`Cleanup man’ an apparent suicide
Jeff Hiltner, the man who spearheaded a valley cleanup campaign this fall and later drew complaints for failing to pay workers, was found dead Friday of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Hiltner’s body was found inside a hallway of his home on Bennett Avenue a little before 8 a.m. Friday morning, said Glenwood police chief Terry Wilson. He said the shooting apparently happened around 7:30 p.m.
Hiltner, 41, died from a single gunshot to the head. A large-caliber hunting rifle was used in the shooting.
“We believe at this time that it is a suicide,” said Wilson.
Wilson said he’s not aware of any kind of note or anything else indicating why Hiltner killed himself.
But at least one longtime acquaintance of Hiltner’s had previously expressed concern about Hiltner’s recent actions, saying he had never acted that way in the past.
“Something happened to him,” said Jack Woolsey, who had long worked for Hiltner’s construction company and recently said he was owed around $1,800 in back wages.
Woolsey said a paycheck he received from Hiltner bounced, while at the same time Hiltner had been hiring cleanup crews, buying cleanup supplies and purchasing a fleet of new vehicles, including six new Ford pickups and two Ford Excursions in the last month.
Bill Kaufman, an attorney who lived near Hiltner, expressed shock at Hiltner’s death. He had been a supporter of Hiltner’s cleanup project.
“He seemed rational and stable, but that’s when he first started” the cleanup work. “I’m really sad to hear it. I guess maybe he was a little bit unstable, but what I saw being done really improved the city.”
Over the last two months, Hiltner had cleanup crews sweeping up bus stops, sidewalks, parks and alleys in Glenwood, getting rid of leaves and trash.
“People can use the Christmas money,” Hiltner said. “And we’re just trying to make Glenwood Springs look good.”
He later expanded his efforts to Carbondale, New Castle and Silt.
Hiltner said he started the cleanup work on his own, then it spread from there.
“I see something that needs to be done, and I do it. The ideas just come to me,” he said.
Hiltner had said he was getting out of a successful career as a framing subcontractor. “My goal now is not to make money,” he said.
Eventually, though, some of Hiltner’s employees said they were no longer receiving the money owed them. And meanwhile, he, and Glenwood police, were receiving complaints about his crews working without authorization on private property, and tearing up flower beds.
In early December, Glenwood Springs City Council members commended Hiltner for his cleanup efforts. But they also wanted to be sure citizens know it’s not city crews going onto private property and removing plants and flowers.
Even after Hiltner no longer was paying employees regularly, some of them continued to support him and his efforts, working on a volunteer basis.
“Everybody has known during the last three weeks that money was going to get tight,” said one worker, Robert Bunn, 22.
He estimated that Hiltner spent more than $50,000 paying, feeding and lodging his workers, some of whom stayed at his house.
Kaufman said he was so happy about the work Hiltner had undertaken that he had offered to help financially, but he never heard back from Hiltner.
He appreciates Hiltner’s spruce-up efforts.
“I think he started a little snowball effect. I saw other people out cleaning streets in front of their homes that they hadn’t cleaned before,” said Kaufman, who was inspired to do more around his own house.
Kaufman, who said his own family has tried to volunteer and do things for the community, praised Hiltner for wanting “just to give back” to others.
He believes Hiltner caused “a tidal wave of people being more responsible.”
It could be that Hiltner’s undertaking will outlive him. One of his employees, 21-year-old Chris Wessel, vowed earlier this month to keep the cleanup campaign going.
“Now that there’s no money, we’re doing it for free,” Wessel said. “It’s not just his cause.”
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Policy that dictates what for-profit activities should be officially sanctioned within Glenwood Springs parks is being reviewed by city staff and will likely come before the city council for final approval later this summer.