The odd couple: Feds and Pitkin County just don’t see eye-to-eye
Former Pitkin County Sheriff Dick Kienast: Cocaine is accepted here as a social drug, just like alcohol. When your average man on the street gets an extra hundred, he’ll usually buy a gram of blow.Wayne Valentine, former regional director, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration: People are up in arms over Aspen and the affluence that allows them to have this attitude. … [The sheriff] just does not understand a true policeman’s philosophy. He’s been in a sheltered environment. He can treat those people as friends because he lives with them. I do not. When they violate the law, I must treat them as suspected felons and so should every good cop.- June 23, 1980, People Magazine••••
ASPEN – The philosophical rift between the DEA and Sheriff’s Office, evidenced by such rhetorical barbs as Valentine’s toward Kienast in the People article – and Kienast’s acknowledgment that buying cocaine in Aspen was as routine an errand as getting a ski tune – is hardly new. The two agencies, after all, have long been at odds when it comes to drug enforcement: The DEA views the drug epidemic as criminal problem, and the best way to curb it is by arresting the high-level dealers. The Sheriff’s Office, however, considers it a health and societal issue that can be successfully addressed through education and rehabilitation.Even so, the Sheriff’s Office has provided mutual aid to the DEA in the past, but its anti-mainstream position is well cemented by its policies prohibiting the use of undercover agents, and not acting on drug-related tips from anonymous sources. It’s an old story and here we are, 31 years after a 1980 article that made a national splash over a local controversy, beaten as silly as the inconclusive debate over the Entrance to Aspen.If one were to equate this to a storied sports rivalry – think Yankees-Red Sox – the DEA’s latest sweep through Aspen and Pitkin County on May 19 would mark yet another chapter in this long-running feud. And nasty feuds have defining moments. Even casual observers of baseball can recall the time Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez dropped Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer to the ground – the event reinforced the animosity between the two clubs.The same can be said not for the DEA’s unannounced May 19 sweep through Pitkin County, but the polarizing remarks that followed. This time, the DEA was not just questioning how the Sheriff’s Office does business. This time, DEA members stopped short of accusing Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and his predecessor of 24 years, Bob Braudis, of corruption. DEA agents made pointedly clear their theory that DiSalvo and Braudis have, at a minimum, looked the other way when it comes to the use and distribution of illegal narcotics in Pitkin County, and, at worst, enabled the trafficking of illegal drugs.••••The same year that Kienast and Valentine’s differences were boiled down in People Magazine, DiSalvo moved to Aspen from Brooklyn. The war on drugs had been declared nine years earlier – on June 17, 1971 – by President Nixon, leading to the creation of the DEA in July 1973. Today, the DEA’s roster features 10,000 employees and 4,000 agents.Just a month shy of the drug war’s four-decade anniversary, on the third Thursday of May, DiSalvo arrived at his basement-level office in the Pitkin County Courthouse like it was any other day at work. Instead, if there were a stone tablet of key dates that symbolize the relationship between the DEA and Sheriff’s Office, then May 19, 2011, would be smack-dab in the middle, in bold capital letters. Not even five months into the job, the 50-year-old rookie sheriff learned that the DEA, along with a host of other law-enforcement agencies – except the very one he oversees – was working DiSalvo’s jurisdiction, entering alleged cocaine traffickers’ homes armed with warrants and guns. Five people were arrested – four in their 60s, one in her 40s – while another local suspect was detained at an airport in Dallas. The same day, three suspects who lived in the Los Angeles area were brought into custody in Southern California, while a fourth suspect remained at large.It was not so unusual that the DEA came to Pitkin County without advance notice last month. That has happened before, most recently on Dec. 2, 2005, when the DEA, Immigrations and Customs and Enforcement, the Colorado Department of Revenue and members from the Aspen and Snowmass Village police departments raided two downtown restaurants during happy hour, making 10 drug-related arrests (none of the defendants served prison time). It seemed that everyone in local law enforcement knew about the raids – other than then-Sheriff Braudis and his deputies (DiSalvo was a deputy at the time).And there was nothing to raise any eyebrows when, on May 20, the Department of Justice issued a press release summing up the charges and the DEA’s contention that it had dismantled a cocaine network responsible for the infusion of more than 200 kilograms of cocaine into Aspen by way of Los Angeles over the last 15 years. “Aspen cocaine dealers have been arrested, significantly reducing the supply of cocaine in that community,” U.S. Attorney John Walsh said in a prepared statement. The DEA has made statements like that for years. Like many law-enforcement organizations – be they local, state or federal – the DEA often trumpets its latest bust, raid or arrest.But what transpired in the wake of the press release put the two organizations at even greater odds with one another.The bombshell: Both Kevin Merrill, acting special agent at the DEA’s Denver office, and Jim Schrant, the DEA’s resident in charge in Grand Junction, told local and state media that Aspen and Pitkin authorities weren’t notified about the sweep because of “close ties” between Braudis and DiSalvo and some of the alleged suspects. The media frenzy began, as did the speculation.Schrant, a DEA member for 14 years who’s spent the last four in his current role in Grand Junction, declined to elaborate on the meaning of “close ties.””This investigation involved the tenures of two different sheriffs. There were relationships that manifested themselves involving the spans of two different sheriffs’ terms,” he said. But at a May 14 detention hearing for 65-year-old Aspen resident Wayne Alan Reid – DEA members say he was the ringleader of the network – Glenwood Springs Police Officer Paul Pedersen, also a special task force member with the DEA and the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team, testified that Reid said he could safely move cocaine because of his relationships here. Pedersen, who’s been a Glenwood Springs cop for two years, also testified that the Sheriff’s Office “frowns upon any undercover work in their county. They do not allow DEA or TRIDENT to perform any kind of undercover work. It’s just been known – for I would say decades – that Bob Braudis especially would turn the other way when that was confronted with him.”For Braudis, who’s been living in Aspen since he retired in January – DiSalvo took his place via a November landslide election victory over Rick Leonard – the DEA’s comments added another, more personal layer to the debate. “Even though they didn’t trust me, and I wasn’t about to trust them, we had a waltz going on,” Braudis said, recalling his clashes with the federal agency. “It was a strained, stressful waltz. I could always keep the relationship somewhat equitable. We even asked the DEA for a lot of help, but they would refuse to get involved because it was too small.”Braudis was once accused by then-U.S. Attorney Mike Norton as having a “non-cooperative attitude” toward federal drug investigations in Pitkin County. Braudis’ close friendship with Hunter S. Thompson had been well-chronicled in documentaries, books and news articles, and by the late Woody Creek writer himself. Now 66, Braudis had followed in the footsteps of Kienast, the sheriff from 1976 to 1986, whose clash with the DEA was captured in 1980 by “60 Minutes” in a news feature titled “Walking Small in Pitkin County.”The era of anti-drug-war sheriffs in Pitkin County now stands 35 years old. These sheriffs have deflected challenges from such candidates as Leonard and Aspen Police Officer Rick Magnuson, whose chief criticisms of the Sheriff’s Office concerned its passive approach to drug-law enforcement.”Joey [DiSalvo] was smeared by Braudis who was smeared by Kienast in the eyes of narrowly focused bureaucrats on a federal level,” Braudis said. DiSalvo takes it a step further: “Bob probably inherited Dick’s baggage. And I’m probably inheriting Bob’s baggage until I create my own baggage. I definitely feel like this is not only a judgment on me, it’s a judgment based on the community with very little knowledge.”He also notes that there’s a misperception that the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t allow undercover work by federal agents. In fact, the DEA or any federal agency can do business in Pitkin County without the sheriff’s blessing.”When rumor and reputation are allowed as court testimony,” DiSalvo said, referring to Pedersen’s statements at the hearing, “that makes me really nervous. The opinion he gave on the stand, frankly, is old rumor. When he said we don’t cooperate, that’s a misstatement.”••••
Nearly a week after the May 19 bust, DiSalvo and Aspen Police Department Chief Richard Pryor, along with their assistants, met with the DEA’s Schrant in the sheriff’s office. Each party left the private session knowing that they’d used 60 minutes of their lives they’d never get back. No progress was made, both sides said, and Schrant noted that the next time the DEA comes here, there’s a good chance the Sheriff’s Office will be left out of the loop again. Schrant, in a June 16 interview with The Aspen Times, said, “We would welcome participation from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office … The bread and butter of the DEA is our local relationships. We have fantastic relationships all over the state. They get us started, they provide the manpower that helps us build our case. It’s really a working relationship that benefits both sides, and we welcome Pitkin County just as we welcome downvalley help. TRIDENT [which is comprised of law-enforcement organizations from Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Garfield County, among others] is a perfect example. “We have a strong working relationship … where we can help them with their drug problems and they can assist us on our larger cases that are multi-jurisdictional. It really helps and we welcome that level of participation in Aspen as well. We’ve made overtures to provide them drug training … and they’ve declined.”The DEA’s Merrill called it a “unique situation.””[Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office] are the ones who have the policy that they will not be working undercover cops in a drug case,” he said. “I’m not aware of any other law-enforcement agency that has that prohibition and that’s not the end-all technique to utilize. It’s certainly one that we utilize, and it just seems way out of the norm.”The two DEA members also say that they have received positive feedback from the Aspen community. Since last month’s bust, more than 100 emails have been sent to the DEA, singing the agency’s praises, Schrant and Merrill said. “There are people that are grateful for our continued drug work,” Merrill said. “There are lots of comments about the drug problem at the local high school and hopefully this will change the feeling in that area.”Merrill added that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the reaction.”Not that we need affirmation that what we are doing is right, but it’s nice to see citizens of Aspen share our concerns. They have a different view than others in the area. I don’t know if the feeling is 50-50, but [the people who wrote in support of the DEA] felt good that someone is sticking up for law and order.”One letter Schrant and Merrill declined to comment about came from the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners. Dated June 9, the letter said that the DEA’s failure to notify local law enforcement agencies “would have catastrophic consequences, especially when, as then, the DEA did not have the officers to adequately protect the perimeter of the operation or to do more than send one agent to our communications center after the operation was initiated.”That’s a point – the potential compromise of safety – that Braudis advocated for years as sheriff, and now DiSalvo is preaching as well. “This issue could be put to bed today if they’d just notify us when they’re coming in,” DiSalvo said. “They have every resource I have available to me to use. I will tell them that. I don’t want to see them or anybody in this community get hurt. And I want to work cooperatively with them. If it’s something I disagree with or think is wrong, I’ll say we’re not playing on this one.”But so far they haven’t given me any reason to say that. If they feel a need to work in Pitkin County, then do it safely with law enforcement’s knowledge. That’s all I want. I can’t and don’t want to tell them not to be here.”Schrant said public safety was not compromised during the May 19 sweep. “Operationally, our first goal on every case, whether it’s in Los Angeles or Denver or Aspen, is officer and public safety. We will do whatever possible to ensure public safety and officer safety, no matter what the cost. … We felt very comfortable with officer safety and public safety during the course of [the May 19] operation.”Public safety was never an issue.”• • • •
Both Aspen newspapers have printed letters and opinion columns both supporting and opposing the DEA’s latest mission. And a recent report that DiSalvo and Braudis attended suspect Reid’s birthday party in April only fueled arguments on both sides. The word-of-mouth party was called the “AWaynement” in reference to earlier drug charges hanging over Reid in Mesa County. For their part, Braudis and DiSalvo said they made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go the party, and their relationship with Reid was casual at best. Those who disapprove of DiSalvo and Braudis said their party appearance is further proof that they’re cozy with alleged drug dealers. The duo’s supporters, however, contend that it’s more evidence indicative of the DEA pouring Miracle-Gro on a non-event to support its cause.Meanwhile, the criminal case continues to meander through the federal court system in Denver. All parties have pleaded not guilty, and new evidence trickles in. Both the DEA and Sheriff’s Office are standing firm, and the only way this difference will mend is if drugs are legalized and the DEA is eliminated, or a new sheriff comes to town with a hard stance on narcotics. Until then, consider this dispute unsettled, just like the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry and the Entrance to Aspen.email@example.com
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