Meredith C. Carroll: How Aspen may have dodged a bullet
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo watched Lee Mulcahy and his 85-year-old mom, Sandy, drive away from their Burlingame Ranch home in Aspen for the final time in March with a toilet wedged between them in the front seat. The toilet — set in the middle of the living room — had been the lone item in the otherwise emptied-out 1,912-square-foot house that still needed to be packed into the overflowing moving van parked out front when the sheriff stopped by that final morning to do a walk-through and say goodbye.
It was a quiet end to a rambunctious 5-year-long legal battle and personal crusade by Mulcahy to remain in the employee housing unit built by him and his late father in the early 2010s. In 2016, the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board rescinded Mulcahy’s eligibility in the housing program because of his failure to meet the minimum work requirement of 1,500 hours a year within the county. After hearing from a judge this winter that all legal options had been exhausted, DiSalvo related to Mulcahy that he needed to move out.
Many people anticipated a grislier farewell. Some neighbors purposely left the area entirely in Mulcahy’s final days and hours out of a prickling sense of dread that his frequent threats of violence and revenge might come to fruition, not unlike a rampage 150 miles east of Aspen 17 years earlier. Following a years-long dispute with town officials in which his personal and professional losses piled up, in 2004 Granby resident Marvin Heeymeyer fortified a 50-ton bulldozer with automatic weapons, rifles and an additional 30 tons of steel and concrete that he used to demolish local businesses, municipal buildings and a residential structure before taking his own life.
“When you look at the machine that Heeymeyer built, right away, there’s a sort of an inherent character question,” director Paul Solet told 9News last year upon the release of “Tread,” his documentary film on the Granby rampage. “What kind of person would both be angry enough and have the skill enough to create that machine and to sustain that resentment as long as he did to both build it and then carry it out?”
A prevailing sense, especially among Burlingame residents and other individuals and organizations in Aspen that went so far as to take out restraining orders against him based on his direct and veiled threats and inflammatory language and images on social media, in person, in writing, and on painted signs posted in front of his house, was that Mulcahy was precisely that kind of person. His presence loomed over the neighborhood and other parts of Aspen (including Aspen City Hall, where he was only permitted to enter by appointment and with police escort) with all the energy and unpredictability of a tornado trapped in a trash can.
At the same time, Aspen Police Sgt. Rick Magnuson, who was involved in Mulcahy’s case for five years, thought that while he was a bully, he didn’t have it in him to resort to bloodshed and destruction. Magnuson said Mulcahy’s final moments in Aspen reminded him of something out of the Old West.
“Despite his anti-government beliefs, Lee respected the position of the elected sheriff. And it was the sheriff who was ultimately able to walk, unarmed, into the front door of his nemesis and diffuse the situation. It was very impressive,” Magnuson said. “I don’t think too many other sheriffs would have been able to do that.”
Like Magnuson, DiSalvo never feared Mulcahy, with whom he became acquainted on a personal level long before the onset of the housing saga. He thinks working to keep his relationship with Mulcahy friendly and non-antagonistic helped ease the outcome.
“Lee knew the line and walked right up to it and was careful not to cross it,” DiSalvo said. “I trusted him and it was mutual.”
DiSalvo attributes part of the mutual courtesy to him having no avenue of exposure to offer Mulcahy — like, say, the local newspapers or televised city council meetings. His sense throughout the Mulcahy saga was that the posturing came from more than just one side, but that “like parents, it’s our job to rise above.” More reason and compassion could have been demonstrated, he said, even if he understands why others thought the opposite was true.
“I appreciated whatever others felt (about Lee), and I certainly don’t want to diminish the neighbors’ fears. I do think he terrorized some of them. Imagine living 10 feet from a place that might get blown up; it must have been very unsettling,” DiSalvo said. “I sympathize with the people who were frightened; I wouldn’t want to live next door to someone making threats.”
At the same time, based on their personal interactions, DiSalvo never foresaw Mulcahy, who hand wrote the sheriff a thank you note after his departure, as someone doing anything more than bluffing. And it’s that kind of connection that Solet said should encourage people to reconsider their means of communication.
“Ultimately, the people that Marvin was so angry at, are people who had a lot in common with him,” he said. “These are hard working Americans, they’re out working with their hands every day. These are self-made people, who are scrappy and tough and vibrant. And at the end of the day, had communication been a little bit different, you would have had a very different result.”
Magnuson agrees that, at the core of policing, needs to be more intimate communication.
“The fact that Joe went to Lee’s house that morning and did a walk-through with Sandy and him just showed the value of building relationships, especially with people prone to rhetoric about violence,” he said. “We have to work on those relationships — because that’s what you need when it comes down to it.”
“There were a lot of people talking SWAT teams and forcing him to move out, but I learned from my predecessors that you talk first and everything else comes last,” DiSalvo said. “Lee called me when it was time to inspect the property. I went for that but also because I wanted to say goodbye. He was very gentlemanly and passive and compliant and OK. I feel proud of him that he took the high road and respected the community and left peacefully. I was prepared for the worst but didn’t expect anything except what happened.”
More at MeredithCarroll and on Twitter @MCCarroll.
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