At high noon on a Monday ten years ago in Denver, Hunter S. Thompson stood on the steps of the Capitol and challenged the State to release a young woman being held for life without parole for a murder she did not commit. Hunter called the Denver Police “thugs” over a sound system with a wall of speakers that he had spent his own money to rent to make sure no one missed the message in downtown Denver that sunny day in May.
It was a brave act for a self-proclaimed “elderly dope fiend” to call out the pigs in the Denver Police and challenge them to a street fight. But, as the Road Manager on this trip down from Woody Creek, I saw nothing but trouble, even though our entourage included Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, and famed criminal defense lawyer Gerald Goldstein. The Sheriff was actually a liability since he had no authority in Denver and his public stance against drug enforcement made him an additional attractive target for the cops. Goldstein, on the other hand, would at least make our bail.
I figured my video camera was our best defense. If nothing else when we got busted, I’d have an interesting scene for my work-in-progress – Breakfast with Hunter – and interesting evidence for the inevitable trial later on. Ultimately, my footage from that trip became the heart of my third film about Hunter – Free Lisl: Fear & Loathing in Denver.
The last week in Woody Creek preparing for the Free Lisl Rally had been intense. Hunter’s son and daughter-in-law – Juan and Jennifer Thompson – were working with a Denver public relations person – Matt Moseley – on the details of the rally which Hunter was both hosting and funding. Endless phone calls about the mechanics of the event – security, the sound system, the order of appearances, etc. – keep Hunter on edge…exactly where he liked to be. The rally was set for Monday, May 14, 2001, and Monday was also the day when Hunter’s weekly “Hey Rube” column had to be filed for ESPN.com.
Hunter was eager to write about the Free Lisl rally for the column, but since his was ostensibly a sports column, getting this subject accepted by ESPN was far from certain. The editors at ESPN had allowed Hunter once before to write a bit about the case of Lisl Auman – a 21 year old convicted of a cop killing that someone she had just met committed while she was handcuffed in the back of a police car. The response on the web was overwhelming – ESPN claimed 100,000 clicks on his piece – and now Hunter hoped to write a complete column just about Lisl’s case and Monday’s rally to be published the day of the rally.
For Hunter writing was never easy. To witness this excruciating process was like watching gooey paint dry with odd moments of humor and ill temper thrown into the mix. You can see for yourself in my last film- Animals, Whores & Dialogue – which revolves around a long night of trying to write a column.
The rhythm of writing the column usually entailed getting a lead down by midnight Sunday followed by at least another 1000 words to be written and filed by the time Hunter went to bed on Monday morning. I’d usually stay around until the lead got written and then Anita would somehow miraculously finish the piece with Hunter by dawn. Given the rally on Monday in Denver, this one would have to find its way onto paper much earlier.
Hunter was a professional in this case, given his dedication to freeing Lisl. By Saturday he had over half the column written, and by Sunday it was done, and sent off to ESPN in time for us to get on a chartered plane to Denver, courtesy of Gerry Goldstein.
Hunter put us all up at his favorite hotel in Denver – The Brown Palace – footing the bill for at least a half dozen rooms, including the Sheriff, journalist Curtis Robinson, historian Douglas Brinkley, and songwriter Warren Zevon. The bar at the Brown Palace – The Ship’s Tavern – became our new headquarters, just as the bar at the Jerome Hotel in Aspen was Hunter’s de facto campaign headquarters when he ran for Sheriff of Pitkin County.
If nothing else, Hunter was a superb politician. How else can you explain the fact that he almost became Sheriff in 1970 on a campaign of Freak Power? Now, thirty years later, Hunter’s acute political instincts were aided by years of successfully manipulating the media and turning himself into an icon with his own Gonzo brand. His effort to free Lisl Auman was his last and most successful political campaign, and his most significant achievement in the last years of his life.
Lisl’s lawyers were fearful that Hunter would create a back lash. Her first appeal was scheduled to be filed the day of the Free Lisl Rally.
Hunter’s boss at ESPN, John Walsh woke me up on Monday morning with a phone call to my room at The Brown Palace. I was ready to hear that ESPN had rejected the column entirely, but Mr. Walsh seemed relatively unperturbed and said that they had done some editing and were faxing a copy of the approved column to me to give to Hunter.
Looking back now at the original version and comparing it to what ESPN finally published, it’s notable what they left out – an amazing riff and against police brutality and treachery. Some edits for other columns were restored for the book of his ESPN columns, also called Hey Rube, but these words were left behind:
Police atrocities are common in cities like Denver, Cincinnati and New Orleans. Police in L.A. and Long Island have recently admitted making women they pull over for speeding strip naked and perform oral sex on them. That happens everywhere, all the time. It is standard practice in Texas and Florida.
A bit of Gonzo reporting – exaggerated, yet true – but over the top for ESPN. Fortunately, ESPN did keep a central passage about standing up for what’s right:
It is very Important to learn early in life, that you CAN beat City Hall, and that You Can change the System. You might be beaten and gassed by Police a few times before you succeed – but that stuff goes with the territory. And you will be proud of it later, just as you will make smart friends who will stand with you all your life.
Hunter was so relieved that the Free Lisl column would be published that he did not fight for the deleted screed against police brutality. In the end, his main bitch with ESPN was how they changed his title for the piece from his words:
THE MOST DANGEROUS SPORT OF ALL
GOING TO WAR FOR JUSTICE
If nothing else, Hunter’s title was meant to justify the piece as a “sports” column.
We stayed in Denver for one more night after the rally, hanging out in Hunter’s suite at the Brown Palace and in the Ship’s Tavern, celebrating our success. Personally, I would have preferred to leave straight from the Capitol for Woody Creek. Why the cops hadn’t already busted us at this point for just being in Denver was a mystery to me.
My paranoia level went even higher when I learned that the Doorman at the Brown Palace was the son of the former Denver Police Chief. Shortly after getting this vital piece of intel, I went to retrieve our rental car for the ride back to Aspen. The police chief’s son, dressed like some Queen’s Beefeater, said that he had “lost” our car keys, but was hopeful that he might find them “soon” so we could leave.
I immediately ran to the rental agency and rented two cars, and then, drove back to the Brown in one car with a rental guy driving the other. I parked them both in front of the main entrance, locked the doors, and took the keys, despite the Doorman’s protest. Upstairs I collected Hunter and Anita, all our bags, and most importantly, my video camera.
As we emerged from the front door of the Brown, the Doorman led us to our cars, eyeing the video camera that I held up with it’s red light on so everyone could see I was recording. Thus, a Sony DCR VX-1000 had become our only means of protection during the Escape from Denver.
I asked Anita to drive Hunter’s car while I followed in my rental, openly videotaping our progress with the raised camera, hoping this might give some pause to a mass of pissed off Denver cops I was convinced were waiting to swarm us before we reached the city limits. The first few blocks went smoothly, except the emergency lights were flashing on Hunter’s car. Suddenly, Anita pulled over in a No Standing area on W. Colfax. I couldn’t believe that we were now sitting ducks, giving the cops the pretext they needed to swoop down. I pulled up behind them, got out and ran up to the car as Anita emerged.
“What’s wrong.” I implored.
“He wants to drive,” she said with resignation.
And, so he did, driving like a maniac to the edge of town and beyond. I shadowed him as best I could until he pulled off the freeway at the exit for Buffalo Bill’s Grave at Lookout Mountain. “Perfect,” I thought as I continued on up the road to Woody Creek.
Anita reported later that it was the most terrifying ride of her live. She huddled under a blanket on the floor in the back of the car most of the way home.
As for Lisl Auman, almost four years later and a few weeks after Hunter’s suicide, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in her favor, reversing her conviction and remanding for a new trial. A plea bargain set her free, although she remains on probation for many years to come.
Copyright 2011 By Wayne Ewing