A look at one of the most misunderstood cities in America.
—Photography by Matt Nager
Two months after the most recent mass shooting in Colorado Springs, worshipers filed into Hope Chapel’s strip-mall sanctuary on the north edge of the city and raised their hands to the ceiling in praise. Here they were—those who’d suffered and sinned, those who kept their faith—singing and praying and asking for forgiveness. This city is known for many things, military might and a conservative political bent among them, but its evangelical fervor is perhaps Colorado Springs’ best-known export. Late last year, though, Colorado Springs drew the world’s attention for another reason: the murders on its streets. Two mass shootings—one on Halloween, the other at a Planned Parenthood clinic—within 27 days. Six dead. Nine wounded.
Among the victims were two Army veterans, Ke’Arre Stewart and Andrew Alan Myers. The irony was inescapable: These two had once lived in a war zone but couldn’t survive their hometown. There was the high schooler who witnessed both shootings. And there was Garrett Swasey, the ice dancer turned cop who was killed when he tried to stop an armed man from shooting people inside the Planned Parenthood facility. The city, and the nation, grieved. Even so, no one would have faulted people for suggesting that this was a community under siege.
Pastor Kurt Aichele of Hope Chapel was one of Garrett Swasey's closest friends
And then, five days later, there was another mass shooting, this time in San Bernardino, California. Just as the names of the dead in Colorado Springs became known, they were replaced by another list of victims—which in turn were added to the hundreds of names of those who died in shootings across the nation in 2015. President Barack Obama, while pushing for stricter gun-control measures during a White House speech in January, listed the tragedies: Newtown, Aurora, Charleston, San Bernardino. The president didn’t mention Colorado Springs. Two mass shootings in less than one month in a single American city, yet it seemed they had already been forgotten.
Inside Hope Chapel, it was impossible to forget. Swasey had been a pastor there, a man who volunteered thousands of hours to support his brethren, a man who lived and died wanting to help others. As the church’s four-piece band played under the glare of fluorescent lights, 70 or so congregants sang the words beamed onto a screen above the tattooed drummer. A wooden cross was in one corner; faux candles sat atop tables that lined the walls. There was no pomp, just people in jeans and jackets and wrinkled shirts. A few kept their hats on.
Kurt Aichele, one of Swasey’s closest friends, was on the keyboard that morning. Goateed, with short, thinning hair, Pastor Kurt was the one who led Swasey’s memorial this past December. Governor John Hickenlooper and police officers from across the country attended the service; the procession to the cemetery stretched for miles. When his friend died, Pastor Kurt had spent more than half of his 43 years tending to people in distress. He used to say he could understand the hurt people were feeling and that with prayer and some hope, maybe the pain would go away. At the least, it might dull.
After the shootings, Pastor Kurt realized he didn’t have it quite right. No one could understand the depth of this kind of suffering. This hurt was permanent. In the 65 days since his friend’s death, he’d come to see pain as broad and deep and all-consuming. It was like an ocean. His congregation, his city, had waded into the water these past months. Still, he thought, these people were only knee-deep. Swasey’s wife, Rachel, was beyond the waves.
On this morning, she was in the back of the small sanctuary, standing behind the last row of chairs. Her face was tilted toward the ceiling. Her two children fidgeted in seats in front of her. While the room praised God, hands and voices reaching upward, she wiped tears from the corners of her closed eyes.
Driving into Colorado Springs from the north, you can’t miss Pikes Peak—14,110 feet above sea level, the inspiration for “America the Beautiful,” and one of the most visited mountains in the world. To the west, it’s all rock and greenery; traces of snow highlight the upper reaches where jagged earth meets the sky. The United States Air Force Academy greets visitors on the right side of I-25; its modern, multidenominational chapel—which looks like a collection of silver spear tips pointing to the heavens—is one of the most iconic structures in Colorado. On the left lies Focus on the Family’s 48-acre campus, which hosted more than 225,000 visitors last year. Up the road from Focus is New Life Church, the site of a 2007 shooting that left two dead and another three wounded. Once among the most powerful evangelical churches in the world, its massive edifice shines in the sunlight.
The city has been called a “jawbreaker”; its hardened exterior shields the community from the rest of the world. Along with religious installations—dozens of Christian groups call Colorado Springs home—military fixtures appear to provide protection for the city: the academy on the northwest; Fort Carson Army base to the south; and Peterson Air Force Base and Schriever Air Force Base to the east. It would be difficult to find a more perfect illustration of American conservatism. Religion and military might. Family values and self-defense. God and guns.
Octarvia Roberts, a 53-year-old taxi driver, is aware of the criticisms about her city. It’s too religious, too conservative; its culture of weapons has made it a place that may be deserving of the violent acts that happened late last year. That’s the outsider’s view. “This is as good of a place as you could hope for in this world,” she says one day this past winter. “We’re good people here.”
Longtime Springs resident Octarvia Robers still views the city as safe, even after the mass shootings last year
Roberts is petite with dark eyes that, when she’s driving, are hidden behind a pair of oversize sunglasses. She’s lived in Colorado Springs for the better part of two decades; Roberts moved to the Springs after the Army transferred her then husband from Georgia. She brought three children to adulthood in the city, was divorced last year, and is now raising one of her teenage daughters in an apartment north of downtown. This is her 10th year driving a cab in the city. Lately, she’s become preoccupied with figuring out how much money she’ll need to retire comfortably—in Colorado Springs, her home. “And it always will be,” she says. “Despite what’s gone on around here lately, I think it’s safe. There’s no better city to be in than this one right here.”
“Colorado Springs: a playground for pro-life, pro-gun evangelical Christians,” read a headline from British daily newspaper the Guardian one day after the Planned Parenthood shootings. Of all the barbs the city endured last year, this one best encapsulated the outsider’s take on the Springs: This was a community of extremists ripe for caricature and ridicule.
Ever since evangelicals commenced a battle over the figurative soul of the city nearly three decades ago, Colorado Springs has happily operated as an otherworldly entity, a never-changing counterpoint to an ever-changing America. It is known as both the evangelical Vatican and the Christian Mecca. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, media flocked to the city to bear witness to the cultural war being waged just 70 miles south of Denver and to record the rise of New Life Church and its superstar pastor, Ted Haggard, who’d become a confidant of President George W. Bush. The struggle became tabloid fodder when, in 2006, Haggard was caught in a scandal that involved drugs and sex and nearly destroyed his church.
“The city has a reputation that’s been played up in the media—that this is the epicenter for Republican politics and extreme right-wing movements,” says David Mason, chair of the English department at Colorado College and one of the state’s former poet laureates. Although Mason is a self-professed liberal, he says the Springs has been abused by those who’ve sought to project their own simplistic versions of the community. Yet, even within its own limits, this is a city of deep divisions. The city’s northern reaches have operated as an almost wholly different community from the residents near downtown. For years, many evangelicals have maintained an air of moral superiority, shrugging their unburdened shoulders when confronted with negative opinions from the outside. Liberals, too, are hardly blameless. They have appeared to be interested in walling themselves off from the Springs’ conservative majority. “It’s troubling,” Mason admits. “All of us could do more. No one here has combated the imprecise narrative.”
“Colorado Springs has earned its reputation in some ways,” says Noel Black, a local radio host and producer who grew up in the city. Once a region where Native Americans spent their summers and later a tourist spot for wealthy Europeans, the modern Springs developed in part because of military expansion that funded everything from the Air Force Academy to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD. When the El Pomar Foundation offered then California-based Focus on the Family a $4 million grant in 1990 to relocate its operations to Colorado Springs, the city had just come out of a deep recession that led it to be known as the foreclosure capital of the United States. New Life had expanded from Haggard’s basement. Religion and the defense industry resurrected the city.
By 1992, Springs-based Colorado for Family Values and other local religious organizations became torchbearers for the state’s No Protected Status for Sexual Orientation Amendment, also known as Amendment 2. After voters passed the amendment—which the United States Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional four years later—Colorado became known as “the hate state.” The same year, conservative Springs activist Douglas Bruce promoted the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), a state spending limitation measure opponents have been trying to undo for more than a decade. Fair or not, Colorado Springs is still dealing with the fallout of those things. “It damaged the city,” Black says. “Anytime anything bad happens here, it sticks.”
The shootings “just reinforced everything everyone else has been saying about us,” says John Hazlehurst, a 75-year-old journalist and former Colorado Springs councilman who has lived in the city for nearly six decades. As they endured the spotlight last year, the city’s residents tried to make sense of the violence that was plaguing their community. The shootings were labeled as the acts of crazy people—a societal problem that had to do with a lack of mental health care and the general devaluation of human life.
Regardless, for any reasonable person, the two shootings were troubling. On Halloween morning, Noah Harpham, a recovering alcoholic and self-described Christian, walked a residential street just a few blocks outside downtown armed with a legally purchased AR-15 rifle, a 9 mm pistol, and a .357-caliber revolver. Even before Harpham opened fire and killed Myers, the Army veteran, and two people outside a sober-living home, 911 calls from at least one witness reported an armed man walking the city’s streets. Police didn’t arrive until after Harpham fired his first shots. About 15 minutes after the first 911 call, officers shot and killed Harpham in the street.
Twenty-seven days later, Robert Dear, a 57-year-old who lived on an unkempt compound west of Colorado Springs, entered the Planned Parenthood facility outside downtown. He killed three people and wounded nine others with a semi-automatic rifle before eventually engaging in a shootout with authorities and surrendering. Dear reportedly told police “no more baby parts” in a rambling interview afterward, then bragged to a Denver television journalist that Planned Parenthood “had a lot of cancellations” because of his actions.
“It’s unfair,” Hazlehurst says. “These shootings could have happened anywhere in America. We were just unfortunate enough that they had to happen here.” At a coffeehouse downtown this past January, Hazlehurst reflected on the past months. “The narrative now is that these shooters are the tip of the iceberg for us, because we apparently have armed gunmen everywhere,” he says. “People make up these things because they’re trying to make sense of what the world has become.”
Still, the shootings have raised difficult questions for Hazlehurst. When he was serving on the City Council in the 1990s, he often debated the merits of open carry in the city. “I thought it was insane,” he says. “I was like, This is not the Wild West. That’s stupid. Open carry was not going to accomplish anything.” On this afternoon, though, he was questioning his position.
A day earlier he’d seen a man with two weapons standing on the sidewalk outside his downtown office. Colleagues called police and then locked the front doors. Hazlehurst begged his co-workers to move away from the windows. “But they’re young and brave, so they didn’t listen to me,” he says. “I felt totally helpless.”
It turned out the man was only carrying BB guns. Hazlehurst says the suspect was probably drunk or high; the cops put him in handcuffs and drove him away. The incident left Hazlehurst shaken, if only because of how he felt afterward. “I might start carrying,” he says. “It’s a tough decision, but….”
He didn’t finish the sentence.
Mel Bernstein says he came to Colorado Springs because it offered “the most freedom you can have in America"
A few weeks after the Planned Parenthood shootings, Mel Bernstein finally allowed himself to take his converted Jeep back onto public roads. He’d put himself on hiatus from bringing “ATTACK1,” as the license plate reads, into the open after what had happened. Though his Jeep is outfitted with a mini gun, twin .50-caliber machine guns, and an M60 machine gun, the tattooed septuagenarian hardly elicited a reaction when he pulled up to his bank’s drive-through window. “Everyone knows Dragon Man,” says one of the most heavily armed humans in Colorado. “I’ve got big fans out here.”
The black Jeep gleamed under the light of Dragon Man’s machine shop, which also houses a chopper motorcycle built into the likeness of a cartoonish dragon. The green neck extends up the chopper’s back side, a scaly back plate fanning out behind the dragon’s head. Perfectly aligned, daggerlike teeth—set in a mouth permanently affixed in a grimace—jut out just above the rider’s head. “DRAGON MAN” is stenciled onto the gas tank. Dragon Man put this creation together in New York City shortly after he returned from serving in Vietnam. “The eyes glow red, and I can get a four-and-a-half-foot flame to shoot out of the mouth if I want,” Dragon Man says. “It’s pretty badass. Actually, everything I have is pretty badass.”
On the wall on the other side of the shop—under small American flags that dangle from the ceiling—are 40 semi-automatic and fully automatic rifles and magazines set onto blue pegboard. Thirty more are scattered in a corner of the shop. MAC-10s. MAC-11s. Uzis. M16s. The 12 glass showcases have another 1,000 handguns. He has two fully operational tanks parked out back, an armored Army personnel carrier, and ATTACK1, among other vehicles. Such is the life of a Class III arms dealer, a special occupational tax status that allows Dragon Man to sell everything from machine guns to short-barreled rifles and other “destructive devices.”
Dragon Man was always a gun guy, but it had become increasingly difficult to procure weapons (much less fire them legally) in New York City. He convinced his wife, Terry, that they had to look elsewhere, to a place that wouldn’t have as many rules. In 1981, the pair went in search of “the most freedom you can have in America,” Dragon Man says. They found Colorado Springs. More accurately, they found unzoned land along the city’s east end. “We started with 40 acres, and now there’s more than 200,” Dragon Man says. “We built a legitimate business.” (Dragon Man became known outside Colorado Springs in 2012, when a piece of explosive ordnance detonated and killed his wife during the filming of an opener for a reality television show for the Discovery Channel.)
These days, Dragon Man says business is, quite literally, booming. Customers down the hill from his showroom fire away at his gun range. Rapid pops from his nearby paintball course waft in with the wind. “I set it up to look like an Iraqi village to help Fort Carson soldiers with training,” he says. Dragon Man has staged fiery demonstrations for television shows, shot massive military-grade weaponry, and blown vehicles sky-high for kicks. Each September for the past 25 years, he’s fired cannons, mortars, and fully automatic machine guns; people from all over the state come to watch.
He sees himself as both a showman and a necessity for today’s culture, a resource for the people who just want to protect themselves. Arm yourself or risk becoming a victim. Shoot or be shot. Kill or be killed. “It’s a dangerous world,” he says. The shootings in his adopted city simply buttress his argument. “I should have gone to the Planned Parenthood in ATTACK1 and put an end to that whole standoff,” he says. Of course, he’s not serious: He stopped driving the Jeep for a while simply because he didn’t want to put people on edge. Even Dragon Man knows his limits. Then Obama spoke about gun control in January, and business surged.
Dragon Man has no problem selling weapons in a city now known for its shootings. There are no late nights when he questions his life’s work, no regrets when he gets calls from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives notifying him that his weapons were used in a crime somewhere in the country. It’s more of a paperwork nightmare than an actual nightmare. “I’m not the problem,” he says. Dragon Man is a reaction to everything that has gone on in this city, he says. “I’ve never cared about what people have to say about what I do. This is a service, and all that matters is that I do it legally.” The weapons are simply transactions. He keeps the paperwork in a safe, just in case something bad happens and police need to sort things out. In the end, everything that happens here comes down to one question: Can you pass the background check? “After that,” Dragon Man says, “whatever happens in my parking lot has nothing to do with me.”
In 2005, Harper’s Magazine described Colorado Springs as “unspectacular,” a “city of people who have fled the cities.” Its image has been created on a foundation of contradictions. While Colorado Springs may be best-known for its religious fervor, the percentage of its residents who regularly attend Sunday services is below the national average. Many religious organizations—from Compassion International to Focus on the Family—have their headquarters in the city, but according to a 2010 Colorado Springs Business Journal report, less than two percent of the region’s workforce is dependent on religious nonprofits.
Despite its proximity to remarkable natural beauty, Colorado Springs is something of an urban-planning disaster, a place without a soul. Built and rebuilt—first through mining booms and busts, then a banking boom and bust, then a tech boom and bust, and then, most recently, the Great Recession—the city has been annexing land for decades, sprawling, expanding like a drop of water on a napkin. The Springs today covers 194 square miles, the most of any city in Colorado. From many angles, the city appears as a single, massive suburb, with small buildings and little in the way of a unifying urban experience. Without the mountains to the west, this could be Topeka or Wichita, Kansas.
A drive through the city often turns into an unwelcome game of dodge the pothole. Yet while Colorado Springs has appeared stuck, frozen in amber of its own making, its residents have begun to demand more from the community. With the support of their Republican mayor, for example, voters in November approved a tax increase to fix the city’s battered roads. Tejon Street, downtown, is a hub of revitalization. An avenue of new restaurants and boutiques, it’s an example of what the rest of the city could become. The Wild Goose Meeting House, a bar and coffeehouse started by two former evangelicals, is something of a hipster hangout. New Life opened a satellite location in the middle of downtown with a less showy facade than its headquarters up north. Off North Cascade Avenue, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is home to an impressive collection of John James Audubon engravings. At the corner of East Pikes Peak Avenue and South Nevada Avenue stands the former Mining Exchange. Once a city landmark that had been used for office space, the Exchange has been transformed into a Four Diamond hotel with luminous copper gutters ringing its exterior. The building has hosted same-sex marriage ceremonies and, in 2013, Democratic former state Senator John Morse’s concession speech.
Morse no longer lives in Colorado Springs. Two weeks after the state Senate president was recalled over his role in strengthening gun-control laws in Colorado, he moved to Denver. “I couldn’t go back,” he says. “There was nothing left for me there.” This past January, he was an invited guest at Obama’s gun-control speech, a consolation prize of sorts for the work that left him doubting his hometown.
He’d spent most of his life in the Springs. The son of an Army colonel, Morse attended General William Mitchell High School east of the city center. He graduated from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs in 1980. He became an accountant, then a lieutenant in the police department, then chief of police in the nearby city of Fountain. In 2006, he became the senator from the 11th District, which covers part of El Paso County, including a portion of Colorado Springs’ downtown and all of Manitou Springs. “It was pretty much like a great dream,” he says. The district is perhaps the only Colorado Springs enclave amiable to Democrats, mostly because of Manitou, which the New York Times once referred to as a “hippie Mayberry.”
The 11th included a census tract within Colorado Springs that often recorded the most deaths by gun violence in the state. As a former beat cop, he saw “shootings, killings, people doing terrible things to other people.” After his election, Morse worked on legislation that helped establish a database of school security practices within the state and created the Colorado School Safety Resource Center to help districts with safety plans. He was re-elected in 2010 and became state Senate president three years later. Following the 2012 shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and then Aurora, Morse found himself in a position to make what he calls “a significant change for our state.” In the spring of 2013, Morse pushed through a set of gun-control laws that limited ammunition magazines to 15 rounds, required universal background checks on all gun purchases, and required gun buyers—rather than taxpayers—to cover the $10 background-check fee. “People were getting killed by the same level of firepower our troops were facing from the Taliban,” he says now. “I thought, Things can’t go on like this.”
A couple of months before Hickenlooper signed the gun legislation into law that spring, a recall effort was set into motion against Morse and three other state lawmakers. “I never expected it,” he admits. The recall received national attention and soon became a litmus test for anyone staking their political positions on guns in America: The NRA poured more than $360,000 into the fight against Morse and the three others, while former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $350,000 to support the legislators. Morse eventually lost his seat by 319 votes, becoming the first Colorado legislator to be successfully recalled. Over time, “it went from, No way, to, I’m going to lose this. It was unbelievable,” he says now. State Senator Angela Giron, a Democrat from Pueblo, was recalled in September; state Senator Evie Hudak, another Democrat, later resigned her seat to avoid her own recall. (Representative Mike McLachlan dodged a recall vote when petitioners failed to gather the minimum number of signatures to put him on the ballot.)
Two years later, Morse is still not over what happened. “I put my heart and soul into my work, for my community,” he says. “Their response was to ride me out of town.”
Octarvia Roberts pulled her taxi down a road just west of I-25 and slowed in front of a low-slung building surrounded by chain-link fence. Pieces of tattered yellow El Paso County Sheriff’s Office tape still clung to it. A couple of work trucks were parked inside the protected lot. “This is the Planned Parenthood,” she said.
The clinic would partially reopen in a few weeks. On that morning in February, a security guard would patrol the back parking lot. “Welcome Back” would be written in white and pink chalk on the sidewalk just outside the clinic. Protestors holding signs proclaiming “Life” and “Trust God—End Abortion” would occupy a nearby intersection.
On this day, though, it was still a work site. The building’s foyer was boarded up. A torn wreath clung to a light post. Officer Swasey was shot a short distance from here.
Roberts turned her cab around in the parking lot. People watched her wearily. Roberts slowed her vehicle to a crawl, and the clinic passed on her right. “Our world is going crazy,” she said. “I can’t believe this happened here, right in Colorado Springs.” She went quiet for a moment. “I wonder if people are inside there right now,” she finally said. “I wish I could give those people a hug.”
Sarah Musick (left), Erika Highstead-Musick, and their two children this past winter
Sarah Musick arrived in Colorado Springs in 2005 to become a different person. She now lives with her wife and daughter and stepson fewer than a dozen miles from the churches up north, but there’s a figurative universe between the outer shell of the jawbreaker and the life she lives today.
Musick used to work as a sales representative at Carmichael Training Systems, which consults with competitive cyclists; her wife, Erika Highstead-Musick, was a nutritionist at the same company. They share a small townhome in an older neighborhood with neatly manicured yards and well-maintained homes. Their living room is packed; the edge of the couch extends beyond one of the room’s walls. There’s a television set, family photographs on the walls, and a kitchen with a tiny island and a wood table. Their two-year-old daughter, Wren, flops onto the couch next to her parents. She’s hungry. Pizza will be here soon.
The daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher from Virginia and a stay-at-home mom, Musick earned an English degree from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, where she was nearly kicked out of school after it was discovered she was having a relationship with another female student. Her father said she needed to seek God’s wisdom and ask for forgiveness for her sins. And she needed to stop being gay.
Colorado Springs would bring salvation. When Musick arrived in the city, Focus on the Family was considered a leader in controversial “reparative” therapy sessions for homosexuals. Over the next half a year, far from home, she read books and watched videos on how to love people of the opposite sex and how to get them to love you back. She took classes on traditional marriage and hung out with other men and women who, as she puts it, were trying to get “de-gayed.” “I was confused and upset and lost,” she says. “It was a really destructive experience, being told you’re not supposed to be who you are.”
She left Focus on the Family that summer, and her relationship with her parents blew up. She began dating, put together a group of friends, and made Colorado Springs her own. She met her future wife at work in late 2006, and the two later moved in together. “Still, it wasn’t a smooth transition for me,” Musick says. “I carried so much guilt about everything.” In 2010, she “took every pill in the house” and then tried to hang herself multiple times. Highstead-Musick returned home from work to find Musick barely breathing and performed CPR. “Erika loved me more than I loved myself,” Musick says. “I was hurt and angry for what my parents had done to me, for what they thought about me. I wanted them to have to come to my funeral.”
“But we survived, you know?” Highstead-Musick says, reaching out a hand and placing it on her wife’s knee. “We made it.”
“She fought for me,” Musick says.
“She saw there were a lot of people in this community who cared for her,” Highstead-Musick says.
“It was like they were my real family.”
They committed to each other in 2012 at a ceremony downtown, a masquerade ball. Highstead-Musick wore a dress that showed off her teal shoes; Musick wore a black suit and a white belt. She wrote a song and played the guitar. One of her friends from Christian camp back home officiated. “For us to stay in this town with the history it’s had, and then have a ceremony like that,” Highstead-Musick says, “I think maybe we did something for the town that night.”
When civil unions were made legal in Colorado in 2013, the pair formalized their commitment at a public ceremony in Manitou Springs. Highstead-Musick was pregnant with Wren by then, and the two had been together for nearly seven years. “We thought it was just going to be a little thing, and we didn’t put much thought into it,” Musick says. “But then we found we were moved by that experience, with all those people doing what we were doing. They were in love, saying they wanted to be together.” It was a clarifying moment for her. “It motivated me to want to be part of the solution here,” Musick says. “I’d been processing my past and appreciating the positive traits and views of my world that weren’t solely religious. I saw I was able to take those parts with me, rather than trying to throw everything out.”
Next to a tattoo of the words “I love her,” Musick has five small black birds tattooed on her right wrist. Five years since she tried to end her life. Five years since she challenged herself to accept who she is. Now she’s challenging others. “We’re making being gay a little less abstract for some people around here,” she says.
“We’re not martyrs for staying,” Highstead-Musick says. “We’re the minority, but we embrace that. It’s very purposeful.”
“This is our home,” Musick says. “This is us.”