From DEA bust to Pfister murder, Pitkin County sheriff’s first term was eventful
The lead story in an April 2011 edition of the Onion declared, “Aspen police continue search for missing ski.”
“We’re doing everything we can to ensure the safe return of the ski, but as of now we have very, very little to go on,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told The Onion.
Never mind that The Onion is a satirical newspaper; it almost seemed fitting that DiSalvo, who began his first term as sheriff in January 2011, was prominently featured in a parody story about Aspen.
After all, DiSalvo’s first four-year term saw him virtually at the center of some of the community’s most highly charged events. Drug busts. The legalization of marijuana. Gun control. Personnel flaps. The murder of Nancy Pfister. And his friendship with Lance Armstrong.
“I’ve had, in four years, a cross-section of events that could happen to a sheriff over a career,” said DiSalvo, who turns 54 in December.
DiSalvo, who is not affiliated with a political party, is on the November election ballot, but he’s running unopposed.
“I don’t know if I don’t have an opponent because I’m very good at the job or nobody wants it,” the sheriff said.
Baptism by fire
DiSalvo was challenged in his first campaign for sheriff in 2010, and county residents overwhelmingly supported him with 5,182 votes, or 79 percent, compared to challenger Patrick Leonard’s 1,358 votes, or 21 percent.
DiSalvo’s triumph continued the lineage of Pitkin County law enforcement dating back to when Dick Keinast assumed office in 1977 after being elected in 1976.
Like Keinast and his successor, six-term Sheriff Bob Braudis, DiSalvo has followed the mantra of treating drug problems as a health issue, not a criminal one. DiSalvo ran on a platform that was essentially an extension of Keinast and Braudis’ law enforcement philosophy, vowing to make a relatively seamless transition into the sheriff’s post.
Keinast and Braudis certainly had their run-ins with the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI over the years. And it didn’t take DiSalvo long, either.
On May 19, 2011 — the rookie sheriff had been in office for about four months — the DEA, along with a number of other law enforcement agencies, except for DiSalvo’s, entered the homes of cocaine-trafficking suspects, armed with warrants and guns. Five Aspen-area residents were arrested, and DiSalvo had been left in the dark.
The DEA said it didn’t communicate its bust to DiSalvo because it didn’t trust him due to his relationship with some of the suspects. DiSalvo would later learn he was under investigation by the FBI for impropriety.
“They found nothing during the investigation, but they had no problem making a big splash about it,” DiSalvo said.
He added: “Still, after 40-plus years, the DEA and the FBI still don’t believe that this community has a live-and-let-live attitude and there could possibly be a sheriff who believes in live-and-let-live and still be on the up-and-up. It affected Dick Keinast. It affected Bob Braudis. And now it affects me.”
DiSalvo admits he knew some of the suspects in the so-called Over the Hill Gang — those 60-year-olds fingered by the DEA for selling cocaine. And he is unapologetic for being good friends with Montgomery Chitty, now serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison for a cocaine-distribution conviction.
“Monty Chitty is my friend. I feel really bad about where he is, but I can honestly say I had no idea he was still in business,” DiSalvo said. “I had no idea.”
Yet the sheriff said he will continue to keep an open-door policy with his friends and residents.
“As a sheriff in a small town, that means I get the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said.
The Pfister murder
Much of DiSalvo’s first two years on the job was consumed by the DEA and FBI investigation, both into him and local residents. But 2014 took on a new posture, starting with a private plane crash at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on Jan. 5 that killed one person.
But seven weeks later, on Feb. 26 the Sheriff’s Office received a report of a body found in a closet at a West Buttermilk Road home. Authorities would later confirm that the deceased person was Nancy Pfister, 62, an Aspen native and a friend of DiSalvo’s.
The murder attracted national attention, and on Friday, “Dateline NBC” showed footage of DiSalvo grilling the lead suspect, William Styler, days after the murder.
Was DiSalvo too close to Pfister to be interrogating a suspect?
“Looking back on it, it was probably something I would rethink,” he said. “The reason I did this was I considered myself pretty good at extracting confessions and information from people. This seemed to be stalling, and maybe it was my closeness (to Pfister) that made me do it, but I really wanted to do something. I really thought I could get him. I knew he was responsible for Nancy’s death.”
DiSalvo wouldn’t get a confession from Styler, but later, the former anesthesiologist from the Front Range would admit acting alone in the murder — he used a hammer to bludgeon Pfister to death while she was sleeping.
Styler’s wife, Nancy Styler, and then-Aspen resident Katherine Carpenter, also suspects in the murder, would be released, and DiSalvo would have to answer to many about their arrests.
“Based on all of the circumstances we had at the time, we arrested the right people,” he said. “We had probable cause for the arrest and the judge agreed.”
The sheriff and Lance
It wasn’t just high-profile cases that defined the sheriff’s first term. DiSalvo broke rank with the state’s sheriffs on gun control, created an “amnesty” box at the airport for those who wanted to discard their marijuana before going through the TSA checkpoint, fired a jail deputy for being cited by the U.S. Forest Service for possession of psilocybin mushrooms while firing guns at Lake Powell, Utah, and was the defendant in a lawsuit by a deputy who said she was discriminated against because of her gender.
DiSalvo also raised some eyebrows because of his relationship with disgraced bicyclist Lance Armstrong. In the wake of the dust-up with the DEA and FBI over the drug busts and ensuing investigation into the sheriff, DiSalvo sought advice from Armstrong, a part-time Aspenite who’d been scrutinized by the national and global media for his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Ever since the evening they dined together, the two have been friends.
“We talked a lot about the scrutiny and spotlight and the fairness and unfairness of it all,” DiSalvo said “We became friends, and I’m happy to call him my friend.”
The sheriff also said that Armstrong fits in line with his list of friends.
“For some reason, I’m attracted to misfits and freaks,” he said. “And I’ll probably get a lot of s— for this, but I think Lance was unfairly persecuted. I like the man. He has been nothing but a friend and gentleman to my family. Maybe I’ve seen a different Lance Armstrong, but this guy has gone through hell.”
FOUR MORE YEARS
DiSalvo said he has plenty of work to do in the next four years, no matter what it brings.
Continuing to address Pitkin County’s mental-health issue is high priority for him, and he noted it’s unacceptable that Aspen Valley Hospital has just one bed for suicidal patients (others are typically transported to Grand Junction).
He argues the Sheriff’s Office has outgrown its space at the Pitkin County Courthouse, and employee retention is a vital ingredient to an effective department. He applauded the Sheriff’s Office for becoming more adept at handling the major events that come to town — from the Winter X Games to the USA Pro Challenge to Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit. And he heaped praise on his staff as well as Mountain Rescue Aspen, the volunteer organization that performs search-and-rescue missions in the local backcountry.
“I like my job,” he said. “This community is full of people I care about. And I want to keep my accessibility to them.”
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