On September 11, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration executed a warrant to search an apartment in southeast Denver. The target was 27-year-old Kole Milner, whom the DEA suspected of growing and dealing psychedelic mushrooms.
By the time agents walked out of Milner's apartment, they'd taken 906 live psychedelic mushrooms, 20.42 ounces of dried mushrooms, an iPhone X, a computer tower, three T-shirts with a logo for Happy Fox Edibles, a brown leather-bound notebook, and packaging with a logo that matched the T-shirts.
What was seized is now being used in a federal court case against Milner in what appears to be the first major mushroom-related criminal proceeding in Denver since the city’s residents voted in May to decriminalize personal possession, growth and consumption of psychedelic mushrooms. The ballot initiative they approved did not decriminalize dealing, nor did it prohibit state and federal law enforcement agencies from enforcing laws related to psilocybin, which the federal government classifies as a Schedule I drug.
"Remember to use psilocybin safely and responsibly," says Kevin Matthews, who led the campaign to get Initiative 301 passed by Denver voters. "And responsibly includes staying within the framework of 301, which does not include distribution and sales."
Milner declined to comment for this story. Jeff Dorschner, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado, says there's an "active and ongoing investigation" regarding Milner but declined to elaborate. Milner has not been charged or arrested.
Court records illustrate in riveting detail how DEA agents used news articles, social media and a public cannabis-industry employee database to track down Milner and find probable cause that he had violated federal laws regarding illegal drug dealing, conspiracy and money laundering.
On August 23, two and a half weeks before the DEA raided Milner's apartment, investigators with the federal agency's office in Denver learned about a Denver Post article titled, "Spores of psychedelic mushroom industry are sprouting in Denver after decriminalization."
The article, published that day, "focused mainly on an unidentified male subject who is a self-proclaimed cultivator and distributor of mushrooms," according to court records.
In the article, the male subject was quoted as saying that he distributes to about twenty people and earns approximately $2,000 a month from selling mushrooms.
The Post also included a video showing the "process of cultivating and manufacturing illegal psilocybin mushrooms occurring in the male's residence." The video points out that the "male subject has been growing mushrooms in his apartment for a little over a year."
The DEA agents then began searching for other news articles about psychedelic mushroom sales in Denver. And there were quite a few.
National Public Radio published an article on May 7, 2019, the day Denver residents decriminalized mushrooms.
The NPR piece focuses on an "unidentified male known as 'Douglas,' who investigators now believe to be Milner," according to an affidavit submitted in federal court as part of the application the DEA submitted for its search warrant.
DEA investigators noticed similarities between the NPR and Denver Post articles. Some of the quotes mirrored each other. The man in photographs in the NPR article looked similar to the person depicted in the Denver Post video.
In the NPR photographs, "Douglas" was also wearing a shirt with a logo for Happy Fox Edibles. The logo included a cartoon of a fox.
DEA investigators then found an article from a news outlet called Harvest Public Media, which had a photograph with a man wearing the same shirt.
Agents also discovered a Westword article published on May 15 titled "Psilocybin Dealer on Life After Decriminalization." This piece focused on a mushroom dealer who went by the name Douglas. In the article, Douglas said that he uses electronic transactions to avoid the threat of law enforcement prosecution.
Douglas also said that he works in the cannabis industry. Both of these details would turn out to be damning admissions.
Around the time of decriminalization, VICE News published a video story featuring a mushroom dealer named Douglas. In the video, Douglas is seen wearing the Happy Fox Edibles T-shirt.
DEA investigators turned to Instagram and located the page of a person named Dillon Wheaton, the artist who designed the Happy Fox Edibles logo.
The feds then easily found Milner. The Colorado Department of Revenue maintains a public database of all employees in the cannabis industry in the state. DEA agents used the search tool for this database and plugged in the middle name "Douglas," since they knew that the person profiled in the articles worked in the cannabis industry.
One of the hits that came up in the search was for Kole Douglas Milner. Investigators then looked for him on Facebook and discovered pictures of a white male that more or less matched the physical description of the Douglas depicted in the articles. Investigators noted that the Facebook profile contained "several posts in support of the decriminalization of psilocybin mushrooms."
A video that Milner posted to Facebook in March shows an apartment that looks similar to the one in the Denver Post video.
Investigators searched for Milner on Instagram. In an August 3 post, Milner had uploaded a picture of two framed pieces of art on his wall. The top frame shows the Happy Fox Edibles logo, and the bottom frame shows a design for the shirt Douglas was wearing in the earlier photos and video.
Investigators also located a photograph of Milner and other people that Kevin Matthews, the head of the decriminalization initiative, posted on Facebook in August. In the photo, Milner is wearing the Happy Fox Edibles shirt. The DEA then subpoenaed Venmo and discovered that the phone number listed for Milner's Venmo account matched Milner's actual number. Publicly accessible transactions show one between Milner's account and an account for Wheaton, the designer of the Happy Fox logo.
In its affidavit, the DEA included screenshots of publicly accessible Venmo transactions between Milner's accounts and others. One person who paid Milner included emojis of mushrooms, while another person simply wrote "Magic."
The affidavit also documents Milner's social-media posts about his cryptocurrency holdings, which the DEA agents noted can be used by people who deal drugs as a way to conceal the source of the funds.
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The DEA didn't just limit its investigating of Milner to the Internet. Investigators staked him out in person.
On August 26 and September 4, Samuel Glynn, a local DEA agent, investigated the area surrounding Milner's residence to gather more intel about him and his apartment and positively identify him.
At one point, Glynn even walked into Milner's apartment building and went up to Milner's floor. "As I passed in the hallway, the male subject looked at me. At this point, I was able to positively identify the male as Milner based on various social media pictures and a DMV photograph. Milner then entered the subject premises and immediately locked the door," Glynn wrote in the affidavit.
A few days later, when Milner unlocked his door to head to work in the morning, he was greeted by DEA agents waiting outside to search his apartment.