Aspen Sheriff Richard Kienast's Hip Town Backs Him, but Federal Narcs Claim He's a Bust

The West has always had unconventional officers of the law: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Pat Garrett. But the present-day sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo. is surely one of the oddest men ever to carry a badge. That piece of tin incidentally is the only thing that identifies him as a cop: He never wears a uniform or a gun. In nearly four years in office, Richard Kienast, 41—whose jurisdiction includes Aspen, home of Claudine Longet, John Denver and other notables—has undertaken such bizarre reforms as substituting herbal tea for coffee in hopes of reducing tension among inmates in the county jail. He abolished all ranks in the sheriff’s department and issued every deputy a SAAB patrol car for his or her 24-hour use. Judges are angry at Kienast because he tried on his own to give prisoners time off for good behavior—even Longet, after she was sentenced to a mere 30 days for criminally negligent homicide. Last April, when a deputy was accused by his colleagues of using cocaine, Kienast asked for his resignation—but did not press charges.

The sheriff’s most astonishing decision was to ban all undercover work by his department. “It’s more important to respect someone’s rights than to arrest him,” he argues. Since Aspen has long had a national reputation as a center for drugs, federal agents do not agree. They want more arrests, and one local citizen high on their list is none other than Sheriff Richard Kienast. They charge that he is derelict in his duty; he says, accurately, that he was responsible for the first jury conviction of a local drug offender in eight years—without undercover tactics.

The trouble between the sheriff’s office and the Feds started in 1975, a year before Kienast was even elected, when an Aspen policeman almost shot a suspected drug dealer on a residential street. Gunplay was averted at the last moment when the man identified himself as an undercover federal agent. The government has continued to infiltrate his town, Kienast says angrily, without notifying local authorities. He has demanded agents stay out, and last July, after checking with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration office in Denver, Kienast called a press conference to announce that all DEA undercover activities in Aspen had ended. A week later, federal agents arrested 32 accused drug dealers in central Colorado—two of them in Aspen. (Some of the charges have been reduced to possession.) The DEA complained that the sheriff’s press conference was meant as an oblique warning to drug offenders that a raid was imminent. Community concern over what Kienast calls “an abuse of the police powers of the federal government” heightened when neighbors discovered a hidden camera that DEA had trained on the home of local inventor Anthony Fairchild. Federal agents say he was suspected of running a drug factory. Later, when a local TV station discovered what it believed to be additional surveillance equipment on its property, the sheriff returned the equipment to embarrassed DEA officials while 60 Minutes recorded the event. Since then, two federal grand juries have been asked to indict Kienast for obstructing justice, and have refused—but the DEA’s war with the sheriff is clearly far from over. “Mr. Kienast just does not understand a true policeman’s philosophy,” DEA regional director Wayne Valentine complains. “He’s been in a sheltered environment. He can treat those people as friends because he lives with them. I do not. When they violate the law, I must treat them as suspected felons and so should every good cop.”

Kienast was once considered a very good cop. After earning degrees in philosophy and theology from Duke and Notre Dame, he dropped out of society in 1968 and moved to Aspen with his wife, Christie, 40, and three sons (there are now five, 9 through 17). He earned his living as a reporter, bartender and carpenter. Two years later he joined the Aspen Police Department, which had a reputation for vigorously enforcing drug laws—and, until a federal judge restrained it, for cracking down on hippies. Kienast recalls one teenager who spent three months in jail for simply hitchhiking. “We were really going to clean up this town,” he admits. “I enjoyed it.” By 1972, Kienast was a sergeant—and a participant in a series of joint federal-Aspen police drug busts. “We were concerned that there were organized networks in the community,” he says. “We went through fantastic preparations and carried guns, because drugs were heavy stuff.” Gradually, Kienast began to have second thoughts. One incident particularly alarmed him. During a raid, a police officer sat on a suspect and held a gun to his head. The gun went off accidentally and missed the man’s ear by a fraction of an inch. “It shows to what lengths you will go to violate people’s rights for the sake of an arrest,” Kienast now says. “I call it the Gordon Liddy mentality.” Incensed, Kienast decided to run for sheriff. In 1976, he was elected and his reforms began.

His conduct in office has made him a local hero. As one year-round resident explains: “Cocaine is accepted here as a social drug, just like alcohol. When your average man on the street gets an extra hundred, he’ll usually buy a gram of blow.” Comments like that make the Feds very unhappy. “People are up in arms over Aspen and the affluence that allows them to have this attitude,” says DEA boss Valentine, who sees Kienast as symbolic of a deplorable situation. With evidence gathered by Valentine’s agents, a federal grand jury recently indicted former deputy sheriff Bill McCrocklin on drug charges. He is the man Kienast forced to resign for allegedly using cocaine. Prosecutors offered to let him cop a plea if he would testify against his old boss, but McCrocklin claimed that nothing he could say would implicate the sheriff. Meanwhile, Aspen seems to have settled back into quiet summer life, satisfied that for the moment anyway the DEA operation against the town has been repelled. “It’s a witch-hunt,” says socialite Susan Phillips. “It’s just like Big Brother. Luckily, we’ve got Dick Kienast to protect us and four more years until 1984.”

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