The killing of a right-wing demonstrator at a political confrontation in Denver on Saturday quickly became the focus of arguments about who is to blame for violence on American streets.
The shooting came at the conclusion of dueling rallies organized by an armed right-wing group and their leftist opponents. Speculation about the killing immediately flooded social media as countless people pored over images and video, urged on by right-wing influencers and amplified by conservative politicians. Meanwhile, some Democrats cast blame on conservative organizer John Tiegen, while a few called for calm and patience.
“I think we have to let the investigation play out, and we don’t need to politicize this at all, on any side. Someone has lost their life, and other lives have been ruined forever,” said Leslie Herod, a Democratic state representative for Denver.
“We need to pray for the families and encourage the violence in our communities to stop. And quite frankly, people need to sit down and listen to each other.”
Matthew Dolloff, identified as a security guard working for 9News, is being held in the investigation of the shooting. The victim, identified as Lee Keltner, 49, was wearing a U.S. flag bandana and appeared to have congregated with the right-demonstrators.
Conservatives condemned the left
Some GOP officials joined in sharing anti-left condemnations. State Rep. Dave Williams retweeted an early message from the conservative influencer Charlie Kirk which claimed a “conservative was just gunned down in the streets by ANTIFA.”
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville retweeted a message about “(c)old blood antifa left murders” and another from conservative Colorado influencer Michelle Malkin, who claimed that Denver Police Department had “LIED & covered up for Antifa!”
Neville and Williams did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Soon after the shooting, Denver police denied that there was any immediately apparent connection between the shooter and leftist groups. Early claims of a political motivation may have originated with a Denver Post story that stated without a source that a left-wing demonstrator had fired the gun. The Post has since retracted that claim.
Instead, 9News has confirmed that Dolloff was acting as a security guard contracted through the company Pinkerton to protect its own journalists. But Dolloff did not hold a security guard license in the city of Denver. A representative for Pinkerton said he worked for a subcontractor, which the company didn’t name. In a statement, the news agency said Pinkerton was responsible for licensing.
Williams also shared a message from Benny Johnson, an executive with Turning Point USA, that claimed “NBC News 9 is responsible for murder” after hiring a “vicious anti-Trump” guard.
Social media accounts matching Dolloff’s information showed criticism of President Donald Trump and interest in left-leaning causes, but police have not released any details about what led to an apparent confrontation between Dolloff and the victim.
Democrats criticized armed organizers
Meanwhile, some Democratic politicians accused right-wing organizers of fomenting tension. In an interview, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg asked whether the organizers of the right-wing demonstration had sought confrontation.
“I’m not an expert on them, but it seems to me like they are a troubling organization that potentially is looking for altercations,” Fenberg said, referring to the fact that the group wears military-style garb.
Asked whether he was rushing to blame, Fenberg drew a contrast between himself and GOP politicians.
“I think that’s pretty different than, within 15 minutes of someone dying, saying that the accused is associated with (Antifa) when it turns out he’s a hired gun,” Fenberg said. “I just wish people would slow down a little bit, to be totally honest — not even just the people at the protest but the people who were watching and commentating on it.”
The right-wing rally was organized by John Tiegen, a Colorado Springs-area resident who acts as a campaign surrogate for President Donald Trump. He frequently warns of the alleged threat posed by leftists to the country’s future and has rallied supporters for downtown patrols. He said on Saturday, before the shooting, that he didn’t seek violence but was prepared to “defend ourselves every means necessary,” he said. He was carrying a gun and wearing a bulletproof vest — and had a bodyguard — because he’d received death threats, he said.
His group, called the United American Defense Force, is part of a larger organization, FEC United, that has solicited political pledges from Republican candidates and aims to reinvigorate conservative politics. Kristi Burton Brown, vice chair of the state GOP, recently spoke before the group.
“We have people in this room and all across the state who can intimidate the left, literally, and be better at their game than they are,” Burton said in a video of the speech, without detailing what that intimidation could include. The speech largely focused on law and policy goals. Brown didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment filed through the state party.
Fenberg criticized the apparent connection between the state GOP and a political group with a “defense” arm. “And if that’s true I would find it incredibly troubling that the official state party is involved in that organization in an official capacity,” he said.
In a statement on social media, FEC United said that it was a "humanitarian organization" that does not "encourage or tolerate violence for the sake of violence."
No sign of fading
The intense national focus on Denver shows no signs of fading. Tiegen was scheduled to appear on national television Monday night with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Tiegen said. Meanwhile, his accounts on Instagram and Facebook were suspended for unknown reasons by the platforms.
Another Democratic politician, Denver Public Schools Board member Tay Anderson, claimed on Saturday night that Tiegen “got one of his supporters killed tonight,” arguing that if “he did not organize the rally then this would not have happened.”
Gov. Jared Polis’ office called on people to wait for the police investigation of the shooting. Local authorities have not charged Dolloff, who is being held without bond for investigation of first-degree murder.
“The Governor expresses his condolences to the family members and loved ones of the victim. It’s deeply troubling when any life is lost due to violence. The Governor urges Coloradans to respect the integrity of the investigation,” wrote spokesperson Conor Cahill in an email.
Democratic House Speaker KC Becker said the news landed heavily with her. "I’m really sad about it. I’m sad about it as just the place that our country is in right now," she said. "I don’t want to point fingers. I want us to be moving forward and doing a better job of listening to each other. I just want to see it get better."
Dolloff’s family attorney claimed he acted in self defense, The Denver Post reported.