Triggered: How one of Colorado’s smallest protests became most violent
Colorado News Collaborative
Alamosa Valley Courier
ALAMOSA — The protesters, about a dozen in all, gathered June 4 in the intersection of State Avenue and Main Street. Like protesters across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police, they were demanding police accountability and racial justice.
The group occupied the crosswalk during red lights, then stepped to the curb on green. Letting traffic pass, they figured, would keep things peaceful.
Some drivers honked in solidarity. Others, cranky that skinny-jeaned millennials were chanting “Whose streets? Our streets” in the city’s main intersection, flipped them the bird.
Just before 6 p.m., a man driving a Dodge Ram pickup pulled up to the red light, then accelerated into the crosswalk.
A video of the scene shows protesters lurching out of the way. It also shows one protester, a white man dressed in black, pulling a gun from his waistband and shooting the driver in the head.
Their June 4 run-in lasted five seconds, less than an average yawn. That’s all it took for one of Colorado’s sleepy protests to become its most violent.
The shooter, James Edward Marshall IV, 27, is facing a slew of charges, including attempted murder. He knows a thing or two about what he’s up against because he is a defense lawyer.
The Ohio native graduated in 2018 from the University of Colorado Law School and worked for 10 months as a public defender in Durango. In June 2019, he moved with his wife, Mariah Loraine, to Alamosa and opened the office of “Marshall Law.” He told people he wanted to defend clients at fees they wouldn’t need to sell their homes to afford.
Christine Canaly, whose office is next to Marshall’s, found him friendly, but also nervous and stressed out. Others say he is a loud talker whose tailored suits stood out in a town more accustomed to jeans and work boots.
At Milagros Café, he would chat with Aaron Miltenberger, head of a local nonprofit. Recent conversations turned to COVID-19, Floyd’s killing, Black Lives Matter and police violence. Miltenberger said Marshall often vented about a criminal justice system he saw as broken, violent and corrupt.
“I remember feeling like whoa, James is really on edge.”
Marshall and his wife, who was openly carrying a pistol, showed up for one of the first protests in town after George Floyd’s shooting.
One of the 30 or so protesters that night, Elizabeth Oxer, said Marshall was the loudest in the crowd: “But, like, not in a good way.”
On May 29, Marshall advised his Facebook friends on “How not to die while protesting.” “ 1. Be white. 2. Carry a freedom stick,” — slang for firearm. In the days following, he wrote several posts decrying police and National Guard violence against protesters. He described his views as anti-fascist, which he wrote “is the default stance in a democracy.”
Four and a half hours before the shooting, he posted: “It’s really hard to go to school for over 20 years, pay $200,000, pass the bar exam and swear an oath to defend the Constitution to then watch high school bullies with badges and guns trample on civil liberties in the name of ‘law and order.’”
Your typical Texan
Danny Pruitt, the 49-year-old gunshot victim, has spent most of the past three weeks in a coma, the bullet still lodged in his brain.
He grew up in Texas’s cow country and served as an electronics tech in the Army. A 15-foot fall disabled him, and he hasn’t worked since, his lawyer said.
Pruitt bought some cheap land a year ago about an hour east of Alamosa. He spent much of the past year building a small cabin where he planned to live with his 5-year-old daughter, Melody, for whom he was battling for custody.
Brent Thompson, a minister and friend who lives down the hill, describes Pruitt as “your typical Texan — a cowboy-hat-wearing, pickup truck-driving, downhome, morally sound kind of person” committed to a new life with his daughter in Colorado.
“Been here with god (a) while now. Ain’t no way I’m leaving,” Pruitt posted on Facebook in May with a selfie taken on his property. “I’ll raise my daughter and build things back in my life. Home this is home!”
Thompson said Pruitt was uninterested in the news, but Pruitt’s Facebook page shows he was following it closely.
On May 28, he posted an article about a soldier credited with saving lives in Kansas by ramming a shooting suspect with his pickup truck. He previously had posted a picture of his own Dodge Ram 4×4, writing, “How does it go if you can’t Dodge it ram it if you can’t see it well hit it.”
Over the next week, he shared a meme picturing Black looters and reading, “I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t look like they’re grieving to me.” He also shared a photo of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry with his gun drawn, and a reference to the line, “Go ahead, make my day.”
The May 25 killing of George Floyd, who was Black, by a white Minneapolis police officer set off a national soul-searching. Public officials across Colorado acknowledged protesters’ grief and frustration, some promising to reconsider their own communities’ policies and practices.
City brass in Alamosa said nothing.
“We do not have the big city issues with law enforcement officers. Our law enforcement officers care and I care about them,” Ty Coleman, the Black mayor of a town with a 1% Black population. “We know how to get along with each other here.”
The city’s mix of Adams State University professors, local business owners, federal employees, cannabis growers, good-old-boy ranchers and the immigrants who tend their stock, big city transplants and old-timers have learned to coexist. In years of July 4th and Pride parades, climate action and anti-abortion marches, there has been little turmoil.
But this spring was different. Alamosans, like all Americans, followed the spreading protests. They tracked the looting and tear-gassing in Denver and Colorado Springs.
In an urgent June 1 email, city Economic Development Director Kathy Rogers Woods warned civic leaders and business owners of reports about a group planning to gather on Main Street that night “for what is thought to be similar activity we’ve been seeing in cities across the nation, of late.”
That group turned out to be some high school students whose plans to spray paint downtown buildings police easily thwarted. Cathy Garcia, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s southern regional office director, immediately replied all to Wood’s email: “Group will be in Pueblo at 6 pm tonight. Heard from Trinidad that a group will be there sometime soon and that buses would be coming from Colorado Springs.”
Within hours, phones were buzzing with anxious text messages about a purported caravan of radical agitators headed to bust up the town. Managers at the Alamosa Walmart closed early that evening, barricading the doors and windows.
A posse of volunteers showed up downtown that night carrying sidearms and semi-automatic rifles to protect businesses. City police officers joined them.
“We heard that supposedly that they were sending antifa down here to paint our town and terrorize our streets, and we weren’t going to let that happen,” said Larry Jack, one of the locals who stood guard.
“We had quite a big turnout, at least 80 of us downtown. … There was really a buzz going on,” added Eric Gile, owner of a roofing company in town.
Buzz was all there was. That night and three other nights of protest passed with little more friction than a Black man insulting a gaggle of armed posse members and a white man mooning protesters with “All Lives Matter” written on his butt.
Protesters started showing up at State and Main after work June 4. They were mostly women, mostly young and white, though led by a Latina organizer.
Marshall came with his wife and carried a sign reading “Murder is murder no matter BLUE did it.” He was yelling louder than the others, as he had several nights prior.
The video, captured by a nearby bookstore surveillance camera, shows a dark gray pickup approach the protesters as they stood in the intersection, slow down, then accelerate toward them. Marshall’s wife, among others, jumps out of the way.
“Then there was the gunshot. Which was not great,” recalled Oxer, a 23-year-old Americorps volunteer from Iowa. “At first I thought it was the guy in the truck that had done it.”
Pruitt, hit in the back of his head by the 9mm bullet, managed to drive 12 blocks toward the Adams State campus before passing out.
Marshall ran from the scene with his Glock 43, phoned a prominent defense lawyer, drove home to East Alamosa separately from his wife, changed his clothes and shaved off his beard, according to his arrest report. Police arrived two hours and 40 minutes after the shooting.
He told a detective he shot Pruitt after “he observed the truck come into contact with” his wife and feared for her safety, the report shows. The detective wrote: “As the conversation continued I told James the video footage does not show his wife as he explained and he responded the video would be wrong.”
Marshall’s booking shot shows him in a lawyerly dress shirt, head cocked back and grinning. He is facing an attempted second-degree murder charge, among six others. His wife bailed him out the next day and the couple left town almost immediately:
“They don’t feel safe there,” his lawyer, Randy Canney, said.
Pruitt — the bullet still in his brain — came out of his coma this week and is recuperating at his sister’s place in Alamosa.
City police, still investigating the case, have questioned him. They are focused on whether the traffic light was red or green when Pruitt accelerated toward the protesters, and whether any were hit. None of the five we interviewed said they were.
The city, in the meantime, has launched what it calls a “public education campaign” to keep protesters out of Alamosa’s crosswalks.
About 3,500 people have over the past three weeks donated $149,000 for Pruitt’s and his daughter’s care.
Conservative, alt-right and fake news outlets have been playing up the story as proof of a national antifa uprising, some going so far as to report that Pruitt died of his gunshot wound. Local law-and-order types frame Pruitt as a heroic patriot with an inalienable right to drive unobstructed on his way to grab a burger.
“When people are hindering (people) from getting where they need to go and blocking traffic, basically that’s a small riot. … It’s destructive and, yes, a line needs to be drawn,” added Larry Jack, one of the gun-toting volunteers in the armed posse downtown.
He figures that he, too, would have tried to drive through them.
“I think the country in general is sick of this, the violence, the hatred, the racism from all sides.”
Language like Jack’s implying white folks are victimized by racism — and by protests against it — galvanized many protesters in the first place. But that point, several say, was lost the moment Marshall pulled the trigger.
Oxer’s diary entry that night reads: “This whole thing just reinforces what detractors believe: That we all secretly just wanna set shit on fire and shit.”
Pruitt made the first provocation by driving into the protesters, Oxer wrote. So “while he was the victim, he was also the instigator.
“But it’s hard to say (that) about someone on life support.”
Oxer hopes Marshall gets the “maximum punishment” and notes, fully aware of the irony, that Alamosa police seem to be doing a good job on the investigation.
Mayor Coleman understands that “protesters didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“But sometimes the reality and the perception are different in people’s mind,” he said. “And sometimes people forget what the original purposes of the marches were all about.”
This story is powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. More than 40 news organizations, including the Steamboat Pilot & Today, share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.
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