Boulder author pens book on Auman prison release campaign
Boulder author Matthew Moseley has some sage advice for those caught in a conundrum with nothing to lose: Write a letter to someone with influence.
That’s what Lisl Auman did in 2001, while she was imprisoned for life without parole, from the Women’s Correction Facility in Canon City. The letter was addressed to Hunter S. Thompson’s post office box in Woody Creek. When his personal assistant, Deborah Fuller, read Thompson the note, his journalistic juices started flowing. A week later, he discussed Auman’s plight in his “Hey Rube” column on ESPN.com.
Knowing that Thompson had gotten involved because of Auman, months later Moseley reached out to the pioneer of gonzo journalism, with his own letter, only this one came in the form of a faxed memo. Moseley believed that orchestrating a communications campaign, with Thompson front and center, could propel Auman to freedom. The same day he received the fax, Thompson called Moseley, and an alliance was born.
Moseley, 43, appears at 5:30 p.m. today at Explore Booksellers to discuss “Dear Dr. Thompson,” which was released earlier this year. Moseley, who lived in Aspen periodically during the late 1990s, said the book’s goal was to show the inner workings of a long-shot campaign, spearheaded by Thompson, as well as Auman’s predicament.
However, Moseley noted, “Dear Dr. Thompson” is a “political book more than anything.” And it also shows the power of a movement and the fruits it yielded. This movement happened to begin, Moseley said, when Auman picked up a pen and began to write.
“My message is really about writing your own letter,” Moseley said Wednesday. “This one letter changed this girl’s life.”
Auman’s letter didn’t ask for help; instead, it languished over the fact that Thompson’s books were banned from the prison library.
“He really appreciated her selflessness,” Moseley said. “She didn’t ask him for anything.”
Auman, who was 25 years old at the time she wrote the letter, did mention she was a “hostage” in the penitentiary and “I can only hope that one day I will be vindicated and go home …” Instead, she was caught in the crosshairs of Colorado’s felony murder law.
She’d been incarcerated ever since her November 1997 arrest in Denver following a high-speed pursuit that led to the shooting death of Denver Police Officer Bruce Vanderjagt. The killer, skinhead Matthaeus Jaehnig, then committed suicide, and by doing so, thrust Auman into the role of a scapegoat. The two had met just a day earlier.
Although she was in police custody at the time of Vanderjagt’s murder, a jury convicted Auman for felony murder. Police said she handed Jaehnig the weapon moments before she was arrested, making her an accomplice to the killer under Colorado’s felony murder law.
However, Moseley and others contend that the police cooked up the allegations about Auman distributing the weapon, much like prosecutors – led by then District Attorney Bill Ritter, now the Colorado governor – concocted the story that she was the skinhead’s girlfriend.
Also, authorities had claimed Auman steered the stolen vehicle from the passenger seat while Jaehnig fired at pursuing police vehicles. Auman’s attorneys and allies have maintained that she had no choice: “He’s got a gun and expressed frightening capacity to use it,” Moseley said.
Auman was eventually let out of prison after the Colorado Supreme Court determined that the jury that convicted her in 1998 was given potentially improper instructions before deliberations began. In other words, she was freed on a technicality.
To Moseley and others in the Auman campaign, it was a bittersweet victory: While Auman was out of prison, the felony murder law remained on the books, unchanged.
Adding to that bittersweet feeling was that Auman’s release from prison also came March 28, 2005 – more than a month after Thompson killed himself Feb. 20 at his Woody Creek home. The two never met in person, but exchanged letters over the years.
Thompson’s ability to galvanize an influential cast of players – criminal defense attorneys Gerry Goldstein, Hal Haddon and Abe Hutt, historian Douglas Brinkley, Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, the late singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, actors Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Benecio Del Toro and filmmaker Wayne Ewing, among others – played a vital role in Auman’s release, Moseley said.
“Surrounding ourselves with the messenger, that was the trick that changed the narrative,” Moseley said. “The prosecution had told one story, and we had to tell the other.”
And that’s where Moseley came in: reshaping the publicly accepted narrative of a crime story that initially portrayed Auman and Jaehnig as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.
The most high-profile effort to reframe the story came May 14, 2001, when Thompson and other advocates such as Brinkley, Zevon and others appeared at a Free Lisl rally in on the Capitol steps of Denver. Days later, Denver columnists and media chimed in with opinions and articles, questioning Auman’s confinement and championing her fight for justice. A June 2004 Vanity Fair article by Thompson and writer Mark Seal put the national spotlight on the case.
The wheels were in motion, but there were setbacks along the way, including the Court of Appeals upholding the verdict in 2002.
The rest, however, is history.
When asked if Auman would still be in prison had Thompson not gotten involved, Braudis deadpanned, “Yes.”
“She was sentenced to life without parole. I don’t think the system would have been budged by purely legal arguments, although there are always good ones. Lisl Auman’s freedom was directly related to the huge amount of political/legal pressure put on the Colorado system.
“Hunter asked a lot from his friends, but he would give a lot also.”
Braudis said Auman’s release helped cement the legacy of Thompson, who had been criticized in his later years of living off the glory of his “Fear and Loathing” novels and other counterculture classics.
“I think it was one of his sterling accomplishments,” he said. “A person has their life back.”
But expunging the felony murder law is not a high priority for reform activists, Braudis said.
Altering the statute, so that a “reasonable foreseeability” clause is included, would be a step in the right direction, Braudis said. As it stands, the Colorado law lacks such a clause, making those with little or possibly no culpability – such as Auman – a candidate for a felony murder conviction, even though they have no role or knowledge in a murder.
Even so, Braudis said: “I don’t think there are a lot of unjust victims of that law. I think there would be a more broadly expressed outcry if people were going to jail every week.”
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