On June 21, Smith, who'd worked security at Live Nation before getting furloughed last year, was at The Matchbox, at 2625 Larimer Street, attending one of the bar’s long-running Taking Back Monday punk/emo nights. Live Nation talent buyer and Black Sheep owner Geoff Brent, who has deejayed the event for the past four years, was spinning music.
Mondays at Matchbox are usually insanely busy with people, Brent says, and most in the crowd are friends. When new people show up, they're usually welcomed and brought into the community. “It's totally kind of like a big social scene,” he notes.
On this night, everybody was having a good time in a safe space — until there was a fight at the bar. A man, a stranger to the group, allegedly punched a woman in the face, giving her a black eye.
“A lot of people were just like, ‘You need to leave,’" says Smith, who didn't witness that incident. “This is not just a bar. It’s a community.”
The venue kicked the man out. But near closing time, he returned and started a fight. According to a Denver Police Department incident report, the man, Asenai Zigita, then drew his handgun and shot Smith in the leg and shoulder.
Smith, who says it will take six to eight weeks for him to recover from his injuries, remembers meeting Zigita near the beginning of the night. Zigita had introduced himself and asked if Smith’s friend was a Black Panther. Smith told Zigita politely that his friend was not a Black Panther, but more of a cosplayer.
Zigita started waxing on about “keeping African-Americans armed."
"I told him that I don't really want to have weapons on me anymore," recalls Smith. "It makes me uncomfortable. But I could definitely teach a weapon-safety class. I'm not afraid to go to a shooting range, but keeping weapons on me at all times, I don't want to do that anymore.”
Around the time that Smith met Zigita, he noticed the woman with a black eye. “One of my friends told me to go give her a hug and talk to her,” Smith recalls. “That lady actually ended up saving my life later. She was an EMT.”
After Zigita was given the boot, he continued hanging around outside the bar, Smith remembers. When Zigata finally left on his motorcycle, Smith went back inside to hang out with his friends. But later, Zigata tried to get back inside the bar, arguing he had been wronged by the people who told him to leave.
“I had already talked to my friends and told them that we might need some backup,” Smith says. “This guy might be dangerous.”
Zigita refused to leave. “He just wouldn't stop,” Smith says. "When you kick somebody out of a bar, they usually just go home or stay around the area, but they’ll leave everyone alone. But this guy would not stop trying to get himself back in the bar.”
Smith, who currently works at Tammen’s Fish Market in the Denver Central Market next door to the Matchbox, says post-lockdown, people in the area aren’t “taking no for an answer like they normally would. Everybody's manners and their social skills are a little bit off. People need to realize that they're not acting the same as they used to. People aren't the same people anymore. COVID has changed people a lot.”
Smith told Zigita that no one would touch him if he would just leave.
“I told him, ‘You can’t threaten my friends like that,’” Smith says. "'You just leave. I’ll escort you to your motorcycle.' I told him that no one would touch him like four or five, maybe six times. I told him that I would take him down the street and told him nobody would touch him. We just wanted him to leave.”
Then Zigita started slinging racial obscenities at Smith, he says, spit at him a few times and put out a cigarette on his own face.
“I told a lot of my other friends whom I’ve known for a long time to get back,” Smith recalls, afraid of what Zigita would do next. “Eventually, people started surrounding him. He hit someone. And all I remember is I tackled him down to the ground. I don’t even remember how aware I was of the weapon at the time. But I knew that he had one. So I started walking across the street.”
Then Smith heard gunshots.
“As a vet who's been around Larimer Street a lot, I knew that I needed to get out of the way,” Smith says. “And then I fell down to the ground and realized that I was bleeding.”
The woman he’d hugged before, the EMT, came to help him. “I feel like that's one of the only reasons I'm alive,” Smith says, “Other than the great God and Denver Health.”
Billy Dietz, a friend of Smith who’s been going to Taking Back Monday for the past five years and is an alternate DJ, was standing with several of his friends inside the Matachbox when he heard the gunshots. “I just threw them in the bathroom and locked the door and got on the ground,” he remembers.
“He’s a hero in his own right, to tell you the truth,” Smith says.
A longtime bartender at the Live Nation-owned Marquis Theater, about seven blocks south of the Matchbox on Larimer Street, Dietz has heard his share of gunshots in the area. But Taking Back Monday nights at the Matchbox have always felt like a safe space “where we don't have to worry about this kind of stuff," he says. "That's why it's so out of the ordinary that this happened there on that night. Taking Back Monday, specifically at Matchbox, has always been a very positive thing.”
The DPD report states that following the shooting, Zigita "was observed putting the handgun back into his waistband by a witness. After the gun was back in his waistband, the witness took Mr. Zigita to the ground and was able to remove the gun from his waistband and secure it. Mr. Zigita was held down by witnesses until police arrived and placed him in custody without further incident."
Zigita has been charged with criminal attempt to commit murder in the first degree and with assault in the first degree.
"As much of a tragedy as it was, I was very proud of our staff and our patrons for literally doing everything they possibly could to mitigate the situation," says Matchbox co-owner Sudhir Kudva. "Our patron subdued him, and then our bartender got the gun away and kicked it away."
Had they not intervened, Kudva fears that people could have died.
Smith's friends launched a GoFundMe page, which has raised over $24,000 so far, to help pay for his medical costs. Kudva says that the Matchbox and Live Nation will host fundraisers for Smith; Scruffy Murphy's recently held a benefit, as well. Smith is a "universally well-liked person, and not an antagonist," Kudva adds.
Since working various security jobs after his stint in the Marines ended nearly three years ago, Smith has been looking to get into a safer line of work, perhaps graphic design. “I've worked at Vinyl and Milk Bar,” he says. “I've seen a lot of different stuff happening on, so it’s not my first rodeo in that respect at all. But this is the first time something's happened to me, so it’s definitely a little traumatic.”
Smith wants people to look out for their friends and “stay as safe as possible these days, because this is not how Denver is supposed to be," he says. "We're supposed to be looking out for each other.”
To make a donation, go to Branden Smith's GoFundMe.