Three years after his murder, memories of Ken Gorman -- Colorado's most vocal pot activist -- have gone up in smoke
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.
"He said he would meet us at the Marijuana Radio booth," Alvis yells as he navigates a narrow strip of tightly packed vendors slinging everything from medical marijuana to doctor referral literature to T-shirts and bumper stickers. Alvis is impressed by how commercialized and commoditized the movement has become in Denver. Once at the booth, he asks around for his man, only to find out that he's out in the crowd. Alvis waits.
Sporting a blue fleece, slicked back hair and glasses, Alvis doesn't exactly blend in with the mix of hippies, thugs and high-school kids who ditched class to toke up on the lawn behind the row of vendors. Though a zealot for the repeal of marijuana prohibition, Alvis is first and foremost a businessman: After waiting for an hour, he becomes impatient and pulls out a stack of blue business-card-sized magnets and walks toward a cluster of precarious-looking teenagers. "Congratulations! You just passed your drug test!" he tells each of the six young men individually and confidently, sure to place a magnet advertising his detoxification business, TestClear, in their hands. It's unfair, he says, for businesses to snub potential employees for failing a test for a drug that, in many states including Colorado, is considered medicine.
"It's a lot of fun, you know," he says as he moves on to the next group of pot smokers, careful to double back to the rendezvous point. In the background, Miguel Lopez, Gorman's successor as director of the 4/20 rally, leads the crowd in a marijuana-rights anthem: "I say marijuana, you say power!" Another band, a low-budget fashion show and a marijuana lawyer take the stage in succession. When Gorman was around, the fest was about pot; today the rally is more like an industry conference.
Several hours later, as the countdown to 4:20 draws near, there's still no sign of the informant. In the distance, a group of high-school kids circles around a BMX bike turned upside down. A kid in the center of the circle with long, curly hair, held back with a bandanna, demonstrates how he managed to turn his front wheel's center bore into a pipe. "It's a smokin' ride," he says, as he retrieves a baggie of pot from his hoodie.
Impressed by the sheer ingenuity and novelty of a bike wheel THC delivery device, an elderly man asks to try out the "Bong MX." "You wanna hit this?" the younger boy asks, gesturing toward the billowing front tire. As the elder man hits it, a friend to his side laughs and snaps photos.
Gorman would have liked the scene. But Alvis says people have forgotten what it took to lay the tracks. "If you pulled someone off the street, they probably wouldn't know the significance behind this. Not knowing who Gorman was — it's like not knowing George Washington was a founding father."
He hangs out until nearly everyone has left. His mystery man never shows.
"I guess he just didn't want to talk, or maybe he didn't actually know anything," Alvis says before heading back to his hotel room to prepare for an early flight back to Seattle. Aside from handing out a few business magnets, the trip was a bust. Yet another dead end, and no closer to finding Gorman's killer.
Gorman's only child, Valency, says her father knew he would be killed one day for his outspoken support of marijuana and blunt criticism of those who stood in the way of its legalization. "He wasn't worried about getting old, because he just said he'd piss off enough people, he'd get shot," Valency says. "He knew that he was on to something big."
Born Kenneth Calvin Gorman on July 12, 1946, Gorman was one of six children. Jan Kennedy, Gorman's ex-wife, says he often talked about his upbringing as an Air Force brat in a Catholic family and how he and the bunch moved frequently, including a tour in Japan. The family later moved to Modesto, California, and then to Denver, where Gorman graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1964.
After graduation, Gorman joined the U.S. Air Force, like his father, and became a military air traffic controller. He was first stationed at a base in Tucson, Arizona, where he studied hypnosis as a hobby. Later, he was stationed in Japan, tracking missiles during the Vietnam War.
After his military discharge, he joined the Federal Aviation Administration and made his way back to Colorado, moving to Longmont in 1969. There he placed an ad in the local paper seeking test subjects for an Edgar Cayce study — a psychic ritual that involved putting a subject in a trance. Kennedy responded to the ad.
"I knew instantly," Kennedy says of the first time she met Gorman, who in those days wore a suit and tie and had greased-down hair. "Our whole background was spiritual, metaphysical," a facet of Gorman's life she says was later drowned out by marijuana.
In fact, up until that point, Gorman had no interest in drugs. But around the time of Woodstock and the summer of love, Kennedy introduced him to marijuana. "From then on, it changed his life," she says. "I never got worked up in it the way he did." Three months later, the two were married. He was 23, she was 20.
The couple got a place in Loveland and created a local chapter of the Inner Peace Movement, a new-age spiritual fellowship, much to the chagrin of conservative neighbors who didn't appreciate the "No Pot, No Peace" sign in the front yard. After a police bust of large amounts of marijuana made local headlines, Kennedy remembers, Gorman and a friend designed a plan to break into the city's evidence locker and steal the bounty of marijuana. According to Kennedy, they got away with the stash and were never caught.
In those days, Gorman's life was defined by a search for truth — or something more entertaining than the truth. Kennedy says he learned to live his life on his terms, as a sort of social satellite taking in the world around him, poking as much fun as he could at it. "The way I'll always envision him is just kind of sitting back with this air of certainty," Kennedy says. "He would just laugh and say it doesn't matter."
"People were just entertainment for him," she adds. "He was constantly messing with people. He would do what he called 'constructive criticism.' Which was, basically, he'd tear you apart. He didn't always know how to put you back together."
In 1972, Valency was born, and three years later the family moved to Samoa, where Gorman was stationed with the FAA, and then to Honolulu.
"I was spoiled," Kennedy says. "At the time, his $40,000 was a lot of money. He was really good to me." But after eight years together, the two split, and she and Valency moved to Maui and then back to the continental U.S. "We played hard," she says of their young marriage. "There could have been more sex — I would have liked that — but when he got home, he was tired, and I'm a very frustrated woman.
"Ken was very secretive," she adds. "He only let you in so far. The only time I ever got him to tell me he loved me was if I got a few drinks into him."
Valency moved in with her grandparents in Loveland, as her father worked in Honolulu and her mother moved frequently. Around the same time, the summer of 1981, Gorman involved himself in an air traffic controller strike. Even though he was a manager, Gorman put his job on the line to join the strike made up mostly of younger, lesser-paid employees. The plan: Put pressure on President Ronald Reagan to meet union demands to free up the airways. But it backfired. Reagan fired any workers who didn't show up for work in August 1981.
The three-way split and Gorman's sudden unemployment rocked the family hard, especially young Valency. "They were just a bunch of hippies doing their thing," says Valency, now a 38-year-old sales coordinator for a major Denver IT firm. "I was pretty much raised by my mom and grandparents, so he was more of a friend. I was almost more the parent when they were doing their thing."
At a young age, Valency began to notice her father had less time for family and more of an interest in spending time with groups of teenage boys and younger men — who in Hawaii called him "Cosmos" for his radical political beliefs and interest in astrology, numerology and spirituality. "My dad was just always doing crazy stuff," she says. "His life was just not suitable for a kid. Yeah, I wanted a normal dad like you see on TV — your typical white-fence family. I definitely didn't get that. I wished he could have been around more."
When she did see him, though, Valency remembers Gorman's affinity for blasting Ozzy Osbourne and maybe a Beatles song or two, and how he loved to take her to action or science-fiction movies. But it wasn't always easy being his daughter.
"When we went out to eat, he would leave a joint as a tip," she says. "I was like 'Uh, Dad?'.... He was just always kind of the prankster."
Kennedy, with whom Gorman remained close, says he had "a bigger cause than his family." As Gorman's libertarian-bent interest in politics grew stronger, he found family in other places. He would later tell his "disciples," as marijuana activists who knew him coined his followers, that Reagan sparked his activism.
"If paper cups were illegal, he would have fought for paper cups," Valency says. "Not a lot of people got that. They got all caught up in marijuana, but that didn't come until later."
He would eventually become something of a celebrity wherever he went. And, as his family puts it, "he loved the attention."
A 1984 black-and-white photo in the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier sums up Gorman. It accompanied a page-one story about area tribes hosting raucous demonstrations to protest the government's ambivalence after a string of violent attacks on the helpless lower class. In the picture, Gorman is seen leading the natives, wearing flip-flops and smoking something that resembles a cigarette.
After Reagan fired him, Gorman moved to Papua New Guinea to recruit citizens of the largely tribal country to attend Western schools. And in just a couple of years, he managed to become a voicebox for a rebellion of the indigenous people. But in 1985, he was arrested and kicked off the island.
The next seven years of Gorman's life are suspect, even to his family. According to a Boulder Weekly article, he spent that time living in the Philippines, East Asia and back in Papua New Guinea, where he found work negotiating trade agreements between that country and China. Even his family isn't sure what he was up to during that time.
Gorman finally returned to Colorado in 1992 to work as a door-to-door salesman for Video Professor and fell in with the resistance to the war on drugs.
He read The Emperor Wears No Clothes, by the late pot activist and author Jack Herer, which details the popular suspicion that big oil profiteers and racists pulled the strings on drug prohibition — required reading for any wisecracking pothead with a penchant for heretical disobedience. The book inspired and enraged Gorman and marked a turning point in his life.
Gorman began to organize "smoke-ins" at the state Capitol, where folks of all ages would gather on the last Saturday of every month to smoke pot. Some of these events grew to include more than a thousand people, in part because Gorman would pass out free joints, bongs and other swag, even if it got him arrested — something he expected, even wanted. And with a rap sheet that includes more than a dozen drug, trespassing and public-consumption charges, he got his wish. It gained him the adoration of his smoke-in devotees, many of whom were young men and drug-dealing gang members he befriended and brought into his inner circle.
But what was perhaps most impressive about the smoke-ins was the fact that they all took place in broad daylight, at "high noon," in front of police and state politicians — something that was absolutely unheard of at the time.
That sort of radical thinking often landed Gorman in the news, and the media covered his exploits with interest and apprehension. Take an early-'90s segment from KUSA Channel 9, which showcased Arvada's Beverly Kinard, the leader of Drug Watch Colorado. Kinard told the station that after she testified at the Capitol in opposition to a bill that would have loosened control of hemp — a non-narcotic byproduct of cannabis plants — Gorman called her. "He was, in my opinion, hostile," she told viewers. "He used so many four-letter words. He used a lot of innuendos about a lot of things."
And what did Gorman have to say for himself, Channel 9 asked? "I hope she did feel harassed by it," Gorman said, smiling goofily at the camera.
At the time, Gorman ran a phone-message hotline called "Asshole of the Week," in which he would rant about the latest opponent to the legalization of marijuana or whoever else got his goat (this was before the Internet became the primary means of getting the word out). In one installment, he gave out Kinard's home phone number.
"The industrial-hemp bill is dead," Gorman said into the tape with the broadcasting prowess of a former air traffic controller. "It was killed by the queen bitch asshole of the year: Beverly J. Kinard. This shithead told just about every lie there can be told about marijuana." The television package censored the profanities, of course.
Gorman had a knack for comedy in these messages, which prompted Gregory Daurer, who now works for prominent Denver pot attorney Warren Edson, to record the weekly installments. Daurer, a self-proclaimed "archivist," wrote about Gorman for High Times magazine in the '90s and has worked to save as many relics and knickknacks of the movement as he can. Gorman, he says, left him with all kinds of treasures.
One of the better recordings Daurer provides is the one in which Gorman announced his candidacy for governor, an effort that led to the nickname "Governor Pothead." "Well, my time as a political prisoner at the Denver city jail for my horrendous crime of smoking a joint at the marijuana rally has given me a few things to think about," Gorman began. "We've offered a solution to the gang wars and the violence that grips our state.... Every time we offer our solution to the politicians, we're told to get fucked and harassed by the cops and the narcs.
"Well, now we're offering our solutions to the people of Colorado. I am hereby announcing my candidacy for the office of governor. There will be a smoke-in and a campaign kickoff at the State Capitol July 1, 1994. High noon, of course. I don't care how hung over you are: Be there. You might even get to see the future governor's ass hauled off to jail again. There's also some jerkoffs who have threatened to shoot me at our rally, so it should be exciting. Asshole of the week is Queen Elizabeth. She knighted George Bush, the biggest cocaine dealer in America."
Gorman's left-field run for governor predictably fell flat. But it wasn't about winning an election for him. It was about the attention from the public that his candidacy drew to the cause — a concept that many of today's pro-pot advocates see as key to their success. He became Colorado's first prominent marijuana media hound, paving the way for younger advocates, many of whom were his students or friends and are now in the news every day.
"For better or worse, he sort of hijacked the face of the movement," asserts Daurer, who says Gorman's tactics disenfranchised proponents of legalizing marijuana through diplomatic, bureaucratic channels. "He cranked it up a notch as far as the out-front, in-your-face approach. We all had issues with him, but it was hard to stay mad at him. The war on drugs made a lot of us angry, even crazy. Denver had never seen anything like this. He put a public face to it."
Gorman's ride came to an end after the election was over, however. The police, who were content to stand by during the race to avoid the exposure, wasted no time once the television cameras faded away. In May 1995, they set up a sting to catch Gorman selling pot to a seventeen-year-old informant. He was arrested with three pounds of what he called "medical marijuana" and charged with felony distribution to a minor. But the trigger word, "medical," which might save drug dealers from jail time now, was as useful as hemp monopoly money then.
Attorney Warren Edson says Gorman fired him the morning of his trial and then represented himself. "Ken fired me at least twenty times," Edson remembers. "It was part of who he was. We would agree to disagree, and I would be fired for whatever, and then the next week he would hire me back."
After losing in court, Gorman was sentenced in November 1996 to six years in prison. The only surprise to those who knew him was that it hadn't happened sooner.
With the absence of its soapbox hero, the marijuana effort trailed on with a new level of sophistication — one that marginalized the radicalism associated with Gorman and his disciples. Even Allen St. Pierre, the national director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), lambasted Governor Pothead's tactics, calling for a new way. As the breadth of the Internet took hold and a new generation of voters emerged, proponents of medical marijuana found less obtrusive ways to effect change, eventually influencing a narrow majority of voters in 2000 to pass Amendment 20, which opened up medical marijuana for the chronically ill and their caregivers.
Dispensaries remained largely invisible, however, operating within the norms of the underground drug trade, for the next nine years. It wasn't until July 2009, when the Colorado Board of Health struck down a rule limiting medical marijuana caregivers to five patients each that the industry hit the strip malls. Today Denver boasts 235 dispensaries, many operated by Gorman's former pupils.
"He was a kick-ass, pull-no-punches kind of guy," says attorney Rob Corry, one of several leaders who represent those dispensaries and helped shape new statewide legislation approved by lawmakers last week. "I loved that about him. There are so many cold, logical people in my field, so it was refreshing to see someone with his passion. Ken Gorman was of an older school, an on-the-street, bare-knuckles activist who grabbed a bullhorn and went to the Capitol and said, 'Eff you, Governor Owens."
Corry notes that although the marijuana-legalization effort was moving away from Gorman, "he paid his dues more than anybody else in this movement."
Gorman spent nearly two years in prison before being released to the care of a halfway house, where he served the remainder of his time. But by 2003, he'd jumped back into the green rush, this time with a different angle that better fit the times.
In 2004, he and business partner Thomas Lawrence created the Colorado Compassion Club, which routinely held informational sessions, explaining how people could exploit the loosely worded medical marijuana law. Gorman and Lawrence later split, however, and Gorman created his own outfit, the 420 Compassion Club, which he ran out of his home.
Although it wasn't labeled as such, the club was an early underground dispensary. Gorman began moving pounds of pot each week, which he acquired from Mexican dealers, and he even began growing his own. His sole source of income, it had all the risks of any criminal drug enterprise; the only difference was that patients could flash their cards to police and get away scot-free. But unlike street-corner drug dealers, gangs or criminal syndicates, Gorman freely broadcast his business in social circles and on sites like Yahooka.com and kept his marijuana nursery in plain view: Exposure was the key to legitimization, he told his clients. With what many say was his inflated ego, he even dared to keep his door unlocked.
But Gorman was no amateur when it came to handling the streets.
Dominic Mestas, who was only fifteen when he found his "mentor and a father figure" in Gorman, says he and Gorman were the biggest pot dealers in the state before Gorman went to prison – and there was nothing medical about it. "We dealt tons of weed. That's what we did. We were the biggest dealers because of who Ken was," he says.
Mestas lived in the duplex unit adjacent to Gorman's; he says they used some of their profits to fund the rallies at the State Capitol. "Ken was just all about smoking pot. Then he heard about the medical aspect. The medical aspect took over for him."
After Gorman got out of prison, he and Mestas went back into business together, but it wasn't the same. "I kind of got worried for him," Mestas remembers, "because you can only invite so many people into your home." He even purchased a security camera for Gorman, which he displayed in his living room but never hooked up.
In the end, Gorman's trust and his lack of security contributed to his death.
On February 11, 2007, Channel 4 aired a news segment in which he showed off his plants and offered up his patients for interviews. Six days later, he was killed.
Who killed Ken Gorman, and who were the two men seen fleeing the scene?
The predominant theories revolve around the gaggle of gang members Gorman kept as company.
"As long as I can remember, he had just an entourage of younger men who idolized him," Valency says. "Even to the day he was shot, he had a Vietnamese gang that was constantly there and loved him. He took in these kids who just had shitty lives. In his subtle way, he had an influence on their lives.... He had no fear. He would just kind of laugh in the face of all the craziness going on. I didn't feel safe going there."
One popular theory was given weight in a March 2008 Playboy article that focused on Lawrence, Gorman's former business partner in the Colorado Compassion Club. Lawrence, an ex-convict with an extensive rap sheet including hard-drug convictions and car theft, had reportedly ripped Gorman off, brewing bad blood between the two and their respective cliques. After the article was published, police opened up an investigation into Lawrence, but nothing has so far come of it. Lawrence, who many believe to have left the state, could not be reached for this article.
Diana McKindley, a close friend and medical marijuana student of Gorman's, says that shortly before his death, Gorman told her that he'd suspected one of his young disciples of stealing some of his pot and had banished him from the group. Her guess is that's the guy who killed him, but she never knew his real name. "I called him Boston because of the way he looked," she says. "The black leather boots, the jacket, the accent."
McKindley, who now operates a successful dispensary in Wheat Ridge, says she told police her suspicions in the days following the murder, but investigators at the time were more interested in finding out whom Gorman supplied marijuana to.
Denver police detective Aaron Lopez, the lead investigator on the case, and police spokesman Sonny Jackson wouldn't comment on the case, citing an ongoing investigation. Heavily redacted police records also provide no clues to the murder.
But Valency says that police have assured her they have a suspect, who may already be in prison.
McKindley says Gorman's death gave many people motivation. "When he got killed, a lot of us went underground for a year — and then we came out like gangbusters," she adds. "Now we're running the industry."
After Gorman's death, activist Miguel Lopez took over as director of the 4/20 rally. Lopez, who was admittedly high when he spoke about Gorman, says he's hoping to continue Gorman's legacy. (Lopez is running for governor as a write-in candidate on the November ballot.) But a self-described militant activist, he says he's no Ken Gorman. "He had a Gandhi-like spirit," Lopez says between sobs for his mentor. "I push the envelope. I have radical ideologies, but he was a happy, peaceful person.
"He'd be really happy and really proud of everything the people who represent the community are doing," he adds.
But Lopez is criticized among Gorman loyalists who say the rally has strayed from its beginnings as a political pot pulpit to become a theater for commercial business.
Mestas, for one, says he doesn't attend the rallies anymore.
At one point, the movement looked to Valency to carry on her father's legacy, but she says it's not hers to carry on. "I miss him a lot," she says. "It sucks. I miss going to the movies and spending time with him."
The last time Valency saw her father, they went out to the movies — an action flick — complete with popcorn, candy and sodas. It was just like a time, years earlier, that they'd seen a similar movie. On that day, in his comical, laid-back way, Gorman had mocked the movie, turning to her and saying, "I will avenge your death!" with gusto.
Now, Valency wishes she could find justice in her father's death.
She says she tries not to get caught up in questions of who and why. For her, it's a waiting game. "I don't even have any real hard feelings against the people who shot him," she says. "It's like he kind of agreed that's how his life would end. I kind of think it was cool that my dad went out in his glory: What a better way for a renegade to go out in that fashion? It kind of memorialized him, to some degree."
And he'd be loving every minute of today's environment, as the Mile High City goes up in smoke. "Dad, you did it," Valency tells her father in dreams, and if he were still alive, he would respond the same way he closed every rally, smoke-in and "Asshole of the Week" tirade: "Keep on smokin' them joints."
For video of the Channel 9 report, audio of Gorman's "Asshole of the Week" segments, selected writings and more, visit the Latest Word blog at westword.com. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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