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How honest is Aspen?

Charles AgarPhotos by Paul Conrad
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly
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I just wanted someone to steal my wallet. At least that was the plan when photographer Paul Conrad and I set out on our experiment on a sunny afternoon last week. We chose four high-traffic areas in Aspen – the post office, Gondola Plaza, City Market and the Cooper Avenue Mall – and dropped the bait: a loaded wallet.Paul was armed with a telephoto lens and I had a pen and notebook. We sat in the shadows to watch what happened. We wanted to see how honest Aspenites are.What would you do if you found a wallet on the sidewalk? Would someone steal the money? Is there be a would-be identity thief in our midst?The results might surprise you.

First we rigged the wallet, a $10 black “pleather” number we bought from the second floor of Carl’s Pharmacy.Next I did what I could to make it look real. I scuffed the wallet on the sidewalk, rubbed the shiny pleather with a little whiteout to dull the sheen and tossed the wallet around, giving some of our office-mates a chance to stomp on it (a bit of occupational therapy?).Next we filled the wallet with everything from a canceled Massachusetts license of mine (I recently got a Colorado ID) to a dummy library card to an old bank statement, a list of things to do, and a fortune from a fortune cookie (see box).The wallet contained $7 in cash.Enticing enough for you, yet?

Mick Ireland, a former Pitkin County commissioner and Aspen mayoral candidate, was one of the first to amble past the wallet after we dropped it in front of the post office at noon.Ireland was apparently too busy plotting his next campaign move, however, and walked right past. He wasn’t the only one.

That first wallet-drop was just far enough from the post office doors that we sat for what felt like an eternity. Paul crouched in the bushes while I tried to play it cool by pretending to talk on my cell phone.Then came the first bite in our little fishing venture.Kent Jardine bounded from his truck, spotted the wallet, and without missing a beat, snatched it up and walked it inside, handing it to the post office workers behind the counter.”Are you kidding me?” Jardine said when we told him about our game. “This is a setup?”The thought never crossed Jardine’s mind to take the wallet, he said, and he didn’t even look to see how much money was inside. He just saw the out-of-state license (Jardine has just moved to Aspen from Nebraska) and took it to the desk.”I felt sorry for the poor guy that dropped it,” Jardine said, adding that he once found a money pouch with $2,500 – a night’s bankroll from a restaurant – and returned it (the restaurant treated him to dinner).Jardine wasn’t the only honest Aspenite at the post office that day.Moments later, after carefully watching to ensure I wasn’t spotted, I dropped the wallet again, this time a little closer to the door, and caught Bob Gross, who runs a window-blind-installation business in Aspen. Gross too didn’t hesitate to pick up the wallet, but took a minute to look inside, spotted the cell-phone number on the card and called.

“I’m right behind you,” I said, and after another “Candid Camera” moment, Gross handed back the wallet, saying “I think most people try to be honest … most people will do the right thing.”Gross was right about Annie Denver, who walked right past me when she found the wallet (but thankfully didn’t recognize me in my “Unabomber” disguise). Denver, the former wife of singer John Denver, took the wallet right to the post office counter.”I think Aspen’s a really honest place,” Denver said.I was frustrated.Where’s the chicanery, the dishonesty? Where’s the guy who looks around, tugs the bills out of the wallet, drops it on the ground and runs away? Where’s our opportunity to publish the blurred-out face of the perpetrator?This town’s lame, I thought.What would Geraldo Rivera do?

Paul and I regrouped and headed to a new location – the Gondola Plaza at the base of Aspen Mountain – hardly the bad side of town, but busy enough that people might just be tempted to slip off with the goods.Chris McMullen, a ski concierge at The Little Nell, has experience with lost goods and knew exactly what to do when he found the wallet. He saw the library card, figured the wallet belonged to a local and took it right to the Gondola Plaza information counter.”I’ve lost my wallet before,” McMullen said. He knows firsthand what a pain it is to cancel credit cards and get a new license.Kristin Wright, who works the info counter where McMullen returned the wallet, said she doesn’t have a lot of lost wallets (most people stuff credit cards and cash into the jacket of ski coats when hitting the slopes), but she gets lots of cell phones, and most people are able to reconnect with their belongings.Spencer Gaddis and Veronique Waeber, two seasonal workers also from The Little Nell, didn’t hesitate to return the wallet (Does the Nell have some kind of “morality training” program?). “I would want someone to do the same for me,” Gaddis said.

Aspenite Kevin Paddon took a more pragmatic view. “What you need to make a difference in this town wouldn’t fit in a wallet,” he said. Paddon didn’t even look inside the thin wallet when he found it.Paddon is always shocked when there’s any kind of theft in such an idyllic mountain community – “It’s a bummer. It kind of brings you down to the rest of the world” and makes you lock doors and watch out for belongings in a way he’s not used to doing in Aspen, he said.”You’re going to ruin my reputation,” quipped Mark Hamby, an employee with the water department for the Aspen Skiing Co., before adding that “it is a pretty thin wallet.”Brian Miller took the longest time to deliberate about what to do with the wallet. “I figured it’s bad karma,” said Brian Miller about taking the wallet.Miller was talking on the phone when he first sat on the bench next to the wallet. He picked up our bait, examined the contents, then set it down as if to ignore it, then picked it up again.Paul and I couldn’t believe our luck. Standing in the shadows near Starbucks, we thought we might have found our first crook. But apparently Miller was just listening to advice from his friend on the other end of the line, who told him to look for a phone number in the wallet.Miller said he’d once had a snowboard stolen at the end-of-season party at Aspen Highlands, but later found it, adding that springtime, when many young Aspenites are bugging out for the end of the season, might mean a rise in thefts.Hmmm, Paul and I thought, perhaps we’re one step closer to the black heart of Aspen.

The real challenge in the heavily trafficked area in front of City Market was dropping the wallet without being spotted.

Paul hunkered in the back of my car and we used our cell phones as walkie-talkies as I roamed the lot, trying to look casual and drop the wallet.One older lady saw me pretending to tie my shoelace and walk away, leaving the wallet in the spot. “Young man, you dropped your wallet!” she said.But I found a lull in the traffic and deftly dropped the billfold (by now we were getting good at this).Robert Reith, a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority driver, was the first to pick it up; he went right to the counter inside the store without even looking inside.”You open it up and temptation strikes,” he said. That’s why he beelined for the counter.Reith regularly finds cell phones and some wallets on his bus and said most people get their belongings back at the Rubey Park bus stop.”I still have faith that people are pretty honest,” Reith said.One after another, City Market shoppers marched the wallet right back into the store – Diane Christianson, a visitor from Alabama, then Maria Soriano, an employee of the store.Damn this honesty!Next the Cooper Avenue Mall. Paul stationed himself near the town’s fire hearth, and I dropped the wallet near the Red Onion restaurant. And that’s when we were found out.”Is this a trick?” hollered Kristin Farr of Breckenridge, to no one in particular. She was strolling the mall on a shopping day with her sister, Jentry Lee, from Boulder.As Farr glanced around for hidden cameras, I approached her. She said the oversized writing of my cell phone number on the business card was a dead giveaway.But no matter what, she would have returned it, she said. “Definitely some good karma would’ve come our way.””I don’t think people in Aspen need somebody else’s wallet,” her sister added.But our next and final drop we sunk the hook and someone walked off with it – we thought.Again from our spot at the corner of Galena Street and Cooper, we watched a young couple pass by. The young woman grabbed the wallet up and looked inside, then they made for the Red Onion. We figured they would drop it off there, but then they walked off, and Paul and I gave chase.Like paparazzi hunting a shot of J-Lo’s bountiful booty, Paul and I tried to play it cool, following the couple to Mezzaluna, where they examined the outside menu, then turning the corner for a look at the menu at Blue Maize, then doubling back toward Boogie’s Diner.Were they going to spend the money on lunch? Would $7 get them very far?We gave up, agreeing to let the couple wrestle with their own demons on this one. And maybe this was our first dishonest Aspenite.

About 45 minutes later I received a call from Aspen Police Officer Roderick O’Connor.”It usually gets to us,” O’Connor said of found property in Aspen. He’d had a call from the information kiosk near the hearth, where the couple apparently turned the wallet in.Unless someone pointedly “steals” a wallet from you – not uncommon on a late night on the town – O’Connor said a lot of lost property finds its owner in Aspen.In springtime, however, his staff finds lots of pillaged wallets after the snow melts. They’re often hiding in the bottoms of flower boxes, where thieves hid them after stealing them and stripping the contents.”If it’s not stolen and it’s just lost,” O’Connor said, “they’re going to turn them in.”

Why not just take the wallet?”It’s not worth anybody’s while,” said Prabha Unnithan, a professor of criminology at Colorado State University, about the skimpy wallet.Unnithan does statistical analysis of criminal trends and said he would have expected Aspen’s honesty during our experiment. The results might have been different with a larger amount of money or if the wallet had been dropped in a secluded area.”How you behave depends on the context that you’re in,” Unnithan said.High school kids romping after school trying to impress one another might act differently than a Sunday-school group, he said.And while anyone might be tempted by a lost wallet, Unnithan said, the act of actually taking it wouldn’t mean the beginning of a slippery slope toward a life of crime – but it might.When someone steals, experiences no consequence and makes money, it can lead to more.”It’s a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself,” Unnithan said.By setting up a situation in which people were monitored, our experiment might act as a “disincentive” to unethical conduct, Unnithan said. It might make our 14 wallet-finders think twice the next time they face a similar dilemma.So perhaps our experiment had a side effect: We helped people.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is cagar@aspentimes.com.


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