It’s a question Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said he’s getting asked a lot these days: Is he going to change his behavior after he briefly attended a birthday party for a man suspected of distributing cocaine?
“Most people have said, ‘Joey, was that a mistake?’” he said during an interview Monday. “Well, it’s hard for me to say anything else but ‘of course’ now, looking back. But in the day-to-day life of the way I’ve been for the last 30 years in Aspen, it just seems like another thing that I do. It just seems like another type of [a] day in the life of an Aspenite, and maybe even the Pitkin County sheriff. At least for the last 40 years.”
It was revealed last week that DiSalvo, and former sheriff Bob Braudis, attended a party dubbed the “Awaynement” in April for Aspenite Wayne Reid, 65.
He had been arrested outside Grand Junction earlier that month for allegedly transporting a kilo of cocaine from Nevada.
A federal judge last Tuesday heard testimony from a Glenwood Springs police officer, who was a member of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration team that arrested Reid and five other Aspen-area residents the following month, who said the presence of DiSalvo at the party was a factor in the feds’ lack of notification to the sheriff’s office and the Aspen Police Department prior to the operation.
The secretive nature of the arrest operation by members of the DEA and the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team (TRIDENT) prompted complaints from DiSalvo, Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor and the Pitkin County commissioners.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty said in a ruling last week that Reid, and fellow defendant and Snowmass Village resident Christopher Sheehan should remained jailed, noting that during the DEA search, a book about “how to disappear” was allegedly found at Reid’s home. It was apparently a gag gift given to Reid by someone attending the party in an attempt at gallows humor.
“It’s just in good fun and making fun of something that’s very serious,” said DiSalvo, who said he spent less than 20 minutes at a party at The Wine Spot at the Hyatt Grand Aspen. “Wayne going to jail is pretty serious, and he chose to make fun of it at [what] may be his last free birthday party. It’s a very Aspen thing to do and it’s hard for people to understand.”
DiSalvo noted that Little Annie’s and another establishment offered free shots when serial killer Ted Bundy was executed in 1989.
“It was spooky and it is gallows-type humor,” he said.
But he said he “absolutely” understood that his attendance at the party may be seen as questionable by some in the community.
“There’s a lot of people here who judge me for going there, and I can understand that point; I really can,” DiSalvo said. “But taken in the context of who I am and who I know and how many paroled acquaintances I have ... I’m not trying to make myself sound like a rock star. Now it’s a hard position for me. I’m invited to a party, I have to review the guest list before I go? Or say ‘no’ to a friend because he might have gotten himself in trouble before? I don’t want to live that way.”
Nevertheless, he said he “is considering” changing such societal aspects, though “I certainly haven’t made any decisions about it.”
“I guess I would say I don’t regret it because it’s something I would do. I’m thinking about changing the way I am and who I interact with, but it’s really not me.”
Asked if he was surprised that the DEA knew about the party and the people there, he said, “I guess I was surprised they were watching people. I didn’t know that.”
He reiterated that he knew little about Reid or the other defendants, saying the DEA has mischaracterized his relationship with the suspects. DiSalvo said he had known about the “Awaynement” for a week beforehand. It was on a Friday during off-season, he noted.
“Frankly if there was something better going on, I would have gone to do it,” DiSalvo said. “I think I was there maybe 15 minutes.
“Did I think about it before I went? Any repercussions from it never crossed my mind.”
He said he owes his services as sheriff to citizens, whether they are accused or not.
“I’m pretty open to everything. I really don’t put up those barriers,” he said. Reid “is an accused person, pre-trial … and he’s innocent until proven guilty.
“I’m curious if they’ve asked their confidential informant what my relationship is. That person can clearly say, ‘DiSalvo doesn’t come to Wayne’s house and hang out.’ But I don’t know if those are the questions they want the answers to.”
Braudis, his mentor, was re-elected six straight times starting in the early 1980s on a policy known as community policing, and both he and DiSalvo, who took office after garnering 79 percent of the vote in November, were close to the maverick author and drug aficionado Hunter S. Thompson.
DiSalvo said he understands a minority in the county want stricter enforcement of drug laws, “but we usually do it the majority way. And the majority is saying they kind of like it this way.”
On June 14, Glenwood police officer Paul Pedersen, a member of the DEA and TRIDENT teams, testified in the detention hearing for Reid and Sheehan that undercover work in the upper valley is prevented by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
“When the agent said on the stand that, ‘[The sheriff’s office] won’t allow us to do drug work up there,’ I have no jurisdiction over the DEA, and as a Glenwood officer, he should know that,” DiSalvo said. “This community doesn’t really like it, but we cannot stop a federal agency from coming in here.
“I want to work with them cooperatively to keep the community safe and to get them to do their mission … in a way that’s suitable to this community.”
Even so, he said he senses the efficacy of America’s long war against drugs is finally being discussed on a national level.
“What’s the benefit to this? I just think it’s a loser,” DiSalvo said. “I really think it’s a bad idea to house and institutionalize in prison people that have a social weakness. To that my answer is, legalize, tax and subsidize these programs. I know there are Pablo Escobars and those guys out there making billons of dollars, but so are RJ Reynolds and Jack Daniels. Why not have one of those mega-companies grow weed and sell coke or whatever it’s going to be?
“I think people are starting to see, are we winning or losing this war? What’s the barometer for wins and losses? … If it’s drugs are harder to get, that’s absolutely false. Drugs are actually easier to get than they’ve ever been.”
By way of example, he said he took his 85-year-old mother to a Glenwood restaurant. A member of her sewing club had heard news of the cocaine arrests and the subsequent news of DiSalvo’s presence at the party. His mom doesn’t like to pry, he said, but asked if he was in some kind of trouble.
He explained the story of what had happened and why he reacted the way he did. “I said, ‘Ma, I’m going to give you an example.’ And the waitress comes over to fill our glasses, and I say, ‘Hi, I’m the sheriff and this is just a social experiment. I’m not looking to score drugs, but if I asked you to get cocaine within 30 minutes, would you be able to do it? And she said, ‘In Glenwood?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’
“She said, ‘Absolutely.’ So it’s not a hard thing, especially if you’re in a bar environment, to ask somebody. So I don’t know how we gauge this, win or lose. Was there cocaine in Glenwood 20 or 30 years ago? I’d have to say probably not. Now there is. So where’s the win on that? If it’s creeping in, we’re doing something wrong in the battle. But [the DEA is] trying to protect their jobs, and we’re trying to protect the community.”