Is he real? It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is |

Is he real? It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The editors of the Aspen Daily News and the Aspen Times both say they are diligent about checking to see if letters they publish are written by real people.

Yet Aspenite Roger Marolt was able to get at least 75 letters from fictitious writers published in the News and the Times since 1999.

Both papers require letter writers to include their names, addresses and phone numbers with a letter. And the editors frequently call letter writers to verify that they did indeed write a letter.

Usually, that’s enough.

But when Aspen Daily News Editor Rick Carroll called a cell phone number earlier this year to see if letter writer Todd Coghi was real, Marolt answered the phone.

“He said, ‘Yes, this is Todd,'” Carroll said.

“That is true,” Marolt said. “I talked with him several times as Todd Coghi.”

“He beat the system,” Carroll said. “We try and keep it airtight, but it is not 100 percent. We even sent a letter to Todd Coghi to the P.O. box he gave us. We did what we could do.”

And Aspen Times Editor Mike Hagan said he called the number that writer Roger Kannard included with his recent letter and that when he got a “Roger” on the line, that was enough for him.

But Marolt suggests the Times could have gone further.

“They called and asked for Roger, not Roger Kannard,” Marolt said. “And I said, ‘Yes I had sent a letter into the paper.'”

When questioned somewhat more specifically this week, Marolt chose to reveal that he is actually responsible for letters from 14 different fictitious letter writers.

In addition to Kannard and Coghi, Marolt also wrote letters as Matt Jones, Ronald Aberwait, Turner Hicks, Tom Carold, Lee Anne Marlets, Howard Jarvis, Todd Manning, Ryan Goodson, Arlene Mayfield, Arlene Wilson, Annelee Stelram, and John Seymore.

He wrote one letter as an anonymous writer claiming his identity needed to be protected. And he also wrote letters about his character’s under his own name.

For Marolt, it was an elaborate practical joke, and a way to debate issues without his name attached.

“Sometimes you can’t express what you really feel,” Marolt said. “In a small town, you’ve got your job and your family and your livelihood to protect.”

But from an editor’s point of view, Marolt violated a community trust.

“The community trusts us to print the truth; on the other hand, we have to have a certain amount of trust in the community,” Hagan said.

“I think we got used,” said Carroll. “I think both papers got used pretty good and this guy got a laugh out of it.”

And Marolt claims the newspapers that he sent letters to were lax in checking with his fictional characters.

“A lot of the time they didn’t call,” Marolt said. “They call sometimes. They don’t call all the time. And once you get a letter in, they never call twice.”

And Marolt claims the editors knew that some of the letters were from fake people.

“They had to have known,” Marolt said. “They obviously cannot admit that they knew, but I had the feeling that they did many times. You know, it sells papers.”

Hagan strongly denied ever knowingly publishing a letter he knew was from someone that didn’t exist. Carroll said that in hindsight, the second letter from Roger and Sheila Kannard, the one complaining about bike commuters on the Rio Grande bike path, did “seem pretty far-fetched.”

But both editors asked how far they should have to go to ensure that someone isn’t getting something past them.

“Do we need to become like security at the airport?” Carroll asked. “OK, our letters to the editor page is in code red now, we are on high alert.”

“At this point, I don’t know what the answer is, short of having people hand-deliver letters with a government-issued photo ID,” Hagan said.

But both editors have had plenty of prior warnings that there had been an integrity breach in their letters sections.

After a busy year of sending in several letters a week, Marolt penned a letter that started with “I am a retired United States Marine Corps T.P.S. (Target Profile Specialist, a.k.a. “a profiler”). I will not sign my name to this letter or give you any personal information about me in order to protect my privacy and personal security.”

In a rare allowance, Times Editor Mike Hagan published the anonymous letter with the following editor’s note:

“It is the Aspen Times’ policy not to print anonymous letters. But we found an anonymous letter commenting on anonymous letter writers amusing enough that we’ve decided to run it.”

In the letter, Marolt came as close as he could to confessing.

“The reason for my letter is to notify you that I believe you have been the victim of a hoax. A few letters to the editor in the local papers earlier this year seemed odd to me. Around March of this year it finally occurred to me that one person was penning letters to you under different names.”

And then the fictitious retired Marine listed 11 names he said were “fictitious” and “the same person.”

He was right, they were.

Then, in April of this year, longtime and frequent letter writer Pete Luhn got into a running debate with both the fictional Todd Coghi and the real Roger Marolt.

Then Luhn accused Marolt of being Todd Coghi.

“There’s nothing wrong with writing fiction under a pen name ? as did Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain) ? but commentary should be under your real one. To do otherwise is low and deceitful.

“So fess up and come clean, Roger. You’ll feel better about yourself in the long run. Meantime, say hi to Lee Anne Martels and Turner Hicks for me. “

This got the attention of editors at both Aspen papers.

In an editor’s note after an April 17, 2002, letter from Coghi, Hagan wrote that “In our never-ending pursuit to get all the facts, we called the phone number attached to Mr. Coghi’s letter. A gentleman answered the phone, ‘This is Todd.’ Consider the case settled.”

Today, Hagan would like that last sentence back. And Marolt would continue to publish letters as Todd Coghi until August.

Then, on Sept. 5, the first letter from Roger and Sheila Kannard came to the Times. It was about the retail situation in downtown Aspen.

On Sept. 13, Marolt sent in the Rio Grande bike path letter from the Kannards. It prompted much discussion in town and several letters in response.

On Sept. 20, Marolt sent a letter in with a different spelling of Kannard.

The name on the letter now was “Roger Canard” ? with the new spelling being a word meaning a false, slightly derogatory story.

“The monsters we believe in are the ones we have already created in our minds before they appear in our midst,” the letter said. “Thanks for the fun.”

It was almost as if Marolt wanted to be caught. The phone number on his letterhead was registered to a company with the same address as his accounting office in downtown Aspen.

“I think I might have been getting tired of it,” he said. “And it was time to do other things with my writing.”

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