Judge rules chairlift pusher not guilty by reason of insanity

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times
Thomas Proesel

A 32-year-old former Aspen resident who threw a snowboarder off an Aspen Highlands chairlift last winter was found not guilty of attempted assault Monday by reason of insanity.

Aspen District Judge Chris Seldin made the ruling after first finding probable cause to charge Thomas Proesel with attempted first-degree assault and then listening to a state psychologist, who interviewed Proesel and testified that he was insane Jan. 17 when he pushed the snowboarder off the lift.

“It’s clear from (the psychologist’s) report that Mr. Proesel was, at the time of the incident, experiencing a mental state that rendered him incapable of forming the culpable mental state (to commit attempted first-degree assault),” Seldin said.

Seldin ordered that Proesel turn himself in to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo by noon today. The judge allowed Proesel’s father to drive him to the facility from Aspen, where he appeared in court Monday.

Proesel is originally from the Chicago area but lived in Aspen since at least 2012, according to property records.

He threw the 28-year-old snowboarder off the Loge Peak chairlift at Aspen Highlands about 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 17, a powder day, after the snowboarder made an innocuous comment about skiers being better able to get face-shots of fresh powder than snowboarders. The snowboarder fell 20 to 25 feet but landed in a pile of fresh snow and was not injured.

The incident occurred near the top of the lift, and Proesel was able to ski away after tossing the snowboader, despite a lift operator stopping the chair. Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies were able to track him down using video footage from another lift and information from a scanner that read Proesel’s ski pass before he got on the lift.

On Monday, Aspen prosecutor Andrea Bryan played a tape recording of Proesel’s initial contact with a Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy over the phone. At first, Proesel tells Deputy Jesse Steindler he’s too busy to meet with him and didn’t know why he was calling.

When Steindler says he wants to talk about an incident at Aspen Highlands, Proesel said, “This guy was threatening me.” He then talks about a man in Salt Lake City who was “a potential T-word,” which a sheriff’s office investigator later said he learned was shorthand for “terrorist.”

Steindler asked if it was the same man on the lift as in Salt Lake City. Proesel said no, but that he knew the man on the lift “was looking for me” and it scared him.

“They’re always around,” Proesel told the deputy. “They’re trying to circle me up when I go into a bar. They close in on me. They’ve been doing it since I’ve lived here.”

Proesel told Steindler the snowboarder grabbed him, then fell off the chairlift.

“I’m just scared, OK?” Proesel said over the phone. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Dr. Charles Harrison, a psychologist with the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, interviewed Proesel for 31/2 hours in May and diagnosed him with schizophrenia and another psychotic disorder based on mania he’s exhibited over the past 10 years or so. Proesel had previously been diagnosed with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Harrison said.

Proesel’s symptoms included severe paranoia and delusions about others persecuting him and wanting to cause physical harm to him and his family, Harrison said. He also has “grandiose beliefs” that means he thinks only he can see or understand certain information about, for example, the Pentagon, he said.

Proesel’s throwing the snowboarder from the lift after an innocuous comment is par for the course for a person with such disorders because they make connections that are not there in reality, Harrison said.

“The behavior and statements he made to others before and after the alleged offense, I believe, clearly pointed to his suffering from severe paranoia and severe delusions,” Harrison said. “It did interfere with his ability to form a culpable mental state.”

Proesel had a history of acting on his delusions, including locking his parents in their bedroom, urging them to change their phone numbers and attacking a clinician during a mental-health interview because he thought the person “was trying to get him,” he said. Proesel was first hospitalized in 2010 after posting a message about suicide on social media, Harrison said.

Before that, he exhibited anti-social behavior, including interpersonal miscues and an inability to relate to others, he said,

In Aspen, he was able to live despite being in a psychotic state because of the limited demands placed on him, Harrison said. He didn’t work or go to school and his interactions with others were limited, which isolated him, he said. Proesel also didn’t take medication for his illness while living in Aspen, Harrison said.

However, he had an apartment and access to food, he said.

“You can be grossly psychotic and still function,” Harrison said. “It’s not too surprising he was able to function in that environment.”

When Harrison interviewed him, Proesel had been undergoing treatment at an in-patient facility in Tennessee for four months. He was taking the maximum dose approved by the Food and Drug Administration of a particular anti-psychotic medication at the time, but it was not fully controlling his delusions, Harrison said.

“That’s a sign this person’s mental illness is resistant to medications,” he said, adding that Proesel’s prognosis is “poor.”

Seldin commended both the Sheriff’s Office and Proesel’s family for quickly getting him treatment. He noted that deputies never allowed him to spend time at the Pitkin County Jail and immediately took him to a mental-health facility in Grand Junction.

Proesel will now be evaluated by state mental health personnel in Pueblo, who will determine where he will be treated and if he can be released into the community. He had been living at his parents’ house in the Chicago area since being released last month from the Tennessee facility and was undergoing weekly sessions with a psychiatrist. He also was being given monthly injections of an anti-psychotic medication, which removes the need to monitor his medication intake, said Saskia Jordan, his attorney.