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The swarm of international media buzzing around the tiny hamlet of Deer Trail in recent months doesn't know what to make of the much-discussed proposal that would allow shooting down drones out of the skies above the town. Some have treated it as a symbolic protest against government spying, others as a kind of redneck joke.
But there's nothing symbolic or frivolous about the intentions of the man behind the proposed ordinance, former town board member Phil Steel, who saw his home smashed up in a massive SWAT raid three years ago — part of an investigation into a suspected poisoning incident that never resulted in any charges.
"In 2010, I was a victim," says Steel. "Now I'm the aggressor. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't an element of payback in this."
The ordinance that Steel drafted — and that Deer Trail citizens will approve or gun down in an election October 8 — contains plenty of high-flown language about how locals need to protect their "distinctive way of life" from the "covert gathering of data" by government drones. But the most crucial provision, as far as Steel is concerned, reads, "Whereas state and federal governmental entities...have previously encroached on the freedoms and liberties of the Town of Deer Trail and its citizens, even to the extent of conducting violent armed assaults against targeted members of our community while jeopardizing the lives and safety of members of the community, there shall henceforth exist a legal obligation of all citizens to defend their homes and community from incursions by unmanned aerial vehicles."
Those in the know in Deer Trail recognize that Steel is referring to a very specific violent and armed assault, and that the member of the community targeted by that assault was one Phil Steel.
On January 20, 2010, a large contingent of bomb squad and SWAT officers from the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office executed a search warrant at Steel's home while he was at work in Arvada. The operation involved breaking windows to insert pole cameras, then breaking down the door and sending in a robot to inspect the premises for trip wires and booby traps, then sending in a live team looking for bombs, weapons and dangerous chemicals.
The search was the result of a 911 call twelve days earlier from an employee at the engineering and food-service equipment supply house where Steel worked. That employee had found a substance, later determined to be liquid mercury, oozing out of the handpiece of his phone. Although the amount involved posed little health risk from contact or even ingestion, investigators theorized that it could "cause illness or death if repeatedly inhaled."
Steel was considered a suspect in the incident, in part because he had launched a recycling program in Deer Trail for compact fluorescent lights — which contain miniscule amounts of mercury. He has always denied any involvement in the affair; by his calculations, it would take thousands of bulbs to compile the amount of mercury supposedly found in the other employee's phone. But Arvada detectives were soon conducting interviews about him with other folks in Deer Trail, where he'd been involved in recalling the mayor and in an ongoing feud with the then-town clerk, who described him as "intimidating and a bit off" and claimed that he'd once paid a municipal bill with a check that appeared to have feces on it. (Steel denies this.) A former police psychologist and expert on workplace violence examined some of Steel's writings and other materials and concluded that he was at risk of committing violence and "behaviors that create social and psychological disruption."
Steel says that he's been a vocal supporter of gun rights and individual freedoms, but denies that he's ever been violent. "I'm a constitutionalist and proud of it," he says. "I did fourteen years in the military and I have a master's degree. I have no criminal record whatsoever. But they portrayed me as a domestic terrorist. The SWAT team was told that I had bombs, trip wires, hazardous chemicals.... They came in with this robot, and it took them about five minutes to cause $14,000 worth of damage."
The SWAT search didn't produce any bombs or suspicious chemicals — just a few firearms and cylinders of compressed gas, which Steel uses in welding work. "The sheriff paid my insurance deductible, but that's all I got out of anybody," Steel recalls. "I did not get any sort of apology from them, and I couldn't get any attorney to take it on. But around here, people were great. The next morning, half the town was there helping me clean up. People brought food."
Arapahoe County sheriff Grayson Robinson says his officers took the measures they did because of the nature of the information they'd received from Arvada. "We were out there in support of a valid search warrant," he says. "Given the same circumstances, we'd do it the same way tomorrow."
Steel says his right hand began shaking after he saw the damage, a tremor that stayed with him for six months. And he started thinking seriously about government intrusions into private lives, the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, and the increasing use of drones. One day, he says, "I got some rum and Coke and sat down and thought, 'What if someone wrote a law?' It took me four hours to write it down. It was fun."
The proposed no-drone zone for Deer Trail was met with guffaws from pundits and expressions of stern concern from FAA types, but the story quickly went viral. Not everyone in Deer Trail is taken with Steel's idea, of course; some even consider it an embarrassment. One online campaign against the ordinance objects to the costs the town would incur — up to $10,000 a year is to be spent on "unmanned aerial vehicle recognition training," plus a $100 bounty for each downed drone — and raises other indemnification and safety concerns.
"We do have a small but vocal opposition," Steel admits. "Deer Trail has always fought like cats and dogs."
Last month, Sheriff Robinson sent a letter to Deer Trail mayor Frank Fields and the town board, detailing his own opposition to the ordinance. Among other concerns, he raised the possibility that would-be drone hunters could be breaking a range of existing criminal laws and face charges of reckless endangerment or prohibited use of a firearm.
"Maybe the mayor and the town trustees see this as a novelty, a way to get themselves on the map," Robinson says. "But some people may see it as giving them authority to fire on what they think is an unmanned drone, and you don't know where that round is going."
Although his agency currently doesn't deploy drones over Deer Trail, the sheriff can envision situations in which they might come in handy, such as tracking a raging wildfire. "I'd put a drone up in a heartbeat for that," he says. "There are a lot of usages for drones that folks aren't thinking about."
Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Steel is already reaping his revenge, selling licenses for drone hunting through his website at twenty bucks a pop, plus shipping and handling — even though they're not recognized by any public authority. He sent out eighty orders just the other day, he reports.
"They may be able to defeat the initiative," he says. "But they can't defeat me."