Citizen journalist Dean Schiller found himself in the national spotlight this week after he captured the first video of the March 22 Boulder King Soopers shooting. His livestream, which showed three of the ten victims before Schiller took cover because the gunman was firing at him, was widely shared around the world even as local TV stations avoided using it as confirmation of the unfolding tragedy.
The story behind the video only adds to the impact of the astonishing images that Schiller captured. Turns out he'd gone to the supermarket with twenty-year-old Denny Stong, who was murdered during the incident; the pair had just returned from going shooting together. Stong had dropped off his firearm only moments earlier.
"If I'd had a gun, maybe I would have kept going in," Schiller says. "But armed with a camera and having shots fired directly towards me, I couldn't go any further. I couldn't justify running into that store, but from that moment on, all I thought about was, 'Where's Denny? When's he coming out?' I was looking for him, waiting for him, but I never saw him again."
According to Schiller, "I've been friends with Denny's dad and his family for a long time. I've lived with them on occasion."
Stong "loved to shoot guns," he continues. "He'd just turned twenty, and he was upset he hadn't turned 21, because he wanted to get a concealed-carry permit so he could carry a firearm. He collected antique guns, and he liked to go shooting at targets. But he was also training to be a commercial airline pilot. He was in the certification program at Boulder airport. He loved to fly airplanes and fly drones; he and his dad built them together and would fly them together. He was super smart."
That morning, Schiller and Stong "had been hanging out," he recalls. "We went for a hike, and then we went to a little target range I know of and did some shooting. Then we came back down and unloaded the guns back at the house, because we were going to get lunch at the grocery store." It was a natural destination, Schiller adds, given that "both Denny and his mom work at King Soopers."
As one of the principals behind ZFG Videography, a YouTube channel that champions law enforcement accountability, Schiller has recorded many police interactions. He and his partner, Jedon Kerr, sued the City of Boulder in 2019 after they were arrested and detained for taking video of Boulder County Jail on a public sidewalk; the complaint is still pending.
Still, Schiller stresses that on March 22, "I wasn't following the police, like I sometimes do with my videos. I was just shopping at the store. I bought my stuff and went to the car while Denny was checking out. I'd been sitting in it for not more than ten seconds when I heard the shots go off." Some passersby initially mistook the noises for a backfiring car or something else benign, but given his familiarity with firearms, Schiller instantly knew what was happening: "My immediate reaction is, 'This is gunfire.'"
The time was approximately 2:30 p.m. Schiller bolted from the car and raced toward the store while opening up the livestream. At the entrance, his camera revealed one body just inside the store and two outside. When a woman approached a victim on the pavement, Schiller warned her away while yelling for someone to call 911 as he ran toward the parking lot.
Afterward, some online critics chastised Schiller for continuing to record video rather than rendering aid, but he says he knew all three of the victims he saw were beyond help, and because he was taking live fire and was unarmed, he didn't feel he had an alternative. "I knew that my life was in danger, and I didn't feel it was worth the risk to myself and others, which is why I told other people to get back," he says. "I don't know if I saved lives, but I might have."
Over the course of the hours that followed, Schiller kept streaming. Along the way, the Boulder Police Department tweeted, "Do NOT broadcast on social media any tactical information you might see" — a message almost certainly directed at him. But he had no idea about that at the time.
"I wasn't watching my tweet feeds," he says. "I was hardly paying attention to the chat in the stream, either. But I can see their perspective on that. There may have been a point where they wanted to hide their position and things like that."
Still, there's no evidence that Schiller's stream aided the gunman in any way — and the video documented a delay in police response after Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley, following procedures adapted after the flawed response to the 1999 Columbine High School attack, raced into the store and was fatally shot by the gunman.
"He was the hero," Schiller stresses. "He was the one who did what he was supposed to do — and then his friends turned and ran out the door when he got hurt."
The dispatch recording timeline documents an "officer down" call at 2:38 p.m., and it took until 3:19 p.m. for a phalanx of SWAT team members to make re-entry, as one speaker said: "Start pushing slow, but be advised: We do not know where he is." The elapsed time was just over forty minutes, but Schiller says that "it seemed like an eternity. I could just imagine all those people laying on the floor, not getting any medical attention. My anxiety level was going up just watching them standing around and waiting."
A short time later, the gunman was led out of the store in handcuffs. "My gut feeling was that was it — he was the guy," Schiller recalls. "Because after that, I saw one older gentleman come out, and then a file of other people coming out. That gave me an indication those people inside knew the threat was over, and they felt confident coming out. But I did accept the possibility there might be another shooter, and I was allowing the cops to do their thing and stayed in place until they forcibly removed me."
After the shooter was removed, officers "did a car-to-car search in the parking lot," Schiller continues. "It's my understanding that they thought a man was lying down inside of a red Suburban, and they boxed the Suburban in and ordered the man to get out — and from what I heard, it turned out to be a dog, not a human. When they got to me, they asked me to leave, and I understand that was an appropriate action, because I was in the parking lot — but I wish they could have been a little nicer. They didn't arrest me and they haven't charged me with anything, though, and so other than them getting a little pushy and a little mouthy, I don't have any hard feelings about it, and I hope they don't."
Over the course of the afternoon, Schiller was interviewed twice by local TV journalists; he spoke briefly to Fox31 and for a longer stretch with CBS4. (He also conversed with Inside Edition.) But he didn't know the Denver stations refrained from confirming any casualties until after 5 p.m. — and learning that made him even more certain he made the right choice to livestream. "I'm glad I did what I did," he says. "A lot of people appreciate having that kind of transparency — being able to see things and not having them be censored. They don't want things to happen behind closed doors. This is public information that everyone has a right to."
The revelation of the ten casualties has led to another debate about whether assault weapons should be banned on a statewide or national basis; Boulder's local ordinance had been tossed out by a district court judge ten days before the shooting. Despite everything he saw that day, Schiller isn't jumping on the bandwagon. "If you ban anything, the only people who abide by that rule are the law-abiding citizens — so why take guns away from the good guys?" he asks. "We need more guns in the hands of good people, and when you make them illegal, only the criminals have the guns after that. People already have access to them, so if you make them illegal, you're not going to get rid of them."
For his part, Schiller is understandably less concerned about political controversies than he is with mourning the friend who didn't make it. "Denny was so smart, with such potential," he remembers. "He had such a huge life ahead of him, and it was just stopped short."
Click to view Schiller's livestream. (Warning: Its contents may disturb some readers.)
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