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TRIALS: The Aspen Affair

4 minute read

There was little snow on the slopes above Aspen, Colo., last week, but the skiers in the chic resort had plenty to take their minds off the discouragingly good weather. Down in the Pitkin County courthouse, the likes of Jack Nicholson shared a front bench with newsmen from papers as far away as London. In the back of the crowded room, spectators stood on piles of law books and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the defendant. Claudine Longet, 34, one of the town’s beautiful people, was on trial for shooting her ski-ace lover, Vladimir (“Spider”) Sabich.

The event, like Aspen itself, brought together the worlds of big-buck entertainment and world-class skiing. The waiflike, French-born defendant had been a lead Folies-Bergère showgirl in Las Vegas. There she met Andy Williams, the Kennedys’ favorite crooner, and ended up marrying him and his singing career. After 14 years of marriage and three children, they were divorced in 1975, but by then Longet had moved in with Sabich. The skier, a former world pro champion, was a celebrated bon vivant who owned a $250,000 mountaintop house in Aspen. It was there, while he was washing his face, that Longet killed him on March 21.

After the shooting, Longet told police that she had found a .22-cal. pistol in the house and had decided to ask Sabich how to operate it, thinking the gun would be good protection when he was away. As they talked the gun fired, hitting him in the abdomen. Murder was out, but she was indicted for “reckless manslaughter.”

The prosecution team, led by Levi’s-clad Assistant District Attorney Ashley Anderson, 29, based much of its claim that Longet had behaved recklessly on the testimony of Aspen Detective David Garms. He related how Longet had told him after the shooting, “I raised the gun and playfully went ‘Boom, boom,’ and it went off.” Anderson also tried to establish that Longet was reckless by nature. He called Williams to testify against his ex, but the singer defended her. He denied that he had told an Aspen neighbor the day after the shooting that Longet was a “crazy gal who likes to drive fast, ski fast and take chances.”

No Joke. For the defense, Longet —wan and wide-eyed and conservatively turned out in shirt and sweater—was her own best witness. She told the jurors that “Spider and I loved each other very much,” an assertion that contradicted local gossip that their relationship was on the skids. The word was that Sabich had ordered Longet to leave because he was tired of her jealous, inhibiting manner. Prosecutor Anderson claimed to have a witness whom Spider had bet $100 that Longet would be gone by April, but he never produced one.

On the stand, Longet flinched when she was handed the gun to show the jury how she had held it. Whispered Longet: “I continued walking toward him, telling him I wanted to know more about it.” Had she raised the gun “playfully”? asked Anderson. She shook her head. “I wouldn’t joke with guns.”

Longet told how she had asked Sabich if “the lever [the safety switch] is on the spot; is it safe? And he said, ‘Yes, it won’t fire.’ ” Weedman interjected, “And then the gun went off?” Her eyes filled with tears, Longet said, “Yes.” In the gallery, Williams was wet-eyed too.

“Spider called my name,” said Longet, “maybe three times, and he slid down. I told him to try to make it. He was fainting, and I tried to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and I was telling him to please make it.”

In his summation, Defense Attorney Charles Weedman implored the jury to “look at the grief in her face … hold her hand, and ask yourselves, ‘Guilty or not guilty?’ ”

After just 3½ hours, the jury supplied the answer: guilty, but of criminally negligent homicide, a lesser offense than reckless manslaughter. Maximum possible sentence: two years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Her lawyers immediately began considering an appeal, and Longet proclaimed defiantly: “I have too much respect and love for living things to be guilty of this crime.”

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