Bob Braudis, Aspen’s peace-loving, legendary lawman, dies at 77

Community mourns passing of beloved former sheriff

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Bob Braudis in 2006.
Jim Pausa photo

“The sheriff you know” was the campaign slogan for Bob Braudis in his 2006 campaign, which would be his last. The slogan easily could have been “the sheriff knows you,” but not in an authoritarian way.

“When he met someone new, he was always inquisitive,” said his elected successor, longtime friend and understudy, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. “He was always so curious about other people, and he would remember them the next time he saw you. He wasn’t fake authenticity. He was interested in whatever people did, so that he could learn from them.”

DiSalvo, acting as the Braudis family’s representative, confirmed Friday that the former sheriff died sometime between 4 and 5 that morning from natural causes. He was 77.

“Just a brilliant, brilliant mind with the most fantastic memory,” DiSalvo said by phone from Cooperstown, New York, where he is visiting. “Every detail and name, he never struggled for names and was just a very, very special person with a huge heart as big as his frame. All of this sounds so corny and it’s true: He had a gigantic heart, and we’re all going to be affected by this for a while.”

Aspen police were called to Truscott at 11:08 a.m. after receiving a call about Braudis, according to a press release issued Friday evening from the Aspen Police Department.

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“There, officers found the decedent, former Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis,” the release said. “A friend had discovered Braudis upon checking on his well-being. A thorough investigation was conducted by the police department, as well as the Pitkin County Coroner’s office. There was nothing suspicious in the scene. The coroner’s office has concluded its investigation and ruled the cause of death to be acute decompensated heart failure due to cardiomyopathy, and the manner of death to be natural.”

Braudis grew up Catholic in Boston and graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1968, later moving to Aspen in 1970 to become a ski bum, before he landed a job as deputy for eight years, then as a county commissioner from 1985-86. His last 24 years of professional life would be as county sheriff.

The colorful and large Braudis — he could speak Latin in one breath and talk NFL point spreads in the next — loomed 6 feet, 6 inches. He crossed paths and hung out with Aspen’s princes and paupers, celebrities and working stiffs.

His close friendship with Woody Creek’s Hunter S. Thompson — the late gonzo journalist who chronicled his own 1970 run for sheriff of Pitkin County for Rolling Stone magazine — was a natural bond. A young Braudis volunteered on Thompson’s “Freak Power” campaign, beginning a decades-long relationship.

“It’s a devastating loss, but if there’s any comfort it’s that he’s with Hunter now,” Anita Thompson, Hunter’s wife, said Friday.

His pals included artists, writers, attorneys, bartenders, doctors — their professions and bank accounts didn’t matter.

“I think it was Bob’s brilliance and charisma and inquisitiveness, whether he was with Bill Clinton or the guy working at the gas station, whether you were famous or not, people would just gravitate toward him,” DiSalvo said. “You learned from him, and he learned from you.”

As sheriff, Braudis followed in the philosophical steps of his predecessor Dick Kienast, who was elected in 1976 and re-elected in 1978 and 1982.

When Kienast decided to retire, he asked Braudis, then a commissioner, to run for his place. Braudis won the sheriff’s seat of Pitkin County in 1986, and his popularity with the electorate carried over into November 2000, when Pitkin County voters repealed term limits for the office (along with the assessor and clerk), so Braudis could remain sheriff. He retired in January 2011 after passing the sheriff’s duties over to DiSalvo, who had worked under Braudis as undersheriff.

Bob Braudis, pictured in downtown Aspen in 2006.
Jim Paussa

As sheriffs, Braudis and Kienast frowned on undercover drug work and clashed with the feds on multiple occasions.

Braudis and Keinast maintained that undercover work infringed on people’s rights and also opened the possibility for a violent encounter or even a case of mistaken identity. They both believed in treating illegal substance use as a health issue instead of a criminal one, and advocated for the legalization of drugs.

Braudis didn’t win over all hearts and minds. He faced criticism for what some called too laid-back of an attitude over drug enforcement. Braudis would only hire locals on the belief that a peace officer must live in a community before serving it, and he didn’t respond to anonymous tips. He also didn’t respond to critics, at least not publicly.

“I have to look at life as a comedy,” he told the Aspen Times Weekly in a 2006 interview. “And I have to look at people who resort to endless letters to the editor as very frustrated people. If I had a message I wanted to deliver to an elected official, I’d make an appointment (with him), even if he was an ogre, even if I considered him a monster. I’d want to come in his cave and tell him why I didn’t like his decisions.”

The pacifist Braudis had no problem being labeled a freak or hippie, DiSalvo said.

“He liked being the agent of change,” DiSalvo said. “He liked being a little radical and he liked being a little different.”

DJ Watkins and Bob Braudis take in the "Freak Power Day" festivities on Oct. 17, 2020, in downtown Aspen. The day led up to the showing of "Freak Power," a documentary on Hunter S. Thompson's campaign for sheriff, co-directed by Watkins and Ajax Phillips.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson was hired by Braudis in the late 1980s, and he remained a deputy in full- and part-time capacity for 17 years. Thompson said the Sheriff’s Office was a tight-knit group.

“It was the department at the time (that attracted him) and the camaraderie, the sense of family there,” Scott Thompson said.

He said Braudis’ legacy was his way of teaching deputies how to treat people.

“Treating everyone fairly, treating everyone with respect,” Scott Thompson said. “He really fostered my management style, which I use to this day. There are things that pop into the back of my head — ‘What would have Bob done or what would have Bob said?’ I still use that 21 years later.”

Several people who trained under Braudis went on to lead local emergency response agencies, Thompson noted.

“I think I’m a very logical manager,” Braudis said in 2006. “If it makes sense, I do it. When I first was a sheriff, I responded to every call of any significance: bomb threats, domestic violence scenes, and some of my employees and supervisors said, ‘Hey, Bob, if you’re going to show up at everything, we don’t have to.’ They were basically saying ‘go back to what you’re supposed to be doing: planning and managing and not responding.’

“Well, coming from the world of rescue-fantasy savior behavior, I had to rein myself in. So in 24 years, I went from a first responder to a last responder.”

Pitkin County commissioners Chair Patti Clapper was friends with Braudis for decades after meeting through their involvement in civic issues.

“Obviously, Bob Braudis was a big man in so many ways,” Clapper said. “It is hard to put into words how much he did for so many lives and for our community as a whole. He will be truly missed and he will definitely never be forgotten.”

Bob Braudis, circa 1980s
Aspen Historical Society, Aspen Times Collection

Braudis’ career as a lawman was bookended by two major events that gripped Aspen.

He was a rookie deputy in June 1977 when serial killer Ted Bundy jumped out of a Pitkin County Courthouse window, leading to a manhunt ending eight days later with his arrest.

And on Dec. 31, 2008, near the end of his career, Braudis received a letter from Jim Blanning bequeathing his possessions to the sheriff and others. It was that New Year’s Eve that Blanning left bombs at two Aspen banks and another one in an alleyway, putting the city in virtual lock-down on one of the busiest nights of the year. A bomb squad from Grand Junction disabled the bombs overnight, and Blanning was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound the morning of Jan. 1.

When Braudis retired as sheriff, he also took in the Aspen life by regularly going to concerts at Belly Up, taking strolls through downtown with his friends or daughters, or hanging out with gallerist and art collector DJ Watkins at his Gonzo Gallery in Aspen that specialized in Hunter S. Thompson posters and memorabilia.

Watkins on Friday called Braudis “our philosopher king” and wrote via text message: “Thankful for the times we had together and that he passed away peacefully and with dignity.”

The former sheriff’s health declined over the years.

“This wasn’t totally unexpected to those of us who were close,” said Crawford resident Michael Cleverly, formerly of Woody Creek, who collaborated with Braudis on “The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson,” which was published in 2008. “His retirement was interesting and if nothing else, he was lucky enough to have good friends like DJ Watkins and the women in his life remained loving and devoted to him through thick and thin, and his friends remained loving and devoted to him no matter what. His popularity in Aspen is what saw him through the years of retirement.”

Braudis’ health setbacks in retirement included breaking his hip and having major heart surgeries, DiSalvo said.

“I think most people would have given into this a long time ago, and I think it goes to show what his constitution was like,” DiSalvo said. “He was not going to give into this.”

As revered as Braudis was, he also had his struggles, DiSalvo said.

“He loved going out there and meeting the people he worked for,” DiSalvo said. “I think it was a way for him to feel like a vital part of the community, And at times he was imperfect, and we all are. He had his scars, marks and tattoos. He was not perfect, but he wanted to be better, and I think in the last few years he was more perfect.”

DiSalvo said he last communicated with Braudis on Thursday night. While flying into New York, DiSalvo pinged Braudis with a text photo of the Manhattan skyline.

“Give my regards to Broadway” was Braudis’ response, DiSalvo said.

In the 2006 interview, Braudis said he would remain in Aspen the rest of his life.

“I’m going to die here with my friends and family if they’re alive. I’m going to travel and I really don’t want to move, but I can name 200 places I’d love to spend two months in,” he said.

Braudis married and divorced three times. He is survived by two daughters, Stephanie Braudis and Heidi Mitchell, and three grandchildren.

Details of a service or celebration of Braudis’ life will be forthcoming, DiSalvo said, adding the family wanted privacy during this time.

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