Feature

The Two Lives of Helen Thorpe

When her first book, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, was released last month, the mayor's wife realized a lifelong dream. But will Denver's first lady ever be able to step out from her husband's shadow?

October 2009

What was going through her head? No one could know for sure as Denver's first lady, Helen Thorpe, stood before the courtroom. Her pale, freckled face was drained of all color; her thin lips were drawn flat. She stared forward intently, almost squinting, as if she were trying to bring the room into focus. Her right hand rested delicately, frozen, above her heart as the judge admonished her.

It was September 7, 2006, and Raúl Gómez García was being tried on a second-degree murder charge for shooting and killing a Denver police officer outside Salon Ocampo, a banquet hall in southwest Denver. A cop's murder always upsets the equilibrium of a city, but this trial was about more than the death of a police officer. Gómez García was in the United States illegally, and the uproar over immigration had engulfed the state.

Even Thorpe's husband, mayor John Hickenlooper, had been pushed into the fray: Hickenlooper was a part owner of the Cherry Cricket, which briefly employed Gómez García as both a dishwasher and busboy. The Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post hounded the mayor, printing headlines like, "Slaying suspect worked at Hickenlooper eatery," even though Hickenlooper's assets had been in a blind trust at the time Gómez García worked at the Cricket. The immigration debate worked its way, noisily, all the way to the Capitol. During a special session in the summer of 2006, state legislators crafted what were touted as the "toughest" immigration laws in the country.

After all that, you might think that the mayor's wife would want to distance herself from the political hot potato of immigration; that she would want to stay away from an issue that had chipped away at her husband's popularity with the citizens of the city. But Thorpe was an immigrant herself, who'd moved to this country from London when she was one year old. She was a journalist, with more than a decade of experience writing for publications like the New Yorker and Texas Monthly. And she couldn't stay away.

Thorpe had started researching a story on four Mexican girls—two American citizens, two illegal immigrants—growing into adulthood in Denver. At the time, the project seemed like it was independent of Hickenooper's political life. But when Gómez García pulled the trigger, everything changed. Thorpe discussed the story with her friends and colleagues, and even considered dropping the project altogether. And then, after about a year, she decided to move forward. This time, the story would be different: It would be not only about the four girls, but also about her husband, and herself, and the messiness of the policy and politics surrounding the immigration debate.

So there she was, setting out her digital tape recorder—which was forbidden—during the second day of Gómez García's trial­ and observing the proceedings. Just before 3 p.m., the judge asked the jury to leave the room and demanded that the person who had been recording the session stand. No one moved. It was only after the judge asked the deputy sheriff to identify the party that Thorpe finally rose. She apologized to the court for the mistake and said, simply, "I didn't know."

The fallout was plastered across the local papers the next day as both the Post and the Rocky wrote about Thorpe's faux pas. It was not the first time the compartmentalized roles of her life—first lady, wife, mother, journalist—had collided. Nor would it be the last.

 

On a warm summer afternoon in Denver, Helen Thorpe lies in the grass underneath a tree in a Park Hill playground and stretches her arms above her head. The 44-year-old smiles as the leaves and afternoon sun cast shadows on her face. Peeking out of black sandals, her toes are painted with a hot-pink nail polish that has long since flaked and chipped. Her shoulder-length brown hair is graying, and she's wearing a pair of funky, lavender and yellow glasses. Everything about Helen Thorpe's appearance seems a bit haphazard, a little unplanned.

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