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When Ken Gorman heard the intruders burst through the front door, he sprang from his room and ran through the hallway toward the sounds of shuffling feet. He'd been robbed dozens of times before, always around the harvest, but that night he was equipped to fight back. Just a few days earlier, he'd told friends and family he would be ready for the next thief who tried to get away with his cache of high-grade marijuana, which he grew in his back-room nursery and sold to more than a hundred "patients."
But the sixty-year-old Gorman never reached his brand-new shotgun. The burglars beat him to the draw.
Gorman fell as the bullet ripped through his flesh and into his heart — one clean, fatal shot — leaving his tall, slender body sprawled in the living room of his Athmar Park duplex. Minutes later, a neighbor found Gorman's lifeless body and called police.
But the intruders — witnesses say they saw two men running from the house that February 17, 2007, night — left Gorman's weed and his money behind. Was it panic or the plan all along? Three years later, police still don't know the answer, though Gorman's family members say they've been told that there may finally be a suspect.
Conspiracy theories and hunches abound. The eccentric pro-pot crusader had enraged a lot of people. Was it another drug dealer? A medical marijuana patient? One of the several gang members he took in? A rival gang? Or a more paranoid possibility: Did the cops want to shut Gorman down once and for all?
Regardless of who pulled the trigger, Gorman's death made national headlines, and marijuana advocates speak of him with the kind of reverence reserved for civil-rights heroes. Some even call him a martyr.
As much of an anti-government activist as he was a pot proponent, Gorman championed the rights of legitimate medical marijuana patients, the ones who continue to hang in a vacuum, suspended between federal laws that prohibit pot use and Colorado's Amendment 20, which allows for it under certain circumstances.
But the truth is, Gorman didn't care how weed became legal, whether it was medical, recreational or otherwise. He believed that anyone should have the right to smoke pot, anywhere and anytime. In fact, before there was anything coined "medical marijuana" in Colorado or a constitutional amendment to allow it, there was Gorman.
Armed with only a bullhorn, a pocket full of joints and a mental arsenal of fact and fiction to inspire hordes of potheads, he laid the groundwork for the big-bucks pot industry that has blossomed over the past year and helped mentor the characters who continue to shape it.
So while Gorman's family says police may finally have narrowed in on a suspect, his disciples merely want Denver to remember the man who paved the way.
Charles Alvis never knew Gorman personally, but that didn't keep him from traveling more than a thousand miles for a clandestine meeting at last month's 4/20 rally in Civic Center Park — an annual weedfest that Gorman pioneered in 1993 and nurtured for more than a decade. Alvis runs Yahooka.com, a popular marijuana web platform, from his affluent neighborhood in suburban Seattle. Before he was killed, Gorman was a moderator on the forum.
"I thought he was kind of crazy because of the things he said, especially toward law enforcement," Alvis remembers of his first online interactions with Gorman. "At the time, I didn't know who he was."
A short, stocky man with glasses, Alvis also runs a memorial site honoring Gorman and his life's work, at www.kengorman.org. He started the venture a year after Gorman was killed and has since been working to catch a lead in the case. He also manages memorial pages on Facebook and Twitter, hoping to use the reach of social media to find something — anything — about who killed Gorman.
The day before the rally, Alvis met with the Colorado Crime Stoppers unit to see if they had discovered anything new (they hadn't), and he even visited the now-vacant home that Gorman once rented on the rough-and-tumble 1000 block of South Decatur Street. He says he wants closure in one of the movement's more turbulent footnotes, but between the anonymous tips and conjecture, he's getting nowhere.
Today he's planned to meet the sender of a mysterious message to Gorman's Facebook page. Alvis regularly acts as a conduit of information for those who might know something about Gorman's murder but fear talking to the police. So far, he says, any information he's given to Denver police has been met with skepticism, but the most recent tipster says his cousin witnessed a confession during a short stint in the Jefferson County jail. Alvis says this could be the break he's been waiting for.
"Basically, his cousin was in jail around April 2009, and he heard another person at that time bragging that he had killed Ken Gorman," Alvis explains as he snakes through the growing crowd just before noon. As the west end of Civic Center Park begins to fill with pot-wielding enthusiasts who congregate in small circles to pass joints and pipes, a Grateful Dead throwback band entertains the hordes as police watch on.