he was an outsider who didn’t know the ways of Pitkin County yet. At one time he referred to law enforcement agencies as “para-military organizations.” He said he doesn’t see the upper Roaring Fork Valley as unique in terms of enforcing the law.
“Policy is policy and I have more experience than either of the other two candidates,” Leonard said.
The claim aside, Leonard has been out of law enforcement for four years and has never carried a badge in Pitkin County. DiSalvo has been with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office for 23 years; Magnuson has held posts with the Aspen Police Department for 14 years. Most of Leonard’s 22 years of experience came as a cop in Florida. He said he doesn’t believe a person has to live in Pitkin County for 10 years to make a good sheriff.
This election’s version of the historic Squirm Night forum, presented by The Aspen Times and Aspen Daily News since 1988, wasn’t all heated. When DiSalvo was asked if he is careful to campaign on his own time rather than when he’s supposed to be working at the sheriff’s office, he noted he’s saved up 300 hours of vacation time and cashes some in while campaigning. “I haven’t taken a vacation in a long time,” DiSalvo said.
“How can you when Bob’s always gone?” Leonard quipped, referring to Braudis. The sheriff, who was in the crowd, feigned a stab wound to the heart at the comment.
A lighter moment also came when the candidates were asked the last time they used illegal drugs. DiSalvo replied “1984,” to which Magnuson expressed surprise. Magnuson said he smoked pot while on a trip to Amsterdam six years ago. Leonard said he couldn’t recall the last time he did illegal drugs.
In closing comments, Magnuson appealed to voters to select him as the candidate who will embody the non-traditional spirit that the sheriff’s office has lived by over the last 34 years, first brought by Dick Kienast then followed by Braudis.
“I would be the Dick Kienast of 1976 out of the three of us,” Magnuson said.
He claimed he will bring “creativity” to the job. As an example, he said he wants food at the jail to be plant-based to improve the diet of inmates and reduce the carbon footprint. He said 18 percent of greenhouse gas production comes from raising domestic livestock.
Two of the three candidates will survive the Aug. 10 primary to move on to the November general election. Early voting has started. Polls will also be open Tuesday.
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