Lipseys receive probation after misdemeanor plea deal in house party charges
Former Aspen couple contrite in court appearance, agrees to community service as well
The case against a former Aspen couple that began with mandatory prison time over allegations involving teen parties, alcohol and cocaine ended Tuesday with probation and community service.
With equal parts remorse and regret, Joseph Lipsey III, 58, and Shira Lipsey, 46, pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count each of providing alcohol to minors. The plea deal with the District Attorney’s Office called for the dismissal of 11 felony counts each of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and two misdemeanor counts each of providing alcohol to minors.
“First thing is I’d like to apologize to the community and to all those I affected,” said Joseph Lipsey, who with his wife appeared virtually Tuesday in Pitkin County District Court. “My behavior was completely wrong in allowing minors to consume alcohol.
“I’ve really been counseled not to say this, but I thought it was a rite of passage just because of the way I grew up. Things could have gone completely wrong. Thank God they didn’t.”
However, he said he and his wife’s involvement in the court system has brought “complete clarity” that forced the couple to seek counseling and reassess their lives. Previously, he was an absent husband and father and has benefited since the case began from spending more time with his family and less with his businesses, he said.
Shira Lipsey also said she didn’t think allowing minors to consume alcohol in her home during a New Year’s Eve party and other events was a big deal at the time. She told District Judge Chris Seldin that she was a friend to her children and their friends and “not a role model.”
“As the guilt of what I’d done settled in, I was appalled by myself,” she said. “I executed bad judgment and made egregious actions.”
Shira Lipsey said she offered the guilty plea “with feelings of deep regret and heartfelt remorse.”
“I know that, sadly, I am guilty,” she said.
Seldin said he believed the couple’s repentance.
“I find the contrition of the defendants to be genuine and persuasive,” he said. “It’s not the first case where parents have exercised poor judgment and allowed alcohol for their child and their child’s friends. You put children at risk obviously, and you also put yourself at risk.”
The couple will spend one year on probation and each must complete 200 hours of community service.
The case against the Lipseys began in January 2019, when a then-17-year-old Aspen High School student sent out two Snapchat videos showing Shira Lipsey, a plate with white powder, straws and a rolled-up dollar bill. On the image of the second video, the teen wrote, “This kid’s parents tryna kill me.”
In March 2019, Aspen police arrested both parents and charged them with distribution of cocaine to a minor, along with the 11 other felony charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and the three misdemeanor charges. The distribution charge carried a minimum prison sentence of eight years and a maximum of 32 years upon a guilty conviction.
Four months later – in July 2019 – Deputy District Attorney Don Nottingham dismissed the distribution charge against both parents, saying there was not enough evidence to support it.
That charge of distribution of cocaine to a minor, the impression it gave the community of the Lipseys as drug dealers and its subsequent effect on the Lipseys after Aspen media coverage of the case, received much attention in court Tuesday.
Nottingham lamented that “significant media attention” generated by the charge “led to inferences that were not warranted.” Yale Galanter, Joseph Lipsey’s lawyer, said after the hearing that “initial media reports caused great harm to the family.” Joseph Lipsey said the distribution charge allowed the community’s collective imagination to run wild in a way that “was horrifying to us.” And Judge Seldin said the attention and media-generated “opprobrium” that included misreporting of facts he didn’t specify “can exceed the punitive effect of a court sentence.”
Initial media reports were based on a law enforcement investigation that included the Aspen Police Department and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, which was contained in arrest warrant affidavits filed in Pitkin County District Court.
In July 2019, Nottingham said it wasn’t a mistake for law enforcement and the DA’s Office to charge the Lipseys with the high-level felony because the investigation showed probable cause. Subsequently, investigators ran into issues tracking down witnesses and details, he said.
On Tuesday, Nottingham said the charge of distribution of cocaine to a minor takes into account a range of behavior that includes merely sharing drugs with a minor all the way to selling kilos for profit. Had the 17-year-old been a legal adult, it probably wouldn’t have even been charged as a felony, he said.
In the end, he said there were simply too many questions about the cocaine evidence, which was excluded by Seldin last week from the Lipseys’ trial that was set to begin Monday.
“I can’t say with confidence that either of these defendants distributed drugs to anyone,” Nottingham said after Tuesday’s plea. “There were drugs there (at the New Year’s Eve party). But I couldn’t trace them back to either one of these defendants.”
Galanter said after the hearing there was “not a shred of evidence” that supported the distribution claim.
“This was a New Year’s Eve party that got a little out of hand,” he said. “What occurred here to this family was horrible.”
At a motions hearing last month, Galanter said the Lipseys had been forced to sell their Aspen Highlands-area home and leave the community because they’d been treated as pariahs. On Tuesday, he asked that their probation be transferred “primarily to Puerto Rico and secondarily to Tennessee.”
The couple’s community service must begin by Aug. 1, and they must complete five hours a week until it is finished. They also must undergo a substance abuse exam by the Probation Department and could be subjected to random drug and alcohol tests depending on the result.
The year of supervised probation can become unsupervised after the Lipseys complete all community service and Probation Department requirements, Galanter said.
Nottingham said he initially had reservations the Lipseys didn’t understand the gravity of their misdeeds. But records he received in recent weeks convinced him that they were sincere in realizing their errors and had sought to correct them, he said.
The Lipseys’ son, Joseph Lipsey IV, also was initially charged in connection with the New Year’s Eve party. He pleaded guilty in May 2020 to misdemeanor reckless endangerment and drug possession in connection with the incident and was sentenced to two years of supervised probation. The plea also included a felony guilty plea related to a high-speed car crash involving four other teens that occurred before the party.
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