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Juilliard-trained violinist Ritchie Zah fills the Pitkin County Courthouse with sweet sounds.

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Cultured Cops

By M. John Fayhee

Photography by Jeff Nelson

07.13.17

Aspen’s men in uniform reflect on their former lives.

IF A YOUNG Ritchie Zah had been told he would end up being a cop, he likely would have laughed. While playing Vivaldi on his violin. Zah, a native of Atlanta, was too busy practicing scales to ponder the notion of one day reading a suspect his rights. Yet here he is—very improbably—a detective for the Aspen Police Department. A graduate of New York’s famed The Juilliard School, he is one of a trio of local law-enforcement officers that brings a big-time classical background to the upper reaches of the Roaring Fork Valley.

Seth DelGrasso, an Aspen Police Department patrol officer, was a professional ballet dancer for more than 20 years. And Alex Burchetta, director of operations for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department, attended the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, where he studied opera.

Zah started coming to Colorado in 2004 to play for the Aspen Music Festival. “Aside from playing cops and robbers as a kid, I never gave law enforcement any thought,” says Zah, whose younger brother, also a Juilliard-trained musician, is a state trooper in Georgia. “When you are a violinist, you have two routes—you are either a soloist, which means a lot of freelancing; or you get a job in an orchestra, which is like trying to get into the NFL.” He saw the writing on the wall. “I had been teaching violin to the daughter of Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor. He told me there was an opening. I think having my brother precede me in law enforcement opened my mind to the possibility of becoming a cop.”

Alex Burchetta sang in the Aspen Opera Theater Company’s La Boheme. Alex Burchetta shot on location in the Pitkin County Courtroom

DelGrasso grew up in New York. He moved to Aspen 21 years ago to dance for the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. When he retired from the stage, he worked for a couple years on the ballet’s administrative end, but wanted to try something different—preferably a more community-centered position. “I had a family to take care of, so I needed something more sustainable, more long term,” DelGrasso says. “Having lived in Aspen for more than 20 years, I knew several police officers, and I knew I agreed with the culture and values of the police department. We try to embody the values of the community. Sure, that sometimes means arresting people, but, more often, it means helping people.”

Burchetta’s route to becoming a police officer was more linear. He grew up an hour north of New York and was involved in musical theater and his church choir. In 2001, he was accepted by the Aspen Opera Theater Company, for which he sang in, among others, La Boheme. He fell in love with the Roaring Fork Valley at the same time that he started becoming disillusioned with the opera life. “You have to frame everything you do around how it impacts your voice,” Burchetta says. “That gets hard. Plus, being a bass baritone, your voice does not fully develop until you are in your 30s. I knew for the next 10 years I would not be very marketable.”

Seth DelGrasso danced with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet for 16 years. Seth DelGrasso shot on location in the Pitkin County Courtroom

He started going back and forth between Aspen, where he worked summers as an assistant administrator for the Aspen Music Festival, and Stratton, Vt., where his family had a cabin. While in Vermont, he worked for the ski resort and was an EMT for local mountain rescue operations. By the time he moved back full time in 2006, he started to work one shift a week with the Aspen Ambulance Service, where he met a few sheriff’s deputies. “They told me about an opening. And, I was already used to wearing a uniform.”

Classical training apparently translates surprisingly well to law enforcement.“There’s a lot of discipline involved in music training,” says Zah. And DelGrasso agrees, saying: “In ballet, you have to work as part of a team. You also face a lot of stress. Both are very applicable to police work.”

The downside, however, is that, once they became cops, their past lives essentially took a bow. “I tried to continue practicing while I was in the police academy,” Zah says. “But it became too demanding. And, once you stop practicing, you lose the dexterity in your fingers. I put my violin away for the first time since I was 4.”

DelGrasso no longer dances. And Burchetta’s singing is now limited to belting out arias in the shower and serenading his young daughter. “I miss it,” he says. “But what I am doing now is positively impactful for the community I love. And it allows me to spend time with, and support, my family.”