Derek Johnson returns to Aspen, wants to make amends
After serving two years in the Colorado correctional system for embezzling millions of dollars in ski equipment scheme, Johnson back in town
Some 80 seconds into an interview, Derek Johnson realized he had a phone call to make.
“Can we take a timeout?” he asked.
It was Wednesday at The Aspen Times office, where Johnson was paying a visit since being released from a Denver-area halfway house six days earlier.
The once-clean cut Johnson has a new look — a fully grown beard, shaggy hair down almost to his shoulders, a flannel shirt. The 6-foot-1-inch former University of Minnesota Gopher football player also had shed a lot of weight, down to about 225 pounds from the more than 300 pounds he was pushing just a few years ago. He credited the loss to abstaining from alcohol, embracing a physical-fitness regimen and eating healthily.
“Physically I’m very changed,” he said. “But there’s probably more change in me that you see in my appearance. So I hope people will understand. I hope people hope for that second chance, that underdog mentality, but I don’t know.”
This was the same Derek Johnson who once ingratiated himself into Aspen as the squeaky clean All-American dad — youth football coach, co-president of Aspen Junior Hockey, City Council member, a volunteer, and an executive with the city’s largest private employer. This was also the same Derek Johnson who was ousted by his employer of 17 years, Aspen Skiing Co., for selling thousands of company-owned skis online and accumulating millions of dollars over a period of 12 years.
But this time, when Johnson made the phone call that paused the interview, he identified himself as 187779 — the number he was assigned when he entered the Colorado Department of Corrections system in January 2020, mostly as a prison inmate for 14 months, then later as a halfway house tenant at ICCS-Kendall in Lakewood.
The call lasted maybe 30 seconds. Johnson had simply checked in with a DOC-automated system, which he must do daily while he is on intense-supervised parole. He also checked to see if he would be subjected to a urinalysis test that day. He wouldn’t, but Johnson said he would have passed if it had come to it.
“I also have a curfew, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. right now,” he said. “That will go away.”
What won’t go away is Johnson’s past, one where leading a double-life ruined what had been a seemingly successful career as managing director of Aspen Skiing Co.’s rental-retail division. His job responsibilities included overseeing the company’s Four Mountain Sports and D&E Ski and Snowboard Shops, a business Johnson co-founded before selling it to Skico in 2001, with the company keeping him on in management.
In early December of 2018, Skico fired Johnson after the company unearthed a scheme where he sold thousands of company-owned skis, snowboards and other merchandise on eBay over the last dozen years.
The following April, the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office charged the 17-year Skico executive with theft of more than $1 million and other felony charges. Prosecutors also said his wife, Kerri, acted as an accomplice. The couple subsequently hatched separate agreements with the DA’s office by pleading their cases down to lower charges. Derek Johnson pleaded guilty in November 2019 to stealing between $100,000 and $1 million from Skico.
That December, Kerri Johnson pleaded guilty to felony theft in her role as an accomplice.
Sentencing came in January 2020, when Pitkin County Judge Chris Seldin handed down a six-year state prison term to Derek Johnson, also ordering him to pay $250,000 in restitution to Skico. And in February, Kerry Johnson was sentenced to 90 days in the Pitkin County Jail, five years of probation and 300 hours of community service.
“This was no instance of isolated theft that might be explained away as a brief lapse in judgment,” said Skico CEO Mike Kaplan, writing on behalf of Skico and its employees, in a letter to Seldin before the Derek Johnson’s sentencing hearing. “On the contrary, Derek engaged in an ongoing, intentional, coordinated effort to steal from Aspen Skiing Company. This deception was methodical, intentional and remains unfathomable to me.”
Skico did not respond to a message seeking comment for this story.
Prosecutors said he pocketed nearly $2.5 million, though Johnson said the figure was not that high.
Fast-forward to Feb. 3, when Johnson, who’d been living in a halfway house for the past 10 months, got some unexpected news.
“I got back to the halfway house, and I scanned in, and when you scan in it’s an internal communication system, and there’s this kiosk, and it popped up that I had message,” he said this week. “And it was from my case manager, no congratulations, none of that, just ‘you are to report on Feb. 3 at 10:30 a.m. to (his Aspen home address) for ISPI parole.'”
ISPI stands for intensive supervision program-inmate, through which Johnson is monitored daily by the Department of Corrections.
The same day he learned he was returning home, one of Johnson’s children, who lives in Boulder, brought him a vehicle to drive back to Aspen — the scene of the crimes he committed and the humiliation and embarrassment that would later come with them.
“People bring that up: ‘Why would you want to return there?'” he said. “Especially some of my friends in Denver, who are like, ‘Why would you go back there? No one knows you here. Here you can walk into King Soopers and no one knows you who you are. Nobody knows you. Why would you go back to that?'”
Johnson’s answer: “It’s real easy: This is where my family’s at. This is where my kids are. This is where I need to be. I also have connections here; I have relationships here.”
Johnson didn’t expect his release to come this early. The DOC website still listed him as an inmate this week, saying he would meet with the parole board in April.
“My parole officer is out of Rifle, and I’ve actually been officially paroled and in addition to this ISPI, I guess I’ll be on regular parole come April,” he said.
Confessing to the community
“I didn’t fall from grace,” Johnson said. “I fell to grace.”
And with that, Johnson’s return to Aspen has prompted him to embark on a charm offensive to regain the trust he lost not long ago. He is a changed man and for the better, he said during this week’s interview, which he requested. Yet winning hearts and minds won’t be easy, he conceded.
“Everything I’m saying is 100% words,” he said. “It’s 100% potential bullshit. It’s the actions over time and the way I conduct myself; that’s where the rubber meets the road, and I’m fully aware of that.”
Eventually he’ll start looking for work, and he hopes to be involved in prison reform and perhaps write a book on what incoming inmates should prepare for, Johnson said. But his first order of business in Aspen is reaching out to people for personal conversations. That’s only if they are willing to meet him, he said.
Johnson rattled off the names and groups of people he wants to meet: immediate family members and relatives, former work and industry colleagues, athletes he coached, and the Aspen community.
“I realized relatively early on in this process, but even more so as it went on, that I have not one victim, not two. I have thousands,” he said. “And in order, people that I’ve hurt by my actions are my immediate family, Kerri and the (three) kids in particular. Kerri had to go through some shit, but personally I don’t think she should’ve had to go through it, but she did, and she did it for the family.”
He followed up with an email Thursday emphasizing his point.
“There are no heroes in a situation like this,” the email said. “I would like to offer that my wife Kerri is about as close as you will come (my opinion). She took a deal for something she was not responsible for. She is only guilty of trusting me. My actions put her in an impossible situation. To protect our family and kids she accepted a deal, that is how our criminal justice system works. It is not about justice; it’s about ‘let’s make a deal.’
“No blame to the local DA or Judge Seldin. It is simply where the system has evolved to. She protected her kids the best she could, she kept the family going, she supported me while I was in prison, she allowed me to return home. The future is never clear, but a day will not pass where I don’t apologize to her and thank her for her sacrifice. She is simply amazing.”
Johnson said his actions also were “incredibly hard” on his mother and stepfather, as well as his in-laws.
“But some relationships have been strained as well in the family world, not on the parents’ side but siblings or others,” he said. “There is a strain there.”
His co-workers also were victims, he said.
“I tried to protect them and look out for them,” he said. “Turns out I f–ked them. As I understand, a couple of people lost their jobs because of my actions. I don’t understand that dynamic or what happened exactly.”
He also included “the extended group” with Skico, who he called “definite victims.”
“To me, the Aspen Skiing Co. — I certainly look at it like this today, but maybe I didn’t use to — is people. It’s friends and some of those friends had to speak negatively or investigate me, and I know that was hard, and I’m deeply saddened and troubled by that,” he said. “But I look at them as victims. They were negatively affected by my actions.”
He also talked about the damage he did to the industry from which he earned a living.
“The industry as a whole, the ski and snowboard industry,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s a pretty small industry, and I had, being in that industry for 30 years, I had a lot of friends and acquaintances and professional relationships, and I know I harmed them. And I’ve reached out to some of them, and I’ve reached out to some other work people too, and I’ve been able to have conversations and apologize and demonstrate that I have changed and have remorse.”
Then there were the kids he coached who looked up to him as a role model.
“I preached responsibility, work ethic, being teammates, doing the right thing,” he said. “Parents entrusted me with their kids. Parents praised me for my ability to help and give back in many if not all respects. I broke that trust. They weren’t deserving of it. I like to think that I did some good things there, that I was a positive influence there, but you know, coach Johnson made bad decisions himself.
“I know there were hundreds and hundreds of parents’ conversations with their kids trying to explain coach Johnson made mistakes, and those were hard conversations, I’m sure. I want to somehow make up for it, but there’s no magic, there’s no special pill. There’s nothing. I would like that group to know I’m sorry. I get it. It’s tough.”
The last group Johnson said he victimized was the Aspen community at large.
“I think it was in 2009 that I asked this community to vote for me to represent them on Aspen City Council, and I won in a landslide,” he said, noting it was the first time the city used its instant-runoff voting system, a short-lived approach to vote-counting in municipal elections. “It was borderline comical. I was the Skico candidate. I was the business guy. I was the pro-business guy. By just de facto, I was a pro development guy, even though I wasn’t.”
Johnson served on Aspen City Council from 2009 to 2013. He could have sought re-election, but he instead ran for mayor on a pro-business platform, losing to Steve Skadron.
As well, Johnson noted Aspen residents who played a positive role in his life here, where he originally moved to in 1991. He would have liked to have spoken to them but did not get the chance. They included his former D&E landlord in Aspen, Stephen Marcus.
“The one that I felt really bad is and I wrote him a letter was Mr. Marcus,” Johnson said, choking up as he spoke. “He was my landlord in Aspen, and I know I disappointed him. He gave me a lot, and he gave me a chance. He was considered among some in this community just as one of those Aspen landlords, but he wasn’t. I didn’t get a chance … there’s people I didn’t get a chance with, like Art Daily (former city councilman). I can’t change it, I can’t turn it around, but I get it, I understand it, and I’m fully aware and cognizant and remorseful to all of these victims, these thousands of victims.”
Johnson said he put down the bottle just before he headed to Pitkin County Jail, which is where he would stay for for two days before being transferred to a holding facility and then to the state’s largest prison, Sterling Correctional Facility.
“I tossed my last Bud Light in a garbage can on Jan. 27 at 6:30 p.m., and I got in the car and Kerry dropped me off at jail,” he said.
Johnson said he didn’t drink alcohol in prison or the halfway house, where booze is not allowed anyway. But there were ample ways to get narcotics or alcohol, but he said he avoided it all.
Johnson said he was a heavy drinker and eater prior to going to prison, but he did not blame those characteristics on his ongoing string of thefts. While in prison, he got on a health kick, pushing himself back into shape by starting with short walks and eventually being able to run 5 miles and do eight pull-ups.
At the Sterling facility, which is not where he expected to be, Johnson picked up prison lingo. He referred to the “high side,” which is where maximum-security inmates stayed. Johnson lived on the MR (medium restrictive) side for the less violent and nonviolent offenders, but the two sides would intersect during outside time, for instance. Much of his time, however, was spent in lock down because of COVID-19, which he got early in the pandemic but was asymptomatic, he said.
“I met characters,” he said. “Characters is a nice word for people who did bad things. The number of people that have committed murder that I know is amazing. I didn’t go to the high side at Sterling. I was on the MR side, but the way things work is, guys that are at the high side, when they do good they progress and then they transition to the MR side, then they transition to the halfway house or then transition to parole. So it’s a system, so long as you behave and do the right things and follow the rules you’re flowing through.”
Johnson said he had close brushes with other inmates, but they did not lead to violence.
“I would say I dealt with it and dealt with it nonviolently,” he said. “I was assertive and forceful and I largely earned the respect of just about everybody in there. I could walk the yard, and I was respected.”
Even so, being thrust from Aspen to eventually Sterling was shock to his system. Johnson said he felt like “a fish out of water.”
“Sterling was hard, it was tough, and it was also my first time in prison,” he said. “I’d never been in that environment. I would say I did well, and my therapist would say that I did very, very well to the point where she’s surprised at how well I did, meaning I came out without any physical altercations.”
Playing college football helped him acclimate to prison life, he said.
“I worked hard at this craft, prison if you will,” he said. “College football for sure helped me. The diversity I experienced playing at Division 1, with a lot of people coming up from the South … I could be in the Black section or I could be with the Hispanics, and not a lot of people could do that and it is very racially segregated, but not nearly as much as it is on the high side.”
He also attributed “dumb-ass luck” to emerging physically unscathed from prison.
“I just got lucky, or was it lucky or did I have some help from God?” he said. “Was he kind of looking over me? I think so, definitely.”
Due to COVID-19 and the rearrangement of the prison inmates, Johnson also spent time in the veterans unit.
“I can’t emphasize enough how fortunate I was to fall into this unit. The inmate-led classes and sessions were unbelievably helpful,” he said, noting the meetings he attended in the unit ranged from support groups to victim-impact gatherings.
“I was honored to be asked to be the first non-vet to be a wing captain,” he said in the follow-up email. “I represented Delta Wing with the guys’ concerns and issues and then downloading any information from the senior leadership of the unit or correctional officers.”
But there’s no mistaking that prison life was hard, Johnson said. He made 42 cents a day working in the prison warehouse and its kitchen. When he transferred to the halfway house, he picked up construction work making normal wages.
Johnson said he is paying money toward the $250,000 restitution due Skico, but it’s a slow process.
“It’s absolutely something I’m committed to taking care of,” he said. “I’d like to find a way to have it smartly and appropriately removed from my world.”
At Johnson’s sentencing hearing, Seldin could have given him anywhere from a four- to 12-year prison sentence. People wrote letters to the judge praising Johnson and asking for leniency; others asked for prison time.
“At the end of the day, I think he absolutely nailed it in a positive way,” Johnson said. “I think he hit it perfect. Some people might say I should have gotten a little bit more.”
Prison sentences also aren’t always what they seem, he said. Someone sentenced to eight years can cut that in half to four years with parole, and good to excellent behavior can further reduce the time.
For Johnson, his six-year sentence amounted to almost 14 months in state prison and almost 10 months in the halfway house, with time spent for shorter periods in other transitional facilities.
“I don’t think I should have gone to Sterling, but that wasn’t (Seldin’s) issue,” Johnson said. “But I agree now that Sterling was the probably best thing for me long term. I got to see some real shit, and I got more than I bargained for, and maybe that is what he intended. I think if he were to have given me probation. … I think the community rightfully would have been up in arms. Here’s another white guy with privilege getting off with nothing.”
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