All systems were go for our one o’clock guerrilla theater. The drivers picked the group up just after noon from Denver’s venerable Brown Palace Hotel, and drove five blocks to the south circle of the Colorado State Capitol where they were met and escorted through the basement to a holding room. The group milled about, drank bottled water and picked at flaccid snack trays — everyone except Hunter S. Thompson who was seated, drinking whiskey. Hunter and other notables were about to appear at a rally on the west steps of the Capitol to call for Lisl Auman’s release from prison. She was serving a life sentence without parole for the murder of Denver Police Officer Bruce VanderJagt.
My colleague coordinating the holding room, Jared Boigon, radioed up to me at my station on the Capitol steps, saying they were ready to go. I told them to sit tight. The crowd outside had not yet congealed and some of the media had not yet arrived. I wasn’t starting early. Too much was on the line.
On the second of three series of marbled steps leading up to the grand old Colorado Capitol building, there is a marker on the third step indicating exactly one mile above sea level. That was where I placed the podium. On that day, May 14, 2004, the gold dome of the Capitol sparkled majestically. Our makeshift stage looked out onto the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide to the west. The early May sun was burning uncharacteristically hot, like a spotlight from the sky.
Camera trucks girdled the rotunda, their long antennae arms standing at attention. The media was aflutter, readying cameras, checking microphones and lighting. People were stationed with homemade signs at Lincoln Avenue overlooking Civic Center Park and cars horns were honking as hundreds of people made their way up the hill to the Capitol steps.
They had come for different reasons, some to see Warren Zevon, some to see Hunter Thompson, and some who had a connection to Lisl Auman and her family. I gazed out on the odd mix: moms and dads, gonzo-heads, activists, cops, kids, lawyers, freaks, and star gazers. Most thought that Lisl Auman was unjustly spending life in prison without parole — except for a phalanx of police who now stood encircling the back of the crowd. Silent, arms crossed and feet spread, listening, making their presence known, their vibe felt.
Today’s political theater was unlike any I had organized in the past. In the basement were assembled some very interesting minds. In addition to Hunter S. Thompson, Warren Zevon and Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, there was famed astrophysicist Timothy Ferris, former head of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Gerald Goldstein, former first lady of Colorado Dottie Lamm, Denver City Councilwoman Kathleen McKenzie, and presidential historian, noted author and Hunter’s literary executor Douglas Brinkley.
The stage was now set with Lisl’s family and friends encircling the dais. A huge FREE LISL! banner was strung tautly between two marble arches above as a backdrop to the podium. A few minutes after 1:00 p.m., I signaled down to Boigon to move the whole crew from the basement to the steps. The moment was ripe.
I moved from the hot and noisy outside near the podium and pivoted through the massive iron doors into the cool silent hall of the Capitol. Then I saw them coming. The group, twenty strong, turned from under the ornate rotunda stairs and through the marble hallways. As they approached, I told them to stop — and then went outside again. They grumbled, but as I had previously instructed, I specifically wanted to hold them behind the doors for just a moment, building the tension until it was almost ready to burst — both inside and out.
Now for the reveal. I loudly announced from the side of the dais, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the National Committee to Free Lisl Auman.” The Capitol doors flew open and the coterie emerged onto the west steps to thunderous applause and cheers. The cavalry had come.
Warren Zevon plugged in his guitar and everyone quickly took their places. Like a seasoned ringmaster, at the precise moment when the stage was set, Hunter yelled, “Okay Warren, hit it!”
Zevon, dressed smartly in a gray gabardine suit, started right in and belted out a heartfelt acoustic version of his most iconoclastic song, Lawyers, Guns and Money.
In the very real sense, here were lawyers, guns (in the form of celebrities and the cops) and money, and America’s foremost outlaw journalist. Perched aside a big marble column, I thought of how the song had become incarnate for Lisl Auman. Lawyers, guns and money had come to life in the most literal of forms.
Zevon finished, the crowd cheered and he said a few words: “The great tragedy here is still the death of Officer Bruce VanderJagt. But, you know, if we get our grief and our indignation mixed up with Lisl Auman’s punishment, then it’s not justice anymore, it’s a crime, and we’ll be committing a crime. I believe in our system, and I believe in American Justice. I was brought up to believe that I’m going to be judged too, and you know, the book says, ‘Blessed are the merciful.’ And I tell you what, I don’t want to stand before my father and hear, ‘What part of merciful didn’t you understand?”
Douglas Brinkley took the microphone as the moderator. He began, “Edmund Burke once said that ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,’ and anybody who looks at this case clearly and honestly will realize that Lisl Auman does not belong in jail.” The Burke quote had by now became our campaign’s de facto call to action.
I have done many events in my career. In each, there is always a special moment when you have prepared for everything in your power, when you can stand back on the side of the stage, take a deep breath and feel the satisfaction that, maybe, in the spirit of Desiderata, “the universe is unfolding exactly as it should.” Or as Hunter would say, “The fat is in the fire.” Leaning against the marble pillar, I had a mind-jolt. I thought for a moment about how I got to the steps of the Colorado State Capitol on this day. What was I doing smack-dab in the middle of cops, lawyers, a convicted killer, a rock and roll legend and a gonzo journalist?