Autumn of Angst

One day in mid-November, a San Francisco radio station called my office. "We hear Denver's overrun by skinheads," a reporter said. "Can we get a quote?"

How about: "Baloney."
On the last day of November, a cabbie heading downtown from DIA reported that the skinhead violence had spread to a local 7-Eleven, where a woman had been beaten on Thanksgiving. What did I think about that?

How about: "You want cheese with those nachos?"
Not since the supposed Summer of Violence, which broke out just as the Pope was scheduled to visit Denver, has the city suffered such a fast fall from grace. But now, after the trouble-free Summit and two Oklahoma City bombing trials that failed to attract the predicted patriot nutcases (the protest area in front of the courthouse has even been dismantled), Denver finally had given the national media something juicy to chew on--and on, and on. This good liberal city had spawned scads of young, tattooed racists. Our Rocky Mountain high had turned to Time's "Rocky Mountain Hate."

The most recent eruption was a kitchen spat in the pricey southeast Denver home where Matthaeus Jaehnig was raised by his mother and father, the founder of a school that was supposed to create superior children. Not content with carving up pumpkins, as Jaehnig once did when he created a jack-o'-lantern advertising the KKK, two female residents of the home (Attention, Denver officials: Isn't renting rooms in that neighborhood a violation of zoning?) started carving on each other. Fortunately, the women were armed with knives rather than the automatic Jaehnig was carrying a month ago when he slaughtered Denver police officer Bruce VanderJagt. If the catfight hadn't happened at the Jaehnig address, one TV report noted, it wouldn't have been newsworthy.

But if that address didn't exist, would Denver have suffered its autumn of angst?

It was just over a month ago that the media learned of a potential hostage situation in Jefferson County. Fresh from all that live coverage of the October blizzard, the TV stations sprang into action. A Channel 9 reporter held vigil outside the Jeffco home into the wee hours; his efforts paid off with a 5 a.m. call to the newsroom from one of the young men holed up inside with two young women. Soon the tattooed nitwits--whose theft of a pizza-delivery truck had set the whole fiasco in motion--were off and racing through metro Denver, with the cops and media in hot pursuit. The chase ended without incident--but with high ratings. It didn't hurt that one of the culprits had a young daughter named "Aryan" and said he was fighting for "my cause."

Just a few days later, on November 12, another bunch of white-wingers, with meth in their veins and guns in their car, were on the lam after a burglary up at a rooming house in Buffalo Creek. They sped back to town, finally ending up at a southeast Denver apartment complex, where Jaehnig blasted away Officer VanderJagt. And then Jaehnig, who'd been let off by a judge just six weeks before, killed himself.

The city hardly had a chance to mourn VanderJagt, the second officer to die in the line of duty this year. A pig with VanderJagt's name carved on it landed on the lawn of the local police station--inspiring a ludicrous barricade of school buses. On November 18 came the horrific shooting of Oumar Dia and Jean VanVelkinburgh--followed by Nathan Thill's chilling confession before a TV camera the next day. "I'm a deep thinker," Thill said, proving quite the opposite. "Walked through town with my gun in my waist, saw the black guy and thought he didn't belong where he was at." And then, two days later, there was another standoff after someone took a shot at a police officer in west Denver. Before the day was done, 200 cops were on the scene, ten schools had gone into lockdown, and the national press had shifted into overdrive. Denver was a city overrun by skinheads.

The community rallied, with leaders competing to see who could be more inclusive and hate-free. And not always successfully: At the November 25 "Hate Not Welcome Here" rally, a rabbi lashed out at those hateful local talk-show hosts; the Rocky Mountain News was already complaining to Mayor Wellington Webb about the Denver Post's "exclusive" non-inclusive deal to publish the rally's ridiculous no-hate symbol. But reality was already rearing its ugly head.

The "mobs" of skinheads were dwindling to a handful. Even though Thill had met Jaehnig while both were locked up this spring, jailers report that the two were hardly in cahoots. (Thill, in for an assault in an adult bookstore, got out early thanks to a clerical error.) And if the pig wasn't the work of Jaehnig's speed-demon cronies, that third standoff almost certainly was: Bullets point the finger at Steve Duprey, who'd been along for the ride during the Buffalo Creek burglary.

Then there's the story of Shomie Francis, who said she'd been beaten up by six skinheads after she stopped by 7-Eleven early Thanksgiving morning.

After initial reports, Francis kept to herself (and away from the DA's office), although she did manage to give a quote to Newsweek and zip to New York for a taping of a Geraldo Rivera show on racism. Fresh from the big time, she was back in Denver and at her lawyers' office last Thursday for her first press conference. It was another high-speed media chase to make the 1 p.m. start, scheduled just an hour after the NAACP held its own press conference to release "An Action Plan to Prevent Racially Motivated Hate Crimes," written by Anne Sulton, a lawyer and criminologist who's head of legal redress for the Denver NAACP but is better known as the attorney for Gil Webb Jr., who was responsible for the death of the first Denver police officer killed in the line of duty this year. In discussing Sulton's findings, Menola Upshaw, local NAACP president, said she was surprised by the high percentage of hate crimes whose perpetrators were unknown.

Enter Francis, the 26-year-old single mother of two. She'd gone to 7-Eleven after a party to "get me some nachos...I was over messing with the cheese, and I heard the word 'nigger.'" She turned and saw a white woman. She looked "different," and so did her male friends, who were in leather, with tattoos and body piercings. "I said, 'What are you, some skinhead or something?'" Francis remembered saying. Or something. The woman hit her, Francis said, and then her companions joined the fray. "It happened so fast," she said, "but the fight was forever."

The store's surveillance camera caught some of that fight on film. Francis's lawyers acknowledged that they knew about the camera but said they had yet to see the tape. Nor had they heard whether any of the "skinheads" Francis had identified that night would be charged. And yes, there was the possibility of civil litigation; they were lawyers, after all.

But on Tuesday, the Denver District Attorney's office--which was so quick to take action against Thill and against Lisl Auman, charged with the first-degree murder of VanderJagt--announced that "no criminal charges were fileable." Not against the six people originally hauled in, and not against Shomie Francis, "who was initially postured as the victim in this incident." In deciding not to file charges, the DA's office had relied on interviews and the store's tape--which showed a decidedly different version of events.

"I know I was the victim," Francis concluded at the end of her time in the spotlight, "but I can't deal with my own feelings. I'm never going to be able to heal until the truth comes out."

Nor can this city.
And the truth is that our autumn of angst was caused by a bunch of unorganized weaklings made strong with guns, fueled by speed and hype, going nowhere fast.