The afternoon air smelled like wine outside Aspen’s Benedict Music Tent as a mostly older crowd chatted and laughed under the swaying aspen trees. They were waiting to say goodbye to one of their own: Bob Braudis, a famed Pitkin County sheriff for 24 years.
Not everyone at his public memorial knew Braudis well, but many were happy to share their experience of him. He was such a massive figure in Aspen, and not just because he was 6 ½ feet tall.
Terri Zwart described him as “just a lovely man.”
“He dedicated his entire heart and love to this valley for so many years,” she said.
His friend, painter Paul Pascarella, drove in from Taos, New Mexico, and called Braudis an “incredible human being and possibly the best law enforcement officer ever.”
And Pauli Hayes, wearing turquoise glasses for the occasion, described how he fostered community with all different types of people. “All of the rich and famous and all of us old-timers, we all loved him,” she said.
This was not a somber day, she went on, but a celebration of who he was to this place. She even brought a picnic.
“I expect it's going to be the social event of the season,” she said.
It’s a good thing that current Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo had chosen such a big venue to send off his predecessor and friend. Hundreds of people ended up coming.
The day before the event, DiSalvo described how connected Braudis was to this place.
“He was so accessible to everybody and everything,” DiSalvo said.
He was a distinctive-looking guy, not just his height but his long hair and big, gap-tooth smile, but DiSalvo explained that Braudis’ brain is “what made Bob Bob.”
When dealing with an issue as sheriff, Braudis would often reference a Latin quote or historical event, and he could recall people’s names like no one’s business.
“It was fantastic, even until he died,” DiSalvo said, explaining that Braudis would worry he was “losing it” when his memory would falter even a tiny bit. “And I’m like going: ‘You just remembered a guy’s name you met once 10 years ago. You’re not losing it.’”
The two met in the mid-1980s, shortly before Braudis became sheriff, and more than a decade after Braudis arrived in Aspen with his young family. Both men are from the East Coast and connected quickly, eventually spending hours together every day, DiSalvo absorbing as much learning as he could. This learning even continued after Braudis retired in 2010.
Never make decisions alone. Be firm but never insulting. Always be truthful with the public.
DiSalvo, who’s been sheriff for the last 12 years, explained that these are the lessons he still uses daily.
“Your integrity, your honesty and your transparency is all you have,” Braudis taught him.
Another big part of Braudis’ legacy was running his department differently than other law-enforcement agencies. DiSalvo remembers a time in the mid-1990s when an armed man barricaded himself in his Aspen home for a week. Instead of going in guns blazing, Braudis chose to wait the guy out.
“And it was a very peaceful conclusion and that's kind of the way he approached everything,” DiSalvo said. “What's the most peaceful, nonviolent way to solve this problem?”
Well-known defense lawyer Gerry Goldstein described Braudis as “one of the gentlest and one of the most effective and enlightened law enforcement officers in the country.”
And that caught the attention of many, including a lot of famous people. Braudis was friends with Lyle Lovett, Lance Armstrong and Hunter S. Thompson, whom Goldstein represented.
But in Aspen, Braudis himself was also a celebrity.
“If you were with him walking down the street, you couldn’t pass a corner without having five or six people stop him to thank him for what a wonderful job he had done for them or their kids,” Goldstein said.
One big example related to how Braudis handled DUIs. If it was your first such offense, you would still be cited and have to appear in court, but Braudis wouldn’t put you in jail. Instead, a deputy would drive you home. Someone else would return your car. These kinds of policies frustrated some residents — people who thought Braudis was too laissez-faire.
But mostly, he was beloved.
“He was my best friend,” Goldstein said. “But he was everybody's best friend.”
A huge crowd of those best friends came to the memorial, which prominently featured Braudis’ distinctive urn, painted with gold cannabis leaves. A small group of confidants spoke of Braudis’ empathy, how he raised two girls on his own, and how when applying for the sheriff’s department, he had to take a lie detector test. He ended up admitting to having smoked hashish about 10,000 times — and he was still hired.
Longtime buddy Don Stuber ended his speech with the words: “Be like Bob,” to huge applause.
It quickly became the event’s de facto theme.
CPR News last spoke to Braudis in 2019, long after he started having health trouble. He explained how his doctor recommended he move out of Aspen and to a lower elevation. But he wasn’t going to budge.
“Where else am I going to go with a coterie of friends that I’ve made over 50 years here?” he asked then, in a strained voice.
So he stayed, even though that meant having to breathe supplemental oxygen.
“I realized I came here for the skiing,” he said, “but I stayed here for the magic of the people.”
When Braudis died June 3 in his small, one-bedroom apartment, he owned almost nothing. But Sheriff DiSalvo insisted that he was rich.
As Braudis liked to tell him: “Friends are my currency.”
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