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Judge Craven dies unexpectedly

District Attorney Martin Beeson and Judge Peter Craven. (Kara K. Pearson/Post Independent)
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After hearing opening arguments in a Pitkin County civil trial Tuesday, Chief 9th Judicial District Judge T. Peter Craven got on his bicycle for a ride along an Aspen bike trail. Around 5:45 p.m. he suffered what appears to be a heart attack and died. He was 65. The judge everyone called “Pete” was a well-respected litigator, a powerful advocate for the Garfield County drug court, the first public defender in the 9th Judicial District. His friends and colleagues say he had a keen intellect and an unassailable reputation as one of the best judges in Colorado.”He could have been a Supreme Court judge in Colorado – he would have had that opportunity,” said deputy public defender Jim Conway. “But he loved Carbondale and the Roaring Fork Valley, and he loved working as a judge here, and he felt he could make more of an impact in his home community.”After serving as the municipal attorney for Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, Thomas Peter Craven practiced law in the Roaring Fork Valley for years before his appointment to the district court bench in 1991. He ascended to the chief judge’s chair in 2004 and also served as water judge for Water Division 5. Craven studied Spanish and traveled to Mexico to learn more about the legal system there with the intention of making Garfield County’s courts more accessible to Spanish-speakers. He was also a strong advocate for the drug court system that allows diverting nonviolent violators of drug laws to treatment and community service instead of prison.”I ran a drug court out of my back pocket,” retired 9th District Court Judge J.E. DeVilbiss said. “He institutionalized it so it lasted beyond him and me.”In 2002, he received the Colorado Judicial Institute’s Judicial Excellence Award.Craven’s loss will be felt from Courtroom B in the Garfield County Courthouse to the halls of the Colorado Supreme Court – and beyond.”He was an exemplary, outstanding jurist. A first-class man. A hard worker. A true and loyal friend,” DeVilbiss said.”He was a very talented, bright, energetic, free-thinking attorney,” Colorado Supreme Court Justice Mike Bender said. “As a person, he was very interested in the outdoors, definitely dedicated to his family. [He] had a great eye for photography. … I just can’t think of someone I respected more.”Former 9th District Judge Tom Ossola said Craven was extraordinarily intelligent and possessed a “wonderful sense of humor.”

“As a person, he was warm, funny, didn’t take himself too seriously and didn’t let his friends take themselves too seriously,” Ossola said. As a deputy district attorney, Ossola argued a case against Craven, who was representing a defendant in trial. “We had just completed the third day of a jury trial, and it was in the days when we all wore three-piece suits, and we had finished for the day and we walked out of the courtroom,” Ossola said. “He said, ‘Tom, we’ve got to finish this case tomorrow because I’ve only got one more three-piece suit.'”Craven’s death was a shock to those who work in the Garfield County Courthouse. His court clerk, Judy Newbould, said he was very supportive and his orders were “brilliant.””He’s going to be sadly missed in our district,” she said. District Attorney Martin Beeson said men and women throughout the courthouse were crying throughout the day Wednesday. Beeson said Craven practiced “tough love” with defendants, and showed that through his stern, businesslike operation of the drug court. “He also had a large measure of compassion for people,” Beeson said. Judge Craven’s influence on the valley stretched beyond the legal community – his love of Carbondale led him early on to Carbondale’s annual Mountain Fair festival, where he had a “life seat” on the pie-judging committee each summer. For years during the judging process he wore a hat in the shape of Mount Sopris and wore outrageous costumes that matched the pie contest theme for the year.”He always delighted everyone, putting a lot of creativity into his costume,” said Marti Bauer, who organized the Mountain Fair pie contest for more than 15 years. “He’d have a big smile on his face because he always came up with something very witty. His wit and cleverness went far beyond being a judge – there was something so neat about Pete.”Craven was also an avid runner and cyclist.Bauer said Craven was a fun-loving guy who was easy to know. “He was who you saw,” she said. “He had that quirky side to him, and a twinkle in his eye.”DeVilbiss said that before Craven became a judge, Craven would borrow DeVilbiss’ robes and wear an English wig in July to judge pies. “He contributed a distinctive élan to whatever he did.”

“He was very alive,” Conway, the public defender said. “We always called him Pete.”Craven’s death shocks friends and colleaguesAspen-area colleagues and friends of T. Peter Craven, chief judge of the 9th Judicial District, responded with shock and sadness Wednesday upon hearing about his sudden death.”He was a dear, loyal friend,” said DeVilbiss, an Aspen councilman as well as a former local district judge. DeVilbiss and Craven both moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in early 1970, and became fast friends as Craven worked in the public defender’s office and DeVilbiss worked for the district attorney. They eventually spent 11 years as colleagues on the district court bench.”He was a first-class mind, and a hardworking, incisive, brilliant jurist,” DeVilbiss said. “He knew the law, and was just a credit to his profession as a lawyer and as a judge. He was what all lawyers and judges could and should aspire to be.”Local attorney John Van Ness said, “He was a very professional judge – fair, evenhanded, and excellent with the law, and applying it to a case.”Retired attorney Kevin O’Reilly, who also met Craven in the early 1970s, said Craven was an incredibly hard-working attorney, “as opposed to some of us.””He worked his butt off and prepared for trying cases,” O’Reilly said. “And he obviously liked being a judge. I think he felt like this was the capstone to his career. Some people get into it without much experience, but I think he looked at it as something he should do after he had all of the proper credentials. So it was 35 years before he became a judge.”I don’t think you’ll find anyone more respected by peers. He’ll be missed – he was a real asset to the Roaring Fork Valley.”



“Judges tend to be somewhat aloof creatures, by the nature of their job,” said attorney Chip McCrory, who spent time in front of Judge Craven both with the district attorney’s office and as a private attorney. “Every judge tends to be like that on the bench to a certain extent. Judge Craven was a very warm, friendly individual off the bench. When you would talk to him in chambers on a case, the joie de vivre came through.””He was a truly outstanding person,” DeVilbiss said. “I am honored to have known him and worked with him.” No break expected in court docketIt will be business as usual in the coming days in district court, because that’s the way Chief Judge T. Peter Craven would have wanted it.Former chief judge Thomas Ossola was at the courthouse in Glenwood Springs on Wednesday morning to meet with other judges and formulate a plan on how to move forward without Craven.”We’re hoping the state will provide some senior judges, but the plan is to focus on the work,” said 9th Judicial District Attorney Martin Beeson. “We’re confident that that’s exactly what Judge Craven would want us to do. But I don’t know how we’re going to deal with the emotional loss.”Beeson said business will go on and cases scheduled on the district docket will be heard. One of the larger cases before Craven was that of Robin Jay Clifton, 46, of Collbran, who has been charged with setting numerous fires in Rifle early on the morning of Labor Day. Clifton is scheduled to appear in court on July 7.Beeson said the governor will likely announce the vacancy of Craven’s position and call for applications, which will be narrowed down to three applicants, for interviews.”I suspect that given the importance of the position, it won’t take that long,” Beeson said.


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