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Remembering Bob Braudis, the longest-serving ‘Freak Power’ sheriff

Courtesy of Dan Dunn
Local “freak power” rebels Dan Dunn, from left, Bob Braudis, George Stranahan and Hunter S. Thompson protest in 1995 against a ballot issue proposed by city officials to expand the length of the Aspen Airport runway so that the facility could bring in larger 737 jets. The ballot issue failed in November 1995.

Bob Braudis passed away of natural causes at his home Friday. He was 77.

He helped reshape the way law enforcement operates in Pitkin County. For many, he was a larger-than-life symbol of Aspen, itself.

Braudis was an unconventional sheriff.

His approach to law enforcement wasn’t punitive; it was restorative. That wasn’t always the case in Pitkin County.

When he moved to the area from the East Coast in 1969, the sheriff’s office was cracking down on petty crimes, such as possession of marijuana and blocking the sidewalk.

Braudis told Aspen Public Radio in 2017 that he was quickly drawn to an unorthodox candidate for the sheriff’s office: writer Hunter S. Thompson, who ran on what he called a “Freak Power platform” in 1970.

“I started reading about Hunter’s political positions on several issues, and I agree with all of them,” Braudis said. “I agreed with his ‘Let's end war on drugs,’ ‘Let's punish people who deal bad drugs.’”

Braudis became “a foot soldier,” registering “ski bums” and “longhairs” to vote in Thompson’s unsuccessful campaign.

The incumbent won in 1970 but was eventually ousted, and freak-power ally Dick Kienast became sheriff.

Braudis joined Kienast’s department, known as “Dick Dove and the Deputies of Love,” in 1976 and served as a deputy for eight years.

After a short stint as a county commissioner from 1985-86, Braudis was elected sheriff. He served for nearly 25 years before passing the baton to Joe DiSalvo, who was first elected in 2010 and remains in office.

“There's this string of freak power from 1970 to the present,” Braudis said in 2017. “Joey DiSalvo is one of us. So, one way or the other, we lost, but then we won.”

Courtesy of Ed Bastian
Longtime friends Hunter S. Thompson, from left, Ed Bastian and Bob Braudis spent many late nights — and early mornings — debating politics and philosophizing in Thompson’s kitchen at Owl Farm in Woody Creek. Bastian and Braudis were both involved with Thompson’s 1970 campaign for Pitkin County Sheriff.

Former Woody Creek resident Ed Bastian was a fellow freak-power organizer and friend of Braudis’. He said he doesn’t remember ever seeing the sheriff carrying a gun.

“I think that if he had worn a gun, it would’ve changed that whole dynamic between him and the people that were counting on him and his leadership to, you know, ‘keep the peace’ in the larger sense of the word,” Bastian said.

Instead, Braudis used a philosophy that he called “street-corner justice.” People would come up to Braudis on the street to tell him about a conflict they were having with a neighbor or a landlord.

“Bob would stop, would have that conversation, would listen carefully and, whenever possible, would bring that person together with the other person with whom they were having trouble and work it out,” Bastian said.

Courtesy of Gerry and Christine Goldstein
Gerry Goldstein, left, and Bob Braudis celebrate Goldstein’s birthday at the Cliffhouse Restaurant on Buttermilk Mountain in 2009. Musician Lyle Lovett, standing behind them, serenades them with a birthday tribute.

Attorney Gerry Goldstein was another good friend of Braudis’.

“He established one of the most enlightened law enforcement agencies in the country,” he said. “Instead of jailing someone who may have been erratically driving — if it was their first offense — he would drive them home and get their car back to them. Teach them by example, not by force.”

According to Goldstein, Braudis remained passionate throughout his life about progressive policies. He supported marijuana legalization and strengthening the Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful searches.

“He had dinner — the night before he passed away — at our house, and I brought him to welcome all the aging NORML lawyers, from the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws,” Goldstein said. “He came and welcomed them. … And on a humorous note, he promised them that they could count on the fact that they weren't gonna get busted for some chicken-sh— misdemeanor.”

Goldstein said Braudis — who stood tall, about 6-foot-6 — was kind and gentle.

“What's remarkable about Bob, … he was the best friend to everyone,” he said. “He was a very special person, and our community is going to miss him dearly.”

Courtesy of Gerry and Christine Goldstein
Former Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, second from right, stands with his two daughters, Stephanie Braudis, right, and Heidi Mitchell, and current Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. DiSalvo worked as an undersheriff for Braudis and later took the reins when Braudis retired in 2011.

Dede Brinkman first met Braudis in 1976 at Thompson’s favorite hangout, known as the “J-Bar.”

“I had gone into the Jerome bar, and I knew who Hunter was, … and I went down to the end of the bar, and he was sitting with Bob,” she recalled. “I sat up, bellied up next to the bar, and Bob said, ‘Would you like a drink?’ I said I would have a shot of tequila. And therein our relationship started.”

Brinkman was romantically involved with Braudis over the years. She described their relationship as “multifaceted” and said they were friends throughout the past 46 years.

She believes his legacy of warm compassion will last forever.

“He always wanted to know someone's story,” she said. “He really remarkably cared about people,” Brinkman said. “What I really want to say about Bob Braudis is a great tree has fallen.”

Braudis is survived by two daughters and several grandchildren. According to family friend Gerry Goldstein, the family will make an announcement about a service in the coming weeks.

Editor’s note: This story was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.