Former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Burns, U.S. Marshal for Montana, passes away in Bahrain

By: - September 23, 2022 5:00 pm

Leo Giacometto, an international entrepreneur and longtime fixture in Republican politics in Montana, died August 2022 in the Kingdom of Bahrain, according to his obituary. He was 60. (Provided by Aurelia Skipwith Giacometto)

Leo Giacometto once rode a Smurf-colored convertible Ford Mustang through Glacier National Park, but he preferred the wide expanses of his ranch in Alzada, said Aurelia Skipwith Giacometto.

“He was like, ‘This is so much better. Over there, the mountains block the view. The prairie is much better,’” said Aurelia Giacometto, his wife, in a phone call.

Leo Giacometto and Aurelia Skipwith Giacometto traveled the world together. (Provided by Aurelia Giacometto for the Daily Montanan)

Last month, Leo Giacometto, once a fixture in Republican politics in Montana and former chief of staff for the late U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, died in the Kingdom of Bahrain, according to his obituary published with the Kline Funeral Chapel in South Dakota.

He died of cardiorespiratory arrest, said Aurelia Giacometto. He was 60 years old, but his wife has a different count of his time on Earth.

“He always said that he wanted to live to be 120, so in my mind, I think he did just that, the amount of stuff that he accomplished in his 60 years takes a couple of lifetimes to do,” Aurelia said. “And he did it.”

He traveled to more than 120 countries, befriended people all over the world, ran a ranch that was seven generations in his family (he fought with a milk cow; see below), and Aurelia said he knew everything from how to lead a blockchain company to how to prevent counterfeit drugs from entering a country.

“He could talk with the rancher next door, but then a week later, he could be sitting at the table with the princess of a country,” Aurelia said.

Giacometto, who had two children, swept the midwest conservative off her feet in part with his wit. He inspired her to plunge into the Great Blue Hole in Belize, even though she couldn’t swim, she said. (She wore a lifejacket, and it took 10 minutes, she said, but she jumped because he promised to catch her.)

“Leo was truly larger than life,” the obituary said. “He worked hard, played hard, and loved deeply.”

Giacometto with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, left; Aurelia Giacometto, his wife; Gov. Greg Gianforte, center; and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, right. (Provided by Aurelia Giacometto)

In 1990, Giacometto was nominated by President George H. W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as the U.S. Marshal for the District of Montana. The obituary said he was one of the youngest U.S. Marshals in the history of the Marshal Service. 

The Alzada ranch owner “turned international entrepreneur” served under two Republican governors in Montana, as director of agriculture for Gov. Marc Racicot and as a member of the Northwest Power Planning Council for Gov. Judy Martz.

According to his obituary, Giacometto served two terms in the Montana House of Representatives, from 1987 to 1990, following his tenure as the Carter County Magistrate. 

Aurelia Giacometto said he loved his time working for Sen. Burns improving life for Montanans. In the Treasure State, she said one of his proudest feats was getting the road paved from Ekalaka to Alzada.

“He fought, and he fought, and he fought, and it finally came through,” Aurelia said.

In a tribute posted with his obituary, Chris Gallus of Butte said he was thankful for his friendship with Giacometto, which started in 1987 at the Montana Legislature.

“Leo defined gregarious in every sense of the word and in each and everything he ever did,” Gallus wrote. 

Giacometto served his country 23 years in all after enlisting in the U.S. Army at age 17, the obituary said. It said he graduated from the U.S. Army Military Police Academy, Airborne School, Jungle Warfare School, and U.S. Army Command, and he was “an honor graduate” of the Montana Military Academy.

“He went in as enlisted and came out as a lieutenant colonel,” Aurelia said. “That is because Leo always looked for solutions, and he thought outside of the box.”

Giacometto spent his last eight years of service as a U.S. Army Reservist with the U.S. State Department’s Counterterrorism Taskforce, according to the obituary. It said he served as a business consultant as well, including to Fortune 500 companies.

“From Africa to the Middle East and Eurasia to Mongolia and Bahrain and Azerbaijan, Leo found himself involved in everything from telecommunications and oil and gas exploration to aviation and block-chain management,” the obituary said.

In Montana in 2001, Giacometto was a key figure in a high profile investigation of a drunk driving crash that killed then-House Majority Leader Paul Sliter, according to media reports at the time.

Witnesses told investigators that Giacometto, first on the scene following a Republican power broker dinner at a Marysville steakhouse, tried to obscure the fact that Martz policy advisor Shane Hedges was involved in the single-car wreck.

Giacometto denied wrongdoing and was never charged; driver Hedges pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in the incident.

Giacometto was born in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, and the chapel received tributes about him from Montana to California to Virginia to Bahrain. Friends grieved Giacometto’s untimely passing, and they praised his political acumen, ranching tenacity, mentorship and vibrant personality.

“You couldn’t have more fun in a bar in Montana or anywhere else than with Leo,” wrote Roger Fleming, of Bozeman, who said Giacometto was loyal to his friends and down to earth.

In another tribute, Jon Maunders, of Arizona, said he was sorry to hear of the loss.

“Leo was just a great person,” Maunders wrote. “Funny, smart, real! He has left his mark on all of us who knew him. Prayers and condolences to all of his family and loved ones.”

Aurelia and Leo Giacometto were legally married last September although they were a couple for many years. (Provided by Aurelia Giacometto)

Aurelia said her husband would help anyone, and he could turn “nothing into anything.” He encouraged her in her quest to become a lawyer, she said, and she credits his support for her appointment as head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with its nearly $3 billion budget and 8,500 employees.

Aurelia said she found her soulmate in Leo. They were together for years, but officially married just one year ago Sunday. 

“Leo loved Montana, it was his home and heart,” Aurelia said in an email following the phone interview. “Where he is – he sees the sunrise every morning and the sun never sets.”

The Milk Cow From Hell-compressed

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.