Triggered: How one of Colorado’s smallest protests became its most violent
ALAMOSA — The protesters, about a dozen in all, gathered on June 4 in the intersection of State Avenue and Main Street. Like protesters across the country in the aftermath 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 help keep things peaceful.
Some drivers raised their fists and honked in solidarity. Others, cranky that skinny-jeaned millennials were chanting “Whose streets? Our streets” in their city’s main intersection, flipped them the bird.
In the days before the protest, warnings of outside agitators coming in to make trouble prompted a posse of armed businessmen to stand post. People were on edge.
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 lurch out of the way. It also shows one protester, a man dressed in black, pull a gun from his waistband and shoot 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.
James Edward Marshall IV, the 27-year-old shooter, 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.
Marshall grew up in Cincinatti’s suburbs and studied political science at Ohio State University where, as he still touts years later, he was the president of the rifle and “cigar culture” clubs. He graduated in 2018 from the University of Colorado Law School. A former classmate in the student law clinic there says he would bemoan police and prosecutors’ treatment of his clients more loudly and bitterly than others.
He went to work at the public defender’s office in Durango, a job he kept for only 10 months. In June 2019, he married CU grad Mariah Loraine and moved to Alamosa. She took a job as a child welfare caseworker for the county’s Department of Human Services and he opened a law office at the corner where he would shoot Pruitt a year later.
He called his practice “Marshall Law.”
His goal, he told people here, was to represent clients at fees they wouldn’t need to sell their homes to afford.
“He thought there was a niche in this area that he could fulfill. He seemed to have the mindset of being of service and wanting to really establish himself,” said Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council whose office is next to the one Marshall rented.
Canaly has seen tenants come and go in her two decades working in the building. He was the first to tidy up the joint restroom. He even brought a “little wicker basket to make it homey,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is great!’”
She found him friendly when he would pop in to say hi, but also says he seemed “stressed out” and has a “nervous temperament.”
Marshall played a lot of trivia at Square Peg, a downtown brewery. He also frequented Milagros Café, the popular coffee spot below his office. He sometimes met clients there, though usually grabbed a cup to go while on his cell phone. Customers say he is a loud talker. Some also say his tailored suits and matching dress shoes and belts stood out in a town more accustomed to jeans and work boots.
Over the past year, he struck up several conversations with Aaron Miltenberger, executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of the San Luis Valley. They would chat while waiting for their coffee orders.
“We’d run into each other and talk about news, politics, whatever. The conversation would often be around the current political state. He’d say ‘I f---ing hate Trump,’ or something like that,” he said.
“James is pretty tightly wound. There’s an intensity you don’t always see around here.”
Your typical Texan
Danny Pruitt, the 49-year-old gunshot victim, spent most of the past three weeks in a coma, the bullet still lodged in his brain.
Named after his dad, he grew up in Maypearl, a town of 1,000 in Texas’s cow country. He served as an electronics tech in the Army after Operation Desert Storm and fell 15 feet on the job, hurting his shoulder and back, before being discharged for disability. He has not worked since, says Tom Metier, his lawyer.
Pruitt’s friends and family say he is fiercely private, unwilling to talk much about his life.
“I didn’t ask, he didn’t tell,” said Brent Thompson, the neighbor he was with in the hours before the shooting.
Records show Pruitt made a long string of moves within Texas before heading to Colorado in 2018. He stayed for a while in a small home near a cemetery in Cañon City, then moved to an RV Park in Blanca with a view of the snow-capped 14er of the same name. The mountain, he apparently told people, reminded him there is a God.
About a year ago, he bought seven acres of cheap land at the far eastern edge of the San Luis Valley. The off-grid community called Sangre de Cristo Ranches has drawn many Texans and Oklahomans, off-roaders and gun people, and at least two residents who recently were using Confederate flags as window coverings.
Pruitt spent much of the past year preparing to build a small cabin on the property where he could live with his 5-year-old daughter, Melody. He also was battling for custody with her mother in Texas until being granted primary custody in the winter.
“All he wanted was to get away and build a better life for that girl,” his sister, Candace said.
Thompson, a preacher who lives down the hill from Pruitt, counseled his new friend through the rough patch. Both are veterans who share a similar “appreciation of this land, of this country,” he said.
He describes Pruitt as “your typical Texan — a cowboy-hat-wearing, pickup truck-driving, downhome, morally sound kind of person” committed, above all else, to his daughter. “The very first thing he built up there is a room for her to be in, a safe place for her while he’s working.”
“All I know is he and the mom of his daughter got into some bad stuff and he seems to have some hard times in the past down (in) Texas. He’s like a lot of people who’ve had bad marriages, bad lives, done things they’re not necessarily proud of.”
Pruitt posted a selfie on Facebook in mid-May. In it, he wore the white cowboy hat Thompson says he saves for trips into town. He was standing next to his pickup on what looks like his property, layers of foothills and the valley behind him. He looked proud. And he was smiling.
“Been here with god (a) while now. Ain’t no way I’m leaving,” he wrote. “I’ll raise my daughter and build things back in my life. Home this is home!”
The May 25th killing of George Floyd, who was Black, by a white Minneapolis police officer set off a national soul-searching, and public officials across Colorado responded. Leaders of dozens of cities, both big and small, recognized widespread frustrations about police brutality and institutional racism. They acknowledged people’s pain. They promised to look at their own communities’ policies and practices, and make changes, if needed.
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. We know how to get along with each other here,” Mayor Ty Coleman said as an explanation for his silence.
Coleman is Black, a demographic that makes up less than 1% of a city population that is about 41% white and 51% Latino. His election as mayor and the fact that city police have avoided significant civil rights controversies speak to a local comfort with racial diversity, at least to a certain extent.
Zahra Dilley, 37, is a Black call center worker who moved with her six children from Chicago five years ago. She feels her family is safer here, but not free from racism. She says locals sometimes stare at her with an expression she interprets to mean, “Of all the places you could have went, why here?”
“I don’t think they, including the mayor, want to admit we have the same problems that go on like everywhere else,” she said.
Alamosa may be more comfortable with its ideological differences. Some 40% of voters here are Democrat, 37% unaffiliated and 21% Republican. Adams State University professors, local business owners, federal employees, Russian pot growers, good-old-boy ranchers and the immigrants who tend their stock, big city transplants and sixth-generation old-timers have learned to coexist here. In years of 4th of July and Pride parades, climate action and anti-abortion marches, there has been little turmoil.
But this spring was different. Alamosans, like all Americans, followed how protests in Minneapolis triggered others in Atlanta, Washington, DC and Los Angeles. They tracked the protests in Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo. They saw the grief and fury on marchers’ faces and watched footage of fires and looting.
Alamosa Economic Development Director Kathy Rogers Woods, in an email she marked as “IMPORTANT and TIME SENSITIVE information — PLEASE READ,” wrote “There have been reports that a group is planning to gather on Main Street at 11 PM TONIGHT - Monday, June 1, 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 a gaggle of high-schoolers whose plans to go downtown to spray paint buildings police easily thwarted.
But three minutes after Woods sent her email, Cathy Garcia, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s southern regional office director, replied all with a message reading: “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.”
Some in the email chain read Garcia’s message to mean buses of protesters could be heading to Alamosa. And so, within a few hours, phones here 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.
That night, a posse of civic leaders and other volunteers showed up downtown carrying sidearms and semi-automatic rifles to protect businesses from the would-be band of looters. A contingent of city police officers joined them.
“Several of my friends and I, we open carry and we heard that supposably 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 the other three first nights of protest here went peacefully, with little more friction than a Black man calling a gaggle of armed posse members some names and a white man mooning protesters with “All Lives Matter” written on his butt.
Wanting something better
Marshall and his wife, Mariah Loraine showed up for one of those first protests. They seemed to have come directly from work – he wearing a business suit and she in office attire. She was openly carrying a pistol.
“That seemed really odd,” said protester Jesse Marchildron. “I was like why are you carrying a gun at a peaceful protest?”
He and others say the couple protested with an intensity, even rage that stood out in the crowd of about 30. Husband and wife would lead chants, including one in Spanish. They would shake their signs and scream profanities whenever police would drive by. And they would urge fellow marchers to protect themselves against “the pigs.”
One of them, Elizabeth Oxer, says Marshall was the loudest in the crowd: “But, like, not in a good way.”
Miltenberger had run into Marshall at the café in the weeks and days prior. They talked longer than usual, at first about COVID, then about Floyd’s killing, Black Lives Matter and police violence. He says Marshall vented about a criminal justice system he saw as broken, violent and corrupt.
“I remember feeling like whoa, James is really on edge.”
Screenshots of Marshall’s private Facebook page provided to the Valley Courier show him advising his Facebook friends on May 29 “How not to die while protesting.” “ 1. Be white. 2. Carry a freedom stick,” – slang for firearm – he wrote. He posted an article the next day about the National Guard and Minneapolis police forcing residents into their homes at curfew. “This isn’t policing anymore. It is a hostile occupation,” he wrote.
He elaborated on his views June 1.
“Since being anti-fascist is about to be labeled as terrorism, I’m going to make a record: 75 years ago, our nation finished a brutal World War against fascism. 400,000 American Patriots died to protect the free world from fascism. Millions of Europeans were murdered by fascists. Millions more gave their lives to protect others from fascism’s insidious ideas. Being anti-fascist is the default stance in a democracy.”
“I am not an anarchist. I am not a liberal. I am not a conservative. I am not a Democrat. I am not a Republican,” he wrote. “I am a human being and I want something better than this.”
The morning of the shooting, he posted a section of the U.S. Code about war crimes, implying National Guard members broke the law when tear-gassing and otherwise hurting protesters on U.S. soil. That afternoon, he posted a response to the argument that “Not all cops are bad.” “Well, not all Germans were Nazis, but enough were,” he wrote.
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.’”
“If you can’t dodge it, ram it”
Pruitt spent most of June 4 helping Thompson clear trees in Forbes Park, an area near their properties.
Thompson offered him $150 for his time, but he wouldn’t take it. “He said, ‘No, that’s just what people do for people.’ He’s done that for me more than once, helped me out and never asked for anything.”
He says Pruitt asked if he would drive to Alamosa with him that evening for a hamburger. Thompson couldn’t go because he had a 6 p.m. meeting.
“I don’t think he would have gone to town if he knew people were protesting. He doesn’t want nothing to do with it,” Thompson said, adding that Pruitt doesn’t have a TV or follow current events. “He don’t care. He don’t care who the president is. He wouldn’t even listen if you talked about it.”
But Pruitt’s Facebook page shows he was following the news 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 4x4, writing, “How does it go if you can’t Dodge it ram it if you can’t see it well hit it.”
On June 1, he shared five Facebook posts related to the protests.
One was a meme picturing Black looters that read, “I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t look like they’re grieving to me.” One defended police officers, à la “not all cops are bad.” One sought prayers for President Donald Trump: “He’s fighting an evil we can’t even imagine.” One showed a T-shirt printed with an American flag and the words “You don’t have to love it, but you don’t have to live here either.” And one was a photo of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry with his gun drawn, and a reference to the line, “Go ahead, make my day.”
Those posts since have been scrubbed from his Facebook page.
Several protesters showed up to the intersection after work. One carried a cardboard sign she had Sharpied on her lunch break. Another brought a sandwich for the intervals between red lights. They were mostly women, mostly young, and mostly white, though led by a Latina organizer.
They knew full well that their neighbors and coworkers weren’t clamoring for national police reform and racial reconciliation. But they hoped that waving a sign in the middle of Main Street would make people think. They also felt like standing for something at a time when they felt powerless.
Marshall came with his wife. He wore a black T-shirt, black gloves, his signature aviator glasses and a military cap that covered his blond hair. His black face mask concealed the beard he had grown during lockdown.
He carried a sign reading “Murder is murder no matter BLUE did it.” And, as he had several nights prior, he was yelling louder than the others.
Fellow protesters say he was interrupting the organizer and other young women as they led chants, recited names of Black victims of police brutality, and at one point kneeled silently on the pavement. In the video, captured by a nearby bookstore surveillance camera, you can see him marching with an exaggerated, almost militaristic gait in and out of the intersection.
The video shows a dark gray pickup approach the protesters, slow down to a near stop, then accelerate toward them. Loraine, among others, jumps out of the way.
Oxer — a 23-year-old Americorps volunteer from Iowa who identifies by the pronoun “they” — remembers thinking someone had been hit. They yelled “What the f---?” and flipped off the driver.
“Then there was the gunshot. Which was not great,” they said. “At first I thought it was the guy in the truck that had done it. That was my first time ever being near a gunshot. I think I was maybe 10 feet away.”
Chris Canaly heard the gunfire from up in her office. She looked down and saw women running. She said she could hear them “screaming ‘Oh my god, oh my god,’ at the top of their lungs.”
Pruitt had been hit in the back of his head by the 9mm bullet Marshall had shot through his back window. He managed to stop his truck in the middle of the intersection. Oxer says a protester tried persuading him to get out and sit down. He said something, but they can’t remember what. “And then he drove off.”
Thompson was just about to start his meeting when he heard his phone ring. It rang again two more times. It was Pruitt, just shot, calling for help, he says. With each call, Thompson kept pressing the button to say he’d call back.
Pruitt drove 12 blocks toward the Adams State campus before passing out.
Marshall, in the meantime, ran from the scene with his Glock 43, phoned Randy Canney, a prominent defense lawyer in Salida, 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 Detective John Vasquez he acted instantaneously and admitted shooting 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 clean-shaven in a lawyerly dress shirt, head cocked back and grinning. He was facing charges of attempted 2nd-degree murder, 1st-degree assault, reckless endangerment, felony menacing, criminal mischief, illegal discharge of a firearm and prohibited use of a weapon.
Loraine bailed him out the next day on a $60,000 bond and quit her job at the county. Canney says the couple left town almost immediately:
“They don’t feel safe there.”
Pruitt came out of his coma over the past week and was released Wednesday from UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs. He is recovering at his sister’s home in Alamosa, the bullet still lodged in his head.
He has spoken with District Attorney Robert Willett and with Alamosa police, who are still investigating the case. They took over the intersection last week to reenact the shooting. A source advising the probe says detectives have been looking into whether the traffic light was red or green when Pruitt accelerated toward the protesters, and whether any were hit. None of those we interviewed said they were.
Tom Metier, Pruitt’s personal injury lawyer, says his client remembers coming to a stop at the intersection and getting shot. “He has other memories, but not that I can share right now,” he said.
The city’s response to the shoot has been to launch what City Manager Heather Brooks calls a “public education campaign” to keep protesters out of Alamosa’s crosswalks.
In the meantime, about 3,500 people have over the past three weeks donated $149,000 for Pruitt’s and his daughter’s care. “Please pray for Danny and his family, help him to keep fighting. So his little girl might, one day, have her daddy back,” wrote the niece who organized the Gofundme page.
Conservative, alt-right and fake news outlets have been playing up the story, some going so far as to report that Pruitt died of his gunshot wound. Pundits cite the shooting as proof of a national antifa uprising. Local law-and-order types speak of Pruitt as a heroic patriot with an inalienable right to drive unobstructed on his way to grab a burger.
“He has a right to get there without interference … and defend himself in the process,” said Eric Gile, who was among the locals who stood downtown earlier that week locked and loaded.
“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, another resident who joined the armed posse.
Whether the traffic light was red or green, Jack says he would have felt threatened by protesters standing in the intersection, even if only a dozen. He figures that he, too, would have tried to drive through them.
“It could have been me. It could have been any of us. I probably would have done the same thing,” he said. “I think the country in general is sick of this, the violence, the hatred, the racism from all sides.”
It is language like Jack’s, implications that white folks are victimized by racism – and by protests against it– that galvanized many protesters here in the first place. But that point, several say, was lost the moment Marshall pulled the trigger. Oxer wrote in their diary the night of the shooting, “This whole thing just reinforces what detractors believe: That we all secretly just wanna set s%#@ on fire and s%#@.”
They noted that Pruitt made the first provocation by driving into the protesters, and that “while he was the victim, he was also the instigator.
“But it’s hard to say (that) about someone on life support.”
Marshall, Oxer says, betrayed their movement, at least in Alamosa where some locals believe protesters ambushed Pruitt’s truck and many more now associate them with violence.
“It sucks that someone on our side would make things a thousand times worse for us,” they said.
Oxer hopes Marshall gets the “maximum punishment,” and notes that the Alamosa police who questioned them did a good job. They are fully aware of that irony.
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.”