RIP: Bil Rieger, Kenichi co-founder and friend to Aspen

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenSeptember 21, 2011
Bil Rieger, a co-founder of Kenichi sushi restaurants, was found dead in Aspen on Tuesday night.

Aspen police say Rieger, 50, hung himself.

News of Rieger's death shocked his many friends and employees who remember him for his charisma, generosity and strength. It also underscored the dark side of the Roaring Fork River Valley, where suicide rates are among the highest in Colorado and nearly three times that of the national average.

The timing of Rieger's death struck many as especially sad.

He had beaten cancer. He said he had overcome alcohol and drug addictions. He seemed to enjoy a healthier lifestyle in which early-to-rise skiing took priority over late-night partying. He had great success in business.

After an emergency operation and chemotherapy in the 1980s, Rieger, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., sold his insurance business in Denver and moved to Aspen where he launched Kenichi with the assistance of its namesake, former Aspen chef Kenichi Kanada, and other investors. The restaurant was a hit and, in the last decade, Rieger and his partners opened Kenichi eateries in Austin and Dallas, Texas. Rieger has shown a philanthropic side too, raising money and donating to children with autism, the local animal shelter, and other charities.

But Rieger had a bad-boy reputation. He rode a motorcycle and chased skirts. He was also the owner of the short-lived dive bar Bad Billy's. He even landed a small role in the movie sequel “Easy Rider: The Ride Back” (2011).

Many a tear is shedding in Aspen and in other regions of the world where Rieger was known.

Some of his friends mourned his loss on social media sites:

Not right. Not fair. Sad to lose another solid local ..”

RIP Cowboy - Another Aspen legend lost ...”

We all will miss your sweet smile ...”

I'll miss seeing Billy going straight down Aspen Mountain ..”

The traumatic effect suicide has on families and friends is unrelenting in the Roaring Fork River Valley, which has lost personalities big and small, young and old, and male and female to self-inflicted tragedy.

Two years ago, the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation commissioned the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine's Depression Center to examine the inordinate number of suicides here. A subsequent study found that, historically, a person was taking his or her own life every 11 weeks in Pitkin County.

A rebel to the end, Rieger's death occurred during September Is Suicide Prevention Month, a national observance.

Upcoming suicide prevention events include a session Thursday at 6 p.m. titled “Getting High and Staying Alive: Risk Factors for Suicide in Colorado” presented by Dr. Abraham Nussbaum at Aspen Square, and on Tuesday, Sept. 27, the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation will host suicide prevention training at the Rio Grande Room at 5:30 p.m.

Follow Troy Hooper on Twitter.

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