He had the camera, the studio and the guns. She had the tribal tattoos, the icy blue eyes and the desire. They met on the Internet in May 2000 in a chat room for Colorado singles. They volleyed flirtatious notes. She told him her name was Katica, pronounced "Kah-tee-kah." It's Hungarian, she said.
She was 34 then, and she was hot -- if you like biker chicks, which he did. She sent him pictures. She was 5'8", 125 pounds. She came across in her e-mails as tough, yet vulnerable. She let him know she was fresh out of prison, where she'd just served two years for selling a tiny bag of speed to an undercover cop. She was on ISP, Intensive Supervised Program, and so had a plastic electronic monitoring bracelet around her ankle like a virtual ball and chain. She was broke and living with her ex-husband in Colorado Springs. She had reclaimed her maiden name and was Katica Crippen once more. She had an eight-year-old daughter and a felony record, and she was looking to make a fresh start.
He lived in Englewood. He went to see her a few times, and even though she wasn't allowed to drive under the terms of her ISP, he loaned her a car, and she came to see him a few times. They were talking one day, and the conversation turned to guns. He told her he had quite a collection. She told him guns made her feel naughty. "She said she thought it would be really good to take some pictures of her naked with my guns," he says.
He was all for it.
"When a good-looking lady says, 'Take my pictures nude while I handle your guns,' what are you gonna do, say no? Come on. I took the pictures," says the now 38-year-old photographer, who spoke with Westword on the condition that his name not be used. "You bet I did. But then, I had no idea it was in any way illegal. If I'd known that taking those photos would have caused her or I this many problems, I would have said no."
The day of the photo shoot, Crippen arrived at his apartment wearing fringed black leather pants and a matching jacket, with a black lace, spider-web-patterned bodysuit beneath, and contact lenses that turned her eyes the color of a glacier under the midnight sun.
He got out his guns and his camera, and the shutter began to click. They started out with her fully clothed, holding two gleaming .45s with the hammers cocked and her fingers on the triggers. (The clips were empty; all the guns were unloaded.) She stripped down to the bodysuit, and he handed her a .44 magnum and then a .357.
Then she got naked. He positioned her sitting down with her back against the wall, her jacket splayed in front of her, covering her crotch, with a pile of weaponry nestled within the leather folds. Then he removed the jacket. She spread her legs and crossed twin semi-automatics across her breasts, lowering her eyelids and faking a moan, as if the very sensation of gun steel pressed against her nipples had propelled her to orgasm.
"It was just supposed to be fun," Crippen says. "That's all. Just some fun between friends."
In the United States, it's not a crime to simultaneously invoke your First and Second Amendment rights by posing naked with a gun in your hand.
But it is a crime in this country for a convicted felon to possess a firearm.
And when federal prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver found out about Crippen's photo shoot, they rescinded her parole and charged with her a federal firearms offense.
She went back to prison in April 2001 to serve the remainder of the original four-year state sentence for her drug crime. In addition, she now has to do eighteen months in a federal pen for being a felon in possession of a firearm. When she finally gets out this time around, Crippen will have been incarcerated for over three years -- at a cost of over $100,000 -- simply because she held a friend's guns while he snapped her photograph.
"I still have no idea why I'm back in prison for a bunch of years for posing with guns that weren't even mine," she says. "I still have no idea why doing that was a crime, and I still have no idea why what I did was so wrong that they took me away from my daughter."
Crippen's bizarre legal ordeal has transformed her into a minor celebrity, a pinup girl in the raging debate over gun control. Her case is featured on hundreds of pro-gun and weird-news Web sites; biker and gun magazines have printed her prison address and suggested that readers send her fan mail. Last summer, nationally syndicated conservative columnist Paul Craig Roberts penned a scathing critique of her prosecution that was printed in daily newspapers across the country. And in 2002, the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, released a massive study on the "over-enforcement of gun laws" that used Crippen's case as a prime example of "the proliferation of 'garbage' gun charges -- technical violations of firearms statutes on which no sensible prosecutor would expend his energy."
Crippen cares less about her notoriety than she does her freedom.
"I just want out," she says. "I did some bad things in the past, but I was done with bad things. It's not fair."
Katica Crippen was born in California in 1966 and was legally emancipated as a minor at age sixteen after a California judge ruled that her parents were abusive.
She first ran afoul of the law in 1988, when she was arrested in Colorado Springs for driving drunk. She notched a second DUI in 1994, also in Colorado Springs. In 1995, she was busted again in the Springs, this time for possession of marijuana. The next year, she got a third DUI.
By this time, Crippen was riding with the Sons of Silence motorcycle gang, and she was using hard drugs. "I was a little bit of a mess," she says.
On April 7, 1997, Detective Al Quintana of the Cripple Creek Police Department, working undercover on assignment with the Colorado Springs Police Department's Metro Vice/Narcotics Unit, received a call from a confidential informant. The informant told the detective that per his request, the informant had set up the purchase of narcotics and illegal firearms from a known associate of the Sons of Silence.
The informant said he'd arranged a meeting for eleven o'clock that night in the parking lot of a local Wal-Mart.
At a quarter past ten, the informant called back and put Quintana on the phone with a woman who introduced herself as Katica but said he should call her "Dragon Lady."
Detective Quintana told Dragon Lady he was looking to buy an SKS assault rifle that had been illegally converted to fully automatic. She said that was no problem. According to Quintana's investigative reports, she also offered to sell him grenade launchers and nine-millimeter pistols with laser sights. He said no thanks to the extra weaponry but asked Dragon Lady if she could score him a little meth. Dragon Lady said sure, then added that before she sold him anything, she wanted to meet him and see if he smelled like a cop.
She told him to meet her in the parking lot. Thirty minutes later, she showed up behind the wheel of a blue Ford Ranger pickup. She parked three rows from Quintana; the informant was in the Ranger's passenger seat. He got out of the pickup, walked over to the detective's ride and told him to go see Dragon Lady. She talked to Quintana for a few minutes and didn't make him as a cop, so she offered him a quarter gram of meth for forty bucks. He gave her two marked twenties. She told him she had to drive to Manitou Springs to grab the SKS and that he should put up the hood of his car and act like he had engine trouble while he waited. She said she'd be back in thirty minutes. It was more like an hour.
She'd quoted him 350 bucks on the phone, but the price for the SKS had now gone up to $400. She had the gun and two spare clips in a brown nylon case. Quintana swore in a later affidavit that she then brandished a .380 Smith & Wesson pistol and said right to his face, "I know how to take care of myself, and I will not hesitate to cap any cop who tries to take me down. It's either me or them."
Crippen denies making that statement. "I never said I would shoot a police officer," she says. "They brought that up later to justify putting me back in prison for a bunch of photographs, trying to make me seem like a dangerous criminal, but I never said nothing like that."
In June 1997, a warrant was issued for Katica Crippen's arrest on the charge of Unlawful Distribution of a Schedule II Controlled Substance, which is a Class 3 felony. She was arrested during a sweep one month later and also charged with burglary and larceny for using stolen credit cards. She pleaded guilty to the narcotics charge; in exchange for her plea, the other charges were dropped. (Curiously, she was never charged with any crime for procuring the illegal assault rifle.) Crippen was sentenced to four years in the Colorado Department of Corrections. She served just over two of them before she was paroled into the ISP program. According to court records, while she was inside, a male prison nurse sexually assaulted her.
Between her arrest and the time she went to prison, Crippen had married Gary Davis, a Colorado Springs resident. (Her daughter is from a previous union.) Although she and Davis were divorced before she was paroled, he still took Crippen in when she got out. (Davis declined to comment for this story.)
In September 1999, while Crippen was still in prison, then-U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland -- between failed campaigns for the U.S. Senate, and five months after the shootings at Columbine High School -- launched a controversial program called Colorado Project Exile. Under Project Exile, any and all felons found to be in possession of a firearm in Colorado are prosecuted aggressively in federal court ("Living in Exile," March 21, 2002).
By the time Crippen was released in April 2000, there were billboards and bus-bench placards all over Denver and Colorado Springs promoting Project Exile. "Pack an illegal gun, pack your bags for prison," they warned. Those ads, as well as late-night TV spots pushing Project Exile, encouraged citizens to "stop gun violence" by turning in felons who possessed firearms.
In late August 2000, Gary Davis found photos in his house of his ex-wife, a newly paroled felon, naked, in another man's apartment, handling another man's guns. He did as the Project Exile billboards instructed and called the proper authorities.
"It was pretty much a straight-up revenge thing for him," Crippen says.
From the sentencing report in the case of the United States versus Katica Crippen:"The parties agree the government's evidence would have established the following: On September 1, 2000, Agent Blea of the Colorado Department of Corrections Community Corrections Office told Colorado Springs Police that the defendant's husband, Gary Davis, had told her that he had seen photographs of his wife posing with firearms, and that Agent Blea had herself seen multiple color computer scanned photographs of Crippen posing with assorted firearms.
"Agent Blea told CSPD these photographs concerned her since Ms. Crippen was currently in ISP and was prohibited from possessing firearms.
"CSPD then conducted surveillance on Ms. Crippen and saw her driving away from a computer business in a white Honda. Knowing that she had no license to drive a car, the officers stopped defendant and arrested her for violating her ISP.... During a search of the car, the officers found assorted firearm ammunition. The defendant's husband consented to a search of their home by Colorado Department of Corrections, and 21 professional-style photographs of the defendant posing with several handguns were recovered. The pictures depicted the defendant holding the guns in her hands or displayed around her. In several of the photographs, the defendant's ISP ankle bracelet is visible.
"On September 6, CSPD officers and federal agents for the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms executed a search warrant at [the photographer's] home. The officers found additional photographs of the defendant posing with firearms. They also found seven firearms. A comparison between the firearms in the photographs and the firearms recovered from the residence shows that they are the same firearms, to wit: a Sig Arms .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol; a Smith & Wesson .357 caliber revolver; an AMT, Hardballer Longslide .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol; a Smith & Wesson model 60-10, .357 magnum revolver; a Smith & Wesson .44-magnum revolver; a Ruger model Mark II target .22 caliber pistol; and a Colt model MKIV, series 80, .45 semi-automatic pistol."
The guns were all legal, and legally owned by the photographer, who was never charged with a crime.
He also never saw any of his guns again.
"They were destroyed," he says. "They told me right at the beginning that if I didn't voluntarily surrender the guns, it could be seen as my being combative, and they'd find a way to prosecute me, so I gave up."
The guns were worth about $8,000, he says: "There were a couple of .45 caliber pistols in there that were designed for competition; they were close to a grand out of the box, and they'd had a couple thousand dollars of custom work done on them. It was an expensive hit for me."
The photographer says neither he nor Crippen made any money off of the pictures. "There have been some stories that said we put them on a pay-per-view pornographic Web site, and that's just not true," he says. "They were purely for our own personal enjoyment. She put a few up on her personal Web site, but she didn't charge to see them. She even posed for free. I didn't pay her a modeling fee, per se, although I was helping her out financially at that point in her life."
He couldn't afford to hire her a private attorney, however, so Crippen was appointed a federal public defender, Susan Cushman. Crippen says Cushman encouraged her to plead guilty, but didn't explain that a guilty plea would mean she'd have to serve the remainder of her state prison sentence before beginning her federal sentence on the gun charge. (Federal sentencing rules prohibit such sentences from being served concurrently.)
"There was a communication breakdown between my attorney and me," Crippen says. "She misrepresented to me what would happen after I made a guilty plea, and she would never speak to me at length about my case." (Cushman did not return Westword's calls.)
Crippen now wishes she'd taken her case to trial. "I would have basically just said to the jury, 'We all know this is ridiculous. Let's save you taxpayers a lot of money and get us all out of here.'"
Instead, she pleaded guilty and threw herself on the mercy of U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, the federal judge who'd overseen the Oklahoma City bombing trial. She could have done worse: Matsch cut her a major break.
Federal sentencing guidelines required Matsch to sentence Crippen to between 63 and 78 months in prison -- unless he decided there were "special or unusual" features to her case that justified his disregarding the guidelines.
"The defendant's benign use of the firearms as photo props and temporary possession of them by simply holding them for that purpose do make this a special and unusual case," Matsch wrote in his decision.
He gave Crippen eighteen months, six more than the absolute minimum he was allowed.
Prior to Crippen's sentencing, Matsch also had a few harsh words for federal prosecutor James Allison. "I want to know why this is a federal case," the judge demanded. "How far is this policy of locking people up with guns going to go?"
The policy has gone quite far, it turns out.
Project Exile is now part of a nationwide initiative called Project Safe Neighborhoods. "Katica Crippen's case is just one example of the frightening unintended consequences of this new Bush-Ashcroft plan to federalize gun crimes," says Cato Institute scholar Gene Healy, who authored last year's study on the sweeping law-enforcement initiative.
"The law originated in a strategy by the National Rifle Association and the Bush administration to forestall further gun-enforcement legislation by emphasizing tougher enforcement of existing gun laws," Healy continues. "To this end, Project Safe Neighborhoods funds 113 new assistant U.S. Attorneys and 600 new state and local prosecutors, whose only beat is to prosecute gun crimes. And there lie the unintended consequences.
"Conviction rates are the key indicator in judging the performances of U.S. attorneys' offices. Unlike other prosecutors, whose bailiwicks cover all criminal offenses, the Safe Neighborhood prosecutors are limited to one offense. Once they run out of serious gun crimes, they push on with technical and meritless indictments."
Last year in Iowa, Healy notes, drug addict and convicted burglar Dan Yirkovsky was sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison for possessing a single .22-caliber bullet.
But Crippen's case is the most infamous, because naked chicks with guns sell. Just ask Dave Anver, owner of the Denver store Dave's Guns. Anver's print advertisements feature a rotating cast of scantily clad lovelies holding cocked firearms. "We don't ask them if they have a felony record, and maybe we'd better start," Anver says. "We have a licensed Class III firearms dealer who oversees all those photo shoots, and he removes the firing pins from the weapons before they're handled by the models, but who knows? It's a gray area. They went after her [Crippen], and that was pretty clearly a frivolous use of law enforcement. I mean, we're not talking about someone who was using a firearm in concert with any other criminal activity. So what's to stop them from going after one of my models on the same sort of technicality? Nothing except their better judgment."
Thus far, Crippen's case is unique among the more than 300 prosecutions under Project Safe Neighborhoods in Colorado alone. The conviction rate in those cases holds steady at 90 percent; the average prison sentence is four years.
District of Virginia Federal Judge Richard Williams estimated last year that "90 percent of [Project Safe Neighborhoods] defendants are probably no danger to society."
But Colorado Project Exile chief prosecutor James Allison considers Crippen dangerous, pointing to her alleged statement that she would "cap" a police officer.
"I appreciate that a person who has been convicted for murder or for aggravated robbery who is walking around with a gun, the odds are higher they're more dangerous than a person who has a conviction for mail fraud," Allison told Westword last year. "But that doesn't mean I want the person who has a conviction for mail fraud walking around with a gun.
"Regardless of where you stand on Second Amendment issues, we all know guns are very dangerous things. They kill people. And while the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to possess them in this country, which I do not argue with, it clearly creates a situation where people with bad judgment who have a gun are more inclined to hurt and kill people. And from my observation, people who have felony convictions, whether they're forgery, writing bad checks, stealing or doing anything else that's non-violent, they have bad judgment. And I agree with Congress that if you're going to limit the possession of firearms, let's start with people who've been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have exercised very poor judgment. And that's one class of people that I have no problem saying should not be in possession of a device which can so easily kill other human beings."
Crippen has a hell of a time answering the standard jailhouse inquiry, "What are you in for?"
"I don't really know what to say, because I don't really know," she says. "I've seen a lot rougher women than me come through and do a lot less time for a lot more violent crimes. They come in for armed robbery, assault, and they're out in a year or less, and I'm still here."
Last May 30, Crippen typed Matsch a plaintive thank-you note from the prison library at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility.
"Your honor, I am still in the State facility for these 21 odd months for that picture I had taken while on Parole. Do you remember me? I was tried and convicted in your court? They tried to give me 78 months and you gave me only 18 months.
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"Well Sir, I am having medical difficulties, and I don't even know if they will let me out in December so I can do my fed time. At this point I have no idea when I will get out. I have a 10-year-old daughter and I am missing her life. I miss her terribly.
"I am not trying to cry on your shoulders, Sir, just stating the facts. I don't know what you can do for me, I just really wanted to let you know I am here. I will never forget what you did for me when everyone didn't even care at the time how much prison I was going to receive. I thank you for that. I also know this is a pointless case, because I didn't even do anything except take a picture."
Colorado Project Exile took its name from a policy of "exiling" firearms convicts to federal prisons in other states, far away from their family and friends. Last week, hours before Crippen was scheduled to meet with a reporter and photographer, U.S. Marshals came to the Denver County Jail and took her into federal custody. She was then transported to the Federal Correctional Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Prison officials there have prohibited her from having any further contact with the media.
Her scheduled release date is February 18, 2005.