The 'dark horse' in Aspen's sheriff's race: Rick Leonard

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenAugust 3, 2010

Rick Leonard is one of three candidates running for sheriff of Pitkin County. He faces current Undersheriff Joe DiSalvo and Aspen police officer Rick Magnuson in the Aug. 10 primary. A fourth candidate, Hugh Zucker, has dropped out of the race. Leonard recently sat down with Real Aspen to talk about his campaign.

Real Aspen: Why did you decide to run for sheriff?

Rick Leonard: I began to want to run for sheriff when I moved here four years ago, began reading the paper, and I was very disheartened by a lot of what I read. There seemed to be a big problem with the local agencies following professional standards and best-practice types of law enforcement procedures.

Real Aspen: In what areas?

Rick Leonard: For a relatively small population and relatively small law enforcement and public safety departments there has been an unusually high attrition rate, we've seen two officers arrested in the last year and a half, we've seen cases dropped for lack of evidence, we've seen cases go to trial and we've seen the district attorney lose cases because of bad police procedure. And the more I looked into other things that don't make headlines I found there was a major breach with best-practice law enforcement procedures.

Real Aspen: Didn't a lot of those headlines have to do more with the Aspen Police Department than the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office?

Rick Leonard: We've seen them work together on different cases. They certainly worked very closely on the case of the woman found deceased in the courtyard right outside the police department. They worked closely on that and it just happened that in the course of my private investigations I had to be in the courthouse on consecutive days while that investigation was being conducted and the crime scene was being processed. I was amazed to the see the crime scene come and go. Here today, gone tomorrow and then back the day after. That defies everything about everything I ever learned about proper crime scene investigation. The sheriff did play a role in that investigation. I think now we're going to see an overexposure of the sheriff's office investigation into the Lofgren accidental deaths. I read that death investigation report and it's unlike any death investigation report I've ever read.

Real Aspen: How so?

Rick Leonard: I've done at least 100 death investigations and read hundreds of more death investigations reports and it's unlike any I've ever scene before. We have the same sort of thing happening in this case that we saw in the early investigation of the crime scene in the courtyard outside the sheriff's office. We have a crime scene that comes and goes. We have investigators who think it's OK to open and close a crime scene like you open and close a business. They begin processing the crime scene, it gets late in the day, they lock the door, leave and come back. The crime scene is unprotected and unsecured. … Now we have people charged with crimes but I think you'll see it played out that it was very poorly conducted. Just the notion that you would outsource a criminal investigation to a private engineering firm is extremely troublesome.”

Real Aspen: After reading the investigation report did you come to the conclusion that criminal charges were warranted?

Rick Leonard: I had at least 100 unanswered questions when I read the report. It wasn't conducted from the standpoint that the investigators wanted to get at the bottom of exactly what happened and when it happened. The investigation was conducted with prejudice from the outset. They did some of the worst things you could do and that is make up their minds about certain things before you have all the facts. They approached ti from the standpoint that it was due to a carbon monoxide poisoning and they were much less concerned with all of the facts leading up tot he discovery. My approach would've been to start a the start and they began preparing more of a civil case than a criminal case. So I think that they're in for a very tough road to hoe with this prosecution.

Real Aspen: Tell us about your law enforcement background.

Rick Leonard: I started in a medium-sized city in the suburbs of New York and I began pretty much like everyone else began their careers at that police department: I walked the foot post in the business district, the point was to be visible and to have a police presence, help the retailers with customer disputes and police the parking situation in the core, and be available to respond to any emergencies in that immediate area. My father was a career law enforcement officer. He retired as a police chief in a small town in upstate New York. He moved to Florida and convinced me to move to florida.We were golf buddies. So I did that and I went to work in Florida and started out the same way everyone starts out down there, in a patrol car working the least desirable shifts, holidays and weekends, the least amount of vacation time. But I always knew what I really wanted to do was be an investigator and in a lot of places outside of Pitkin County in order to become an investigator or detective you test for it, and you interview again for it, and the selection process is akin to the promotion of the rank of sergeant or lieutenant. When an opportunity came available before I was able to test for detective they had an opening as a plain-clothes investigator. Basically they created that position because none of the detectives wanted to work nights or weekends. I had an early opportunity to work as a plain-clothes investigator, once again with the least desirable shifts.

Real Aspen: Were you undercover then?

Rick Leonard: No, we called it a plain-clothes investigator. It was a detective's position without promotion. Then of course when I became eligible for promotion I tested in and became a full-time detective with the benefits that accrue. Weekend nights is when you'd get some of the juiciest stuff. I was mentored by a couple of master detectives. I had a very fulfilling career. I would've stayed a detective forever except that I was sort of encouraged to test for promotion and later became a detective sergeant, lieutenant and commander. I commanded four different divisions in the police department — as many as 30 people on a shift — and professional standards and internal affairs, where there were just three of us and involved more investigative sorts of things, internal stuff and public corruption. I also was a commander in what we called the vice intelligence and narcotics unit.

Real Aspen: Did you ever work undercover?

Rick Leonard: I did work as an undercover operative. I was probably involved in at least 100 undercover operations.

Real Aspen: Do you support undercover operations in Pitkin County?

Rick Leonard: I'm kind of bowled over that this issue has gotten so much attention. I guess it's because the sheriff prides himself on saying he would never do an undercover investigation. I don't think anybody likes undercover investigations. Usually you undertake an undercover investigation when you are out of options. If it comes down to you conduct an undercover operation to remove someone that's dealing poison to kids, or usually drug dealers are involved in even more nefarious kinds of crime, so if the option is you do an undercover investigation to eliminate that threat to society or you do nothing, then what do you do? Nobody likes undercover: it's dangerous, it's labor intensive, it requires some fairly quirky electronics technology, and in a lot of places you're putting guys and gals in very dangerous positions. So it's not something you do because you like to do it. It's something you do when you're out of options. It makes no sense at all to me for somebody to say, 'I would never do an undercover investigation.' I'm like, 'Oh really? You have kids and you would never do an undercover investigation? If someone is dealing a date-rape drug in your high school or someone is selling meth out a trailer in Woody Creek to school-sage kids, really you wouldn't do an undercover investigation? Shame on you. It's curious the sheriff and the undersheriff have so much to say about this when as far as I know neither one of them have ever been involved in an undercover investigation. Their only experience is here in Pitkin County. They talk about it with such authority and such insight that I'm kind of amazed. They say undercover operations violates the trust that the law enforcement agency has with the community it polices. I don't know what you're talking about. I've conducted undercover operations and arrested multiple suspects and had the families come in and report them as missing persons. It can be that surgical. So I have no idea what they're talking about. It would be at their first arraignment that anyone even knew they were targeted in an undercover operation.

Real Aspen: Can't undercover operations put officers in the line of fire of other officers?

Rick Leonard: I've been involved in over 100 undercover operations and I never witnessed one officer injured by another officer. I want to be careful not to come across as someone who thinks that undercover work is a necessity or that it's something you want to do all the time. It's a last-resort function. The way the sheriff's office is currently constituted. They're incapable of conducting undercover operations anyway. They don't have the technology, they don't have the expertise, and they don't have the training. For them to say they would never do it, they would first have to know how to do it right? They don't have a clue. I know what happened here in the past with TRIDENT and I had some people were there when they executed their arrest warrants and based on what I've been told they conducted themselves inappropriately. For them to come in with such a show of force, brandishing guns, blacked out like ninjas, that doesn't make sense to me to arrest a short-order cook. That's just as foreign to me as what the sheriff's saying. When we complete an undercover operation, it's completed when you make the arrest. You tap someone on the shoulder and say, 'Come with me.” You don't go in with a team of ninjas.

Real Aspen: What are your feelings on community policing?

Rick Leonard: The father of community policing, he's deceased now, is a professor from Michigan by the name of Robert Trojanowicz. He and I had some academic dialogue because I read an article he wrote where he seemed to paint all patrol police officers with a very broad brush. He talked about rolling up windows so that they wouldn't hear what was happening outside, and looking straight ahead to avoid seeing things that were happening in their immediate surroundings. So I called him on it right away. He and I had some interesting telephone conversations. So I know a little bit about community policing. There was a law enforcement executive position open in Aventura Police Department in Florida and I interviewed for the position as I was nearing my retirement and they asked me about community policing. By this time I had driven down every street in Aventura, and I spoke to a lot of people to prepare for the interview. Basically this was a new police department hierarchy that had already been sold on the community policing concept. When I went in I said, 'community policing — great idea, but not for here. You have retail, you've got a huge shopping mall, you've got a gated high-rise community — you tell me how community policing works when you don't have neighborhoods or communities?' So of course I was immediately dismissed. [Laughs]. I knew that would happen but I wasn't about to go in there and be a cheerleader for community policing when community policing wasn't suitable to their public safety needs.

Real Aspen: Is community policing suitable for Pitkin County?

Rick Leonard: There's always going to be some of the ideas that you associate with community policing that are applicable to just about any type of jurisdiction. I think that's the place in Pitkin. Community policing started out with the idea that cars were an impediment, it was important to be walking around talking to people, to later on ride bicycles, and other kinds of transportation, and to know the people in the community and get the people in the community to know you. Getting to know people in the community is important and having them know their law enforcement is also important, but the idea of getting out and walking around Pitkin County. There's 983 square miles. I don't think the people in Starwood or Red Mountain want you banging on their door to introduce yourself to let you know who you are and why you're there. So there are certain tenants of community policing that I think will always make sense. But the overreaching concept of community policing isn't really a good fit for Pitkin County. But there are a few feel-good program initiatives that I would implement as sheriff and one of them is a citizen law enforcement academy where people want to get to know the sheriff's office and want to learn what it is law enforcement does to keep them safe will have the opportunity to come there — some of it's hands-on and some of it's classroom — and that kind of fits with what community policing tries to accomplish in terms of both sides getting to know one another.

Real Aspen: Why did you dress up as Hunter S. Thompson for the Fourth of July parade?

Rick Leonard: It was just a spoof. For $80 I was able to put the whole act together. That was probably 2 percent of what Joe DiSalvo has spent on Frisbees to put it in perspective. So it was a spoof and it wasn't something where a whole lot of thought went into it and I had some subliminal intent. It was a way of drawing some attention to my campaign. I also handed out some printed materials …

Real Aspen: Did you know Hunter ran for sheriff in 1970?

Rick Leonard: Yes, I'm familiar with the history of the whole thing and the current sheriff's relationship with Dr. Thompson.

Real Aspen: Have you ever read Hunter S. Thompson?

Rick Leonard: No, I've never read anything other than excerpts.

Real Aspen: What's been the biggest challenge for your campaign?

Rick Leonard: The biggest challenge is I've lived here four years, I enjoy doing a lot of the same things everyone else enjoys: skiing, hiking, fishing, but none of those really help you to get to know a lot of people. So I'm sort of the dark horse because I don't know a lot of people. I have a couple dozen really good friends and they have friends and some people have gotten to know me and they think I'd make a good sheriff but it's been hard to get the word out without doing mass mailings that cost a considerable amount of money.

Real Aspen: Are you satisfied with the media coverage?

Rick Leonard: If the people in print media were to be really honest with us, they would agree they were sort of confused I think with this primary race. I don't think they knew how to cover it very well. And because they didn't know how to cover it very well, they didn't cover it at all. And that has sort of created an uneven playing field because the undersheriff has raised a lot of money so he can buy access and he can buy publicity. I think the media outlets in Pitkin let the people down because they haven't done a good job informing the people who live here of their choices and what each one of the candidates brings to the position of sheriff.

To learn more about Rick Leonard, visit

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