FREAK POWER AT 50: Stories from the Aspen Times archives on Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign for sheriff | AspenTimes.com
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FREAK POWER AT 50: Stories from the Aspen Times archives on Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign for sheriff

Hunter S. Thompson, campaign manager Ed Bastian, novelist William Kennedy and Sandy Thompson reading the Aspen Times during the 1970 election season.
David Hiser/Courtesy photo
IF YOU WATCH … What: ‘Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb’ Where: freakpower.com; Amazon, iTunes and video on-demand services When: Beginning Friday, Oct. 23 How much: $19.99 MORE ON THE FILM & FILMMAKERS Aug. 20, 2015: 'Freak Power' and Liberty Salons start a dialogue in Aspen June 19, 2018: Exhibit on Hunter Thompson's 1970 sheriff campaign begins tour at Aspen Historical Society Oct. 8, 2020: New documentary on Hunter S. Thompson's 'Freak Power' campaign coming this month Oct. 15, 2020: Documentary offers an insider's view of Hunter S. Thompson's 1970 campaign for sheriff in Aspen Oct. 18, 2020: 'Freak Power Day' slideshow

In the tense third act of the new documentary “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb,” candidate Hunter S. Thompson brings a big story to The Aspen Times newsroom.

Standing at Times Editor Bil Dunaway’s desk, Thompson – a cigarette and Budweiser in hand – recounts how a man in biker garb “came up to my house Wednesday afternoon and told me my house was going to be dynamited and blown up if I didn’t get out of the race.”

This man, who the Times would reveal as a federal “informant-agent-provocateur” had attempted to infiltrate the Thompson for Sheriff campaign and entrap him with the blessing of Sheriff Carrol Whitmire, who Thompson was attempting to unseat. With death threats mounting against his quixotic campaign in October 1970 and two cases of dynamite reportedly gone missing from the Aspen Ski Corp. storage, Thompson couldn’t go to law enforcement for protection, so he went to the free press and its embodiment in Aspen: Bil Dunaway.

The Times editor and his staff had covered Thompson’s launch of the “scurrilous” Aspen Wall Poster series earlier in the year, had published Thompson’s bombastic original “Fat City” platform as he launched his Freak Power campaign for sheriff, had detailed the circus as the national press came to town for the gonzo campaign, and Dunaway had been there with his notepad as Thompson’s lawyers – the future county commissioners Joe Edwards and Dwight Shellman – fought back against voter suppression efforts by establishment Aspen and the Whitmire campaign seeking to stop young hippies and “freaks” from registering.

We are revisiting those original Aspen Times stories and a selection of the Times’ contemporaneous coverage of the Thompson campaign from 1970 on the occasion of the release of local filmmakers Ajax Phillips and Daniel Joseph Watkins’ new film.

Over the course of 1970, the Times – like many Aspen voters – stopped laughing at the Freak Power movement and started taking it seriously. By the end of October, the newspaper endorsed Thompson as Pitkin County’s next sheriff. He didn’t win the battle of Aspen, but Freak Power did win the war as evidenced by the implementation of Thompson’s platform for law enforcement and conservation in the decades that followed (and, to an extent, by Mayor Torre’s proclamation of “Freak Power Day” last weekend to honor Thompson’s political legacy and celebrate the documentary’s premiere).

We’ve also included here highlights from campaign advertisements that ran in the pages of the Times throughout that fierce and colorful election season.

The backbone of the new documentary, released to video-on-demand services Friday, is a cache of newly discovered film footage from the campaign shot by Robert E. Fulton III. An extended interview with Dunaway was included in the found film reels, according to the filmmakers, but its attendant audio has not yet been located. Maybe someday it’ll surface.

The stories that follow run in sequential order from March to early November 1970.

The above news story on the launch of Tom Benton’s and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Aspen Wall Poster” series marks the paper’s first report of rumors that Thompson might run for sheriff.



Above: Thompson’s oft-quoted campaign’s platform of sodding the streets downtown, renaming Aspen “Fat City,” disarming police and hazing land-rapers first appeared in the Times on Sept. 17, 1970. As his candidacy gained momentum, he would revise it with more serious tenets, printed in the Times on Oct. 19 (included below).


The advertisement above from “Bill Greed” references a character in Thompson for Sheriff radio ads, in which local Phil Clark voiced a rapacious developer seeking to sell off Aspen and voicing support for Carrol Whitmire. Footage of Clark’s performances is included in “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb.”



Thompson had published his iconic “Freak Power in the Rockies” story in Rolling Stone on Oct. 1, bringing interest from regional, national and international press to Aspen. As the tone of the above story suggests, the Times editorial team was amused.


The mystery of the missing case of dynamite (referenced above) was never solved, though Thompson and associates suspected it was part of a federal plot to frame Thompson as a domestic terrorist undermine his candidacy and link him to extremist groups like the Weathermen. The saga is captured in detail in “Freak Power: The Ballot of the Bomb.”



Above, the Aspen Times endorsement of Thompson, which ran in the same issue as and its first report of the federal agent caught spying on the Freak Power camp (below).

Bill Noonan ran for coroner on an unofficial Freak Power party ticket that also included Thompson for sheriff and Ned Vare for county commissioner. Artist Tom Benton’s campaign poster for Noonan – featuring a shadowy gravedigger over the phrase “Let Noonan Do It” – has remained a popular local collectible over the past five decades.

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The above endorsement comes from longtime Times columnist and editor Peggy Clifford, who would go on to write the classic 1980 Aspen history “To Aspen and Back,” published with an introduction by Thompson.

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Above, the Times’ disturbing last word on “the Bromley affair.”

atravers@aspentimes.com


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