The Day Hunter S. Thompson Came to Town
Halloween 1990: Justice For Jessie Day in Leadville
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
The day started out different. It was Halloween 1990 and the series of costume parties from the night before had left me with a splitting headache and a hollow belly. It was mid-morning and I was taking in one more cup of coffee on my front porch when the whirring of a mechanical bird interrupted my recovery.
Shading my eyes from the bright October sun, I looked up and quickly determined it was not a Flight for Life helicopter, which could have made for a different type of news story that day. But then, who would be coming to America’s highest city, especially by air?
Then, I remembered: it was “Justice for Jessie” day. It was the day Hunter S. Thompson came to town.
Like many young journalists, Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” had whet my appetite for the crazy, carefree life on the road. Little did I know that I would soon be experiencing my own “Cigars and Margaritas,” but this time in Lead Vegas!
From time to time, Hunter would take up the cause of some under-privileged, under-paid, and under-the-thumb of justice person. “Justice for Jessie” had become his most recent cause, and he was coming to Leadville to be a character witness for a Pitkin County resident who found herself in trouble after passing through Lake County on her way home to Aspen.
One summer day in 1990, a hard-working housekeeper named Jesse had hitch-hiked her way home as far as the Kum and Go on historic Harrison Avenue. But it wasn’t until her ride was long gone, that the damsel-in-distress realized that she had left her backpack in that car.
Her quick, albeit questionable, thinking prompted a call to the Lake County Sheriff Department, who was able to locate and stop the car, and retrieve Jessie’s backpack. A quick search of the backpack by deputies revealed the owner’s identify, but also turned up illegal paraphernalia and a small amount of marijuana.
The boys in blue returned to Kum & Go to reunite the pack with its rightful owner. Jesse cheerfully identified the bag as hers, and then was promptly charged with possession of an illegal substance.
Now the story probably would have ended there, but this particular woman was already on probation out of Pitkin County and had rallied the support of famous Aspen resident (although he really lived down the valley at Woody Creek) Hunter S. Thompson to help fight her battle. This most recent “search and seizure” of a down-on-her-luck Aspen housekeeper only seemed to amplify the Gonzo Journalist’s message. He had become increasingly concerned about citizen’s rights when it came to law enforcement looking through your stuff without probable cause.
The “Justice for Jessie” case would be heard on Halloween, which only added to the media circus that started to gather at the Lake County Courthouse on October 31, 1990. All of the news rags known for their sensational reporting wanted to hear what Hunter had to say. Now, remember, it was 1990, so it was way before smartphones with cameras and the onslaught of social media. In fact, in today’s world, this may have been a very different story.
Before heading over to the courthouse, I stopped in for another cup of coffee at The Golden Rose (now, the Chinese restaurant) and watched the scurry going on across the street, as everyone vied for position and a glimpse of the famous character witness.
Just as I swilled that last bit of java, a small parade of people whisked past the window and entered into my space. It was the Gonzo Journalist himself; he bellied up to the empty bar and called out, “Margaritas for everyone!”
Then he added, pointing to me, “A margarita for her too” And so it began – “Cigars and Margaritas” in Lead-Vegas!
For the next couple of hours, Hunter set up camp in the restaurant, as his minions would run back and forth across to the courthouse, keeping him apprised of the case’s progress, waiting for his turn to take the stand.
Screw the court case, I thought. I’m drinking margaritas with Hunter, and it’s hardly noon! The rest of the journalists were across the street in a packed courthouse, waiting for some tidbit, some sound bite. I was sitting across the table from the Gonzo Journalists wearing his hat and swilling Cuervo. I was living every journalist’s dream!
There are many things that stay with me from that day; I’ll share a couple. First, I was amazed at his ability to consume tequila. I mean, it wasn’t until nearly 3 p.m. that he actually took the stand and he seemed pretty coherent after drinking mucho margaritas. It was classic Hunter; but honestly, I don’t know if I would have believed it, unless I saw it.
Which leads me to my second impression, the guy was smart, very smart. I knew I was one of the lucky few to be part of his roundtable discussion, as the politics of the day were discussed, dissected and diluted over massive amounts of tequila.
Eventually, Thompson went over to the Lake County Courthouse and took the stand. I followed along to witness the legendary event, peaking through the small windows of the courtroom back doors. The place was packed with journalists and there he was on the stand – as a character witness! I couldn’t hear a thing he said. I just stared in amazement, watching through those small windows, as he swung that unlit cigar about in the air.
After his testimony, the media circus moved across the street; word must have got out that Hunter was hanging out at The Golden Rose and the crowd started to grow. I was surprised at the number of generally, unimpressed-with-celebrities locals who turned up. But this was Hunter S.Thompson. As the day stretch into Happy Hour, the margaritas continued to flow.
The party finally came to a screeching halt with the arrival of Hunter’s pilot, who announced that if they didn’t leave now, that they would be spending the night in Leadville.
Whoosh! They were gone. The party was over.
As I walked back to the table to get my jacket, I spied a notebook out of the corner of my eye. I quickly picked it up, looked around, and slid it under my coat. Jackpot!
I couldn’t walk home fast enough. I sat down on my couch and began flipping through Hunter’s notebook. There were half-written essays, scribblings about the “Justice for Jessie” case, and notes on an upcoming trip to Hawaii. It was the latter that I found most interesting; the “grocery list” and budget for this Hawaiian vacation was something I could only aspire to.
That fantasy was interrupted by the whirring of Hunter’s helicopter; I knew it was him after all Leadville does not have an afternoon flight pattern. As the sun set over the mountains, I watched Hunter’s helicopter head over Mount Massive, back to Aspen, back to Woody Creek.
What a day, I thought! And I suppose it was that feeling that prompted my next action. I put the notebook in a manila envelope, sealed it up tight, wrote “Property of Hunter S. Thompson” on the outside, then put it inside another envelope and addressed it to the Aspen reporter who was part of Hunter’s entourage, and had given me her business card at some point in the day. I then slapped enough stamps on it to ensure its journey home and walked it down to the post office.
Did I hesitate for a moment as I stood in the dark before the mailbox? You bet I did! Not only had the tequila buzz and ethical determination to return his personal property begun to fade, but I started to think about all the money I could make by selling it. I thought about my call to Rolling Stone Magazine or The National Enquirer. There was some classic Hunter on those pages.
But justice prevailed again that day, and the envelope slid from my hands down into the depths of that big, blue mailbox.
That day stayed with me for a while and the Hunter stories reigned supreme at the Leadville bars until somebody else did something we could talk about. As the weeks passed, it seemed like just another story; a story I’d tell people, who would always ask, “Is that true? Did you really have his notebook? Why didn’t you keep it?”
I started to wonder if the notebook had found its way to back to its owner, Then I got a call from the reporter at the Aspen paper; she had a message from Hunter.
It seems the Gonzo Journalist was pretty impressed by my gesture to return his private notebook and had invited me to his New Year’s Eve party at his Woody Creek home. I was thrilled, and a bit scared. After knowing what a day of tequila-drinking in preparation for a court case was like, I could only imagine what a New Year’s Eve with Hunter might bring.
But I never made it. A bad case of the flu left me down-for-the-count that New Year’s Eve. Besides, that’s definitely a story that nobody would have believed from a journalist living In the ‘Ville!
Colorado Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin LLC, a digital media company located in Leadville, which publishes two online news websites: LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. She may be reached at email@example.com