Was SWAT Raid on Burning Man Home a Drug Bust or Assault on Alternative Living?

Photo by Mauricio Rocha
Jesse Taenzer and Aspen Walkingstick at Pair O' Dimes in late April.
The sounds of banging and breaking glass reverberated through the house as police busted through the front door at 5:45 a.m. on May 11. The next thing Aspen Walkingstick knew, she was being rousted out of bed and made to stand naked in front of a pair of SWAT-like officers from the Denver Police Department who were pointing assault rifles at her.

The 24-year-old was thrown random articles of clothing by the officers, who watched her dress, she recalls. Then Walkingstick and the five other people who were living in the multi-story home in the Hale neighborhood were escorted to the kitchen, where they were asked to sit around a table as police searched the rest of the home for drugs and weapons.

What Walkingstick didn’t know at the time of the raid was that the DPD had been investigating the home as a location for drug deals, including some police-monitored drug buys. Since February 2018 on at least three occasions, DPD Detective Brett Starnes had worked with a confidential informant who bought various quantities of LSD, psilocybin (mushrooms) and molly (MDMA) from Walkingstick’s partner and cohabitant, Jesse Taenzer.

According to a search warrant affidavit, Taezner was the sole target of the early-morning raid, but five of the six inhabitants of the household ended up being arrested that day. Taenzer remains the most seriously charged of the five, though Walkingstick also finds herself a defendant in a felony drug-possession case: Police say they found hallucinogens and narcotics in a backpack that belongs to her.

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Attorney for the defense Jason Flores-Williams.
Chris Walker
But the lawyer defending Walkingstick wonders if the case is more than just a drug bust, and instead an example of discrimination against alternative communities.

Attorney Jason Flores-Williams ("The Gonzo Lawyer Suing Denver Over Homeless Sweeps," December 2016) maintains that Walkingstick was unfairly targeted during an overly broad assault by Denver police on an alternative-living community that bonded around festivals such as Burning Man and Sonic Bloom and focused on intentional living.

“The fact that we don't immediately see a raid and prosecution of people trying to live differently from American mainstream society as an act of political repression is a commentary on how much control there is today,” Flores-Williams says.

He is also making that argument in court. On Friday, October 26, Flores-Williams argued a motion to suppress drug evidence that prosecutors from the Denver District Attorney’s Office are using to charge Walkingstick with. Beyond the lawyer's legal assertion that police did not have probable cause to search Walkingstick’s pink-colored backpack, Flores-Williams's argument before Judge Michael Vallejos on October 26 echoed much of what he had written in a motion:

The [confidential informant] knew the people at [the household] from music festivals and other conscious events associated with what the court might respectfully understand as the Burning Man community. People who share values: radical inclusion (welcoming all others), gifting, decommodification, self-reliance, civic responsibility, sustainability and zero environmental impact. Idealists trying to live a life in which the focus isn’t consumerism, money and greed.

The [confidential informant] took advantage of their philosophy. He befriended co-defendant Jesse Taenzer and asked if he could get him psilocybin and LSD, hallucinogens that have been used by alternative cultures and religions for hundreds of years and that an increasing amount of western mental health professionals are using to treat trauma, PTSD and for end of life palliative care. The CI only dealt with Mr. Taenzer. As far as law enforcement knew and reported, Aspen did not exist until the morning of the raid.
After hearing the argument, Judge Vallejos decided on October 26 that he needed more time to decide the suppression motion before Walkingstick’s jury trial is scheduled to begin on December 17.

Following the hearing, Westword spoke with Walkingstick in the hallway of the courthouse, and she agreed with her lawyer’s characterization of the household’s inhabitants.

“’Burners’ or ‘hippies’ are fair descriptions,” she said.

Walkingstick helps Taenzer, the main defendant, run a fashion boutique on Welton Street, Pair O’ Dimes, that specializes in custom festival clothing and associated items such as gems, crystals and jewelry.

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Womenswear at Pair O' Dimes.
Photo by Mauricio Rocha
Given what happened during the police raid — which Flores-Williams claims was carried out by approximately thirty officers — Walkingstick is of the belief that the  DPD was assaulting her way of living, not just conducting a drug bust on one person.

"They came in like they thought we were a drug cartel," Walkingstick recalls. “Once they realized we were hippies and were docile, they were less aggressive towards us. But it didn't turn towards the better. They were aggressive in the sense that they said things that made you feel less than a person. If you don't align with the principles that your government wants to impose on you, then you're looked upon like you're a drain on society."

According to Walkingstick, after officers made her, Taenzer and four others sit in the kitchen, they joked about cutting down some of the intricate, hand-drawn murals depicting mythical creatures that hung about the house.

Later, when she returned to the home, she says that some of the customized clothing she and Taenzer were sewing together for sale at Pair O' Dimes was trashed, and various tapestries were taken off the walls and used to haul away $75,000 worth of energy crystals. “Those were my personal altars that I would go to every day," Walkingstick says. “They were really invaluable; each one had a story of how I found it, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get them back.”

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A mannequin/sculpture wearing artisan festival costuming sold at Pair O' Dimes.
Photo by Mauricio Rocha
After Walkingstick and her other housemates posted bond and returned to the home, their landlord evicted them. Tensions ran high over what had occurred.

"We went in as a family, and as we've come out, a lot of us have chosen sides," Walkingstick says. “The six of us had decided to live together in this beautiful home, and because of one negative storm, we're all jumping ship."

Westword reached out to both the Denver Police Department and the Denver District Attorney’s Office for more information on the raid and to respond to claims of property destruction; the agencies said they do not comment during ongoing court cases.

Flores-Williams was eager to comment. “It's important to see the Drug War as a form of political repression,” he says. “The only thing my client is guilty of is trying to live differently from American mainstream society. And I will defend that effort until my last breath.”

On November 6, Judge Vallejos denied Flores-Williams's motion to suppress some of the evidence. In a court filing, the judge noted that Flores-Williams had not refuted the validity of the police's search warrant, and Vallejos did not consider case law that Flores-Williams cited to support his claim that the DPD had no probable cause to search the pink backpack belonging to Walkingstick. As such, evidence obtained in the backpack is admissible at the jury trial slated for December.

Until then, Walkingstick's future remains uncertain. After the police raid, she wrote a poem to gather her thoughts. She shared it with Westword:

bang bang goes the glass
screaming and yelling
a whirlwind of confusion
thump thump up the stairs
guns aimed ready for action
She’s naked
laying in bed
fear is kicking in
rip tear rip
down comes my blanket of security
exposed. bare. blind.
staring down the barrels
exposed. naked. afraid.
told not to move for coverage.
two guns raised.
what is this?? what did i do??
can i have clothes?
can i have my glasses??
two male officers
clothes thrown at me.
two male officers
two male officers
my dignity taken away
my lover is shoved down
already injured
injured more by their aggression
my lover naked and exposed
my lover left blind
my lover demanding a warrant.
silence. anger. denial of rights.
plastic handcuffed so tight
fingers are numb
hands are turning pale
turning red
turning purple.
my lover's shoulder is dislocating.
no empathy
no remorse
you have no rights for demands.
denial of respect to the occupancy.
shoved into chairs.
still asking for warrant
”you have to wait for the detectives”
K9 dragging its owner
where are all the cats
are they ok
will this animal hurt my babies
denied my rights
denied my freedom
finally the man they call detective
my lover is in distress
shoulder is locking up
new handcuffs
questions fired from the man named detective
warrant asked for AGAIN
when will this end??
will it ever end??
police joking
“we should just get a dumpster”
“we should take some of this art”
they plan on trashing our home
not our home anymore
now just an empty shell of a home
dragged down the last flight of stairs
sat with my family
all handcuffed
all asking for the warrant
more jokes from the officers.
these are the people assigned to protect
protect themselves
humans are animals in their cage
my rights never read to me
carted off by myself
told i can speak with my lover
my life was in their hands
they have no care for me
my life in their hands
can’t even answer my questions
40 hours locked in a cell
40 hours of being someone else's pet
40 hours no knowledge of what’s happening
time moves fast and moves slow
war tactics
finally shuffled down to the judge
will my questions be answered
“you’re under an investigational hold”
“P.R. bond set to 5000 dollars.”
i’m a criminal without committing a crime
time stands still
locked away for my family again
locked away from those who love me
the calls i placed to reach out were denied
how can no one be told where i am
how is this ok
how am i going to be taken care of
how will anyone know where i am
finally they release me.
the battle isn’t over
my battle has just begun.
they took away my freedom
they took away my voice.
never again
they put a fire in my heart
i will fight for myself
i will fight for my freedom
i will fight for my voice.
never again
never again