Sheriff Bob Braudis is a Paul Bunyan of a man. At 6-foot-6, weighing over 250 pounds, with a friendly mop of Beatles-styled hair, Braudis fills every room with his larger-than life presence. The single best word to describe the 66-year-old Pitkin County sheriff is giantism—everything about him seems Lincolnesque. In Aspen, a ski town that for all its tony wealth still exudes a high-country silver-rush aura, Braudis is a pulp Western hybrid of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. As a Colorado law-enforcement officer for 33 years, he’s a white hat; yet his close association with an assortment of rogues, gonzozillians and seasonal workers places him squarely in the outlaw-culture mien. As his late friend Hunter S. Thompson used to brag, Braudis was the only US policeman he knew who could “speak Latin, downhill ski like the ghost of Jean-Claude Killy and discuss Aristotle while making pat-down arrests.”
Amazingly enough, this Rocky Mountain cop has become a folk legend with libertarians, liberals, drop-outs and conservatives for a simple reason: fair-mindedness. Too often police officers are robotically programmed to punish criminals. Coldly stuck in power-trip mode, they flash shiny badges, orchestrate speed traps and compete, in sweepstakes fashion, to write up the most traffic tickets. By predisposition, Braudis is the antithesis of this police-are-to-be-feared approach to the legal arts. “Fairness has no monikers,” Braudis says of the way he runs Pitkin County law enforcement. “And, when possible, I believe in frontier justice, plea-bargaining, taking the problem off the streets and out of the courts and solving it. Sometimes people you arrest deserve a break. You can’t put everybody in jail.”
The End of a Braudis Era
The news that Braudis is retiring from duty in January 2011 sent a wave of palpable sadness across the Roaring Fork Valley that could be felt from the Maroon Bells to the Roaring Fork River, all the way to Redstone. Everybody in Pitkin County who’s not a shithead loves Bob. First elected sheriff in 1986, his fair and humane law enforcement tactics have earned him high praise from the likes of singer John Oates, cyclist Lance Armstrong and novelist James Salter. His NIMBY-like advocacy in 1995 against allowing 737s to land in Aspen earned him the respect of corporate tycoons and environmentalists alike. Braudis—along with a core Woody Creek contingent—may have nobly saved Aspen from being Californized. “We won that battle against bringing cruiseship tourism into Aspen via the big planes,” Braudis explains. “If you love Aspen, like I do, then you had to say no! We won that fight, and it still feels pretty good.” Only a few merchants remain angry with Braudis for his grass-roots campaign against the 737s.
FROM LEFT: Hunter S. Thompson, David Meeker, Sheriff Bob Braudis and Kevin Costner at a Jazz Aspen Snowmass concert, circa late 1990s; Braudis; with daughters Stephanie (LEFT) and Heidi (RIGHT) at Buttermilk Ski Area, circa 1971.
Braudis has made a larger-than-life impression on me since we first met back in the early 1990s. For a number of fate-based reasons, I had become friends with Hunter S. Thompson. I would regularly fly into Aspen from New Orleans and hole up at Woody Creek, tasked with editing Hunter’s personal correspondence. I was then a professor at The University of New Orleans. Together we brought out The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955–1967 and Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist.
Almost daily, Braudis would swing by Thompson’s Owl Farm for a two- to five-hour chat. It was useful, he intuited, to have a literary foil. Novelist Jack Kerouac had made a sidekick hero out of Neal Cassady in On the Road (using the pseudonym Dean Moriarty). Hunter took notice of this buddy approach to fiction writing. (After all, Mark Twain got a lot of mileage out of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). In his enduring classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson used the brave Chicano leader Oscar “Zeta” Acosta (aka Dr. Gonzo) as his humorous sidekick. The trope worked. Thompson’s 1971 novel is now practically mandatory reading in America.
But Acosta died, presumably, in 1974. And Thompson needed a new coconspirator. “The first time I met Bob I knew he was a walking, talking story in the making,” Thompson recalled in a 1999 interview. “When he ran for sheriff I knew he had balls. I noticed he was a freak at heart with the morality of Saint Francis of Assisi. No chickenshit stuff like sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. As a cop his judgments are judicial and therefore honorable.... He’s the [kind of] righteous knight that Clarence Darrow would have saluted.”
FROM LEFT: Deputy Mike Keefe and Braudis practice a roadside sobriety test, September 1983; Hiking Montezuma Basin, near Ashcroft, circa 1970; Braudis is sworn in as Pitkin County Sheriff, January 1987.
In the Beginning
What first attracted Braudis to Colorado was downhill skiing. A true high, he learned, could be found poling down Aspen Mountain, kicking up snow swirls, adrenaline coursing through his bloodstream, floating slightly off the ground like a rabbi in a Chagall painting. Enamored with the Rockies, his dream became to be an Aspen police officer who, during off-duty hours, could ski like a banshee. He saw Aspen as an Our Town place where progressive community values might beacon forth. Aspen, he decided, was the idyllic place where lasting personal relationships could be forged. “The community became my extended family,” he recalls. “It’s an incredibly smart town. People read books and are fiercely opinionated. I became a man in Aspen. I made all these lifelong friends. We formed a club, a fellowship. It still exists.”
Braudis was born in Boston during the last days of World War II, when the Battle of the Bulge was headline news. During the war, his mother, Katherine, served as a US Marine Corps radio operator while his father, Robert, saw duty in the Pacific with the US Merchant Marines. After the war they got married and moved to South Boston, a storied rough-and tumble Irish neighborhood where saloon brawls and the Knights of Columbus membership both were paradoxically encouraged. It was a colorful childhood full of hijinks and roughhousing. At an early age Braudis encountered anti- African American discrimination in school. “It was like Birmingham or Montgomery,” he says with obvious disdain. “The racism was that ugly.”
South Boston was a tooth-and-claw jungle of Darwinian proportions in the 1960s and early 1970s. The cogwheels of the civil rights movement couldn’t catch anywhere. But Braudis, who as a youth took part in street gang warfare, even once getting shot at, ended up on the straight-and-narrow path. Looking back on things, Braudis credits his father, an executive at Texaco, with keeping him firmly in line. “He wanted to be an FBI agent,” Braudis laughs. “Sometimes he even dressed the part. He’d wear a trench coat and fedora hat pretending he worked for the government. Alas, he was an oil executive.”
The Sheriff of the People
Locals are better suited than myself (I currently live in Austin) to explain why Braudis has become perhaps the most beloved sheriff in Colorado history. A lot of it has to do with his nuts-and bolts professionalism. A dutiful cop, he always keeps his paperwork in order. No uncrossed t’s or undotted i’s for Bob.
And nobody displays more grace in a pressure-cooker circumstance than the weirdly fearless Braudis. When he puffs his chest out you would think he could face off a bullet and not fall down. And talk about keeping his ear to the ground. Braudis collects gossip as if he is Alice Roosevelt Longworth reincarnated. It is his unobtrusive way of knowing what the hell is going on in Aspen. He’s a sleuth. Like a truffle-hunting dog, he can decipher a rotten rumor from a potential real crime in a flash. To paraphrase Hemingway, Braudis has a built-in bullshit detector ticking at all times. “He’s been on patrol since the New Aspen began,” the brilliant San Antonio-Aspen attorney Gerry Goldstein explains. “We’ve been great friends for a long time. We’ve had a lot of fun. We started with the dessert and are just now getting older and dealing with the lima beans.”
FROM LEFT: Hiking near Lincoln Creek, on Independence Pass, circa 1970; Spence Videon, former Aspen mayor Bill Stirling, Jerry Blann and Braudis, then county commissioner, at the ground breaking for The Little Nell in 1987; Braudis in his hometown of Boston, circa 1967.
One of my fondest memories of Braudis in action (and there are many) was when he served as Thompson’s bodyguard for a long weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. Hunter was being presented with the key to the city—a dubious proposition to be sure. Legions of Gonzo fans had arrived hoping to encounter the real Uncle Duke of Doonesbury cartoon lore in the flesh. A lot of celebrities holed up at The Brown Hotel with Hunter—including Johnny Depp and Warren Zevon—that weekend. How proud Hunter was to have a bodyguard of Braudis’ stature protecting him from hanger-on-ers. Somehow Braudis, who admires individuality more than anything else, juggled all the opposite motions—that is, the carnival of anarchy that followed the HST movable feast around Louisville—with the skill of a Secret Service officer assigned POTUS.
Hunter’s core fan base seemed like a Gonzo army of malcontents, many higher than kites, most wanting to touch his sleeve or procure an autograph. Throughout that Kentucky weekend, Thompson’s hide was hard and he laughed easily. But after 72 hours of Hunter’s show-off-ism, his hulk wore down. “The challenges were monumental,” Braudis said of Louisville. “But with the help of friends Hunter survived his Kentucky homecoming. I refused to go on the road with him again. I loved him but he was too big of a pain in the ass. The only exception was to Denver—I went with him for the Lisl Auman case.”
Over the decades Braudis has seen all sorts of strange happenings in Greater Aspen: a feud between an exotic bird dealer and a neighbor; black bears stalking garbage dumps; bombs going off at Thompson’s Owl Farm; homicides both in and out of state; and the proverbial cats in the tree. But, in the end, it’s the Mayberry R.F.D. aspects of being sheriff that linger most nostalgically with Braudis. “Everyday existence was centered on just showing up,” Braudis says. “Anything could and did happen.” Goldstein, however, gets to the secret of Braudis’ success as sheriff, his sui generis nature, better than anybody. “He has the investigative skills of an old-time Irish Boston street cop,” Goldstein says, “with the kind and sympathetic ear of a Tibetan monk.”
What, in the end, has made Braudis’ reign as Pitkin County sheriff so memorable wasn’t his stock belief that marijuana should be decriminalized or his kindness toward wayward drifters locked up behind bars for petty offenses. (Some people call Braudis’ jail cell the Aspen Hilton due to its creature comforts.) Most profilers tend to showcase these two parts of Braudis’ resumé to the exclusion of the main fact: Braudis has a heart of giantism. Like Walt Whitman, Braudis can say, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” His love of Aspen life and Rocky Mountain friends contains multitudes.
Nobody thinks for a magical minute that Braudis is going to leave Aspen very often in retirement. Although he won’t be sheriff anymore, he plans on staying engaged in local politics. The logic of the next step would bring him to South Florida for retirement in the sun. But Braudis believes that friends are the honey of life, and his beehive is in Colorado. “I’ll stay 80 percent of the time in Aspen,” he says. “And then DeDe Brinkman—my lover and best friend—and I will travel wherever the hell we want.”
Then he pauses for a minute. “Only one thing makes me sad about quitting,” he adds. “I’m going to miss helping people on a professional hourly basis. But I’ll still find a way.”
Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and CBS News historian.
Photograph by KARL WOLFGANG (OPENER)