Lee Keltner constructed a status as a seasoned hatter and "very robust patriot" earlier than becoming a member of the protest entrance – the Denver Publish
For two decades before Lee Keltner's name was recognized nationwide as a victim of the shooting in an altercation after dueling political rallies in Denver, he was known locally for his custom western hats – rather than his politics.
Friends and business associates said he put dedication and care into his craft and earned a reputation as an experienced hatter. They remember a lightheartedness and silly sense of humor, although it was also clear that the US Navy veteran considered himself a proud patriot.
"It's hard to articulate, but he was your typical Western type," recalls Steve Weil, president of Rockmount Ranch Wear on Wazee Street in downtown Denver, who for years sold Keltner the basic hats he would customize. “You know, he lived the western lifestyle. He was the real deal. And its customers were probably the core western market, not so much wannabe. … you wear westerns every day. "
That year, however, the 49-year-old Keltner was drawn to political action. When police came under fire during Black Lives Matter racial justice demonstrations this summer, Keltner felt the need to demonstrate his support for law enforcement.
He participated in several demonstrations and counter-protests, and shared his experiences on social media, which signaled a willingness to engage with protesters on the other side.
"He wasn't part of any group," his son Johnathon "Jay" Keltner told the Denver Post on Sunday. "He was there to gather for the police and he was down there before he met for the police."
When he left the Patriot Rally on Saturday, which lured supporters of various conservative causes to the Denver Civic Center – along with counter-demonstrators who took part in a "BLM-Antifa Soup Drive" – Keltner was in a heated argument with a man involved Far unknown to the police, who wore a shirt with the slogan "Black Guns Matter". Keltner wore a t-shirt that read "BLM: You're (expletively) right, Biker's life is important."
During that argument, Keltner, with a can of pepper spray in hand, confronted a 9News television producer who was taping him, according to videos of the incident. The producer's bodyguard, Matthew Dolloff, entered. Within seconds, Keltner hit Dolloff on the side of the head, and Dolloff drew a pistol and fired it as Keltner released the pepper spray.
Keltner died within minutes of a fateful moment captured on onlookers' cell phones and on the camera of a Denver Post photographer who was nearby. The shooting was also witnessed by Keltner's older son, 24-year-old C.J.
Dolloff, 30, is charged with second degree murder, Denver prosecutors said, and his family's attorney has outlined plans to argue he defended himself. Meanwhile, 9News had questions about his decision to hire contract security officers to accompany his crews to protests, despite the station saying Dolloff should not be armed.
Keltner's family members gave brief interviews in the days following the incident. However, later in the week some declined to speak to The Post or did not respond to interview requests. While online fundraisers have received financial support for Keltner's family, some members have been harassed on social media by people who attacked Keltner's perceived policies or blame him for his actions in the incident.
"At this point, I am speaking only to family about the evil that happened," wrote Keltner's mother, Carol, of Jonesboro, Arkansas, in response to the Post's interview request.
After the DA office announced its indictment ruling on Thursday, an attorney issued a statement on behalf of Keltner's wife, Kevin Christine Keltner and other family members, asking for privacy and compassion. The attorney, William P. Boyle, was still looking for answers from 9News and the two security firms involved in hiring Dolloff, who was not a Denver security officer.
"The Keltners are looking forward to justice for Lee and the second degree murder charge of Mr. Dolloff … is the first step in that direction," Boyle said.
He urged that Keltner be remembered "as a father, grandfather, husband, and Colorado craftsman".
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Lee Keltner shoots pepper spray when Matthew Dolloff, an unlicensed security officer with 9News, fires a gun in Denver, Colorado on October 10, 2020. The fatal shots came after right- and left-wing rallies in downtown Denver.
Keltner is a longtime Brighton resident, but his voter registration filed in July – and what appears to be his first Colorado voter registration – listed a residential address in Idaho Springs. He was a member of the American Constitution Party, a small conservative party.
He started hat making when he was in his early 20s and told The Post for a business feature on Crossfire Hats in 2015 that he moved to Durango with his pregnant wife to learn the trade.
After starting his own business, he built a clientele along the Front Range. He worked early at The Grizzly Rose, a country western dance hall north of Denver, and later in the Livestock Exchange Building of the National Western Complex and from home, among other things. He bought simple hats and reshaped them by adding flourishes or special treatments to order.
"If you work behind the hat counter, that's pretty much the addiction," Keltner told the post in 2015. "It's in your blood and you get a passion for it." It's an art like painting and I just kept doing it. I am lucky that I have been able to make a living from it for 21 years. "
Several years earlier, a series of videos sponsored by the American Angus Association showed the National Western Stock Show and included a clip about Keltner who said, “I love being an artist and creating new and different things. Since I do all the work myself and do it one at a time, it is really special for the client to receive a wearable work of art to demonstrate their personality and style. "
Donald Graham says he became friends with Keltner through his business about 20 years ago and met him at The Grizzly Rose.
The two struck a deal: In exchange for custom hats, Graham, a budding photographer, took marketing photos for Keltner's business. Keltner wore various costumes and sometimes posed with one of his sons.
"He was a fun guy," said Graham. “It was great fun hanging out with him. As a photographer, he was one of the most charismatic actors I have ever worked with – or models, I would say. He would dress up and run away. … You would see in one a loving father (photo), in another a kind of hillbilly, in another a law-and-order man.
"That's exactly what came out – he could put himself into character so easily."
Graham later invested in Keltner's business when he lacked the money to stock up on inventory, he said. But he hasn't known him that well in recent years, Graham said, and was shocked to learn of his death outside of the rally.
In the days that followed, he searched for answers.
“Well, I knew Lee pretty well. He was a very strong patriot, ”said Graham, who works as a construction consultant and commercial drone pilot, although they didn't talk much about politics at the time. "He's a veteran, he served in the military. He would do anything to defend the constitution and defend the flag."
"Like many of us," he added, "we're sick of it" – the tone and tone of the police violence protests this summer, the all-or-nothing tone of national politics, and what Graham ridiculed for feels conservatives from the left.
Keltner's son said on Sunday his father had slowed down in recent years after sustaining serious injuries in a wreck on his motorcycle.
"He was just trying to get through," said Jay Keltner.
Previously, Keltner had suffered personal and financial setbacks, with three marriages ending in divorce or nullity, according to court records, and one bankruptcy case resolved in 2012 involving unpaid medical and business debts. He married his current wife in Red Rocks in 2014, according to the Denver Clerk and Recorder office.
Weil, the president of Rockmount Ranch Wear, said he hadn't had any contact with Keltner in about five years. He said he was surprised to learn that Keltner was killed in the incident on Saturday.
He was thinking about the toxic brew of politics in 2020, he said – with a raging pandemic, people taking sides in the presidential election, and volatile clashes on the streets. Each side is polarized and barely or not at all respects the beliefs of the opposing side.
"What happened to our society that politics became fatal?" Because said. "What happened? And how do we get back to it?"
The Denver Post employee Elise Schmelzer contributed to this story.