Pitkin County Sheriff DiSalvo leaves grateful staff and 12-year stint filled with high and lows
The Aspen Times
Joe DiSalvo sat behind his disheveled office desk, masked up and coming off COVID-19 and other illnesses. Badges of those Pitkin County sheriffs who preceded him, a bag of peanut M&Ms, a jar of pickled relish, and paperwork populated the desk.
Framed posters of past sheriff elections dotted the office walls — including the late artist Thomas Benton’s iconic silk-screened campaign poster from 1970, immortalized by its peyote fist and signed by the candidate running for office, Hunter S. Thompson.
“I like being here,” said DiSalvo, 62. “I like coming to work. I like seeing people.”
DiSalvo won’t be coming to work as he’s known it for 12 years starting Tuesday, which is when Democratic nominee Michael Buglione takes oath as Pitkin County’s new sheriff.
The swearing-in will come after Buglione’s November election victory over his former brother-in-law DiSalvo, who appeared destined for another four-year term when he won the June 28 open primaries with 56.8% of the vote.
But on Tuesday, Jan. 3, DiSalvo had just one week left to clear his belongings from the office, home to a trove of relics, plaques, pictures and posters from a law-enforcement era touched off by Thompson’s campaign more than 52 years ago and chronicled in the Rolling Stone.
Thompson lost by 31 votes (204 to 173) in 1970, but the campaign — as well as Thompson-supported candidate Joe Edwards’ narrow loss for Aspen mayor in 1969 — didn’t leave a hangover but inspired a local movement that would become an era: Kienast was elected to sheriff in 1976 and re-elected in 1978 and 1982; Braudis, who worked as a deputy under Kienast, would serve six terms as sheriff until retiring in 2010, the same year DiSalvo ran for sheriff and won, with more than 85% of the vote, his first of three terms.
DiSalvo was both an understudy and undersheriff of Braudis.
Braudis, the towering sheriff who couldn’t walk half a downtown Aspen block without somebody bending his ear about something — their ex-wife, their ex-husband, geopolitics, philosophy, football, skiing, whatever. Braudis, whose dominance and popularity as sheriff inspired voters to eliminate term limits for sheriff, assessor and clerk and recorder in 2000. Braudis, reviled by the FBI and revered by Aspen’s counterculture for his friendship with Gonzo journalism pioneer Hunter S. Thompson.
Later after rising from his desk, DiSalvo paced around his office, a veritable museum of Aspen politics, law enforcement and counterculture. He showed off an irreverent sculpture made by a friend depicting Braudis as Lazarus of Bethany wearing a junior deputy sheriff’s badge, dogs licking his open wounds. “Re-elect Braudis. He suffers for our sins,” read the sculpture’s plinth.
A career calling
For the past 37 years, DiSalvo considered law enforcement his calling. Prior to that, the Brooklyn transplant drove public buses in Aspen and played for a traveling softball team comprising ski-town players.
“I was hired in 1985 by one of the most enlightened police chiefs ever to hit Aspen, Colorado,” he said.
“A guy named Rich Rianoshek,” DiSalvo said. “And at this time the sheriff was Dick Kienast, and they had similar outlooks on what we now know as community policing. So I firmly believed that Aspen, Colorado, and Pitkin County were at the epicenter of community policing in the early 1980s and ‘85. I worked with Dick Kienast across the hall as a very young police officer, but we had conversations and I knew what he was all about.”
Coming from the city, DiSalvo was skeptical of law enforcement and said he grew up afraid of the police. Community policing was another story, though. “Police need to be embraced by the community and vice versa,” he said.
“Two years later, Bob got elected sheriff, and I knew Bob peripherally, mostly from bars, and I went to work for him, who instilled who I am today. I feel I was influenced strongly by Dick Kienast, Rich Rich Rianoshek, Bob Braudis, Gerry Goldstein (criminal defense lawyer and Aspen homeowner), Hunter Thompson. I could go on. All of these people were more enlightened than anyone I ever met: Fairness. The police should reflect the community. No lying. No cheating. Be honest. Tell the truth. Don’t (expletive deleted) with people’s jobs. Be loyal to your employees. That’s the first glimpse of it I got, from ‘85 to ‘89, when I worked for these two agencies that I considered to be enlightened.”
Election results over the years showed the community policing philosophy — hiring law enforcement who live in and understand the community they police, working to de-escalate potentially violent situations, educating and outreach, treating substance abuse as a health, not a criminal issue — had major buy-in from the community. DiSalvo won easily with 79.2% of the vote in 2010, ran unopposed in 2014, and garnered 78.5% in 2018.
“One of the most important things I learned was that although the law on paper is black and white, the application of a law upon on its community and its citizenry is not black and white,” said Undersheriff Alex Burchetta, a DiSalvo hire. “That it is gray and there are gray areas and Joe gave his deputies the discretion to operate when they could with discretion, operating in those gray areas. The patrol deputies have a tremendous amount of latitude to operate within that great area. That’s one thing I learned thing from Joe: It’s not black and white. It’s more about the education, more about the opportunity to have an impact and change someone’s behavior through education and providing them information and letting them see the impacts of their behavior, and saying, ‘We’re not going to write you a ticket,’ and move on.’”
Yet in the months up to the November general election, DiSalvo couldn’t lean on an endorsement from one of the upper-Roaring Fork Valley’s most popular and influential politicians: Braudis. Bruadis, who died June 3, had been one of DiSalvo’s steadiest supporters. And while DiSalvo was the top-voter in the primary later that month, his lead was not insurmountable and the chorus of critics grew larger and louder.
Critics called out DiSalvo for previously hiring the wife of conservative Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, leasing an Aspen home from a GOP bankroller, his 5% handshake ownership in a vodka company co-founded by his friend Lance Armstrong, his inflexibility with employees who were dishonest or misled him, his flashy image fueled by jet-setting with celebrities, and his decision not to seek the Democratic nomination in a mid-term year.
While some of DiSalvo’s former employees struggled to find good words for him while he was seeking re-election, current workers said he was a good, fair, compassionate and open-minded boss. They credited him as an innovator who modernized the Sheriff’s Office, raised the bar on employee conduct, and trusted them to do their jobs.
“He empowered people and gave them the latitude to make their own decisions,” said Parker Lathrop, chief deputy of operations. “That is a huge legacy he leaves behind. He allowed people to grow into their jobs. At a lot of places, you are a cog in the machine. He created that buy-in to the organization.”
“What really strikes me about Joe … is the love and care he had for the people who worked for him, and he always has emphasized that he works for the citizens of Pitkin County,” said Jill Ashey, who Braudis hired in 2000 to work in the jail. Ashey now is the administrative commander for the Sheriff’s Office.
Also under DiSalvo, Burchetta and Valerie McDonald started a multi-jurisidictional incident management team that’s at the ready in the event of floods, wildfires, plane crashes and other potential disasters.
“We have over 200 people who know what their role and responsibly is before we have an emergency in Pitkin County,” said McDonald, who has been the county’s emergency manager for the past 10 years. “That’s huge. The counties that have IMTs will respond and will recover quicker than counties that don’t have it dialed. That was under Joe’s leadership, and I remember Alex and I were hired at around the same time, and Joe had us in the office and said he wanted to get this done.”
The sheriff could lift spirits, too, said Brett Loebb of emergency dispatch.
“We talked about emotional stuff and we laughed,” he said, recalling one story in particular: “One time we had a conversation and I said, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll be the next sheriff, and he said something to the effect of — ‘you’re an idiot.’”
Like other Sheriff’s Office employees interviewed last week, Lathrop said he wants to continue the work.
“In our conversations with Michael, he’s coming in with an open mind and he’s not looking to make any quick change, at least that’s what he expressed to us,” Lathrop said. “He wants to understand the different programs he has going and meet the people he doesn’t know. So he’s coming with a very open mind, which I think is a great way to approach a political office where you are a change in the leadership. If there will be change, it won’t be immediate, it will be through experience and time.”
DiSalvo’s time as sheriff also will be marked by tragedy and successes. He was sheriff when his friend Nancy Pfister was murdered in February 2014. He was an instrumental part of the Valley Marijuana Council, which was formed in 2014 when the sale and use recreational pot became in Colorado; he lobbied state lawmakers to increase fines and penalties for drivers of vehicles longer than 35 feet traveling over Independence Pass on Highway 82; during his time the Sheriff’s Office rolled a text-to-911 technology.
His accomplishments were many, but DiSalvo said he was most proud of his creation of the Sheriff’s Cup Golf Tournament that’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities. He said he will keep the tournament going.
“I’m really of proud of the charity work I did in this community,” he said. “That Sheriff’s Cup to me was everything.”
“In the years we raised over $600,000 for local charities — the Hope Center, Huts for Vets, Covid relief. I think that’s a crucial part of every elected should be doing something to give back to this community in the form of charity work. And I’m proud to continue it. It may flop, it may grow, but I want it to grow, but the money will always stay in Pitkin County.”
DiSalvo said he is looking at consulting opportunities and said the next stage of his career will be a move up. Still, he said he was eager to serve another term as sheriff but must accept the outcome — Buglione won with 4,790 votes to DiSalvo’s 4,365.
“That’s my story,” he said, “and I’m heartbroken.”
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