When a ski bum can face prison time for daring to defy the feds, and for being "openly hostile to the government," this country is definitely on the slippery slope to tyranny.
The intolerance of the individual; heavy-handed law enforcement; rules and regulations rigidity; eviction of the people from "public lands;" creeping authoritarianism: A lot of what's wrong with this country can be found in this story from today's Denver Post. The real "danger to the community" isn't an eccentric ski bum who lives in a truck, but those (like U.S. Attorney Michelle Heldmyer) who are turning this otherwise harmless man into a criminal.
Is this really still the "land of the free"? It's hard to read this story and think so.
From behind bars, hard-core ski bum defies authorities
GEORGETOWN — Charlie Toups is Colorado's ultimate ski bum and a relic of a fading era.
Since 1976, the 63-year-old has skied 120 days a season, shoveling snow and doing other odd jobs for a few bucks and skiing every day. What affirms his title as ski bum supreme is the fact that at night he retired to his car, parked close to the lifts.
But now Toups' brawny 6-foot frame is wedged in a jail cell in Georgetown, imprisoned for the past 57 days on misdemeanor federal charges of camping on public land, possessing marijuana and assaulting a Forest Service officer.
He could walk free with time served if he admitted his guilt. But Toups won't do that.
"I've lived this life for 33 years and now all the sudden I'm supposed to admit I'm guilty? I can't do that," he said from jail last week. "I don't know what changed after the Forest Service tolerated me for all these years. I thought we were just respecting each other. Let me ask you, is it snowing?"
Toups' tale is the embodiment of ski bumdom. Since the 1970s, he has bummed at Mammoth in California, Snowbird in Utah, Oregon's Mount Hood, Aspen Highlands and all the ski areas in Summit County. His home — for nearly a decade — was a Volks wagen Beetle, the passenger seat torn out so he could sleep. "He had a little tunnel down to it like a snow cave," said Halsted Morris, a longtime Loveland skier. "He was the real deal"
After a few years at Loveland, where Toups worked in the ski area's kitchen, he moved on to Aspen Highlands, where every morning he stomped steep snow as part of the ski patrol's avalanche mitigation. A few hours bootpacking earned him a day's lift ticket. He haunted the mid-mountain cafeteria, munching food from abandoned trays. He stocked shelves at the local grocery at night.
"He was the epitome of ski bums. He was the real deal," said Mike Tierney, a veteran ski patroller at Highlands. "He was just a totally eccentric individual who was here to ski. We don't see those kinds of ski bums anymore. And that's kind of sad."
Mac Smith, the longtime director of the Highlands patrol, spent a few seasons in the 1970s camping at the base of the ski hill. He remembers Toups with fondness, as a "gentle giant."
"He was a really intelligent person," Smith said. "He just had a different drum beat, and he followed it."
Toups first ran afoul of the Forest Service, which prohibits living on public land, in 2007 when he was back living in Loveland in the ski area parking lot.
So, he fired up his most recent home — a tired Ford, its hood and doors closed with ropes, its bed topped with a dilapidated camper. He rattled over Loveland Pass, towing a trailer full of old skis and a rusting Honda motorcycle. He landed in the Colorado Department of Transportation utility lot on Forest Service land next to Arapahoe Basin ski area.
On Nov. 14, five months after a Forest Service cop issued Toups a ticket for camping on public land in the CDOT lot, they came for him with a warrant for his arrest.
Toups had missed two mailed summonses, sent to an Aspen-area post office box he never visited.
Forest Service law enforcement officer Jill Wick and a Summit County sheriff's deputy found him, naturally, skiing. He grew irate when told he was under arrest.
At a Nov. 20 detention hearing in federal court in Grand Junction, Forest Service special agent Travis Lunders testified that Toups "became actively resistant in the sense that he tensed up."
"Officer Wick described Mr. Toups as shrugging his shoulders, bending his arms, flexing and putting his knuckles together near his stomach, at which time both officers took Mr. Toups to the ground, the snow covered ground, and placed him face-first down," Lunders testified, according to court transcripts.
Toups said he was trying to make a call on his cellphone before he was taken away. He said he was under the impression he had a "gentleman's agreement" to stay near the CDOT utility shed, based upon his camaraderie with CDOT employees.
When officers searched his pockets, according to Lunders' testimony, they found "misdemeanor level paraphernalia and marijuana."
The day after Toups' arrest, Lunders testified that Wick suffered a "post traumatic condition or disorder . . . that caused her heart to enlarge after the arrest." Doctors later told her, Lunders testified, "she did not suffer a heart attack and her arteries were in fact good."
Lunders wrote in his report detailing the arrest: "At no time was she (Wick) struck by Toups, nor did he attempt to kick, punch or strike either officer."
Still, Toups is facing charges that he "did forcibly assault, resist, oppose, impede, intimidate and interfere with an officer." Add the illegal camping and marijuana charge, and Toups is facing more than two years in federal prison and $250,000 in fines.
Toups is scheduled for a jury trial in Denver District Court this month.
Toups' attorney declined to comment, but Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the Colorado U.S. attorney, said the charges are appropriate, "given his conduct."
"Danger to this community"
U.S. Attorney Michelle Heldmyer is prosecuting the case against Toups. At his November detention hearing, she argued successfully that Toups be held without bail on three misdemeanor counts.
"This defendant has shown he is dangerous, that he has no place to go," she said. "Being that he — all he wants to do is apparently ski and not work and live this alternative lifestyle, makes him a prime candidate for flight, not to mention he has exhibited himself now as a danger to this community, openly hostile to the government."
Calling Toups "hostile" and "dangerous" dismays Toups' friends.
"Charlie has been harassed most of his life, but even though he can be a bit of a curmudgeon, he's a really sweet guy," said Michael Cleveland, who has known Toups for 30 years and paid $1,700 to get his friend's truck out of impoundment. "He's just a ski bum who never grew up."
Toups proudly explains that in all his years of homelessness, he has never collected any public money. In the past three years, he's earned about $20,000, mostly from shoveling snow and moving furniture.
Still, he admits he has struggled to keep jobs. "I guess I have a personality that conflicts with some tenets of management," he said.
Decades of negotiating (or violating, say the feds) federal, state, county and municipal boundaries and rules has taken its toll on Toups. When he parked near A Basin in 2007, he was at the end of his rope. He needed to be close to his work shoveling — where his boss, Bob Towne, said he never missed a day in two winters. He could no longer keep his truck running to move it daily. And he needed to be close to his beloved ski hill.
"I ski because it is a portal, a gateway to health," he said, noting that in all his years on skis he has never been injured. "But when I moved into that lot, I was desperate. Sure, I may live like a bum, but I do not behave like one."
Free Charlie Toups.
Free the United States of America.