ASPEN - For nearly two weeks, Aspen's skiing community banded together in a search effort for longtime resident Jeff Walker, an avid mountaineer who had gone missing. A number of signs - his pass was last scanned at 12:04 p.m. March 7 at the Exhibition lift at the base of Aspen Highlands - indicated that he had been skiing in the Highland Bowl area.
Wednesday afternoon, a snowboarder spotted a body about 30 yards out of bounds from the Bowl and notified Aspen Highlands ski patrol, which in turn contacted the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office, the lead agency investigating Walker's whereabouts. When the recovery effort began Thursday morning, the evidence found didn't signal a skiing accident but a self-inflicted gunshot wound instead.
An autopsy is pending, and as of Thursday afternoon, the body had not been identified positively as Walker's - his wallet and cellphone weren't on his person at the time. Authorities, however, found a handgun on the body, which was recovered from what's known as the Grey Area at Highlands.
"There is no evidence of foul play," said Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, who added that he did not believe a note was found on the person. "But we investigate all deaths as if they were homicides."
A statement issued by the Sheriff's Office said, "A preliminary investigation into the death of the skier revealed injuries consistent with those sustained from a gunshot."
Members of the Highlands ski patrol, Pitkin County Coroner's Office and Sheriff's Office participated in the recovery Thursday.
Two days after he went to Highlands, Walker was reported missing, and a massive search began. Skiers and snowboarders, ski patrollers and others combed the Bowl area, even tying green ribbons around trees that had been inspected, in case Walker, 55, had fallen into a well. His family came to town and began a fundraising campaign to pay for costs taken on the search. They hired psychics to help them in their cause, as well, and they spent their days at the base of Highlands in anticipation of any news.
The Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, looked into Walker's background to find any clues that could point in a direction outside Highlands. They took his computer from his Hunter Creek condo and filed court orders for banks to turn over his financial information.
DiSalvo said that if the person found Thursday is Walker, the background inspection will close. Walker was a wine consultant and salesman. He was divorced but had a girlfriend who lives in Denver.
"I did not have a personal relationship with him, but learning about him from the last two weeks to today, I found him to be deeply private," the sheriff said.
Undersheriff Ron Ryan said that the handgun has been seized and that authorities will look into its background to determine its origins. In his 23 years of law enforcement, Ryan said this is a first.
"This is unprecedented in my years of experience. Seeing one going into a ski area ..."
Likewise, DiSalvo said he has not experienced this with a skier or snowboarder but added, "I've been on quite a few suicides where people go to a scenic location and end their lives."
The area where the body was found is described by Highlands personnel as "permanently closed," according to authorities. It is outside the skiable terrain but within the ski area's U.S. Forest Service permit area. Those involved in the recovery described the terrain as steep and densely wooded.
Aspen Skiing Co., which operates Aspen Highlands, issued a statement Thursday night that said, "This was a tragic incident and our thoughts and prayers are with Jeff's family and friends. We would like to thank everyone both in our company and in the community for their extraordinary efforts during the search."