Year in review #9: Rocky year for Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office

Aspen Daily News Staff Report
The past year was a challenging one for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, which saw two deputies leave the ranks under less-than-desirable circumstances, and what appears to be a fruitless inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

It was made public in March that Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo had known that FBI officials had been questioning former employees in what was characterized as a “public corruption” investigation. FBI agents had been asking questions that centered around whether any of the employees had witnessed drug use, the selling of drugs or an abuse of power within the sheriff’s office.

Some questions suggested that the FBI was trying to find out if any top law enforcement officials had abused their power. Other questions revolved around whether special treatment or protection had been given to known drug dealers in the last couple of decades, as well as recently. Some were asked if they knew of any improprieties within the department.

The employees told the FBI they were not aware of any criminal activity. DiSalvo, for his part, said his agency was not engaged in unlawful activity and called the investigation, which so far has turned up nothing, an “unnecessary distraction.”

Personnel issues within the department began in February when DiSalvo put longtime deputy Ann Stephenson on leave after she was involved in a minor traffic accident while on duty near Owl Creek Road.

DiSalvo fired Stephenson in March. In response, Stephenson, a nearly 30-year deputy, filed a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ahead of a planned discrimination lawsuit. Both sides settled in November, which included a lump sum payment of $85,000 to Stephenson, and a requirement that supervisors and employees in the sheriff’s office undergo workforce training.

Personnel problems persisted for DiSalvo a few months later, when deputy Amanda Schmitt, who worked in the jail, resigned in June after she was cited for illegally discharging a firearm during a drug- and alcohol-fueled camping trip near Lake Powell.

The National Park Service notified local authorities because one of the campers was former Basalt High School teacher and girls’ basketball coach Lauren Redfern. She was on probation after pleading guilty to a felony count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. She was arrested after her relationship with a then-17-year-old student came to light, and was originally charged with sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust, a more serious felony.

When word of the Utah citations got back to DiSalvo, he put Schmitt on paid administrative leave. She resigned on her own accord.

— Carolyn Sackariason