Checking the pulse of Colorado’s blend of faith, politics, and violence, Sharlet comes face to face with a college friend’s colorful political supporters. Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Sweet Heaven When I Die (Norton).
Photograph via Flickr by Casey Collings
When I was eighteen I fell hard for the state of Colorado as embodied by a woman with long, honey blonde hair and speckled green eyes, who drank wine from a coffee mug and whiskey from the bottle. Her name was Molly Knott Chilson. That’s how she said it when she’d been drinking—Molly-Knott-Chilson, all three names, the latter two the marks of good family for those who knew Colorado, which I did not. We were freshmen at a college in the countryside of western Massachusetts, as far as could be in the lower forty-eight from the Rocky Mountains and the ornery horses she’d grown up with, horses that charged out of chutes into rodeo arenas and ambled up into high saddleback passes where the trees are nothing but grunts of tortured bark and thick, sharp needles. Those were some of the things Molly-Knott-Chilson loved: horseflesh, rodeo dirt, and gnarled pine.
Also whiskey—especially Maker’s Mark, which was the best we knew of at the time—and the Bible. She wasn’t a Christian back then, but she read her Bible daily. She thought she might study religion. She bought herself a concordance. She would sit cross-legged on the floor, the concordance’s giant pages spread on her lap like the wings of a gull, a cup of wine or a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a Marlboro in the other. Her back curved like calligraphy—she had worn a brace as a girl, and her legs were a bit crooked, and her toes wrapped onto one another because when she was little she’d refused to abandon a pair of shoes that she’d loved—and she would parse scripture.
In Colorado camping isn’t just for nature lovers—it’s for the kind of parties that require space, time, and privacy.
Molly and I are a wedding each and twenty years past that time. Molly married a carpenter from Alabama named John Kearley, a tall and stoic man honest as snow, in a tiny mountain church on a perfect day marred only by the discovery that the monarch butterflies purchased by Molly’s mother and handed out to be released in lieu of rice failed to thrive in the high altitude; they fluttered dead to the ground. I married a woman who’d grown up in the dead or dying dairy country of upstate New York, not far from my own hometown, and thereafter we moved from city to city. I went west to Molly’s wedding, she came east to mine, but the gulf between us has grown wider over the years than just the two thousand miles between the Rocky Mountains and the coast.
Not long after she’d started dating John, the man she’d marry, Molly found Christ in John’s little mountain church, a tiny yellow building with a red door, pastored by two “Canon 9” priests, laymen authorized to serve in their congregation alone—an Old West way of doing things that was a point of faith and satisfaction for both Molly and John.
She read her Bible with eyes for the way that “blood moves.” Once she called to say that the fourth chapter of Exodus was weighing on her mind, a difficult passage in which God decides for a moment to kill Moses, for no apparent reason. “There’s a number of different stories from my life that are like that,” she told me. She meant moments when she could feel she’d fallen from some kind of grace, periods of no safety and no explanations. “When you’re either hiding from God, or have been seen, or are on the radar screen, or are being chased.” She was fascinated by the thought that God was entitled to kill you at any time.
And yet, she was more or less at peace with the Lord. It’s the “less,” I think, that kept us friends; we liked to talk about God and we both knew that’s a conversation without many conclusions. We shared a belief that words are unstable, that learning to read is a process you can never be done with, because the words are always changing.
Which is why I was surprised when I learned that Molly had decided to run for district attorney, a job that requires subtlety of thought in service of black-and-white convictions. Molly ran as a Republican, campaigning on horseback in Frontier Days parades. She was very pro-gun, a reputation useful to a woman of five feet and three inches practicing law amid men who until they learned better called her sweetie-pie. A jail commander in her district arranged as a fundraiser for her a shoot-out in a fake old Western town, with “cowboy and tactical shooters.” This fiction was not of Molly’s creation; the Old West shooting range, with “bad guys” hiding behind buildings mixed in among civilians, is something of a fad now, considered a good place to take the family. There’s an element of morality to the necessary decisions about which targets to fire on that is said to be good for women and children.
It was that morality, the judgment of the God in whom at some part of herself she’d always believed, that made Molly run for district attorney, run and win in a four-county district bigger than several eastern states and so sparsely populated that the town to which she and John had moved, Salida—population 5,504 and dropping—was considered an urban center.
After she won her election I decided to go to Colorado to see her, my friend born again in the mountains I’d abandoned.
Molly grew up outside of Loveland, a small town, but half of her life was spent in Denver, to which her mother had returned after her divorce from John Chilson. There Molly’s father’s father, more urban-minded than his son, paid for Molly to take cotillion classes and wear white gloves when he came to visit. He anticipated that his granddaughter would make her debut at the appropriate age, but Molly had other plans. She was shy, dyslexic, and smarter than everyone around her, a combination that did not make for ordinary socialization. And yet in Denver she joined a group of three girls, all of them blonde, very pretty, and very fearless, and with them, for a while, she lived a life that most people don’t come close to until they’ve left home. There is a special wildness available to teenage girls in a big city abutted by canyons. In Colorado camping isn’t just for nature lovers—it’s for the kind of parties that require space, time, and privacy. There were boys with vans, men with motorcycles, people with things to be bought and sold. The oldest and prettiest and sweetest of the three girls, Susan, trafficked in and partook heavily of this last category. She was not a junkie—not exactly. She could stop anytime.
I met Susan that first summer in Colorado. She was dappled light, so beautiful you couldn’t remark otherwise, and not even your girlfriend would expect you to do so. There was no question of jealousy. Hearing Susan tell a story about a party up in the hills, a “party” that stretched across days, filled with strangers and sweet weed, men who called themselves magicians, girls who danced like fairies, and occasionally a bright, hard flash of violence, a sharp-edged moment around her tale, was like listening to a ballad on a radio station that fades in and out of reception as you drive: sometimes clear and sentimental and tuned perfectly to the passing land, sometimes filled with static and lost, a song played too many times. And then she disappeared.
Not long ago Molly heard that Susan lives in her judicial district. Molly hasn’t seen her. Susan, she knows, “makes a living,” and since Molly is now law, she hopes that is all she will ever know again of Susan, for the good of both of them. Some things must be left behind.
On the other side of South Park there’s a town called Fair Play, which is not really worth discussion: a heap of mud, a lumberyard that looks as if it was rooted out of the earth by a wild pig, and an American flag flying over a county jail. For prisons, one must drive south, to Cañon City, the self-proclaimed incarceration capital of America. There’s the Colorado State Pen and the Centennial Correctional Facility; there’s Arrowhead and Four Mile and Fremont and Skyline; there are prisons for women, prisons for children, and prisons for men who are mild, medium, and well done. Just south of town, in a little burg called Florence, there’s the federal Supermax, where the Unabomber and Terry Nichols—one of the two Oklahoma City bombers—and the 1993 World Trade Center bomber spend twenty-three hours a day alone in soundproof rooms.
On your way to Cañon City you pass Cotopaxi, one of Colorado’s many abandoned utopias, a trick played in 1882 by a Portuguese Jew on Eastern European Jews lured into a dark canyon with promises of farmland, which were evidently false to anyone who bothered to consult a map of the region. Jews mined, Jews died, Jews moved. Cotopaxi is now a Christian town, inasmuch as one can worship a loving God in the deep armpit of dry, brown mountains.
Cañon City—really a town—is another kind of planned community. As you drive in from the west on Route 50, alongside the Arkansas River, the first thing you see is a limestone tower with 360-degree purple windows; silhouetted within is a man with an assault rifle. The walls of Colorado Territorial, the state’s oldest prison, rise up on the left, and behind them the sliced-away sides of two quarried mountains, the one to the west purple and black, the one to the east yellow and black. A few hundred yards up the road is a field in which patriots have mounted a tank, a cannon, and a tall, white missile. There’s also a store that uses as an attraction a wagon heaped to overflowing with animal skulls; children like to have their picture taken in front of the wagon, crowned by bone.
On a hill overlooking the Territorial, there’s an old graveyard reputed to be a Confederate cemetery. Although Colorado did not exist as a state at the time of the Civil War, Cañon City loves the South’s Stars and Bars. You can buy pictures of it in drugstores and the flag itself in sporting goods stores, and you can get it tattooed—martially crisp or romantically ragged, wrapped around a skeleton or a naked woman or a skeleton of a naked woman, buxom breasts still heaving—in a parlor on the main street of town. Civil War reenactments with “live cannon fire” are popular with prison guards; the South, I was told, often wins.
“She is like a hero character from a John Grisham novel,” [Bendell] wrote.
But up at the cemetery, entered through a steel gate out of which the shape of a pioneer wagon has been punched, I found little evidence that the South will rise again should Jesus return to raise the dead from Colorado. In the northwest corner, fronting a section of tin crosses without names and labeled DOC—Department of Corrections, not Daughters of the Confederacy—there’s a row of five Confederate soldiers. Their flat, dull stones—none of which mention the Civil War—are doubled by newer, white marble slabs displaying rank and regiment (Pvt. CJ Price, 9th Ky. Inf., C.S.A. – Confederate States of America – 1837–1903) and flanked on one side by metal stars of the C.S.A. and on the other by sticks planted in the dirt and painted red, white, and blue. Such sticks grow like flowers among the thorns and tumbleweed choking the cemetery, but they don’t mark the remains of a Confederate army: they’re there for the Union dead, nearly a full company of whom—officers and privates; cavalry and infantry and artillery and even a sailor, far now from the seas; men born in New York and Pennsylvania, Iowa and Ireland—lay in the dry ground overlooking the town, forgotten by the would-be Johnny Rebs outside the prison walls.
I went to Cañon City to find out who had voted for Molly. Her husband, John, had given me an archive of local press; in rural areas like the 11th District, campaigns are waged largely through letters to the editor. The best one came from a man named Don Bendell, a karate studio owner, who was much taken by the fact that she was not only a fourth-generation Coloradoan but also a fourth-generation attorney; his praise for this feat of inheritance was made all the more remarkable by his evident disdain for lawyers. “She is like a hero character from a John Grisham novel,” he wrote, supported by “police chiefs, undersheriffs, and correctional officers, and only one attorney.”
Don himself was hard to label. He was a skinny guy with a gut I at first mistook for a paunch and a grip that made me wince, but he also had the eyes of a beagle, a droopy black mustache, a jet-black pompadour, and a bright white overbite when he smiled, all of which made it hard to resent him for the bone-crushing. His website features pictures of him in his karate uniform (he’s a seventh-degree black belt grandmaster and an inductee in the Karate Hall of Fame), military dress (he’s a former Green Beret, he speaks Vietnamese, and he considers the Montagnards his blood brothers), fringed and beaded leather Indian gear (“I’m strawberry cake with vanilla frosting,” he said, “white on the outside, red on the inside”), and as a cowboy silhouetted against stained glass (“Trust in God,” he advises, “but keep your powder dry, pardner!”). He is the author of twenty-five published books on Western, science fiction, and military adventure themes, among them Black Phantom, Death Hunt, Fire Kill, Blood Money, Snake Eater, The B-52 Overture, Colt, Matched Colts, Blazing Colts, War Bonnet, Bamboo Battleground, and a book of verse, Poems of the Warrior. He was especially proud of a review of his 1993 Chief of Scouts: “Don’t expect a sensitive, multidimensional treatment of the Old West here. This is full-dress genre stuff: action galore, heaps of graphic violence, and stereotypical characters straight from central casting.”
Don used to own a movie studio in Cañon City, called American Eagle Entertainment. Cañon City was once the Hollywood of the Rockies, the site of dozens of silent Westerns. Don wanted to revive the tradition. In 1981 he and his wife, Shirley, spent their honeymoon making a movie called The Instructor. The poster, across from an artificial stream in the lobby of his karate studio, features a bare-chested, black-hooded man in midair, kicking in the face of a menacing motorcyclist. Don said he had a deal with TriStar Films to make a low-budget sequel, Revenge, starring a stuntman who would jump off the Royal Gorge Bridge up the road, 969 feet above the Arkansas River. But the stuntman died jumping off something else before he could get to Cañon City, and the deal went upside down. He is still paying back his debts from that venture, but he insisted on treating me to a meal at his favorite Western restaurant, Chili’s, east of town on the highway, past Walmart and across from the new Fremont County Jail. He wanted to tell me about his latest project, a magazine called American Hero.
“I’m from Akron, Ohio,” Don said. “The West is the place of my dreams. I always wanted to have a horse. I always wanted to be a cowboy. Always wanted to be an Indian. Plus, I used to play soldier all the time, so I also wanted to go into the army. I wanted to be a hero, like the guys on TV, the Roy Rogers, the Hopalong Cassidys, the Lone Rangers, Zorro. Every issue of American Hero I want to have a sports hero, a film and TV hero, a big-screen hero, and a real hero. I believe it’s important for children—and adults, too—to have heroes that are so over the top, because when you reach for the moon you never end up with a handful of dirt.”
Joel would later say it was Michael who shot out the window of the car, leaned out into the night wind and around the bulletproof barrier, and pointed a gun at Schwartz’s head.
In Vietnam, when he was on the A-team, Don was known as “Clint,” as in Eastwood, because he smoked cigarillos and wore a poncho and didn’t shave. But he didn’t really like Eastwood. “He was personally responsible for Westerns being too realistic,” Don said. “His hero wasn’t black-and-white; he was gray. I’m not interested in being real, a realistic cowboy. There’s been enough of those.”
Don had been one of Molly’s chief supporters in Cañon City. For him there were two issues. One: her opponent, Rocco Mecconi, a sour, middle-aged Democrat, had defended Don’s first wife in a bitter divorce. Two: Molly could ride a horse and shoot a six-gun.
And then there were the Stovall boys. Joel and Michael Stovall were 24-year-old identical twins who worked as bouncers and devoted most of their time to acquiring weapons and, it was suspected, making bombs. Their mother was a prison guard, and their father made a living selling skeleton keys over the Internet. The men had few friends besides each other, and they tended to dress identically, in camouflage. Their former schoolmates remembered them primarily for setting fires.
One Friday in September 2001, they shot a dog owned by a neighbor of their grandmother, for no reason they ever gave. They dumped the body in the Arkansas River, but it floated up. Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Schwartz was dispatched to bring them in. He caught up with the twins later that night and herded them into the back of his cruiser. Schwartz was twenty-six and the father of a one-month-old son—a small-town cop not inclined to look for trouble. He and his partner searched the boys, but they failed to find the skeleton key Michael Stovall carried with him. They also missed Michael’s two 9mm pistols. A key and two guns—Schwartz could have saved time and his life by simply turning over his cruiser to the twins. Joel would later say it was Michael who shot out the window of the car, leaned out into the night wind and around the bulletproof barrier, and pointed a gun at Schwartz’s head. “Stop,” he said.
Schwartz made his third mistake: he kept driving. Michael emptied the 9mm into the left side of Schwartz’s skull. The car literally flew off the highway, but the twins had more luck than brains and both emerged without injury. To celebrate, they paused before fleeing to shoot the dead man some more. The coroner later removed sixteen bullets from Deputy Schwartz’s body, twelve of them from his head.
Then the Stovall twins did just what anyone would do after killing a deputy sheriff in plain view of the highway: they walked home and re-armed. Two policemen drove past their trailer, according to witnesses—did they not have the right address?—and the boys opened fire, hitting one of the officers four times—Cpl. Toby Bethel, permanently paralyzed—before making a run for it in a stolen pickup truck. Joel drove, and Michael served as rear gunner. They circled back, parked, and watched, laughing and waving, while two other officers tried to extract the wounded man from his cruiser.
The local paper, a small operation that usually consisted of church supper news, told the story over and over for days, until it began to take on the shape of a murder ballad.
More luck than brains but not enough of either: instead of fleeing north toward Denver or east toward Pueblo, cities into which they could have disappeared, the brothers headed for the hills, driving back into the mountains on Route 50, a straight shot to Salida and a running gun battle much of the way. The police had laid out traffic spikes for the truck and ruined its tires, so after they’d unloaded enough ammo to put some distance between them and their pursuers, the boys ditched the pickup and set out on foot. They thought that perhaps they could hike to Mexico.
At this point Don Bendell, who besides being a black belt and a retired commando was a master tracker (he was locally famous for having helped catch two cop killers on a Navajo reservation), saddled up his horse, Eagle, loaded his M-16 and his 9mm, called out his dogs, and prepared, spiritually, for battle. (“I was ready to rock ‘n’ roll,” he recalled wistfully.)
But another former Green Beret beat him to the collar—a lightly armed officer from the Department of Wildlife who came upon the boys hiking a dry streambed and rounded them up, if the local paper can be believed, by throwing his voice and convincing the evil twins that they were surrounded.
Up to that point the story had gone exactly as Don might have written it if he’d felt inclined to combine one of his commando novels with one of his Westerns. The local paper, a small operation that usually consisted of church supper news, told the story over and over for days, until it began to take on the shape of a murder ballad.
But then, as a man in a bar in Cañon City told me, Molly’s predecessor as DA “queered the deal.” He didn’t seek death. Now the boys are serving life sentences; perhaps they’ll spend some of that time in Cañon City.
When Molly ran, what was widely perceived as the retiring DA’s cowardice became a backdrop for Molly campaigning on horseback and at the shooting range, a new Old West hero of the type that never was. She campaigned not so much on issues—of little importance in a district where the average voter actually knows who the DA is, plus half a dozen rumors—as on what conservatives are currently calling “character.” What that term means, though, is a myth—not in the sense of a falsehood but of a narrative, an ideal that the candidate, the aspiring hero, must embody. The code of the West may have been just a story, but Molly told it true.
Jeff Sharlet is the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, and Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between, and a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and Harper’s. He teaches creative nonfiction at Dartmouth College and lives in New Hampshire.
Author photo by Greg Martin