It was the kind of story that defined the term "viral" before global news was dominated by reports about an actual virus: A United Airlines pilot had been busted for allegedly dancing naked near the window of his hotel room at the DIA Westin, in full sight of passengers watching slack-jawed from the Denver International Airport terminal ten floors below.
The 2018 incident made headlines across the planet, much to the displeasure of Andrew Collins, the pilot in question, and his legal representative, Craig Silverman, a former chief deputy district attorney in Denver and a well-known radio personality who subsequently found himself in the center ring of his own media circus after being yanked off the air amid a bashing session aimed at President Donald Trump (see sidebar).
"We would have been glad to go through the case with no publicity," Silverman says of Collins. "But it had a lot of elements that not only interested people in Colorado, but throughout the world."
Of course, many of these components were, in Collins's blunt phrase, "total bullshit," including the claims about dancing. In truth, he'd briefly interrupted his plans for a shower to engage in an animated phone call about his ongoing campaign for president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) — a bid he was forced to abandon because of later developments — and had no idea that anyone could see that he had already disrobed until Denver police officers burst into his room and fitted him with a pair of handcuffs.
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With Silverman's assistance, Collins successfully argued that he'd done nothing wrong — an indecent-exposure charge against him was eventually dropped — and then threatened to sue the City of Denver over how the cops had handled the entire situation. Last November, Denver officials blinked, agreeing to pay Collins a $300,000 settlement to prevent the matter from going to court.
Silverman and Collins were hoping that the DIA Westin would pony up for its role in the fiasco, too. But negotiations failed to bear fruit, and on April 17, they filed a complaint against the hotel, alleging, among other things, that its employees had cooperated in violating Collins's constitutional rights.
Representatives of Marriott International, parent company of the DIA Westin, declined to comment on the case. But Collins and Silverman were more than willing to share new details about what went down before and after the pilot's unhappy encounter with Denver cops, even suggesting that opponents in the ALPA contest were responsible for the episode exploding into an international phenomenon of the most bizarre kind.
Collins would never have started his trek through the legal system if not for thunderstorms on the evening of September 19, 2018, which forced the experienced pilot — he'd been with United for 25 years at that point — to divert his flight to Colorado Springs. He was assigned to a layover at the DIA Westin in advance of a jaunt to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, slated for the next afternoon.
When he was booked into room 1017 at the Westin, it was dark, and upon awakening the next morning, he took a quick look around and concluded that the window facing north toward DIA's terminal was tinted. "I've stayed in over 2,000 hotel rooms," he points out, and this window resembled ones at operations in San Francisco and Maui, as well as "the Trump hotel we stayed at for a long time in Las Vegas. They have this type of security glass that protects you, so people outside can't see you, but you can see out."
So Collins opened the curtains to let in the sun — and on his way to the shower, he made a call, during which he paced around the room using a hands-free, Bluetooth-enabled device. He was still making calls when, around 11 a.m., there was a hammering on the door to the hotel room: Denver Police Officer Karl Coleman announced that he and other law enforcement agents with him, including DPD Sergeant Kim Pfannkuch, would be entering with or without Collins's permission.
Shortly thereafter, Silverman explains, "these officers went into the hotel room without a warrant and without probable cause, and immediately took physical control of Andy. They handcuffed him, they accused him of all sorts of things that he didn't do, and he was in jail for days before he was able to be released."
Collins never got to take his shower.
Jill Collins, Andrew's wife, eventually got in touch with Silverman, who headed to the Denver jail in advance of the pilot's first court appearance. What happened next "was quite a shock to me," Collins concedes, even in the context of an already startling situation.
"I was in the middle of my more than two days in jail," he recounts. "They took me out of my cell-block area — shackled and handcuffed and in my prison wear. I didn't know where I was going, but I found out there's a tunnel that takes you from the jail to the courthouse, and that's where I first met Craig. My wife was there, along with a friend, another United captain who lives in Denver, and Craig said, 'There's a guy in the courtroom who's possibly going to try to take pictures of you.' And when I found out it was my political nemesis, I said, 'I can guarantee that's what he's doing.'"
The presidency of the union "is a big deal," Silverman emphasizes. "It pays a lot of money and offers a lot of perks. If you're the president, you're really at the top of your profession."
Knowing the stakes involved, Silverman mentioned the possibility of an intrusive shutterbug to the judge, who made it clear that no photos would be allowed in the courtroom. But still, Collins recalls, "when I walked in there, shackled and handcuffed, and see this dipshit sitting there, I just couldn't believe it. He was going to try to get pictures of me to embarrass me and my family — which shows you that union politics are a lot like national politics."
Those hoping to undermine Collins's candidacy didn't stop there. Before a subsequent meeting of ALPA's board of directors, "somebody paid to have my mug shot downloaded and was passing it around," he says. "So I knew it was over. I had no choice other than to step aside."
About two months later, in mid-November Collins was contacted by a Denver Post reporter who said he'd received a tip about the incident that had led to his incarceration. The resulting article triggered an avalanche of coverage from coast to coast, and Collins still bears the bruises.
"It's something he has to discuss constantly," Silverman emphasizes. "It's easier to talk about now that he has some results showing the wrongdoing on the part of the Denver police. But he was charged with a crime, a serious crime; indecent exposure not only can put you in jail, but it lands you on a sex-offender registry. And Andy Collins is the furthest thing from a sex offender you'll ever meet, and there was zero criminality there."
Silverman notes: "It's not a crime to be naked in Denver, even if you're a man. And it's not a crime to be naked in Denver in your own hotel room."
As for why the owner of that hotel room should be held liable for its role, Silverman explains, "Instead of calling up to the room to alert the occupant that he was being seen, the Denver police decided to bust into his room — and they did so with the assistance of staff at the DIA Westin. They aided the government in violating his constitutional rights."
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In Silverman's view, this scenario mirrors one covered in 2017 by Phoenix New Times, a sister paper of Westword, about cooperation between a Motel 6 and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents "to go through the guest register and identify patrons with Hispanic surnames. Those occupants were then hassled by ICE, and a lawsuit about that was brought with great success." Indeed, in February the Motel 6 chain paid $10 million to settle the matter.
Despite this lucrative precedent, Collins says he would have been fine moving in a different direction. "We said to everyone, 'Look, we're willing to talk to you guys. Are you willing to talk to us?' And the city was willing to enter into mediation," he reports. "But even though we were interested in settling with [Marriott], too, those discussions just dragged out to where we felt there was no other option here for us" than to file suit.
"I've had numerous pilots come up to me and say they have the same concerns we've addressed: no privacy, no protection, and no way of knowing if other people can see in" to their hotel room, says Collins, who continues to fly for United (in fact, he could be flying over Denver right now). "But there's been no change at Marriott or, particularly, the DIA Westin to notify people, including crew members who stay there so often, about the situation.
"So how do we address this issue? We could drop it and everybody could go home. But this destroyed my opportunity to be president of the Air Line Pilots Association and destroyed a lot of the credibility I've built up for years. And because they didn't really try to settle this in mediation, this was really our only choice."