John Van Ness, longtime Aspen-area attorney, dies
John Van Ness, a former Aspen city councilman and the colorful, folksy criminal-defense attorney who counted Hunter S. Thompson among his clients, has died.
Van Ness passed away Friday in the Denver area, according to his friends and colleagues. He most recently had a bout with pancreatic cancer, said Kathy Goudy, a Carbondale attorney and longtime friend of Van Ness’. He was 79.
A graduate of Yale University and the New York University School of Law, Van Ness moved to Aspen in 1972 and was elected to the City Council five years later.
“It was very educational,” Van Ness said of his time on the council in an Aspen Times Weekly story published in May 2006. “If you want to solve a problem, the worst way to do it is government.”
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In the ’70s and ’80s, Van Ness was Aspen’s go-to criminal defense attorney at a time when most defendants and lawyers lived within city limits, recalled Chip McCrory, a former prosecutor for the 9th Judicial District, which covers Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties.
“If you had to classify John, you’d call him a local’s attorney,” said McCrory, who lives in Carbondale and practices criminal defense law. “He was a member of the Aspen Eagles, a member of the Carbondale American Legion. When a local got in trouble, they usually went to him.”
Alleged con artists, drug dealers, drug users, DUI offenders, thieves, robbers, barroom brawlers, domestic abusers and others would often call on Van Ness for his legal services. His clients included an astrologer accused of sexually assaulting children, a man accused of hitting his neighbor with a shovel and a homeless couple who lived in their van.
One of his most high-profile cases in recent memory included his representation of Aspen bartender Peter Nardi, who was convicted in April 2014 of sexual assault. Van Ness, with fellow attorney Colleen Scissors, defended Nardi in a jury trial held in Pitkin County District Court. Nardi currently is serving a term of 15 years to life in the Department of Corrections.
“What I really remember about John was he was a true advocate as a defense attorney,” said Bob Braudis, who was Pitkin County’s sheriff from January 1987 to January 2011. “All of the judges he appeared before respected him. He took some very oddball cases, and he wasn’t afraid of the authorities or the establishment.”
Van Ness and Thompson were neighbors in Woody Creek, and Van Ness often spent time at the late writer’s kitchen at Owl Farm; he also aided in Thompson’s legal representation during the few instances he got in trouble locally.
“(Thompson) had a flock of lawyers, and John always was one of the first he’d call,” Braudis said. “John was a real freak, if we go back to the Freak Power days, and I think all the freaks I knew needed a lawyer at the time.”
In Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour’s book “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson,” attorney Gerry Goldstein — who ran in those very circles Van Ness, Braudis and Thompson enjoyed — recalled a particular episode that also included actor Jack Nicholson.
“First, Hunter placed these defrosted elk hearts on John’s front doorstep, and then he started throwing these stones he’d collected onto the tin roof of John’s house and just listened as they rolled down. Then he shot off a couple of rounds from a 9-millimeter and started playing a continuous looped tape of pigs or rabbits being slaughtered — a godforsaken screeching, curdling sound. This poor little girl came to the window screaming. Apparently Van Ness was out of town and this teenage girl was house-sitting for them. From there, he proceeded to Nicholson’s house, where he engaged in the same folly.”
Van Ness also was involved in NORML — National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — and hosted parties for the group and spoke at its conferences in Aspen.
“John literally introduced the whole NORML organization on a nationwide basis,” said Florida resident Chad King, who was a reporter for the Aspen Daily News in the late ’90s and became close friends with Van Ness, a man he called a “wonderful human.” “That was pretty much my sociological dictation — it was all about NORML.”
Van Ness’ life took a downward turn when his partner of 28 years, Kathy Sharp, was struck and killed by a vehicle at the intersection of Catherine Store Road and Highway 82 in August 2014. She was 65 at the time of her death, which took an immense toll on Van Ness, friends said.
The couple had been living in Carbondale since 2008 after living in Woody Creek; after Sharp died, Van Ness’ health problems, which included a stroke, began to mount.
Van Ness, whose courtroom attire often consisted of a Western shirt, tweed jacket and cowboy boots, began to appear less frequently in recent years at the Pitkin County Courthouse, a place he knew well.
“I think he was in horrible mourning after Kathy got killed,” Braudis said.
The couple were avid bridge players, and they traveled the globe playing in tournaments.
“When Kathy died, he had an Irish wake and a lot of them were bridge players from somewhere else,” Scissors recalled.
Scissors also took an interest in bridge, and Van Ness took time to show her how to navigate the game.
“Because he was a very brilliant man, he put a whole new perspective on the game of bridge that people spend a lifetime playing poorly,” she said.
That same mind could be effective in the courtroom, but Van Ness’ style wasn’t flashy. He instead took the country lawyer approach — with a splash of Detective Columbo — in making his cases.
“He would act dumb to expose people,” Braudis said. “He was very intelligent.”
Van Ness also harkened to a day when a gentleman’s handshake worked just as effectively as a finely worded contract.
“His word was his bond,” Goudy said.
Van Ness also enjoyed his Pontiac GTO, a vehicle he drove into submission and even factored into billing at least one client. That client, recalled McCrory, didn’t have the money to pay an attorney, so Van Ness made a deal with him to paint the GTO in exchange for his legal services.
The client balked the first time, as well as the second and third times Van Ness represented him, McCrory said.
“The guy never got around to paying John,” he said.
Van Ness would put his poorer clients on payment plans and “he was the least expensive attorney around. The money wasn’t that important to him,” McCrory said.
Van Ness did not have children. A memorial service is not yet planned at this time.
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Aspen Skiing Co. and most of the Colorado ski industry were cruising along in a second strong season, until the coronavirus crisis forced their closure on March 14. Skier visits would typically be announced this week, but the ski industry is focused on forging ahead rather than looking back.