In January, attorney Craig Silverman filed a motion to dismiss an indecent-exposure charge related to the September 2018 arrest of United Airlines Captain Andrew Collins, who was accused of "knowingly and willfully" standing in front of his window in a room at the Denver International Airport Westin Hotel, "exposing himself and his genitalia to the general public."
After the story of his arrest belatedly went public thanks to a Denver Post piece published in November, it spurred what for Collins were embarrassing headlines across the globe.
The original claim, based in part on Denver Police Department body-camera video shared below, alleged "outrageous governmental misconduct." But Silverman argued that Collins, a veteran pilot in his third decade with United and the father of three grown sons who serve in the United States Air Force, had simply been walking around his room while talking on the phone and had no idea that anyone could see him. He was arrested anyway, even though claims that he'd committed lewd acts fell apart within minutes.
Last week, the Denver District Attorney's Office dropped the charge against Collins, and on March 15, delivered a notice of claim in the matter — a required predicate to a potential lawsuit. Addressed to Denver Manager of Safety Troy Riggs and Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson, the letter that introduces the document states in part that "the precise amount of damages cannot be currently calculated, but Andrew Collins suffered trauma and economic damages that would justify an award of more than a million dollars."
According to Silverman, Collins is "a great guy and did nothing wrong. It's not a crime to be naked in your hotel room in Denver."
Adds Collins, who was suspended by United shortly after his bust and has yet to be reinstated, "For me not to be able to do what I love to do and trained to do for so many years has been hard. It's been like living in purgatory."
As Silverman tells the story: "There were thunderstorms on September 19, so the flight Andy was piloting was diverted to Colorado Springs. The people in Denver waiting for the next flight had a different pilot take over, and Andy was transported to Denver at night and United put him up in the DIA Westin, where he was assigned room 1017."
This was Collins's first stay at the airport hotel. "Usually they send him to hotels further down Peña [Boulevard] or downtown," Silverman points out. "But they sent him to the Westin because he was going to deadhead to Council Bluffs, Iowa, the next day, and this way, he would have a chance to get some sleep."
The next morning, he continues, Collins "opened the curtains to let in some light and watch the planes take off. He was going to take a shower when he got a call from another pilot, who talked to him about the election." At the time, Collins was a candidate to lead the United Airlines pilot union, which Silverman characterizes as "a prestigious and lucrative position."
Collins "was really absorbed in the phone call, and he had no idea that people inside the terminal were looking at him," Silverman states. "He had no way of realizing it. And then, all of a sudden, there's banging on the door and it's the Denver police.
"Rather than giving him a chance to do anything, they immediately handcuffed him," Silverman says. "Now, the police can avoid a warrant if they have exigent circumstances, like if someone had been beating up someone else in the room. But the only allegation, as it turned out, was that there was a naked man in the window. Somehow the police got it in their minds that there may have been some masturbation, but while they were hauling him out of the room, the sergeant got a call from other police officers, who said there was no evidence of masturbation. But they said, 'We'll figure that out later,' and off to jail they went for two days and two nights of a horrible experience before Andy could be bonded out and see a judge."
Here's video from the incident, captured by the body camera of Officer Karl Coleman, who went to the room with Sergeant Kimberly Pfannkuch. By the way, a 2007 Denver Post story reports that Coleman was the subject of at least fifty investigations between January 1997, when he joined the department, and September 2006, and 21 violations were sustained. He also earned a suspension without pay after pleading guilty to drunk driving following a 2002 crash.
According to Silverman, at a hearing last week, "Coleman claimed under oath that he entered room 1017 because he had the consent of Captain Collins. But if you watch the video, you can hear Officer Coleman loudly command, 'Sir, we are coming in with or without your permission, so open the door.' Now, 'consent' is a pretty common term for laypeople to understand — and lawful consent is knowing and voluntary, without coercion or threat. The officer could have just knocked on the door and said, 'Sir, some people are seeing you in the window,' and then monitor it with people on the plaza to see if the activity would stop. But both these officers testified that they thought being naked in a window constituted a crime of indecent exposure. And they were way wrong."
As such, Silverman maintains, "the prosecutors realized that the case had a whole bunch of problems. After all, before the hearing began, the prosecutors stipulated that nobody saw any evidence of masturbation or sexual stimulation of any kind, and that the distance was so great that they were not going to ask any witness to make an identification of my client."
The Denver DA's office subsequently moved to dismiss the charge, much to Collins's relief. "It was a great day for me and my family," he says. "It was a lot better than two days earlier or, for that matter, six months ago."
Collins stresses that "my attorney, my family and me, we didn't want any publicity for this, and we didn't have any for probably two months into the process. But then somebody contacted somebody and it ended up in the Denver Post. Because of the fascination with airlines and such, I suppose, it quickly became an international news story. And that was difficult, to say the least."
For one thing, Collins was suspended from flying and had to drop out of the race to head the pilots' union. "Unfortunately, union politics are probably not much different from national or state politics," he allows. "It can be a pretty rough road. My credibility was questioned. I had been unjustly arrested and had a mug shot taken. When this happened, it was only three weeks before the election, and somebody paid to get a copy of the mug shot and passed it around at an election meeting, most likely to ensure that I wouldn't be a viable candidate. So I felt I had no other choice, after working so hard, than to pull my candidacy."
This was distressing enough — but the effect the media attention had on Collins's family was even more devastating, he reveals: "Two of my boys were at the same Air Force base out in West Virginia, and they had to deal with jokes from people who outrank them and questions about their father. 'What was he doing naked? Does he do this often?' — those types of things."
In addition, he says, "my wife, who is a thirty-year flight attendant for United Airlines, was subject to all of those sorts of issues when she went to work. The flight attendants fly with the pilots, and it was a well-known story. She had to deal with a lot of comments from people."
Moreover, he confirms, "I'm still suspended. I think the union is working with them for my return, but I'm not sure where they are in the process, so I can't really talk about it. But it's hard to say how things would have panned out without all the media. It wasn't until the media got the story that United was forced to make a statement about this."
For his part, Silverman is still mulling over the possibility of filing a lawsuit against Denver and, perhaps, the Westin, for not tinting the windows of room 1017. Silverman actually stayed in the room after being hired by Collins, and says that at certain times of the morning, the sunlight hitting the window gives the illusion of privacy even as it exposes the room's occupants to the possibility of being seen by people in the terminal, as his client was. However, he divulges, "We are most concerned about [the hotel's] employees so blithely assisting DPD’s violation of its customer’s constitutional rights."
Because of the city's response, Silverman contends, "Andy Collins went from being a highly respected United Airlines pilot with decades of experience to the guy who was naked in his room at the DIA Westin. It's been humiliating and disturbing for him. But thank goodness the criminal case is over and he can get on with his life."
"I certainly feel like I've been harmed in this process," Collins says. "But now, all I want to do is get back to normal — to get on an airplane and do my job. I'm good at my job. I've been at United for 22 years and have been flying for commercial airlines for 26 years. It's all I've ever wanted to do."
In response to an inquiry from Westword regarding the case, Kelli Christiansen, communications director for Denver's Department of Safety, emailed this response: "As you know, we do not comment on pending legal matters."
Update at 8:30 a.m. March 19: This post has been updated to include a statement by the communications director for Denver's Department of Safety and additional information about Officer Karl Coleman.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.