Crime

Denver Police Tracked Mushroom Dealer Kole Milner Before Feds Did

Both the DEA and Denver police were tailing Kole Milner, left.
Both the DEA and Denver police were tailing Kole Milner, left. DEA
On February 1, a federal judge sentenced Denver mushroom dealer Kole Milner to three years' probation, bringing to a close the highest-profile psychedelic mushroom case in Denver since the city's voters decriminalized the natural substance in May 2019.

But while Denver voters decriminalized possession of psilocybin by approving the ordinance, they didn't decriminalize dealing — and their vote didn't restrict federal actions at all.

The case against Milner, based on an investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and then prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado, started with evidence gathered through local and national media pieces about an anonymous Denver mushroom dealer. But not that anonymous: DEA agents happened on the articles and videos in August 2019 and were able to track Milner down through clues supplied by Milner himself.

As it turns out, the feds weren't the only ones on to Milner. According to a Denver Police Department document obtained by Westword, the DPD had been tracking him since February 2019, after the department received a report from a tipster.

The DPD document, essentially a summary of an investigation, reveals that on February 2, 2019, officers with the DPD Vice Unit received a packet through the mail that contained a note stating that someone named "Kole Milner" was growing psychedelic mushrooms in his apartment. The packet also included "photos of the grow at various stages," and pointed out that Milner worked at a local cannabis business.

Someone had ratted on Milner.

In the document, which is heavily redacted, the DPD notes that the tipster had not provided a return address or a way to contact "him."

After receiving the tip, Officer Christopher Lavin began researching Kole Milner, and confirmed that someone  with that name was licensed to work in the cannabis industry.

In March 2019, the department summary continues, Lavin located Milner on Facebook, and noticed that in his profile, Milner identified as a member of Decriminalize Denver, the campaign formed to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms in the city. At that point, another Denver police officer sent Milner a friend request, presumably through a fake account — though that's difficult to determine because the document has so many redactions.

After Milner accepted the friend request, a DPD officer began to correspond with him. Over the next few weeks, the two talked about mushrooms and decriminalization, establishing a "rapport," according to the police document.

Then on May 23, 2019, just a few weeks after Denver voters approved decriminalizing the personal possession, use and growth of psychedelic mushrooms, Milner agreed over Facebook Messenger to sell psychedelic mushrooms to a "friend" of his Facebook friend. That "friend" turned out to be an undercover detective.

According to the document, the undercover detective drove to Milner's south Denver apartment building that evening to purchase mushrooms. Milner entered the car, and then sold an ounce of psychedelic mushrooms to the undercover cop for $180. During the sale, Milner highlighted the fact that he packaged his mushrooms in black bags that looked like THC bags and even branded them with a cartoon fox. Milner also shared that he  was growing mushrooms inside his apartment and was in the process of getting more equipment to grow in greater quantity.

A week later, the undercover detective reached out to Milner to buy more mushrooms, according to the investigation summary. However, Milner said he was out of stock and referred the would-be buyer to another dealer.

Through that referral, undercover Denver Police Detective Jessica DelaRow began buying mushrooms from the other dealer. The DPD eventually busted the young man, who ended up pleading guilty to a single felony drug charge and receiving a deferred judgment, so the felony charge will be wiped off his record as long as he successfully completes eighteen months of probation. (Westword spoke with this dealer, too, but after he'd pleaded guilty.)

DPD spokesperson Doug Schepman would not confirm that DelaRow was one of the officers on Milner's case. "Given that the involved detectives frequently work in an undercover capacity, for their safety we do not want to identify them," he notes.

The DPD never finished building its case against Milner. Soon the DEA was pulling together its own investigation of the mushroom dealer, inspired by news articles in which he told reporters that he worked in the cannabis industry. During interviews, his face was obscured, but he was wearing a shirt with a cartoon fox logo. It didn't take long for the DEA to identify him.

"You could say it was happenstance or you could say it was somebody who was very careless," Steve Kotecki, a local DEA spokesperson, says of Milner attracting the attention of two separate law enforcement agencies at around the same time.

When the DPD learned that the DEA was looking into Milner, Schepman says, "we referred the findings of our investigation over to them for inclusion in their case."

The language of Denver's decriminalization ballot measure called for police to make targeting personal mushroom offenses a low priority; it also stipulated that local law enforcement agencies cannot use city funds to target and prosecute personal mushroom offenses.

And in Milner's case, the DPD didn't need to do more: The DEA was on the job.

On September 11, 2019, DEA agents raided Milner's apartment. They walked out with 906 live psychedelic mushrooms and 291.6 grams of dried psychedelic mushrooms; they also found black bags with the cartoon fox logo on them.

In July 2020, federal prosecutors charged Milner with one count of possession with intent to distribute psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms that is classified as a Schedule I substance by the federal government.

In September, Milner, facing a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison, pleaded guilty to the single count. And on February 1, Judge R. Brooke Jackson of the U.S. District Court of Colorado sentenced Milner to three years of probation and a $5,500 fine, going against the request of federal prosecutors that Milner be given six months in prison.

"I don’t think putting this guy in prison for six months is going to accomplish much in terms of deterrence, or that it will benefit the community in terms of safety, or that it will provide any kind of benefit for the defendant," Judge Jackson said at the sentencing hearing. "I don’t see this guy being in prison."

After his sentencing, Westword reached out to Milner for comment; he asked for money in exchange, a request Westword denied. Milner then said this: "Comment is: Fuck the Westword magazine."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.