An anarchist charged with attempted murder sees her case blow up in court
Amelia Nicol grew up in the relative isolation of Grand County, but "I've always had an interest in where the world is heading," she says. When the then-twenty-year-old moved to Denver a few months ago, she got the chance to put that interest in action, shaving her hair into a Mohawk and getting involved with the city's radical anarchist community, a cultural underground of young people who thrive off the grid, living on food scavenged from dumpsters, sleeping in houses with dozens of roommates, relying on their road bikes the way a Hells Angel depends on his Harley, and protesting the authoritarian demands of capitalism whenever possible. "I came to the 4/20 rally in April," Nicol recalls. "I sat in the park and lit dollar bills on fire."
Soon after, she heard about the March Against Police Terror being planned by a number of groups, including the Anarchist Black Cross. Over the past year, metro police departments have been involved in a number of controversial incidents that have brought out protesters ("The Watcher," May 19). Marvin Booker, a 54-year-old street preacher, was tased and choked to death in a Denver jail last summer; in February, Oleg Gidenko, a twenty-year-old-Russian immigrant sitting in a parked truck, was shot to death by Aurora cops.
On the afternoon of Friday, May 6, Nicol joined an estimated 150 other March Against Police Terror protesters in Sunken Gardens Park, where they found an impressive number of riot-geared cops waiting for them. Since they're anarchists, the protesting groups had not applied for a permit; instead, they simply filled the streets, blocking traffic while holding giant banners of Marvin Booker and shouting, "No justice, no peace! Fuck the police!"
"The police presence was at times so overwhelming that they easily outnumbered the amount of marchers," recalls Dave Shapiro-Strano, an organizer with Anarchist Black Cross.
The Denver Police Department had set up a staging area in the Denver Health parking lot, assigning three Rapid Deployment Vehicles to "shadow" the march, in case any mass arrests or riot control were needed. Officer Martin Tritschler, a member of the DPD Gang Unit, later testified that the department was "wanting to keep them safe, keep them from getting hit by cars."
"It really surprised me," says Nicol, describing the police response. "We were being peaceful, and they had police officers just lining the streets. I was like, 'If that's not indicative of the problem, I don't know what is.'"
The protesters marched up to Colfax, then over to the 16th Street Mall, then down Speer Boulevard. "The march attempted to go down Santa Fe, but there was a scuffle with the police," remembers Strano, "so we headed west toward Kalamath."
By now the march had been going on for a few hours, and the organizers decided it was time to disperse. They began loudly chanting a countdown from ten, a tactic they'd agreed upon earlier that day; the plan was for everyone to run in different directions when the countdown got to one, confusing the police. But in the chaos of the protesters' sprinting away, there was an explosion.
Some dismissed the sound as a cheap firework; others assumed it was an Improvised Explosive Device, or even a Molotov cocktail. "At first I thought [the police] shot a tear-gas can at us," says Strano.
According to Tritschler, a young girl with a Mohawk had pulled out a six-inch long white tube and lit a fuse, then hurled the object at a group of officers. DPD Sergeant Thomas Sherwood was driving by in his police cruiser; the object exploded inches from his windshield.
"I was running away, and then I heard the firework go off," remembers Nicol. "I was running down an alley, and then I heard them yell behind me, 'Mohawk, Mohawk!' There was a car parked at the end of the alley, and I was like, 'Oh, fuck.'"
The cops pushed her to the pavement and bound her wrists with riot cuffs that cut into her skin. "My wrists were bleeding for days," she says. "I still have scars." The restraints forced her to bend her feet and legs awkwardly. "The whole time, I was like, 'Fuck you! Do your worst!,'" Nicol remembers, "and they definitely did."
Nicol was taken to the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center a few blocks away. Four days later, the Denver District Attorney's Office announced that she was being charged with two counts of attempted murder of police officers and possession of an incendiary device, among other felonies and misdemeanors. She was facing a possible prison sentence of 90 to 120 years; her bond was set at $50,000. For the first four weeks, Nicol refused any attempts to post bond.
On Wednesday, June 8, about twenty anarchists assembled outside the Denver DA's office to protest the incarceration of Nicol, who had celebrated her 21st birthday in jail. "Amelia has been charged with a host of violent felonies, including two counts of attempted murder of law enforcement officers," proclaimed ABC's Strano. "These charges are completely fictitious. The Denver DA has overcharged Amelia Nicol to a horrifically startling degree."
As Strano spoke, a cadre of bicycle cops watched from across the street.
"Police are waging war on communities in this city," Strano continued. "Reports of brutality, murder and rape by police officers across the metro area expose the atrocious nature of our justice system. And the message that the police and the DA are sending is, if you are going to speak up, you are going to end up like Amelia Nicol."
Strano didn't know Nicol before her arrest, but he's now pushing her cause aggressively. "We're the primary support team for Amelia," he explains. "We're helping coordinate political and social support campaigns for her, putting pressure on the DA, raising money for stamps, envelopes, writing paper or anything else she needs."
Although Nicol has received letters from anarchists around the country supporting her, she was waiting for a shipment of stamps and envelopes before she wrote back. "I've had money on commissary for the past couple weeks," she explained last week, "but I refuse to spend it, because it's all part of their moneymaking scheme. That's how the rich man funds his army."
About two weeks into her incarceration, Nicol was moved into solitary confinement; apparently her cellmates complained about her reluctance to shower. She passed the time writing letters on scraps of paper and reading a copy of Dune that she was pleased to find in a collection of what she describes as "a bunch of crappy romance novels."
On June 9, Nicol got to leave her cell to attend her preliminary hearing.
A dozen or so anarchists, freegans and political activists joined as many police officers in the courtroom, where Tritschler testified that he felt the concussion blast of a "deep, low-order explosive" that reminded him of a "grenade simulator." He was an authority on the subject, he said, based on his military training in explosive technology, as well as the DPD's post-9/11 explosive training.
But when cross-examined by Nicol's defense attorney, Harvey Steinberg, Tritschler eventually admitted that the explosion was probably an M-80 firecracker — though he debated with Steinberg about whether an M-80 was a harmless, commercial firework or a dangerous explosive.
The only evidence found of the explosive were pieces of cardboard, Steinberg pointed out; if the explosion had occurred inches from Sherwood's police car and no damage was done, there was no possible way that the "explosive device" could potentially end someone's life. "This case has been incredibly overcharged," the attorney told the judge. "There is no basis or premise for attempted murder or engaging in a riot based on the evidence presented."
Judge Andrew J. Armatas agreed and dropped most of the felony charges, leaving only possession of an incendiary device — which Steinberg says will be a "fertile issue for litigation" during Nicol's arraignment on June 27. All of the misdemeanor charges remain, including a charge of resisting arrest and third-degree assault. Her bond was reduced to $5,000.
When the two attempted-murder charges were dropped, Nichol's supporters broke out in applause. Saying they were being "ridiculous," the judge told them to be quiet, and threatened them with arrest if they didn't stop immediately. They did, but as they left the courthouse, they were "shadowed" by half a dozen officers.
The following morning, Strano and ABC paid a bail bondsman $530 so that Nicol could bond out of jail. She's now wearing an ankle bracelet...and a Mohawk.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.