Report: Aspen High School SRO would take lie detector test, but not meet superiors over cash gift

The following story has been edited to reflect that the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office determined that Paul Hufnagle was no longer an employee due to his job abandonment.

A former Aspen High School resource officer who wouldn’t meet with his superiors about a $400 cash gift he accepted said in a text that “I would rather go out on the bridge and talk two kids off from jumping then come in there and be subject to another interrogation.”

That and other details are part of an internal investigation report the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office released Friday to The Aspen Times following the newspaper’s open records request for information regarding Sheriff Joe DiSalvo’s decision to cut ties with Paul Hufnagle, an SRO at the high school for 12 years, in December.

Hufnagle was considered to have abandoned his job for his failure to meet with the Sheriff’s Office about the cash gift, as well as his lack of communications about his job status, according to the report.

Known as “Huff” in school circles, he had taught a street-law course at AHS and was a fixture at youth activities, from athletic events to graduation festivities. Some readers have written letters to the newspapers in defense of Hufnagle, who had a reputation for establishing trusting relationships with students, parents and teachers in his SRO role.

“He is able to build strong relationships with kids and adults in the schools,” said a letter to the editor published Dec. 16. “I am a better person for having had him in my life, and other people are as well.”

Yet Hufnagle’s higher-ups believed he lied to them when they confronted him with questions about the gift, which came to their attention after Deputy Monique Merritt, also an SRO at the high school, received an envelope with $400 cash from AHS front-office staff Dec. 3. Merritt told her superiors she returned the envelope to the front office because she could not accept the cash gift.

Teachers and staff also received the same amount in payments last fall from a “parent association that supports the school and its staff,” according to another report from Sheriff’s Capt. Jesse Steindler, who led the Hufnagle investigation.

For law-enforcement authorities, however, such gifts are forbidden under the Colorado Gift Law, which precludes government employees from accepting anything having more than $65 in value during the calendar year. The law defines a government employee as “any employee, including independent contractors, of the state executive branch, the state legislative branch, a state agency, a public institution of higher education, or any local government, except a member of the general assembly or a public officer.”

Steindler’s report said he spoke to Hufnagle about the gift Dec. 3, during which time Hufnagle said he had received an envelope from the AHS front office, but he did not open it or know what was in it.

Hufnagle went on to tell Steindler that he gave the envelope to the Snowmass Chapel; however, Steindler said the chapel staff said it received neither an anonymous donation nor one from Hufnagle.

Seeking more clarification, Steindler called Hufnagle again Dec. 3, and was told that the envelope was actually put in a drop-box at an Oct. 17 memorial service in Snowmass, Steindler’s report said.

The cash gifts, however, were not distributed to AHS staff until beginning Oct. 24 at a teacher appreciation breakfast, the report said. Hufnagle picked up his payment either Oct. 28 or Oct. 29, Steindler’s report said, basing that information on his interviews with school staff.

On Dec. 4, Steindler texted Hufnagle about meeting with him and Ryan. Hufnagle agreed to the meeting, but about 30 minutes after it had been scheduled — with Hufnagle not to be found — Steindler received a text from him saying, in part, that “I can’t put myself through that again. I felt like I was poked and prodded by a proctologist and it is just not something that I want to do. I would rather go out on the bridge and talk two kids off from jumping then come in there and be subject to another interrogation.”

His text added that “I would rather go to (the Colorado Bureau of Investigation) and take a lie detector test. And I get the feeling I should not come there without an attorney. Thanks for all you’ve done trying to hold that department together.”

Merritt also reported that Hufnagle walked off the job Dec. 4, leading DiSalvo to place him on administrative leave.

It was not until a Dec. 9 text reply from Hufnagle to Ryan that the parties communicated again about the issue, with Hufnagle expressing frustration the Sheriff’s Office had cut off his means of professional communication — work email and cellphone — while he was placed on administrative leave.

Ryan’s text concerned what steps to take with Hufnagle’s employment. Hufnagle’s reply text, however, indicated he believed his job status was no longer in question.

“Hi I’m doing great. I think you answered that next steps thing by shutting me out of everything. That sends a real loud message. Thanks. Huff”

Huffnagle said Sunday he would possibly talk publicly about the matter, but family matters Monday prevented him from speaking about the issue.