With Jeff Gorsuch and his attorney seated footsteps away, Aspen resident Peter Fornell pleaded guilty Wednesday to the municipal offense of injuring public/private property, apologized to city officials and the court for spray-painting the messages “Liars Go Back to Vail” on the exterior of Gorsuch Ski Cafe, and vowed not to commit a similar offense in the future.
Fornell accepted a plea agreement with the City Attorney’s Office requiring him to pay a $100 fine and $50 in court costs. The agreement includes a six-month deferred judgment, meaning the conviction will be removed from Fornell’s record if he isn’t cited for any criminal transgressions through the first week of October. The city has 90 days to request a restitution amount from Fornell, which he can either accept or challenge, said Assistant City Attorney Kate Johnson.
Fornell turned himself in to Aspen police March 7, admitting to them that he spray-painted the cafe, which is located at the base of Aspen Mountain near the gondola. Based on photographs obtained by The Aspen Times and Aspen police, the words “Liars Go Back to Vail” were spray-painted across three windows and “Liars” on another. The paint was removed the next day, which was a Sunday.
“I’m here today to admit my actions at the Gorsuch Cafe on March 5,” Fornell read from a statement to the court Wednesday. “I acted in an irresponsible way and I regret my methods. It was ill-conceived and a poor attempt to exercise my right to free speech. Had I taken time to assess the situation, I would have taken a more healthy approach to expressing my opinion.”
Fornell’s remarks came after Judge Brooke Peterson allowed Gorsuch to give a statement, which began when he pulled up a seat near Fornell, looked him in the face and said, “Honestly, I don’t know you well. I don’t know what could have possibly been in your mind thinking this was the right behavior.”
Peterson then stopped Gorsuch.
“Mr. Gorsuch, address me,” the judge said.
Gorsuch then turned to Peterson and said Fornell’s actions went too far and harmed a family that has been part of the community for more than a half-century.
“What happened that Sunday morning or the evening before is not acceptable behavior in the community, in the city and the community where we all strive to do a good job and take care of guests, and my guests were greeted by that violent red paint that basically called me and my family liars and said ‘leave and go away from here,’” Gorsuch said. “And you know what, we’ve been in the Aspen and the retail community for 50 years. And we’ve tried to do a lot of right things for the community and supporting the community we live and work in.
“I find the behavior despicable and wrong and the slippery slope that it was on caused great havoc in the public and in my presence, in my business, to my people that work for me and to my family that lives here.”
Gorsuch’s attorney Matt Ferguson argued the case belonged in either county or district court where misdemeanor and felony cases are handled and punishments are more severe.
“If you watched the news this morning, you’ll see what the Russian troops have been doing — putting V’s all over municipal buildings there (in Ukraine),” Ferguson said. “When people destroy windows, it means a lot in our society. These things have happened, and when you write something like ‘liars’ and ‘get out of town’ and ‘go back to Vail,’ that’s intimidation. And that’s what Jeff and Jeff Gorsuch’s family felt, that’s what his children feel. They’ve been yelled at in cars because of this incident. They’re scared. This is the wrong thing to do.”
Fornell previously told The Aspen Times he was outraged after Gorsuch and his partners flipped nearly an acre of land on Aspen Mountain for $76.25 million after buying it for $10 million from Aspen Skiing Co. the previous July.
The flipped land came with entitlements to build a vote-approved hotel, and was acquired by an affiliate of a Miami-based developer of luxury hotels called OKO Group, which is led by Russian-born billionaire Vladislav Doronin.
The local team of Jim DeFrancia, Gorsuch and Jeff Peterson were the face of the 2019 campaign for an 81-room Gorsuch Haus to be built at the base of the west side of Aspen Mountain near Lift One. That March, Aspen’s electorate approved the Gorsuch Haus and associated developments by 26 votes.
Fornell, himself a developer, also apologized to a number of people with one notable exception.
“I want to extend my apologies to the Aspen Police Department for occupying their time,” Fornell’s statement continued. “My apologies also go to the Aspen City Attorney’s Office for having to deal with this matter. Finally, I apologize to the court. And to your honor, you have far more important matters to attend to. I regret that I have taken your valuable time and I am truly sorry. Be certain that I take this matter seriously and I intend to live up to the obligations of the plea agreement. I try to be a good citizen, and I know that my future actions will show that I’m capable of doing so.”
Ferguson then pointed out the omission.
“I would like to note who was not apologized to,” Ferguson said.
Replied Judge Peterson: “I got it.”
The Aspen Municipal Code describes the charge against Fornell — injury to public and private property prohibited — as “unlawful for any person to intentionally or knowingly to injure, deface, mutilate, remove, pull down, break or in any way interfere with or molest or secrete any trees, real or personal property belonging to or under the control of the City or any person within the City.”
Johnson said the plea agreement with Fornell is similar to other deals the city has made for the same offence. She also noted Fornell does not have a criminal history, which factored into the outcome.
“I appreciate the victim’s statements here, but I do have to say that I think this is a fair and just resolution to these charges,” Johnson said. “It is similar to other situations that this court has addressed on the charge of injuring private property. There have been similar situations that have happened in town. Again, this has a political flair to it but the actual act itself is similar to other acts this court has dealt with.”
Peterson agreed the agreement was appropriate.
“I note and recognize that Mr. Fornell, at least in my knowledge, has not apologized to the Gorsuch family and to Mr. Gorsuch, but that’s his decision and I cannot force an apology out of him,” the judge said. “That being said, I still believe the stipulation is the right way to deal with the criminal aspect of these actions, and the restitution issue remains to be seen. But for the moment and until that restitution comes back to me, the matter is closed as far as the stipulation is concerned.”
The judge said he had to treat Fornell like any other defendant charged with the same offence, despite the high-profile nature of the vandalism.
“I recognize that this has been hurtful to the Gorsuch family, but I’m not sure that this court can impose a higher penalty to change that,” he said.
As a member of the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission’s board of directors, Fornell has a responsibility to behave well, Ferguson said.
“Mr. Fornell sits on the HPC board and he’s supposed to show good concept,” Ferguson said. “What he did was an abomination. You can’t tell people to leave town and call them liars.”
It cost Gorsuch around $2,500 to remove the spray-paint job, which was not water based, Ferguson said. Fornell said previously he intentionally used easy-to-remove water-based red paint.
There could be future civil action over the incident, Ferguson said.
“The bottom line is we’ve been pressing the DA to take this up as a misdemeanor or a minor felony because he has done damage,” Ferguson said. “We don’t think it was water-based paint. It took the entire day to get that paint off and it did cost about $2,500. In addition, Mr. Gorsuch has had to retain publicists and put in numerous ads in the papers, run his letters, and try to discard some of the damage that has been done here.”
The Gorsuch family is known for their skiing prowess, evidenced by Jeff Gorsuch’s 2019 induction into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, joining his parents and grandfather. The family name also can be seen on ski apparel shops throughout the state. Jeff Gorsuch’s father, David, is considered one of Vail’s pioneers. He died in June.