Trey Quinn, a Denver organizer, speaks on the steps of Denver City Hall on June 29, 2020. Mickey Windecker and the FBI targeted Quinn as part of the undercover probe. (Photo: Kevin Mohatt/Reuters)
COINTELPRO never ended. The FBI still pays informants to disrupt, to target organizers, and to spy on the movement.
This article was originally published in The Intercept.
As racial justice protests broke out nationwide in the summer of 2020, a man driving a silver hearse became a regular at the demonstrations in Denver.
He was a paunchy 5-foot-7 with a ruddy complexion and wore military fatigues with patches on the sleeves. By activist standards, he was an old-timer: pushing 50 as he swaggered through crowds of teens and 20-something protesters, a cigar clamped in his lips.
“I didn’t know much about him, but he drove a hearse,” said Zebbodios “Zebb” Hall, a Black activist in Denver. “Inside this hearse was a lot of guns: AR-15s and all other kinds of shit.”
The driver of the hearse filled with guns was Michael Adam Windecker II. He went by the nickname Mickey and boasted of having been a soldier for the French Foreign Legion and the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighting force known most recently for battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He claimed to have traveled to those battlefields and trained antifascist activists there in weapons, hand-to-hand combat, and explosives.
“He was just this badass dude talking about how he worked in a foreign military and how he was for the Black Lives Matter movement,” Hall remembered.
Denver was a hot spot during the summer of 2020, with protesters enraged not just by George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis but also by the senseless death of Elijah McClain, who was forcefully subdued by police in 2019 in Aurora, a Denver suburb, and injected with a lethal dose of ketamine.
Trey Quinn, a muscular Black activist with a beard and large-framed glasses, led some Denver protests. One night, after Quinn had addressed a group of demonstrators, several young activists introduced him to Windecker.
“Hey, this guy’s really, really dope. He’s legit. He knows his shit,” Quinn remembered being told by the fresh-faced activists. “You should let him sit in, and he could probably help you out.” Windecker was “really pushy,” Quinn told me, “trying to put himself at the forefront.”
Bryce Shelby, another Black activist, remembered seeing Windecker walking around the protests. He had a GoPro camera strapped to his chest, which Shelby initially thought was suspicious. “He de-escalated any type of suspicion because he would start flashing his prison badge,” Shelby said. “So yeah. You know what I mean? OK, he’s not a fed.”
But Shelby and many other activists in Denver were wrong about the man behind the wheel of the silver hearse. Windecker was a fed. The FBI paid him tens of thousands of dollars in cash to infiltrate and spy on racial justice groups during the summer of 2020.
For the last year, I’ve been investigating Windecker and his work for the FBI. I tell that story in detail in a new 10-episode documentary podcast, “Alphabet Boys,” from Western Sound and iHeartPodcasts. As part of this investigation, I reviewed more than 300 pages of FBI reports and hours of FBI undercover recordings, as well as publicly available videos recorded by Denver demonstrators and by Windecker himself. I also examined dozens of court files related to Windecker’s past and interviewed more than three dozen racial justice activists who encountered Windecker during the summer of 2020.
The FBI declined to comment on Windecker and the investigation in Denver and refused to respond in writing to a list of questions I sent.
Windecker wouldn’t tell me much either. After I left a note at his old apartment south of Denver explaining that I wanted to interview him about his work for the FBI, he called me. “I do not work for the FBI,” he said. “I’ve never worked for the FBI. If you get proof of me working for the FBI, then I’ll say otherwise. But there’s no proof, because I didn’t work for them.”
I explained that I had FBI reports and recordings to the contrary.
“I don’t talk to the press, I don’t talk to politicians, and I don’t talk to police,” Windecker told me, before hanging up.
FBI payment receipt records signed by Windecker show that he was paid more than $20,000 for his work during the summer of 2020, when the FBI aggressively pursued racial justice and left-wing activists based on nothing more than First Amendment-protected activities. The story of the bureau’s infiltration of racial justice activist groups is particularly relevant now, as House Republicans launch a new committee chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, that seems exclusively focused on the FBI’s alleged targeting of right-wing groups.
The FBI’s work in Denver, with Windecker as its eyes and ears on the street, demonstrates the falsity of that narrative.
While on the FBI payroll, Windecker became an organizer of Denver’s racial justice demonstrations and ultimately undermined the social movement gaining momentum there by deploying the same controversial tactics the FBI used to devastating effect against Black political groups during the civil rights movement.
Until now, little has been revealed about the FBI’s actions in the summer of 2020. The Denver undercover probe involving Windecker provides the first look behind the scenes at how the FBI viewed and investigated racial justice groups during that turbulent summer.
Any accurate description of Windecker sounds like a cartoon. With tattoos all over his body, a scraggly goatee, garishly large rings on his fingers, and a soggy cigar in his mouth, Windecker was hard to miss as he drove the streets of the Mile High City in his silver hearse.
One rainy summer afternoon after becoming a paid informant, Windecker met with his FBI handler, Special Agent Scott Dahlstrom. The federal agent clicked on a hidden camera device.
“It is August 28, 2020, at approximately 4:02 p.m.,” Dahlstrom said into the FBI recorder before handing it to Windecker. The video is part of more than a dozen hours of FBI recordings I obtained documenting Windecker’s work investigating racial justice activists.
Dahlstrom asked Windecker if he remembered his tasking orders — which involved enticing a Black racial justice activist into committing a felony.
“Yep, I got it,” Windecker said. “Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad.”
Windecker walked to his silver hearse, placed the camera on the passenger seat, and started the ignition. Dahlstrom and his FBI colleagues watched the live feed from their black sedan.
“I got a song for you guys,” Windecker said, looking into the camera lens and speaking directly to the FBI agents. He turned up the volume on the silver hearse’s stereo and played “America (Fuck Yeah!),” the theme song from the puppet comedy movie “Team America: World Police”:
America, fuck yeah!
Comin’ again to save the motherfuckin’ day, yeah
America, fuck yeah!
Freedom is the only way, yeah
Terrorists, your game is through
’Cause now you have to answer to
America, fuck yeah!
As the song ended, Windecker turned to the camera again, as if on a stage, confident that the FBI agents were watching him.
“America,” Windecker said.
The United States of America had become Windecker’s new employer, and the FBI was paying him to spy on activists that summer day as he barreled down the road. According to internal FBI reports I obtained, Windecker began attending demonstrations in May 2020. He witnessed firsthand what millions of Americans saw on their screens at home: protests turning violent, clashes between left-wing and right-wing activists, demonstrators and instigators setting fires and vandalizing storefronts.
Windecker offered to give the FBI information about protesters. In an internal report, the FBI claimed that Windecker’s motivation for becoming an informant was “to fight terrorists” and that he believed “people who participate in violent civil unrest are terrorists.”
In their report adding him to the bureau’s more than 15,000 informants, FBI agents described Windecker as something of a good Samaritan — a kind of volunteer Captain America. But that notion was undercut by other bureau documents, which detailed Windecker’s history as both an informant and a criminal, with prior arrests in Colorado, Nevada, Texas, and Florida for crimes including sexual assault.
When Windecker was 20, he had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old he met at a roller skating rink. Windecker, who claimed he didn’t know the girl was underage, pleaded the case down to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to 180 days in jail.
In another case, for felony menacing with a weapon in 2001, Windecker stuck a gun in a woman’s face and claimed to be a police officer looking for a suspect. That incident resulted in a felony conviction, and Windecker served two years. While he was in prison, according to FBI internal reports, another inmate tried to hire him to murder someone; instead of committing the crime, Windecker became a cooperating witness and helped convict the people who’d sought to enlist him.
In addition to criminal charges, Windecker has had four protection orders filed against him in Colorado, the most recent in 2021. In a petition for a protection order filed in 2016, a friend of Windecker’s alleged that Windecker had presented a fake police badge and threatened to kill him and his family.
Windecker claimed to have been a fighter for the French Foreign Legion and the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighting force in Iraq. He often said he had diplomatic immunity in the United States due to his association with the Kurds. In 2015, the Daily Beast reported that he was disliked by other volunteer Peshmerga fighters. One American fighter was reported to have described him as “a compulsive liar.”
I spoke to several volunteers who were with Windecker in Iraq; few of them wanted to be publicly associated with him. One of those fighters told me that Windecker claimed to be a demolitions specialist. “Dude was going around literally cutting wires off of IEDs,” he said, referring to improvised explosive devices, also known as roadside bombs. “So he could have gotten anybody killed in the vicinity.”
Alan Duncan, a Scottish volunteer fighter with the Peshmerga, told me that he hadn’t fought with Windecker but knew his reputation from the other fighters. Windecker was better known for taking pictures with dead bodies, long after the fighting was finished, than for engaging in combat, Duncan told me. “He was floating about taking a few photos with the Pesh,” Duncan said. “It’s easy to claim to be Peshmerga. But claiming to be Peshmerga and actually being Peshmerga are two different things.”
Cassie Windecker, Mickey Windecker’s third ex-wife, told me that during one of his tours with the Peshmerga, Kurdish fighters had contacted her online to say that he was vacationing more than fighting.
When they first started dating, she recalled, Windecker sent her a picture of thousands of dollars in cash spread over a bed. “Do you want to come home to this every day?” Cassie remembered Windecker asking her. She said that she never knew Windecker to hold down a job during their marriage, but he often had a lot of cash in his pockets.
Cassie had long suspected that her husband was secretly working for the police in some capacity. She said she’d seen him visit local police stations to meet with cops. “Why do you have so much money?” Cassie, who was an exotic dancer at the time, would ask him. “I bust my ass, literally, on a pole. What are you doing?” She told me that Windecker would never give her a straight answer.
In July 2017, after she and Windecker separated, Cassie went to the apartment they had once shared to pick up her mail. In the apartment, Windecker allegedly grabbed Cassie by the neck, slammed her down on a table, and stood over her holding a gun. Cassie screamed as she ran out of the apartment; police arrived and arrested Windecker. The responding officers were wearing body cameras, and I obtained those videos. “He slammed me on my back, on the table, like freaking WWE-style,” Cassie told the cops, her voice breaking with fear.
While in jail following that arrest, Windecker revealed his talents as an informant, according to the police body camera footage.
“One of the officers said that you had to speak to me about a murder?” the arresting officer said to Windecker, speaking through the jail cell door about two hours after the arrest.
“Well, here’s the thing,” Windecker replied matter-of-factly. He then offered information about a murder, and the arresting officer told him he’d have to talk to a detective.
“Hang tight, all right?” the officer said as he walked away. The body camera footage then ended.
While in the hospital for her injuries, Cassie said she received a text from Windecker: “Hey bitch, I’m out.”
Cassie said police officers were still taking her statement in the hospital when the text arrived. “And I showed them the text, and they were just like, ‘We don’t know how he’s out,’” she said.
There is no record in Colorado court files of Windecker being charged, and Cassie said she was not contacted by police or prosecutors following her discharge from the hospital.
Three years later, in the summer of 2020, Windecker approached the FBI, claiming to have unique information about racial justice activists.
As protests broke out in cities like Minneapolis; Denver; and Portland, Oregon, the FBI’s second-in-command, David L. Bowdich, compared the demonstrations to the 9/11 attacks. “When 9/11 occurred, our folks did not quibble about whether there was danger ahead for them,” Bowdich wrote in a memo first obtained by the New York Times. “They ran head-on into peril.” Bowdich described the racial justice demonstrations throughout the country as “a national crisis” whose “violent protesters” were “highly organized.”
Agents suspected these demonstrators could fit into a domestic terrorism ideology the bureau had defined during the first year of the Trump administration as “Black Identity Extremism”: a controversial, widely criticized catchall label for any domestic extremist ideology that drew a Black following. (The FBI has since abandoned the term in favor of a new category called “Racially Motivated Violent Extremism,” which combines white supremacist violence with so-called Black Identity Extremism.)
What’s been publicly known about the federal government’s activity during the summer of 2020 is astonishing: The Justice Department charged hundreds of people for their roles in First Amendment-protected demonstrations; the Department of Homeland Security deployed more than 750 agents, dressed in military-style uniforms, to Portland and abducted demonstrators in unmarked vans; and the Drug Enforcement Administration, using surveillance powers intended to stop drug runners, spied on more than 50 racial justice groups nationwide, among them a peaceful group that held a vigil on a public university campus in Florida.
The official position of the FBI, whose undercover activities during the summer of 2020 have been largely unknown until now, is that agents do not open investigations based on First Amendment-protected activities. “We don’t investigate ideology. We don’t investigate rhetoric,” the FBI’s director, Christopher Wray, told a Senate committee in 2019. “It doesn’t matter how repugnant and how abhorrent or whatever it is.”
But internal reports I obtained suggest otherwise. These documents show that Windecker’s information was about speech, and this apparently justified hiring him as an informant and launching the undercover investigation. He reported that one local activist, Zebb Hall, used incendiary rhetoric in conversations with other demonstrators, claiming that Hall said: “We need to burn this motherfucker down.”
Windecker also secretly recorded a conversation in which Hall spoke vaguely of violent revolution and a desire to train for combat. Windecker encouraged Hall with fantastical claims of training antifascist activists in Iraq and Syria as part of what he called the “Red Star Brigade.”
“My type of training that I do is anything from, like, I teach how to shoot a gun to, you know—”
“Hand-to-hand combat?” Hall interrupted.
“Yeah, hand-to-hand combat all the way to blowing up fucking buildings and guerrilla warfare tactics and sabotage,” Windecker replied.
Windecker, secretly working for the FBI, quickly became well-known among Denver’s most committed activists.
“He came off as maybe being a [rookie], but really being into the movement,” Brian Loma, who livestreamed many of the area’s demonstrations that summer, told me.
One of Loma’s videos from July 2020 shows demonstrators marching down a street in Aurora. “Our streets!” they chant. “Our streets!” Windecker’s slow-moving silver hearse can be seen upfront in the video, clearing the way for the demonstrators.
By the next month, Windecker had become a leader of Denver’s racial justice movement. The demonstrators had given him a nickname: Drill Sergeant.
With his military-style jacket and trademark cigar, he’d strut confidently in front of a line of demonstrators, some dressed in homemade armor.
“I can’t hear you!” Windecker would yell.
“No justice! No peace!” the demonstrators would chant back loudly.
In 1975, a Senate committee led by the late Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho investigated the FBI’s civil rights-era domestic surveillance program known as COINTELPRO. Among the FBI abuses documented by the so-called Church Committee was the practice of informants becoming leaders in the organizations they were surveilling, and then accusing the real leaders of being informants themselves — a subversive technique known as “snitch-jacketing.”
While COINTELPRO no longer exists, some of its methods remain inside the FBI. This is clear from the bureau’s investigation of racial justice activists in Denver during the summer of 2020.
As Windecker gained prominence among the protesters, eventually rising to a leadership role, he was accusing real activists of being FBI informants. These baseless accusations sowed mistrust and undermined some of the most effective organizers in the community.
Trey Quinn, the Black activist leading protests in Denver, was among the first to suspect that Windecker might be an informant. Quinn devised a way to test Windecker: Speaking in hypotheticals, he asked him about burning down a neighborhood. Could we get it done?
“And he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I got the right guy for the job,’” Quinn said. “This is how he’s talking.”
Windecker’s enthusiastic response fueled Quinn’s suspicions, but he didn’t have proof, so he didn’t warn other activists then. But Windecker, appearing to view Quinn as a threat to his cover, started telling activists that he suspected Quinn was working for the FBI.
“Mickey seemed super concerned that Trey was an informant,” Hall said. “Then I started getting concerns about it.”
Suddenly, Quinn found himself on the outside. His fellow activists stopped communicating with him. As Quinn was being marginalized, Windecker encouraged protesters to become more militant and go on the offensive against the police.
In late August 2020, Hall went to an apartment that served as a base for Windecker and the young allies he’d recruited. Inside, Hall saw a table covered with guns. “I’m like, ‘Holy fuck,’” Hall recalled.
Another activist, who was with Hall in the apartment but asked not to be named because she fears retribution for speaking publicly, confirmed Hall’s account. “There are guns, weapons, medical supplies, literally looking like they’re preparing for a genuine battle,” she told me.
From August 22 to August 29, 2020, a series of demonstrations in Denver morphed into assaults on police stations, with protesters carrying homemade shields and hurling rocks and fireworks at police. The demonstrators called one of these events “Give ’Em Hell.” More than 70 police officers were injured that week.
The police response was ferocious. Officers in riot gear broke bones and fired pepper balls and rubber bullets. One man was hit in the head with a lead-filled bag fired from a police shotgun. A stingball grenade exploded next to a woman, knocking out her teeth. In the first civil judgment awarded at trial for police brutality in response to protests triggered by the Floyd killing, Denver police were forced last spring to pay $14 million to 12 protesters.
According to more than a dozen activists I spoke to in the Denver area, Windecker, the FBI’s informant, helped organize and promote these protests, which quickly turned violent.
A pervasive social media and cable news narrative in the summer of 2020 was that racial justice and antifascist activists were becoming increasingly violent and destructive.
“The violence and vandalism is being led by antifa and other radical left-wing groups,” President Donald Trump said. Right-wing news media reinforced and amplified that message. “Violent young men with guns will be in charge,” Tucker Carlson told his large audience on Fox News, adding: “You will not want to live here when that happens.”
Michael German, a former FBI agent, watched from his home in California as this narrative took hold. “It was frustrating for me to see how ably — usually that’s not a term that you use when you’re referencing former President Trump — but how ably he was able to make this boogeyman out of antifa,” German, now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, told me.
According to FBI files and videos, Windecker’s mandate from the FBI wasn’t just to provide information about racial justice protesters — though his “intelligence” about activists filled dozens of reports — but also to try to set up protesters in a conspiracy that would have supported Trump’s claims.
On orders from the FBI, Windecker targeted two Black activists: Hall, whose incendiary rhetoric Windecker had first reported to his handlers; and Bryce Shelby, a slender man with a reputation for giving fiery speeches with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Windecker invited both men to lunch in late August 2020 at a barbecue restaurant. Windecker said he’d brought them together because they were “talking about the same shit,” by which Windecker meant the prospect of protests turning violent. Windecker told them he had a friend — “an outlaw biker buddy” — who could supply whatever they needed, including weapons.
“You need to have an objective of what you’re gonna do,” Windecker told the two men. “If Bryce is planning on like, ‘OK, I want to blow up a motherfuckin’ courthouse,’ I need to know what the game plans are.”
But Windecker’s operation in Denver failed to generate a headline-grabbing conspiracy. Hall declined to participate in a violent plot. Windecker introduced Shelby to his supposed outlaw biker buddy — an FBI undercover agent who went by the nickname “Red” — and together they drove to Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser’s home. As a hidden camera recorded them, the undercover agent encouraged Shelby to commit to a plot to assassinate Weiser, and even suggested they could hire a hitman for as little as $500. Still, Shelby refused to move forward with any plans and immediately cut off contact with Windecker and the undercover agent. Although Shelby was not charged with a crime, local prosecutors used the FBI’s undercover recordings to convince a judge to seize Shelby’s guns under Colorado’s red flag law.
A week after trying to rope Hall and Shelby into a violent plot, Windecker had drawn enough suspicion that an antifascist activist group in Colorado Springs, south of Denver, posted a Twitter thread detailing its concerns. “Be careful around this dude,” the group wrote on Twitter. “Probably wise not to let him in your protest space.”
Although the group didn’t have evidence that Windecker was an informant, the public allegation threatened to damage his cover. Activists in Colorado took the claim seriously.
“You heard through different groups: ‘Kick his ass on sight.’ ‘Fuck him.’ ‘Don’t let him around the groups,’” Hall remembered.
Windecker gathered his allies, including Hall, at the apartment in Denver where activists had seen the table covered with guns. Windecker wanted to record a video and post it to YouTube in response to the allegations. He created a stage for the video: a flag for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and an AR-15-style assault rifle propped against the wall behind him, and, on the table before him, a ball-peen hammer and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
“He had a cigar and was acting all tough,” Hall said.
Wearing a custom-made black Punisher T-shirt, Windecker stared into the camera.
“This propaganda shit you guys posted doesn’t mean fuck all to me,” Windecker said in his gravelly voice, sounding furious. “But understand this: I will be polite and professional, but I have a plan to kill everybody in the fucking room if need to be … If you’re trying to implicate that I’m a fucking snitch, check this out. Three things I ain’t: a punk, I ain’t a bitch, and I ain’t a fucking snitch.”
Watching as Windecker recorded the video, Hall was struck by how defensive he seemed. He finally accepted what he’d long thought impossible: Windecker, the activist leader encouraging everyone to become more militant, must be a secret government informant.
That created a problem for Hall. Windecker had given Hall money days earlier and asked him to buy a gun. Hall had agreed and bought a Smith & Wesson handgun for Windecker, despite knowing that Windecker was a convicted felon. Hall didn’t think he had a choice in the transaction. He believed that Windecker, who made the looming prospect of violence part of his identity, would come after him if he refused. “I was just afraid of him,” Hall explained. “I was fucking terrified of this guy.”
After he made the video, Windecker and his silver hearse disappeared. In July 2021, nearly a year after he’d bought the gun for Windecker, federal agents arrested Hall. He pleaded guilty to a felony firearms violation — for buying a gun, with the government’s money, for the government’s informant — and received three years of probation. That was the extent of the plot Windecker and the FBI succeeded in engineering among the racial justice activists that summer.
Many of the activist groups in Denver have splintered or disbanded. There was a lot of distrust. Activists there told me they suspected government agents had infiltrated the groups to encourage the violence that occurred, but until now, they’d never had proof.
“The FBI caused violence here,” Hall said. “They don’t want people to know that.”
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.