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Gonzo Time : Hunter Thompson, Facing Drug, Sexual Assault Charges, Claims He’s the Victim of ‘Witch Hunt’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is, as the Doctor might say, a nasty little tale. It’s a story of naked lust or maybe vicious treachery. Either way, it’s tawdry to the bone.

The doctor, a.k.a. Hunter S. Thompson, is the eccentric bestselling author and guru of gonzo journalism who has been a cultural icon to political junkies and college students for 20 years with his commentaries and tales of wild living and drug abuse.

But at age 52, the man whose life is the inspiration for the maniacal character, Duke, in the Doonesbury comic strip, finds himself enmeshed in a most uncomical situation. It’s one Thompson himself might have conjured up, but only in a particularly crazed moment.

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It began one night, back in February, when he consented to meet a woman named Gail Palmer-Slater at his a log-built house, 8,000 feet up in the Rockies, a few miles from Aspen. Palmer-Slater, 35, had sent from her Michigan home an introductory letter, said to have included a tape of a pornographic video she once produced.

Thompson was with a few friends when she arrived. As the night wore on and two of Thompson’s friends left, she told authorities later, Thompson suggested that she join him in his hot tub. When she declined, she said, he flung his vodka and cranberry juice at her in a rage, then grabbed her left breast and twisted hard.

“Get (her) out of here,” he shouted, using profane terms to his assistant, Palmer-Slater told law enforcement. The woman ran to the porch and a cab was called. Early that morning, she told authorities her story.

Three days later, on Feb. 26, a team of investigators from the office of Milton Blakey, the district attorney in Colorado’s 9th Judicial District, pulled up, armed with a search warrant, looking for evidence of the assault and of illicit drugs.

The team finished its work at 1:15 the next morning, nearly 11 hours later.

Investigators took with them a broken cranberry juice bottle, a paper towel soaked with pink liquid, suspected drug paraphernalia, pills, a small amount of a white powdery substance, some green leafy material, a few sticks of dynamite, a jar of mushrooms and a tape labeled “child porn.”

The “porn” tape was a documentary. The mushrooms were gourmet.

But there were drugs--enough cocaine for a single snort, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles B. (Chip) McCrory. There were a few ounces of marijuana, 39 hits of LSD, and a small number of Valium-like sedatives for which Thompson had no prescription.

The sexual assault, which led to the search, is a misdemeanor. The drugs added up to four felony counts. Because Thompson had no permit for the explosives, he was charged with a fifth felony.

“Just another rodeo,” McCrory said with a grin of the case against Thompson. The lanky prosecutor said he reread one of Thompson’s books a few years back and didn’t enjoy it as much as he did when he was younger and the book was new. “I wouldn’t say he’s my favorite author.”

Thompson was on a college lecture tour last week and did not respond to interview requests. But in a dark warning to townsfolk in a full-page advertisement he paid for in an Aspen daily recently he said: “Beware. Today: The Doctor. Tomorrow: You.”

He has told local news reporters that he is a victim of a witch hunt. Palmer-Slater was drunk, he has said, and she pressured him to have sex.

“Colorado has real nasty drug laws,” said Hal Haddon, Thompson’s lawyer. The criminal defense specialist from Denver has known Thompson since 1972, when he worked for Gary Hart, the former Colorado Democratic senator. Haddon said he then “used to live” for Thompson’s articles in Rolling Stone about the Richard Nixon-George McGovern presidential campaign, pieces that later became the bestseller, “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.”

“He’s very high profile,” Haddon said of his client, noting that some of the drug counts carry possible prison sentences of four to 16 years. “This is a time when the war on drugs has no rules. The government loves to pick people off.”

Prosecutor McCrory, who pointed out that Thompson has no prior convictions, predicted he would receive probation if convicted. As he does in all cases involving small quantities of drugs, McCrory will offer a plea bargain. “I keep saying it is a routine case, and people don’t believe me because Hunter is involved,” McCrory said.

Citing the 11-hour search, Thompson’s friends and even some of his foes are convinced that the case is no simple pursuit of justice. Friends from Hollywood to New York are coming to his defense, charging that Blakey singled out Thompson for prosecution because of his reputation for wild living and his beliefs and writings. Blakey, who is perceived in Aspen’s liberal circles as having a zero-tolerance attitude and being too conservative, refused comment.

Anthony Yerkovich, who spends part of the year living up a hill from Thompson in Woody Creek and was the creator and executive producer of Miami Vice, heads the loose-knit Hunter S. Thompson Legal Defense Committee.

“There are some serious issues at stake, and ones that could set a dangerous precedent,” he said. “People feel offended by what they perceive as the unfairness of it all.”

Observed Jann S. Wenner, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone, which lists Thompson on its masthead, though he has not written for it in years: “This is not some ho-ho joke. There is a real prosecution going on. It’s going to cost Hunter a lot of time and money.”

San Francisco Examiner columnist Warren Hinckle, who has written twice about his friend’s legal problems in the past two weeks, insisted that investigators’ scouring of Thompson’s home was, “no ordinary search.” Speaking by phone from his home in New York, Hinckle called the entry perhaps the “most outrageous search in American letters.”

David McCumber, executive editor of the Santa Barbara News Press, and a friend who is editing Thompson’s newest book, due out this fall, said, “It just seems like a lifestyle bust, and it is also seems he is being persecuted because of what he writes.”

In Pitkin County, with ski season over and most tourists gone, much attention has been devoted to Thompson’s travails in the two daily papers. People who live in the high mountain valley carved by Woody Creek do not take kindly to the idea that a neighbor was subjected to an 11-hour search, as a local named Wink Jaffee noted. He compared the investigators’ search of Thompson’s home to something out of “Nazi Germany.” Then he hurled invectives at reporters who dared to question him.

Indeed, many area residents besides Jaffee seem particularly protective of their privacy. “No Trespassing” signs litter the roadside, and when actor Don Johnson and actress Melanie Griffith got married in the valley last June, a shot is said to have been fired at a helicopter that apparently carried representatives of a supermarket tabloid.

“Hunter and I have had our run-ins,” said Floyd Watkins, a neighbor who keeps Bengal tigers on his Woody Creek ranch. He recalled catching Thompson early one morning last year firing a gun into Watkins’ ranch. Thompson claimed that he was defending himself against an attacking porcupine.

“Putting a collar on Hunter was a great idea,” Watkins said. “How they did it is wrong. When a guy can come and search you for 11 hours, based on a third-class misdemeanor assault charge, that’s wrong.”

At the Woody Creek Tavern, one patron had little sympathy for Thompson, given his past antics. “The guy’s out of control,” he said. “Sometimes a guy needs to bottom out before he turns it around.”

But for the most part, locals have tolerated Thompson. Watkins, who is thinking about running for sheriff, said one who has done so is incumbent Pitkin County Sheriff Robert Braudis, whose jurisdiction includes Apsen and Woody Creek.

Braudis and Thompson are friends. The sheriff has sought Thompson’s advice on recruitment. Because of their friendship, Braudis “didn’t want to get involved” in Thompson’s case, leaving it to the District Attorney, his secretary said. Braudis refused to discuss the matter.

Although some locals have criticized prosecutors for taking on a case involving a woman with a questionable background, others say Palmer-Slater’s past is irrelevant. “No one should be subjected to assault,” said Peg McGavock of an Apsen battered women’s shelter.

Palmer-Slater, who did not return a phone call from The Times, was quoted in the Aspen Times Daily as suggesting that she was pressured into telling about Thompson, fueling speculation that authorities were searching for an excuse to raid Thompson’s home.

Semmes Luckett, friend and sometimes employee of Thompson’s, was drinking and watching television at his home for part of the night in February when Palmer-Slater was there.

“Everything was reasonably pleasant when I left,” Luckett said, adding that investigators did not interview him until weeks after the search, and after everything had been “blown out of proportion.”

“Seems like they didn’t want to hear anything that did not fit,” Luckett said.

If there is to be a trial, Haddon said, he plans to attack Palmer-Slater’s credibility, pitting her word against those of Thompson and his friends. Haddon also will try to persuade a judge that the search was illegal, meaning the seized drugs cannot be used as evidence against Thompson. Failing that, Haddon said, he anticipates “the Scopes trial of drug use in the home.

“It would be one thing if he was out in public flaunting it. But he was in his own house,” Haddon said.

Michael Solheim, an Apsen real estate man who has been Thompson’s friend for 30 years and managed Thompson’s near-victorious campaign for Pitkin County Sheriff in 1970, is trying to generate interest in a recall of the prosecutor.

“Busting Hunter Thompson is a little like shooting a turtle in a barrel, given how he has broadcast his lifestyle,” Solheim said, though he quickly added that his good friend, whose highly personal and descriptive writing careers from fact to fertile imagination, has exaggerated his drug indulgences.

Still, at the Woody Creek Tavern, Thompson’s saloon of choice, his high jinks are the stuff of legend. When political prankster Dick Tuck got married outside the tavern a while back, Thompson gave him one of his books as a present. As an autograph, he is said to have pulled out a pistol and fired a round clean through the tome. A newspaper photo taped behind the bar shows Thompson on the tavern’s roof adjusting a Santa Claus hat on a farm animal. The man is “licensed to be crazy,” the caption reads. On another wall hangs a framed scrap of paper on which Thompson swore to never set off a smoke bomb in the tavern again, though the word “again” is scratched out.

“There’s not enough people to have any fun with,” Thompson told The Times in a 1987 interview, explaining that he had cut his drug consumption. “What the hell, I’m by myself. The last dope fiend. It’s hard to find the right people to party with.”

Thompson’s last book, “Generation of Swine,” appeared in 1988, and stayed on bestseller lists for four months. It was a compilation of columns he had written for the San Francisco Examiner. Publisher Will Hearst had heralded his arrival as a columnist in 1985 as part of an effort to revive the paper his grandfather founded as one of great writers. His columns appeared regularly through the 1988 presidential election, then became infrequent. He has appeared twice this year.

At the Examiner, Thompson’s arrest renewed internal debate over his attitudes toward women. In a letter to Hearst and other executives, the paper’s Women’s Caucus criticized “glib” comments last month by executives about Thompson’s arrest. The comments could have left the impression with readers that “the Examiner finds a sexual assault amusing,” the statement said.

“I would certainly never defend anybody who sexually harassed someone else,” Executive Editor Lawrence S. Kramer said in a phone interview. Noting that Thompson has made no effort to hide his lifestyle, Kramer added, “That Hunter Thompson uses drugs is not a surprise.”

Kramer said the paper’s management has “no desire to become a part of his legal troubles,” but the Examiner is not trying to distance itself from its occasional contributor: “If Hunter Thompson would write for the newspaper every week, we would run it every week.”

Thompson’s latest book took its title from a 1985 column in which he wrote: “Huge brains, small necks, weak muscles and fat wallets--these are the dominant physical characteristics of the ‘80s . . . The Generation of Swine.” His friends believe his arrest is in keeping with such a bleak assessment.

“He’s one of America’s great original characters,” and “one of the best living writers in America,” Wenner said by phone from New York, convinced that Thompson has fallen victim to a “Gordon Liddy small town prosecutor who hates Hunter and is after him.”

On behalf of Thompson’s defense fund, Yerkovich plans to take out ads attacking what he see as Thompson’s “selective prosecution,” and the “chipping away at the 4th Amendment” protection against illegal searches.

“The guy moved out to Woody Creek to have a lot of land, play his music loud, and do pretty much what he wants without infringing on other people,” Yerkovich said. It may be, however, that as the Aspen area has become more of a playground for the wealthy, it has grown less tolerant. “These things didn’t happen in Pitkin County before.”


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