Here’s what happened in Denver on Saturday: Lee Keltner, a right-wing demonstrator, was shot and killed after he assaulted Matthew Dolloff, a reporter’s bodyguard, who retaliated for a blow to the head and a squirt of pepper spray by firing a single gunshot from point-blank range.
Those details, and more evidence about the deadly encounter, gradually emerged in the hours and days after the shooting, but initial reports and reaction to the killing were shrouded in misinformation, much of it introduced by political partisans who jumped to conclusions about the gunman’s motives before all the facts were known.
The skirmish, which escalated to deadly violence in less than 10 seconds, unfolded in broad daylight, directly in front of witnesses outside the Denver Art Museum. One was a conservative demonstrator who caught the sound of the gunshot and the sight of the victim collapsing to the ground in distressing video. A second was a livestreamer who rushed to the scene with the police, capturing the gunman’s arrest. A third was a staff photographer for The Denver Post, whose startling, close-up images of the whole incident were online by the end of the day.
The moments before the shooting were also recorded on video by the journalist the guard was protecting, but that footage was not released until more than 72 hours had passed.
But far-right Twitter personalities, who thrive by providing their followers with fresh reasons to be outraged around the clock, do not wait all day to leap to conclusions about unfolding events. Within minutes of the shocking act of violence — which took place after a sparsely attended rally described as a “patriot muster” against “BLM, Antifa, and related Marxist associations” by the organizer, a former military contractor who survived the Benghazi attack — influential conservatives with hundreds of thousands of followers began to speculate that the gunman must have been an antifascist activist.
Just over an hour later, those same trolls flooded social networks with misinformation, amplifying a mistaken report from the Denver Post that the gunman was “a left-wing demonstrator.” That report, which was corrected later in the day, was apparently based on the account of one of the witnesses: Helen Richardson, the newspaper photographer who watched the shooting unfold through her viewfinder and had no way of knowing, based on what she saw, that Dolloff, who was not wearing a uniform or any form of visible identification, was in the middle of this charged situation for a very unusual reason — as an armed bodyguard for the man standing behind him, a journalist for a local news station who was also not wearing anything that made his role clear.
Before The Post corrected its report, popular far-right Twitter commentators with a combined audience in the millions shared it with their readers as if it was definitive proof that the killing of Keltner was both politically motivated and the work of an antifascist activist.
The viral spread of those false claims apparently alarmed the Denver Police Department, which had taken Dolloff into custody along with the journalist he was guarding and quickly determined that they were not left-wing protesters. Less than four hours after the shooting, the department tried to stem the tide of misinformation by tweeting an update on its investigation, in which it reported that, “the suspect is a private security guard with no affiliation with Antifa.”
The police also released the journalist Dolloff had been guarding, a reporter for Denver’s NBC affiliate, 9 News, who had been recording right-wing rallygoers and left-wing counter-protesters all afternoon.
The local news channel confirmed that it had made the unusual and ethically questionable decision to hire a security guard to accompany one of its staff members, a producer for its investigative unit, to film demonstrations by both the right-wing “patriots” and the left-wing counter-protesters who had gathered nearby. “Dolloff was contracted through Pinkerton by 9NEWS,” the station reported as part of its coverage of the fatal shooting. “It has been the practice of 9NEWS for a number of months to contract private security to accompany staff at protests.”
Three days after the shooting, on Tuesday, the news station updated its statement to say that the management “had directed that security guards accompanying our personnel not be armed. None of 9NEWS’ crew accompanied by Mr. Dolloff on Saturday were aware that he was armed.”
Pinkerton, a private security company with a long, checkered history — including a period as, effectively, Andrew Carnegie’s personal militia used to break up strikes — said in a statement on Monday that Dolloff was not directly employed by the firm but was dispatched by a subcontractor.
Even after the Denver police statement, several of the trolls, including Ian Miles Cheong, a Malaysian blogger with a big following among American conservatives, continued to pretend that anti-fascists were behind the shooting of Keltner. On Sunday, Cheong sarcastically invoked former Vice President Joe Biden’s description of antifa as an idea rather than a group in a caption for a video that showed the dead man at work making hats in 2012.
This is Lee Keltner. He is the victim of the Denver shooting. He made cowboy hats. He was murdered by "just an idea." pic.twitter.com/vHXMDqv1PY
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) October 11, 2020
On Sunday, a leader of the pro-Trump youth movement Turning Point USA, Charlie Kirk, also made the false claim. “A conservative was just gunned down in the streets by ANTIFA and not a single ‘mainstream’ news outlet has asked Joe Biden to condemn the organization he called ‘just an idea,'” Kirk tweeted to his 1.8 million followers. “We don’t have a media in this country anymore,” Kirk added. “We have activists posing as journalists.”
Kirk’s comment on the difference between journalism and activism is unintentionally ironic, given that many prominent right-wing activists posing as journalists on Twitter refused to retract their false claims that Dolloff was an antifascist gunman even after The Denver Post had corrected and explained the error in its report.
On Sunday afternoon, the police tried again to quash the rumors that continued to spread online. “Further investigation has revealed that, at the time of the shooting, the suspect was acting in a professional capacity as an armed security guard for a local media outlet, not a protest participant,” the Denver Police Department wrote on Twitter.
Rather than correcting their own false reports, however, several of the most influential Twitter conservatives, joined by 4chan trolls, began scouring the web for evidence that Dolloff was somehow secretly an antifa assassin.
Failing to find any such thing, they then moved the goalposts quite some distance, by treating scraps of evidence, gleaned from Twitter and Facebook accounts that appeared to be Dolloff’s, of his past support for Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Occupy Denver movement, and then acting as if that somehow proved that the killing was politically motivated.
Complicating evidence about Dolloff’s views available on those social-media accounts, like words of praise for the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, were ignored in the effort to make the case that he was a left-wing radical.
Like President Donald Trump, many of his online supporters have sought to delegitimize protests for racial justice and against fascism by amplifying acts of violence by anyone on the left and pretending that there is no difference between fringe extremists and the mainstream of the movements against police brutality and white supremacy. The frenzied search for evidence of Dolloff’s politics was part of that effort.
Lauren Boebert, a far-right Republican candidate for Congress who has embraced the deranged QAnon conspiracy theory popular in parts of Colorado, also ignored the police statement that Dolloff was a security guard, not a protester, when she tweeted on Sunday that the fatal shooting in Denver was an example of “the violence perpetrated in the streets by ANTIFA, BLM & other radical leftist groups.”
In fact, the visual evidence of what happened on Saturday in Denver appears to show something different and more complex than an attack by a man with left-wing politics on a man with the opposite views. The images seem to show that Keltner, who was wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that mocked the Black Lives Matter movement, initiated the skirmish with Dolloff, who responded by wildly escalating the violence, replying to a slap in the head by taking out his gun and firing a single, deadly shot.
As the speculation over the gunman’s unknown motives spiraled out of control online, The Denver Post released all 71 of the photographs Helen Richardson shot before, during and after the killing, along with metadata from her camera that provides the exact second each frame was created.
Taken together, Richardson’s photographs and video recorded during the incident by another witness show that Keltner first got into a heated confrontation with a counter-demonstrator in a “Black Guns Matter” shirt as he left the “patriot muster” in nearby Civic Center Park. That man was seen aggressively harassing several of the right-wing demonstrators near the exit to the rally.
After another conservative stepped in to separate the two men, Keltner, a 49-year-old Navy veteran who made cowboy hats, appeared to take exception to two other men who were observing the argument at close range: the reporter for Denver’s NBC affiliate, 9 News, and Dolloff, his bodyguard.
One of Richardson’s images shows Keltner moving away from the initial argument and pointing in the direction of Dolloff and the journalist he was guarding. In another frame, captured six seconds later, Keltner and Dolloff appear together for the first time, as the guard appears to use his hands to block the demonstrator from approaching the journalist.
One second later, according to the metadata, after Keltner had hit Dolloff, the guard reached for the gun in his waistband. He then raised it and fired at Keltner, who raised his arm and released a burst of pepper spray in the same second.
What led Keltner to strike Dolloff in the head, hard enough to knock off his cap and sunglasses, remained unknown in the days after the shooting, but Richardson, the photojournalist, wrote on Instagram early Sunday morning that Dolloff escalated the encounter to shocking, deadly violence incredibly quickly. Richardson wrote: “the two exchanged heated words, the patriot hit the man in the face, then backed up to spray what looked like pepper spray at him. Literally in that split second the man who had gotten hit by the patriot pulled out a gun from his waistband and shot the patriot.”
“It isn’t clear who fired first,” Richardson added.
In the final seconds of video that showed the initial argument that preceded the shooting, recorded by a conservative who had just left the rally, the sound of the spray being released can be heard just before the gunshot rings out, and Keltner is seen collapsing to the pavement.
It was not until Tuesday evening that the video recorded by the News 9 journalist who was the closest witness to the incident was finally posted online by the station. That video, which starts with Keltner arguing with the man in the “Black Guns Matter” shirt, shows that he suddenly noticed that the confrontation was being filmed by the journalist on his phone. The video then shows that Keltner ordered the reporter to put his camera away, and when he did not comply, moved toward him. “Get the cameras out of here or I’m going to fuck you up,” Keltner can be heard saying.
Apparently responding to being blocked by Dolloff, Keltner then said, “Don’t fucking touch me, motherfucker,” and struck the bodyguard.
The 9 News video stops just before the shot is fired, but resumes during the arrest as the journalist tells the police that he has a press badge and Dolloff was protecting him.
The 9 News journalist who recorded the video did not respond to a request to discuss the incident.
Elijah Schaffer, a freelance producer for Glenn Beck’s Blaze TV who has distorted acts of violence at left-wing protests in the past, also ignored the Denver police statement to portray the entire incident as a politically motivated killing.
Just after the police statement was released, Schaffer drew attention to an excerpt from a video livestream from the scene which showed that, in the immediate aftermath of the killing, the man in the “Black Guns Matter” shirt, whose provocative behavior had initiated the conflict with Keltner, was loudly celebrating his death. Schaffer tried to fit the man’s appalling reaction into a simple political frame by falsely describing him as “an Antifa protester.”
DENVER: “It was a white supremist, right in the dome…f*ck yeah”
An Antifa protester is heard celebrating the murder of a Trump supporter
— E (@ElijahSchaffer) October 11, 2020
Video shot by another reporter for 9 News, Marc Sallinger, appeared to show that man, who had provoked the initial argument with Keltner but was not involved in the shooting, being arrested by the police a short time later.
When it was reported on Sunday that Dolloff might have been operating as a security contractor without a license, conservative trolls moved on from accusing him of being an antifa hit man to attacking the news station. Some of the trolls accused the NBC affiliate of being part of a left-wing plot; other blamed the station for irresponsibly hiring an armed guard who was not properly screened.
While Dolloff was contracted by the station from Pinkerton, the news organization’s decision to dispatch an armed man to accompany its reporters as they cover protests raises serious ethical questions that have yet to be answered.
Dolloff, who is being held without bond on suspicion of murder, made a virtual court appearance on Sunday, during which he reportedly strained to hear the judge.
Defendant Matthew Dolloff appears in virtual court this morning. He is accused in the Denver shooting and reportedly was acting as a private security guard for 9News. pic.twitter.com/2rJTCa0PyR
— Andrew Kenney (@AndyKnny) October 11, 2020
A statement from the management of 9 News on Monday blamed Pinkerton for not ensuring that Dolloff was properly licensed. The firm said that the situation was under review and it is cooperating with the law enforcement investigation.
A lawyer for Dolloff’s family argued in an interview with The Denver Post on Monday that the security guard had acted in self-defense, claiming his client feared for his safety when he saw Keltner raise what turned out to be not a gun but a can of pepper spray. “I think it’s important to recognize that this is somebody who is at the protest working to protect First Amendment rights,” the lawyer, Doug Richards told the newspaper. “He was not there on behalf of any organization or to advance any political agenda,” he added.
Richards maintained that Dolloff was properly trained and had even worked, the night before the shooting, as an armed guard during a televised debate between Colorado’s Republican and Democratic U.S. Senate candidates, Sen. Cory Gardner and John Hickenlooper, at the studio of another local broadcaster, the ABC affiliate Denver 7.
That news channel confirmed that it also contracted with Pinkerton to provide security, but disputed that Dolloff had been armed, saying that it had asked that the guards for the debate be unarmed.
Prosecutors had not yet charged Dolloff for the fatal shooting as of Tuesday morning. In an affidavit made public on Tuesday, the police revealed that Dolloff was arrested on a charge of first degree murder and that the incident was also captured on the network of security cameras operated by the police force as part of its High Activity Location Observation program, also known as HALO. That video has not yet been made public.
The police account of the killing also states that Keltner struck Dolloff, who then took out a semiautomatic handgun and fired the fatal shot, as the victim sprayed the gunman with pepper spray. Keltner was pronounced dead at Denver Health Medical Center at 4:05 p.m. less than 30 minutes after the altercation began.
Updated: Tuesday, October 13, 12:20 p.m. PDT
This article was updated with new information — including more video of the fatal encounter, background on the Pinkerton security firm’s violent history — and to clarify the circumstances of a fatal shooting after a conservative rally on Saturday in Denver. Photographs and video from witnesses appear to show that the victim, Lee Keltner, a conservative demonstrator, struck Matthew Dolloff, a reporter’s bodyguard, as a dispute over an unknown issue turned physical. It was Dolloff who was solely responsible for the use of deadly force by reaching for his gun and firing the fatal shot at point-blank range.
Updated: Wednesday, October 14, 12:53 p.m. PDT
This article was updated again on Wednesday to report a new statement from Denver’s 9 News released on Tuesday, three days after the shooting, in which the station’s management said that it had asked Pinkerton that the security guard it hired not be armed. The station’s initial reports on the incident, on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, did not include that claim.