The FBI’s secret infiltration and subversion of the racial justice movement in Colorado was challenged Tuesday in a lawsuit alleging that federal and local law enforcement officials abused their powers when they targeted left-wing activists in the summer of 2020.
The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, accuses the FBI, the Colorado Springs Police Department, and local police officers of overstepping their authority in infiltrating, surveilling, and requesting search warrants aimed at Colorado Springs activists. The FBI’s targeting of racial justice activists was revealed in February by The Intercept and the podcast series “Alphabet Boys.”
In a separate federal case in Denver, the Justice Department last week did not deny that the government’s initial investigation of racial justice activists was prompted by speech. That filing — the government’s first public response to revelations that the FBI infiltrated the racial justice movement in Denver using a violent felon as a paid informant — claimed that the “violent nature” of the activists’ statements “made them a legitimate subject of investigation.”
The two cases stem from the same source. During the summer of 2020, the FBI secretly hired an informant, Michael “Mickey” Windecker, to infiltrate the racial justice movement in Denver. While being paid by the FBI, Windecker accused movement leaders of being informants themselves; encouraged violence at protests; and tried unsuccessfully to entrap two Black activists in a plot to assassinate the state’s attorney general.
Internal FBI reports showed that Windecker, a tattooed, cigar-smoking white man who drove a silver hearse, first attended racial justice demonstrations in the Denver area in May 2020. Windecker then approached the FBI, claiming to have unique information about racial justice protesters. But Windecker’s tips, according to initial FBI reports, were entirely about speech. As an example, Windecker claimed one Black activist, Zebbodios “Zebb” Hall, said of the city of Denver: “We need to burn this motherfucker down.”
Based on statements he claimed to have overheard and a recording he secretly made of Hall speaking vaguely about training and revolution, the FBI enlisted Windecker as a paid informant and asked him to pose as a racial justice demonstrator.
The FBI, in its reports, stated Windecker had come forward voluntarily out of some sort of duty to protect the United States, but the bureau’s documented knowledge of Windecker complicated that claim: The FBI was aware that Windecker had prior arrests in at least four states and had been convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault and felony menacing with a weapon. The FBI also knew that Windecker had a long history of working the system as an informant, going back as far as two decades earlier, when he’d been a jailhouse snitch in a murder-for-hire case. Nevertheless, the FBI paid Windecker more than $20,000 for his work during the summer of 2020.
Windecker’s work for the FBI resulted in at least two investigations: one in Colorado Springs, led by a young female detective, and the other in Denver, led by Windecker himself. Both are now under scrutiny in federal court.
While investigating racial justice demonstrators in Denver, Windecker provided information about a protester who was active in both Denver and Colorado Springs, according to FBI records. That prompted the bureau to recruit a young Colorado Springs Police detective, April Rogers, to infiltrate the activist community there. Wearing provocative clothing, the pink-haired Rogers suggested she was a sex worker named “Chelsi Kurti.” She offered to volunteer at the Chinook Center, a community space for left-wing activists in Colorado Springs.
During the pandemic summer of unrest that followed George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, members of the Chinook Center organized a protest near the home of a police officer involved in the fatal 2019 shooting of a young Black man, De’Von Bailey. For more than a year after the demonstration, Rogers, pretending to be an activist, secretly collected information about members of the Chinook Center; she also tried unsuccessfully to lure at least two activists into gun-running stings engineered by the FBI. The information Rogers surreptitiously collected from the Chinook Center, coupled with the use of a new FBI program called Social Media Exploitation, allowed the FBI and its local law enforcement partner to build dossiers on individual activists without warrants.
After building the intelligence files, Rogers participated in a 2021 housing rights protest organized by the Chinook Center. As The Intercept reported in March, Colorado Springs police, armed with intelligence reports created by the FBI’s Social Media Exploitation program and filled with photos from social media, eagerly awaited the protesters they planned to arrest. “Boot to the face,” a police officer, Scott Alamo, said gleefully as he flipped through the pages of activists’ photos, his body camera recording the comment. “It’s going to happen.”
The cops, dressed in riot gear, violently arrested several activists on charges related to their roles in the protest near the police officer’s home a year earlier. As police stormed in to make arrests, Jacqueline Armendariz Unzueta, an activist and Colorado-based staffer for Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet at the time, was walking her bike. She saw a cop charging toward her and reacted.
“I just threw my bike down and was like, ‘Bitch, you’re coming for me?’” Armendariz Unzueta said. “That’s the honest truth.”
The charging officer sidestepped the bike, but the encounter was captured by a police body camera.
Armendariz Unzueta was not arrested that day. In the days after, local police couldn’t determine her identity because she had been wearing a face mask and a bike helmet. But Daniel Summey, a Colorado Springs detective assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, started looking for the mysterious cyclist by searching the social media accounts of known Chinook Center activists.
Summey found Armendariz Unzueta on social media, matching her bicycle helmet and shoes to photos online. He then wrote an application for a warrant to search her home, but the warrant was based on activities that are protected under the First Amendment. Summey noted, for example, that the demonstration Armendariz Unzueta participated in included red flags, which Summey claimed were a “radical political symbol.” In his search warrant application, Summey also gratuitously appended a full-page photo of Armendariz Unzueta in a bikini that had nothing to do with the investigation. “Sometimes you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying,” Armendariz Unzueta said of the photo’s inclusion.
The ACLU’s lawsuit against the FBI and Colorado Springs Police Departments alleges that the search warrant targeting Armendariz Unzueta and additional warrants to obtain private chats associated with the Chinook Center’s Facebook account and the group’s membership roster essentially criminalized First Amendment-protected activities and violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
“The warrants targeting Chinook and Armendariz were part of a pattern and practice of unconstitutional actions intended to teach activists a lesson: Colorado Springs police would retaliate against political expression with dragnet warrants to chill free speech,” the ACLU of Colorado alleges in its complaint, the first lawsuit related to FBI’s surveillance of activist groups in Colorado during the summer of 2020.
Policing “Violent” Speech
Remarkably, the Justice Department isn’t denying that the FBI’s investigations of activists in Colorado were related to potentially First Amendment-protected activity. In the Denver criminal case, the Justice Department acknowledged that the FBI’s investigation there during the summer of 2020 was based on speech, albeit of a “violent nature.”
The admission came last week in the criminal case of Hall, the primary Black activist targeted by the FBI and its informant, Windecker, during the summer of 2020. The Justice Department was compelled to respond to Hall’s motion to vacate his felony conviction for buying and giving a firearm to Windecker, a convicted felon who was not allowed to have a gun.
Windecker asked Hall to buy him the gun after failing to persuade Hall and another Black activist to join an FBI-engineered assassination plot supposedly targeting the state’s attorney general. Hall bought the Smith & Wesson handgun for Windecker, despite knowing that Windecker was a convicted felon, and pleaded guilty to the federal charge in January 2022. He was sentenced to three years of probation.
But following the reporting by The Intercept and “Alphabet Boys,” Hall petitioned the court to vacate his conviction based on his previous lawyer’s alleged failure to investigate Windecker fully and pursue an entrapment defense. Hall claims that Windecker, who made public death threats while being paid by the FBI and claimed to have killed Islamic State fighters as a volunteer for the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting force, threatened to harm him if he didn’t buy him the gun. Windecker’s threats of violence weren’t secret. In one YouTube video, Windecker, while secretly being paid by the FBI, states: “I have a plan to kill everybody in the fucking room if need to be.”
“We believe he could have prevailed with an entrapment defense,” Lisa Polansky, a Colorado lawyer who was recently appointed to represent Hall in his effort to vacate his conviction, told The Intercept.
The Justice Department described Hall’s claims as “meritless,” but Denver federal prosecutor Rajiv Mohan acknowledged that FBI reports showed that Hall and other racial justice activists were initially targeted following Windecker’s reports about speech. Mohan claimed, however, that Hall’s decision to buy a gun for the FBI’s informant was independent of “any outrageous government conduct in relation to speech.”
The FBI’s investigation in Colorado is the first documented case of federal agents infiltrating the racial justice movement during the summer of 2020. Although the Justice Department and the FBI have said little about it, the probe has garnered attention on Capitol Hill. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon called it “a clear abuse of authority.” Republican Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina quipped: “This is what the FBI does.” Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio submitted The Intercept’s article about the FBI activity in Denver into evidence in his Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.