Local elected officials are throwing their support behind Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo in his standoff with the DEA, which refuses to notify the local law enforcement agency when it conducts operations here.
DiSalvo and Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor met with Mayor Mick Ireland on Thursday, and in an executive session with the Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday.
Commission chair Rachel Richards said the board plans to write a letter in support of DiSalvo to the DEA in Denver, urging the agency to notify the sheriff’s office in advance of a federal drug operation being conducted here.
Like DiSalvo, Richards said the main reason for notification is to keep the public and law enforcement officers safe.
“This is about public safety,” she said, adding DiSalvo is a sheriff with integrity. “I have full faith in our sheriff’s office and in our sheriff.”
Ireland said he will bring the same issue to the Aspen City Council and ask the city to draft a letter.
“We’ll probably do a letter to the DEA asking for cooperation in any investigation,” he said.
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said the commissioners and the top local lawmen met behind closed doors so he could advise them legally about the DEA’s presence here.
“The legal implications are many [with] the risk and how to interact with the federal government,” he said.
The meetings were prompted after DEA agents came to Aspen and arrested six area residents last Thursday on alleged cocaine distribution charges without notifying the sheriff’s office or the APD.
The local defendants are listed as Aspen residents, though some live outside town: Peggy Schlaugher, 41; Wayne Reid, 65; Jack Fellner, 60; Joseph Burke, 63; Joan Anastasi, 67; and Christopher Sheehan, 65. Each is charged with distributing and possessing with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine.
Jim Schrant, head of the DEA’s Grand Junction office, said local authorities weren’t notified because of the relationship DiSalvo and former sheriff Bob Braudis have with some of the targets of the investigation and as a result, the federal agency doesn’t trust the sheriff’s office.
DiSalvo maintains that he only knew a few of the suspects and they were merely acquaintances.
The DEA alleges the local suspects are part of an organization that brought more than 500 pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Aspen over the last 15 years. Federal authorities say the drug ring was connected to cartels in Mexico. The DEA allegedly seized 1.5 kilograms of cocaine and $116,000 in cash from the Aspen-area arrests last week.
The DEA was assisted in the raids by the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team, which is made up of police departments in Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Rifle and Vail, along with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. The IRS, the U.S. Marshal’s Office, the FBI and Homeland Security also assisted.
DiSalvo said Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario didn’t notify him of the raids, even though the two top lawmen made a pact in January to work together.
DiSalvo said he has left two messages for Vallario, which have gone unreturned. A phone message to Vallario by the Aspen Daily News was not returned Thursday.
Schrant said the DEA’s work in Aspen is far from over.
“This case is very much ongoing,” he said. “We anticipate further arrests.
“Rest assured, we have a lot of resources in this case.”
The DEA’s presence here could include undercover agents and informants — everything in the DEA’s “investigative tool box,” Schrant said.
Pitkin County and the APD have had a long-standing policy to not conduct undercover work, although both agencies have cooperated in the past with the DEA when asked.
Asked whether the sheriff’s office is being investigated as part of the case, Schrant said, “I will not comment specifically on targets in this ongoing investigation.”
Schrant said he was brought to the Western Slope to rid this side of the state of the growing cocaine trade, particularly in small towns like Aspen that violent cartels and significant drug operations now target because of the lesser law enforcement presence.
“We are not naive to believe this is the most substantive drug case in Pitkin County ... there are several ongoing cases on the Western Slope that will relate to Pitkin County,” Schrant said.
He said Aspen is a hotbed of illegal drug activity, which he vows to eradicate.
“A lot of organizations are moving a lot of dope,” he said. “There is a strong appetite for cocaine in Aspen.”
Schrant said Aspenites who buy cocaine have blood on their hands because they are indirectly responsible for the violence and deaths in Mexico and beyond.
“There is a disconnect with the role of the consumer and the traffickers,” he said. “It’s all connected.”