A protester confronts a Colorado Springs police officer about the death of De’Von Bailey, 19, who was shot and killed by police in 2019, during a 2020 protest against police brutality in Colorado Springs CO (Photo: Chancey Bush/The Gazette via AP)
In 2020 law enforcement continued their practice spying on activist groups and attempting to entrap them. Police infiltration of movement spaces never ended.
Originally published in The Intercept.
The young woman with long pink hair claimed to be from Washington state. One day during the summer of 2020, she walked into the Chinook Center, a community space for left-wing activists in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and offered to volunteer.
“She dressed in a way that was sort of noticeable,” said Samantha Christiansen, a co-founder of the Chinook Center. But no one among the activists found that unusual or alarming; everyone has their own style. They accepted her into the community.
The pink-haired woman said her name was Chelsie. She also dropped regular hints about her chosen profession.
“She implied over the course of getting to know her that she was a sex worker,” said Jon Christiansen, Samantha’s husband and another co-founder of the Chinook Center.
“I think somebody else had told me that, and I just was like, ‘Oh, OK. That makes sense,’” said Autum Carter-Wallace, an activist in Colorado Springs. “I never questioned it.”
But Chelsie’s identity was as fake as her long pink hair. The young woman, whose real name is April Rogers, is a detective at the Colorado Springs Police Department. The FBI enlisted her to infiltrate and spy on racial justice groups during the summer of 2020.
The work of Rogers, or “Chelsie,” is a direct offshoot of the FBI’s summer of 2020 investigation in Denver, where Mickey Windecker, a paid FBI informant, drove a silver hearse, rose to a leadership role in the racial justice movement, and encouraged activists to become violent. Windecker provided information to the FBI about an activist who attended demonstrations in both Denver and Colorado Springs, prompting federal agents to launch a new investigation in the smaller Colorado city. I tell the story of Windecker and his FBI work, as well as the investigation in Colorado Springs, in “Alphabet Boys,” a 10-episode documentary podcast from Western Sound and iHeartPodcasts.
As the FBI’s Colorado Springs investigation reveals, Denver wasn’t the only city where federal agents infiltrated racial justice groups that summer. Working through the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a partnership with local police, the FBI assembled files on local activists using information secretly gathered by Rogers.
Once Rogers gained trust among the activists, she tried to set up at least two young men in gun-running conspiracies. Her tactics mirrored those of Windecker, who tried to entrap two Denver racial justice activists in crimes, including an FBI-engineered plot to assassinate Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser that went nowhere.
To reveal what happened in Colorado Springs, I obtained search warrant applications, body-camera video from local police assisting the FBI investigation, and recordings of conversations involving federal agents; reviewed hundreds of pages of internal FBI records about Social Media Exploitation, a program federal agents used to monitor racial justice activists nationwide; and interviewed about a dozen activists who were targeted in the federal probe.
The FBI declined to be interviewed about the Colorado Springs investigation and refused to respond in writing to a list of questions. The Colorado Springs Police Department also declined to comment, referring all questions to the FBI.
For her part, April Rogers won’t say anything. When called as a witness in a state court hearing, she testified that the Justice Department instructed her not to answer questions about the FBI investigation. “I’ve been told to respond, ‘I respectfully decline to answer,’” Rogers said under oath. The Colorado Springs Police Department declined to make her available for an interview.
This FBI investigation in Colorado Springs, 70 miles south of Denver, shows that federal law enforcement had embarked on a broad, and until now, secret strategy to spy on racial justice groups and try to entrap activists in crimes. “It’s disturbing, but not surprising, to learn the FBI’s reported targeting of racial justice activists in 2020 wasn’t limited to Denver,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told The Intercept. “It is a clear abuse of authority for the FBI to use undercover agents, informants, and local law enforcement to spy on and entrap people engaged in peaceful First Amendment-protected activities without any evidence of criminal activity or violent intent.”
The probe in Colorado Springs also raises questions about FBI priorities and the bureau’s perceptions of threats. As federal agents investigated political activists there, they also launched, and promptly dropped, an investigation of a man running a neo-Nazi website — a decision that would have deadly consequences.
The murder of George Floyd sparked protests in Colorado Springs, as in cities across the nation in the summer of 2020. Activists there were angered not only by Floyd’s death, but also by the killing of a local man, De’Von Bailey, who was shot in the back by police officers in 2019.
On August 3, 2020, as racial justice demonstrations roiled the nation, Colorado Springs activists organized a protest outside the suburban home of Alan Van’t Land, one of the officers involved in Bailey’s death.
“Alan Van’t Land, we are calling you a murderer,” a demonstrator yelled into a bullhorn.
“Murderer!” the other demonstrators repeated.
“Alan Van’t Land, we are calling you an assassin,” the man with the bullhorn continued. “Alan Van’t Land, we are calling you a racist. Alan Van’t Land, you are a pig.”
“Pig!” the demonstrators chanted. “Pig!”
They blocked the road through the neighborhood, and the protest escalated. A driver trying to pass through got into a verbal altercation with Charles Johnson, a Black activist and college student. Following the argument, Johnson allegedly swatted the driver’s phone out of his hands.
Other demonstrators recorded the encounter, and that and other footage from the protest circulated among far-right social media accounts as examples of the apparent dangers of racial justice and antifascist activists. Michelle Malkin, a conspiracy theorist who lives in Colorado Springs, tweeted: “Nowhere is safe.”
Most of the protesters wore face masks due to the pandemic, making it difficult for police to identify them, but the FBI had a source on the inside: Rogers, the young detective who suggested that she was a sex worker named Chelsie. The day after the demonstration, Rogers contacted Jon Christiansen. She said she had a filing cabinet to donate.
“And I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. We need all kinds of stuff,’” Christiansen remembered telling her.
A couple of days later, Rogers dropped off the cabinet.
“This giant filing cabinet,” Christiansen told me, pointing to it inside the Chinook Center. “In retrospect, after the fact, we’re like, ‘Right, that looks like a filing cabinet that would be in a police station.’”
Rogers began volunteering regularly to help with administrative tasks. Several organizations used the Chinook Center as an office, including a local tenants’ union and a group that organized racial justice demonstrations, and Rogers had access to their membership records and email accounts. Christiansen didn’t know that Rogers, rifling through various files, was feeding information to the FBI.
For a year, Rogers went unnoticed as she spied on activists from the inside.
On July 31, 2021, the Chinook Center activists organized a housing rights rally to coincide with the city’s 150th-anniversary celebration. Rogers and other demonstrators marched down the city’s streets, many carrying “Rent Is Theft” signs and wearing red shirts that read “Housing Is a Human Right.”
The activists did not know that Colorado Springs police, working with the FBI, planned to arrest several of them that day.
Sitting in a police cruiser, Officer Scott Alamo waited for the protesters. His body camera recorded him talking to other officers in the car.
“Well, boys,” Alamo said. “We sit, we wait, we get paid.”
Alamo pulled out a report with pictures of the activists they intended to arrest. The report, which Alamo accidentally revealed on his body camera, appeared to be a product of an FBI program known as Social Media Exploitation, or SOMEX, which allows the FBI and local police to mine social media for information about individual Americans without warrants. The photos in the report weren’t mugshots; they were images from social media, including Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Internal records obtained by The Intercept last year revealed that the FBI and the Chicago Police Department used SOMEX to collect information about racial justice demonstrators in that city. Additional documents obtained by the national security-oriented transparency nonprofit Property of the People show that the FBI monitored social media activity, including Twitter posts and Facebook event pages, of racial justice activists in Washington, D.C., and Seattle. These internal documents also revealed that the FBI wanted to keep its social media activity secret. One document described the FBI’s need for new software solutions that could provide more invasive data mining of social media while maintaining “the lowest digital footprint.”
As Alamo looked at the SOMEX report, he focused on a photo of Jon Christiansen taken from one of his social media profiles.
“Professor?” Alamo asked his colleagues in the car, referring to Christiansen’s position as a sociology professor at a local college. He continued flipping through the report. “Boot to the face,” Alamo announced gleefully. “It’s going to happen.”
And it did. More than a dozen cops stormed into the housing march looking for activists whose photos they’d seen, including Christiansen and Johnson, the man who’d gotten into the altercation at the demonstration a year earlier.
Jacqueline Armendariz Unzueta, an activist and Colorado-based staffer for Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet at the time, was walking her bike just beyond the melee. “And I see what I thought was a bunch of cops dog-piled on the entire crowd,” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘Holy shit, they’re coming for everybody, then? What the fuck?’ Just shell-shocked.”
As she turned around, Armendariz Unzueta saw a police officer dressed in riot gear charging toward her. Her fight-or-flight response kicked in. Another officer’s body camera captured the encounter.
“I just threw my bike down and was like, ‘Bitch, you’re coming for me?’” Armendariz Unzueta said. “That’s the honest truth.”
The bike’s bell gave off a short ring as it hit the concrete, landing between Armendariz Unzueta and the charging officer. The bike did not touch the officer, who sidestepped it and continued toward the crowd of demonstrators.
“I just reacted,” Armendariz Unzueta told me.
Armendariz Unzueta was wearing a bike helmet, oversized sunglasses, and a face mask, making her difficult to identify from the video. But police, working with the FBI, knew where to look — no warrant needed — for their most-wanted cyclist: social media.
A Colorado Springs detective assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force started looking for the mysterious masked woman with the bicycle. Daniel Summey pulled up the social media accounts of known Chinook Center activists and then searched their friends lists. From there, Summey found Armendariz Unzueta’s accounts, including photos in which she wore the same shoes and helmet that could be seen in the police body-camera footage.
Summey wrote a search warrant application for Armendariz Unzueta’s home. In it, he observed that demonstrators at the housing march carried red flags. “The red flag is significant in that it is a radical political symbol, and designates the march … as revolutionary and radical in nature,” he wrote, basing his claim on this website about red flags, which notes that “the red flag has, predominantly, become a symbol of socialism and communism.”
Summey’s application suggested that the FBI was using political ideology as a basis for investigation, which is against the bureau’s stated policy. “We don’t investigate ideology,” the FBI’s Director Christopher Wray told a Senate committee in 2019.
Summey also attached pictures of Armendariz Unzueta from social media, including a nearly full-page photo of her in a bikini that had no relevance to the investigation.
“Sometimes you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying,” Armendariz Unzueta told me when I asked her about it.
Police searched her home, took her bicycle and electronic devices, and charged her with attempted aggravated assault on a police officer — a second-degree felony.
Rogers, meanwhile, began to invite young male activists to her apartment. In a recording I obtained, an FBI agent in Colorado Springs confirmed that meetings between Rogers and at least two activists occurred. Although the possibility of a sexual encounter appeared to be implicit in the invitations, the meetings took unexpected turns.
One of the activists lured to a meeting with Rogers described walking into the apartment. “And there’s two guys sitting there with her,” he said. The activist asked not to be identified because he feared that being publicly associated with an FBI investigation could cost him his job.
Rogers asked if he could find her an illegal gun to buy, the activist recalled. “I’m not going to sell one to you illegally,” the activist, a firearms enthusiast, told Rogers and her two companions. He then left.
Rogers invited over a second man, Gabriel Palcic, who was active in the tenants’ union that kept its paperwork at the Chinook Center. Like the first activist, Palcic entered the apartment to find two men with Rogers. They said their names were Mike and Omar. “Mike was missing his left leg from the knee down. Omar was kind of a Middle Eastern-looking guy with a big beard,” Palcic told me. “Both had tattoos. Both were very buff.”
Palcic said Mike and Omar claimed to be truckers who trafficked in illegal weapons. They told him they could get grenades, TNT, and AK-47s, and they asked if he wanted to buy anything.
Intrigued, Palcic met Mike and Omar several more times; during one encounter, they showed Palcic what they claimed was a fully automatic AK-47. “I never saw any grenades or TNT or any of that other shit they were talking about,” Palcic told me.
Palcic continued to hang around with Mike and Omar because they were generous, buying him meals, drinks, and cigars when they met. “There were a few times where they were obviously pumping drinks into me,” Palcic remembered. “‘Yeah, do you want another double shot of that 16-year Scotch?’”
But Palcic eventually told the two men he didn’t want any weapons and stopped returning their calls and text messages. Palcic has not been charged with a crime, according to publicly available court records.
Not long after, Armendariz Unzueta, the woman accused of assaulting a police officer with her bike, was granted access to the evidence in her case, which included police body-camera video from the day of the incident. Among the footage was the recording from Alamo’s body camera, which captured the officer flipping through the report filled with social media photos of activists.
Alamo’s body camera captured something else that day. In the recording, he mentioned that there were police officers secretly among the protesters at the housing march. He said there were two undercover cops and four plainclothes officers. He then looked at a photo on his phone.
“A picture of April, with her giant boobs,” Alamo said and laughed, apparently referring to one of the undercover officers in the crowd.
The activists at the Chinook Center watched the video. At the time, they didn’t know who April Rogers was. “There was a process of elimination,” Jon Christiansen said. “And then eventually we were able to triangulate that April Rogers was Chelsie.”
That’s when Rogers disappeared from the activist scene in Colorado Springs.
In the spring of 2022, while researching how the FBI’s 2020 investigation in Denver had expanded into Colorado Springs, I started contacting activists and gathering records there. At the same time, seemingly by coincidence, FBI agents took a renewed interest in the case, calling activists and knocking on doors. One of the activists they contacted was Autum Carter-Wallace. Her doorbell camera recorded agents coming to her home when she was away. One of the agents called her while outside her home.
“We came down to chat with you if you’re available,” the agent said in the voicemail. “I think it would be great to sit down with you and talk to you about some things that we are concerned about as it relates to things happening in the community.”
Carter-Wallace called the federal agent, who asked her about Palcic. She told the agent that she didn’t know him. The agent then told Carter-Wallace that the FBI had obtained video from a demonstration showing her standing next to Palcic.
“A protest with, like, a thousand people. I’m standing near one guy. You think I know him?” Carter-Wallace responded.
Agents also visited the home of one of the activists whom Rogers had tried to engage in an illegal firearms transaction. This activist agreed to meet with agents at the FBI’s office in Colorado Springs on the condition that he be allowed to record their conversation. The activist then provided me with a copy of that recording.
The agent on the recording confirmed the activist’s suspicions: that the two men with Rogers were undercover agents trying to entrap him in an illegal firearms transaction.
“You felt there was a gun-running conspiracy we were trying to throw at you, which those were, in fact, undercovers,” Brandon Kimble, the FBI agent, said during the recorded conversation. “However, they basically were in town to do a meeting with Gabe [Palcic] to sell him hand grenades.”
Last summer, after returning from a trip to England, Palcic was detained by agents at Denver International Airport. The agents provided him with copies of court-authorized search warrants that allowed for a tracking device to be installed on his truck and for his phone’s GPS data to be collected.
Palcic called me immediately after leaving the airport. “They basically recounted for me that they were looking into me, you know, because I inquired about acquiring weapons,” Palcic said. “And they said that, you know, they have recordings of all the conversations I had with the [undercovers] — which, obviously, you know?”
Palcic claimed that the agents told him the FBI was investigating the Chinook Center and the entire activist movement associated with the nonprofit.
In June 2022, I returned to Colorado Springs to attend a state criminal court hearing involving Charles Johnson, the activist arrested at the housing rights march. State prosecutors charged Johnson with theft, aggravated assault, and resisting arrest for his activities at various protests in the summer of 2020.
During the hearing, Johnson’s lawyer, Alison Blackwell, called Rogers to testify over prosecutors’ objections. Rogers entered the courtroom, this time wearing a long black wig and a black disposable face mask. A Justice Department lawyer, Timothy Jafek, sat at the prosecution table and spoke privately with Rogers before she took the witness stand.
The judge asked Rogers to take off her mask. She pulled it down to her chin.
“When you were marching in the housing march, were you doing that for the Colorado Springs Police Department?” Blackwell asked Rogers.
“I was, uh, under the authority of the FBI,” Rogers answered meekly. She looked over at the Justice Department lawyer, her body rigid.
“OK. And how many other FBI agents were in that march?” Blackwell asked.
“I respectfully decline to answer,” Rogers said, looking again at the Justice Department lawyer.
“Did you think my client was a terrorist threat at any point?”
“I respectfully decline to answer.”
“You can just say no,” Blackwell said, exasperated.
“I’ve been told to respond, ‘I respectfully decline to answer,’” Rogers admitted.
Sitting in the courtroom, some of the activists from the Chinook Center snickered as this absurdity played out. The Justice Department, which was not a party to the case and had no authority in that courtroom, silenced a local cop on the witness stand as a state judge looked on from the bench. Jafek declined to comment as he left the courtroom that day.
The following month, as part of a deal to avoid jail time, Johnson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing a highway for his role in a June 2020 racial justice protest.
Meanwhile, Armendariz Unzueta, whose criminal prosecution for pushing her bike down in a panic revealed the evidence that blew Rogers’s cover, is completing a deferred prosecution agreement. Under its terms, the felony charge against her will be dropped if she does 25 hours of community service and writes a letter of apology.
Shaun Walls, a Black activist who helped start the Chinook Center, said the FBI’s activity has had a chilling effect. “What they did has been effective,” Walls said. “People have become more cautious about what they’re doing, which is a shame because no one is doing anything illegal.”
A few months later, in November 2022, a Colorado man who ran a neo-Nazi website and had briefly been investigated by the FBI, at the same time federal agents were spying on the Chinook Center activists, committed a horrific crime.
Armed with AR-15-style rifle, Anderson Lee Aldrich killed five people and injured 25 others in a mass shooting at Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs. An Army veteran at the club tackled Aldrich, preventing what would have otherwise been a much deadlier mass shooting. The attack made national news and drew comparisons to the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed and 53 wounded.
As with the killer in the Pulse attack, the FBI had previously investigated the Club Q shooter. In the summer of 2021, after family members reported that he was building a bomb in a basement and had threatened to kill them, FBI agents opened an investigation of Aldrich. They closed that inquiry less than a month later.
As the federal agents gave the future mass shooter a pass, the FBI, with the help of a pink-haired undercover cop, aggressively targeted local political activists seeking affordable housing and police accountability.
“We like to say our successes generally don’t make the news,” Kimble, the FBI agent who helped put together the failed gun-running stings against the Colorado Springs activists, said in the recorded conversation a few months before the Club Q shooting. “When we screw up, it’s because something went boom or there was a mass shooting.”
Eleanor Knight contributed research.
Trevor Aaronson is a contributing writer for The Intercept and a 2020 ASU Future Security Fellow at New America. He is also executive director of the nonprofit Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and author of “The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism.” His 2015 TED Talk, “How this FBI strategy is actually creating U.S.-based terrorists,” has been viewed more than 1 million times and translated into more than 20 languages. A two-time finalist for the Livingston Awards, Aaronson has won the Molly National Journalism Prize, the international Data Journalism Award, and the John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award. His work for The Intercept has won honors from the Online Journalism Awards for investigative data journalism and feature writing.