Writer's suicide shocks friends

Memories of a mercurial man

Gaylord Guenin sits in the Woody Creek Tavern, where Hunter S. Thompson held court. “I don’t know why he would leave us like that,” Guenin said. (Judy Walgren / Rocky Mountain News)

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Hunter S. Thompson, whose boozy, drug-addled observations on American life and politics gave birth to the term "gonzo journalism" and spawned a cult-like following, had been in pain as a result of a number of medical problems recently, but friends and acquaintances in his small Colorado town yesterday said they had no inkling he planned to kill himself.

Thompson committed suicide Sunday in Woody Creek, Colo., outside Aspen, and was discovered by his son, Juan Thompson. Neither officials in Pitkin County nor Thompson's family would say if the writer,whose age has been reported as 65 and 67, left a suicide note. "It seems to be an intentional gunshot wound," sheriff's spokesman Joe Di Salvo said, adding that the weapon used was a .45-caliber handgun.

"He was hurting real bad for a long time," said Jimmy Ibbotson, a close friend who happened to pick up the phone at the local Woody Creek Tavern where Thompson's acquaintances gathered throughout the day to mull over his death. Thompson, once a regular at the bar, had been seen there less and less in recent years.

"He'd had a broken hip, a broken femur, and an operation to straighten out his spine," said Ibbotson, a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, adding that he had not seen Thompson since the summer. Nevertheless, he and others said news of the suicide shocked them because Thompson had not hinted at his misery.

"I had no inkling there was a problem. I spent all day at the tavern with his friends, and nobody really had any inkling," said Shep Harris, a local who considered himself a casual friend of the writer. "Nobody can really understand it."

Described by those who knew him yesterday as everything from "a national treasure" to "araging addict and an abusive man," Thompson provided fodder for critics, fans and law enforcement authorities from the moment he burst onto the national literary scene in the 1960s. In recent years, though, the heavy drinking, drug-taking and often rambling writing style that had earned him accolades seemed to work against him.

In 2000, Thompson, an avid gun collector and a member of the National Rifle Association, shot and wounded a woman on his property when he fired in her direction to scare a nearby bear. No charges were filed.

Ten years earlier, he was charged with third-degree sexual assault for allegedly grabbing a woman's breast and twisting it when she refused to join him in his hot tub. The charge was later dropped.

Thompson had lived in Woody Creek since the 1960s.

A neighbor, Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris, told the Aspen Daily News it was not unusual to hear gunfire coming from Thompson's property. A friend of the Thompson family, who did not want to be identified, told the Rocky Mountain News she wasn't surprised by the news.

"He was a raging addict and an abusive man. He had so many guns and they were always loaded," she said.

But Aspen lawyer Gerry Goldstein, a close Thompson friend, said whatever his behavior, Thompson "was not only a national treasure, but the conscience of this little village."

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