How a fatal shooting at political rallies in Denver fueled an online culture war

Lee Keltner and Matthew Dolloff became political symbols immediately after the violence.

Right-wing protesters and counter-demonstrators faced off, separated by police, in Civic Center Park on October 10, 2020.

Right-wing protesters and counter-demonstrators faced off, separated by police, in Civic Center Park on October 10, 2020.

(Nathaniel Minor/Denverite)

On Saturday, Oct. 10, a shouting match near the Denver Central Library ended with a burst of pepper spray and a fatal gunshot in broad daylight.

The victim: Lee Keltner. The shooter: Matthew Dolloff.

Keltner and Dolloff would likely be unknown to one another — and the rest of the country —  had it not been for the collision of political forces in downtown Denver that day. But now they are at the heart of a conflict among groups whose names differ depending on whom you ask: patriots and communists, fascists and Antifa, left and right.

That conflict, already aggravated by the impending election, intensified that Saturday when Denver became the site of the third protest-related fatal shooting to make national news. In the week since, social-media influencers have speculated widely about the case, trying to draw connections between the suspect and the political left, or in some cases defending Dolloff. Some politicians have called for calm, while others — the president included — have stoked resentment over the case.

“People are defensive, angry, scared,” said Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder and a specialist in political polarization. “They already exist in a polarized climate, and it’s an ambiguous situation. So everything gets filtered through their political lens.”

There is no proof that the shooting was politically motivated. But for some of the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators who gathered that day, it was another sign that activists from across the political spectrum are teetering toward more violent confrontations ahead of Election Day.

The Saturday rallies were a response to months of protests.

Since late summer, small groups of armed and armored people have occasionally chased each other through downtown Denver in the dark of night, as protesters on the left try to keep the social justice movement from earlier this year alive, and right-leaning groups claim to patrol against vandalism and destruction.

Ahead of the Oct. 10 rallies, the conservative organizer John Tiegen had called his supporters for a “patriot muster” in the heart of Denver. The event was to be the first time his group, the United American Defense Force, gathered for a publicly advertised daytime event in Denver.

“Don’t let the communists, socialist party and groups intimidate or Oppress you any longer!” he wrote on a conservative social-media platform before the muster.

Tiegen’s opponents immediately organized a “BLM-Antifa soup drive” — apparently an ironic reference to President Donald Trump’s claims about protesters — with some saying that they couldn’t allow “fascists” to establish a public presence.

“The rhetoric I think we saw online leading up to (the rallies) was definitely leading up to a potential for violent confrontation,” said Ben Kile, a freelance photographer who has covered demonstrations throughout the year.

Media outlets, particularly the conservative talk radio station KNUS, promoted the UADF demonstration prior to Saturday. Westword, Denver’s alt-weekly newspaper, published a preview of the dueling rallies a day before the shooting, while Fox31 and CBS Denver published previews the day of the events, a Google News search shows.

Tiegen gathered about 150 people in military-style gear in the Greek Amphitheater in Civic Center Park that afternoon. Meanwhile, hundreds of counter-demonstrators assembled at the other end of the park.

A line of armored officers from three local agencies mostly separated the groups throughout the day, though counter-demonstrators knocked over a fence and someone chucked a can of soup.

The lethal confrontation came later in the afternoon, as the self-described patriots left the park. Shortly before the shooting, a man named Jeremiah Elliott, wearing a Black Guns Matter T-shirt, weaved through the dispersing muster crowd, asking about police reform and saying that he wanted “one of you to (expletive) touch me” and that he wished “one of you was (expletive) tough enough to step up,” according to a live-streamed video.

Tiegen kept members of his group from arguing with Elliott, the video shows. But Elliott soon faced off in another intense argument, this time with Lee Keltner.

“I’m standing my ground. I have every right to be here,” Elliott declared.

“So do we! So do we!” replied a woman standing near Keltner.

Within moments, Elliott was daring Keltner to use the pepper spray that hung from his belt. Keltner stepped into Elliott, and Elliott pushed him back. Keltner held the canister as both men yelled at each other, but didn’t deploy the weapon.

Seconds later, Keltner turned toward a 9News journalist who was filming the conflict. The journalist claims that Keltner said, “Get the cameras out of here or I’m gonna (expletive) you up!” — words that can be heard in a video published by the TV station.

Videos and photos show parts of what happened next. None captured it all, but Keltner smacked Dolloff across the face, then stepped backward, according to the official account from the Denver Police Department. Both men drew weapons — the pepper spray for Keltner, a pistol for Dolloff. Both discharged their weapons. Keltner staggered and collapsed.

Dolloff stared down the sights of his pistol at the man lying on the sidewalk as armored police rushed toward him. He kneeled before the officers’ rifles as police formed a line of batons around the scene. He has since been charged with second-degree murder and faces 16 to 48 years in prison if convicted.

Elliott, the man involved in the argument, is not accused of any crime. It’s unclear how the argument between him and Keltner started; he said that he was exercising his free speech rights and was unarmed. But he declined to comment on a video that captured him apparently gloating in the moments after the gunshot.

Matthew Dolloff made his first appearance in court Oct. 11.

Matthew Dolloff made his first appearance in court Oct. 11.

What we know about Dolloff:

News of the killing spread fast. A network of right-wing influencers — some in Colorado, many elsewhere — quickly claimed that an Antifa assassin had gunned down a conservative demonstrator, a rumor fueled by an erroneous Denver Post report that the shooter was a counter-protester and by information about Dolloff’s life gleaned from the internet.

Even President Trump retweeted a message that implied the shooting was political. The tweet string included a series of messages about Dolloff’s political statements from a few years earlier.

“Yesterday in Denver a Conservative was executed by Matt Dolloff,” anti-abortion activist Tayler Hansen wrote in the message spread by Trump to his 87 million followers.

The tweets went on to paint Dolloff’s social media support for the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements as proof that he was “100% ANTIFA.” One piece of purported evidence was Dolloff’s tattoo of a pixelated figure from the video game Space Invaders. (The 1978 video game is not tied to politics, and Dolloff has used the symbol as branding for a music collective since at least 2012, according to posts from his Facebook account.)

Denver police attempted to quell speculation immediately after the shooting, explicitly denying Dolloff’s alleged connections to Antifa. 9News later reported that it had hired Dolloff as a security guard to protect a journalist covering the rallies.

A lawyer working for Dolloff’s family, Doug Richards, said that Dolloff acted in self defense, the AP reported. Richards did not respond to a request for comment.

Dolloff has lived on the Front Range throughout his adult life. Court records show his young-adult life was marked by financial trouble and traffic tickets. In one year, Dolloff was hit with five speeding citations, including for driving 43 miles per hour in a school zone. He failed to appear for most of the court dates.

In 2013, Dolloff faced a financial reckoning. He filed for bankruptcy later that year, citing nearly $8,000 in outstanding medical bills, along with thousands more owed to a bank and a property management company. Among his only possessions, according to a bankruptcy filing: a Ruger 10/22 pistol and a Glock pistol, which had a higher combined value than the rest of his listed belongings.

Dolloff’s family and friends have shut down internet profiles and rebuffed interview requests. But a former landlord of his, Cheryl Beals, described Dolloff as quiet and messy.

“He sat in his room a majority of the time,” said Beals, who rented Dolloff a room in her Englewood house for nearly four years starting in 2014. “He was very obsessed about bitcoin. He pretty much stuck to himself. He would occasionally join me. I would invite him to have dinner, or he would sit out on the patio.”

Beals can’t remember anyone aside from Dolloff’s family visiting, but his social media accounts show that he cultivated friends around hobbies like dubstep music. He worked at times as a meat cutter at Costco and for a tech services company.

Dolloff’s social media showed a consistent interest in left-leaning politics through the years, including his participation in Occupy Denver protests in 2011 and Occupy Wall Street protests in New York in 2012. Politics began to appear more often on his social media pages around the 2016 presidential election, including posts in support of Bernie Sanders and, especially for a few months in 2017, posts critical of President Trump.

“The State of the Union is depressed, exhausted and broke,” he wrote.

Those posts seemed to drop in frequency around the time that Dolloff moved out of Beals’ home. The landlord said he owed her nearly $400 when he left to live in northeast Colorado. He helped establish a business there, breeding puppies and selling poultry. A neighbor told Fox31 that he frequently fired guns, including a pistol and a rifle, and he proudly shared his and and his spouse’s hunting licenses on Facebook. They were to be married this June, according to a website describing the wedding.

Dolloff enrolled in CU Denver to study political science in August 2019, according to the school. At the same time, he started working as a security guard contracting for Isborn Security Services, according to owner Matt Isborn. Besides working for 9News, he also worked armed security at a recent U.S. Senate debate co-hosted by Denver7, the Denver Post and Colorado Public Radio, according to the Denver Post.

But Dolloff never obtained the required license or training to be an armed private guard in Denver, according to city records. On the day of the shooting, Dolloff was working for Isborn, who was a subcontractor for the security company Pinkerton, which was hired by 9News.

What we know about Keltner:

After his death, friends in Colorado and strangers from around the country mourned Keltner. Donald Graham, a friend who used to belly-up to the Grizzly Rose bar with him, called him a hero who “was standing up for what’s right.” Online, some conservatives framed him as a martyr.

Keltner had two sons, one of whom saw his father shot at the plaza. He was a Navy veteran and a Western-style hatmaker who owned Crossfire Hats, a company whose logo included a Christian cross. He sold his hats at the National Western Stock Show almost every year.

Keltner loved riding his motorcycle — fast — because it made him feel alive, said Joe Versemann, a good friend of Keltner’s. The two often rode together.

“He was a carefree dude, and he was wild, and he was the kind of guy that pushed you to your own boundaries, you know, pushed you to your own edges,” Versemann said.

Graham, who said he knew Keltner better 20 years ago, remembers him fondly as a “goofball” who was loads of fun to be around, but he added that “you didn’t want to cross him.”

“I’ve never seen him in a confrontation at all. I mean, never,” Graham said. “I just know that he had his convictions and he had his morals and integrity.”

Aside from a long list of speeding tickets and other traffic violations over the years, court records show Keltner pleaded guilty to assault in Weld County over 20 years ago and violated a restraining order in 2008. He was divorced three times.

Keltner came to Civic Center Park as part of the patriot muster, according to his family’s attorney, William Boyle.

He attended rallies and protests around the state this summer. Family members are no longer speaking to reporters, but Versemann and Graham both believe politics — particularly the police reform movement — drew him into action.

“I think he was motivated by everything that was going on, absolutely,” Graham said. “I know what he was going through, I know what he was feeling. There’s a lot of us out there that feel the same way. If you can’t stand up and say ‘all lives matter,’ there’s something wrong with you.”

“This isn’t just some dude that showed up somewhere and was, you know, a random victim of violence,” Versemann said about his friend attending the patriot gathering. “He was there protecting people. He was there to support our police officers that are getting (expletive) trashed left and right.”

Photos and videos from a “Back the Blue” rally in Berthoud this summer show Keltner was involved in a scuffle with at least one member of a group marching to “defund the police,” as the group’s banner stated.

Keltner, holding an empty box of donuts in one hand, extended his other hand toward a woman at the event during the confrontation, video and pictures from that day show. Goggles are seen flying afterward, but there’s no clear picture of exactly what happened.

Members of Berthoud’s Board of Trustees (essentially a city council) used photos of the incident in a presentation advocating for an investigation into the Larimer County Sheriff’s Department. They claimed officers did not do enough to protect protesters from police sympathizers on that chaotic day. The investigation did not move forward.

Kile, the freelance photographer, encountered Keltner earlier on the day of the shooting. He said that Keltner became upset when Kile pointed a camera toward him. A video shows Keltner at Civic Center walking toward Kile.

“He began to pursue me,” said Kile, who said he’d filmed Keltner and his friends at rallies in Fort Collins. Keltner told Kile to “give me your camera, delete that,” according to Kile. The video has no sound. Kile said police intervened, and Keltner did not touch him.

The second person to film Keltner just before the shooting was the 9News producer working with Dolloff.

Keltner’s family’s lawyer said the family is considering legal action in the case, including a potential wrongful death suit. But he said the civil and criminal investigations are ongoing.

“Right now, there are a lot of conflicting reports coming out,” said Boyle. “We are determining what is conjecture, what is innuendo, and what is fact.”

A swarm of online investigators have pursued vigilante justice in the case.

Boyle urged people against speculation, but that hasn’t stopped would-be investigators from racking up thousands of retweets and shares as they draw connections between players in the case.

Some on the left claimed Dolloff was defending himself against an aggressive right-winger and dug up images of Keltner in the fray at other political demonstrations this summer.

But the pictures and videos from the moments before Keltner died were shared most prominently on Twitter by right-wing influencers including President Trump, Michelle Malkin, Andy Ngô and Charlie Kirk, all of whom painted Dolloff as an “Antifa” ally, pointing to his earlier social media posts about politics.

John “Tig” Tiegen, an El Paso County resident and supporter of President Donald Trump, organized what he called a “patriot muster" in Denver on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020.

John “Tig” Tiegen, an El Paso County resident and supporter of President Donald Trump, organized what he called a “patriot muster" in Denver on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020.

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News

Since then, Tiegen and others have blamed the media for Keltner’s death and painted journalists as accomplices to murder.

One Republican lawmaker weighed in: “The UADF was formed to provide ‘a first line of defense against domestic terrorists,’ in response to the radicals who have both philosophically and physically destroyed so much of our nation and attacked peaceful patriotic gatherings. This past Saturday, the press actually murdered one member of the UADF,” wrote state Rep. Mark Baisley in a statement to the political website the Colorado Times-Recorder.

Some have claimed journalists helped contrive the argument that preceded the shooting, a conspiracy theory that relies in part on rough footage that shows journalists standing near Elliott, the man who argued with Keltner, before the shooting.

The people closest to the shooting have faced waves of threats and online harassment.

“I’ve gotten the usual, threatening, ‘We’re gonna get you,’ message,'” said Madeleine Kelly, a freelance photographer who captured images of the scene after the shooting. Kile said he has faced the same threats.

Meanwhile, leftist groups have considered whether to go “underground” to avoid revenge efforts from the right.

“It was a pit in my stomach. I know that, just because of the repercussions that could come back on us, on the left really,” said a man who goes by the name James Rotten, during a Zoom meeting of the Denver Communists after the shooting. But the organization has continued to meet publicly, even as groups on both sides of the political spectrum have tried to infiltrate and track each others’ plans.

“Our attitude has been that we’re not going to save ourselves from them by cowering, and quite the opposite, in fact,” Rotten continued. “We called them out, and we called them scum … I love outnumbering those losers.”

The local Communists were one of several groups at the counter-protest. They have disavowed any connection to the shooting, with organizers saying they had dispersed earlier in the day

Elliott, the man who argued with Keltner, said he has hired armed security because he fears for his life. He said he had no connection with other political groups, while online speculators have cast him as a supposed “commander” of Antifa, based on photos of him with a bullhorn at a protest.

“I’m an angry Black man who’s fed up with what’s going on today in America. I stood my ground and made my opinions known. I have no apologies for that,” he said. Despite the apparent threat to his life, he said he would be on the front lines of future protests.

“I think that the violence that happened on Saturday is really just a snapshot of what’s going to happen on this election,” he said. “I know that I’m going to be out there — I’m not going to stand by or stand down.”

Tiegen has since been banned from Instagram and Facebook, where he reached his largest audiences, for unknown reasons. He said that he didn’t know when UADF would hold another local muster.

For some, conflict seems inevitable.

“Well, it could be that our country’s on the edge of a civil war,” said Brian Loma, an advocate for police reform who has filmed nearly every demonstration in Denver this summer.

“It could be that the narrative’s so clouded against recognizing that we have to be humans and (don’t) have to be a violent society — we’re so split, left and right — we are good-versus-evil in our heads, that someone’s got to be the bad guy.”

The standoff between Keltner and Dolloff is now on the front lines of an ongoing culture war.

A perfect social and psychological storm helped that happen, said Van Boven, the CU psychology professor.

It’s impossible to say exactly what was going through the minds of Dolloff and Keltner that day, leaving the public to fill in the blanks. Ambiguity has combined with violence to create anger and confusion, Van Boven said. And a politically charged period only ups the ante.

“And then there’s this kind of added component that is really unfortunate, where instead of focusing on the sadness over what happened, we are motivated to blame, and that involves blaming the other side,” he said.

According to Van Boven’s research, most people in the country share a lot of basic values — more than they realize — even if they disagree on some policies. But the people who fall in the middle of the spectrum, between the extremes, are ultimately drowned out.

“So the liberals will look at conservatives and say, ‘well, the conservatives are all very angry and extreme.’ Obviously there are angry and extreme conservatives, but it’s a very small number,” Van Boven said. “And similarly, conservatives looking at the left, they’ll say, ‘you know, it’s all angry and Antifa activists.’ One huge mistake we make is that we’re characterizing this kind of behavior as really typical of everyone on the other side.”

Casper Stockham at pro-police rally. (Chloe Aiello/Denverite)

Casper Stockham at pro-police rally. (Chloe Aiello/Denverite)

Keltner’s death is being used for political purposes because political agendas are driving the conversation rather than “common sense” and “adult thinking,” said Casper Stockham, a Republican running to represent Denver’s north and west suburbs in Congress. Stockham was at the muster — he said he watched Keltner fall to the ground — and considers Tiegen a friend.

Stockham said that what’s getting lost in the fallout of Keltner’s death is the fact that someone’s father, husband, brother and friend is gone.

Stockham, who is Black, compared Keltner’s death to the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man, in Aurora police custody in that it was “senseless beyond words.”

“If we politicize all this stuff instead of just looking at the facts, that’s when we get into problems,” Stockham said. “We have a climate that doesn’t even allow for the rule of law and the justice system to even do its job.”

Stockham did not know Keltner. The congressional candidate and Gulf War veteran said he was a hero for serving in the military and has donated money to Keltner’s family. But he’s not trying to make Keltner the symbol of a right-wing movement.

“I don’t see statues being built, but I don’t want his memory to just be dismissed,” he said.

In separate interviews, Van Boven and Stockham both said political violence is directly tied to the failure of political leaders to decry it. Van Boven said neither party is denouncing violence enough, but he called out Trump, specifically, for fanning the flames.

“We’ve been talking about this for years,” Van Boven said, “and there are ways to kind of decelerate things, but society appears to be conspiring to work against that.”

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