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Slain veteran Lee Keltner built reputation as skilled hat-maker and ‘very strong patriot’ before joining protest front lines

Woman holding US flag. (Dreamstime/TNS)
October 22, 2020

For two decades before Lee Keltner’s name became nationally recognized as the shooting victim in an altercation following dueling political rallies in Denver, he was well-known locally for his custom western hats — and not so much for his politics.

Friends and business associates said he put devotion and care into his craft, building a reputation as a skilled hat-maker. They remember a lightheartedness and a goofy sense of humor, though it also was clear the U.S. Navy veteran considered himself a proud patriot.

“It’s a hard thing to articulate, but he was your quintessential western kind of guy,” recalled Steve Weil, president of Rockmount Ranch Wear on Wazee Street in downtown Denver, who for years sold Keltner the basic hats he’d customize. “You know, he lived the western lifestyle. He was the real deal. And his customers were probably the core western market, not so much wannabes. … They wear western every day.”

But by this year, Keltner, 49, was drawn to political action. As police came under fire this summer during racial-justice demonstrations by the Black Lives Matter movement, family members have said, Keltner felt a need to show his support for law enforcement.

He attended multiple demonstrations and counter-protests and posted about his experiences on social media, signaling a willingness to tangle with protesters on the other side.

“He wasn’t part of any group,” his son Johnathon “Jay” Keltner told The Denver Post on Sunday. “He was there to rally for the police department, and he’d been down there before rallying for the police department.”

As he was leaving Saturday’s “Patriot Rally,” which attracted supporters of varying conservative causes to Denver’s Civic Center — along with counter-protesters who participated in a “BLM-Antifa Soup Drive” — Keltner was engaged in heated argument with a man, so far unidentified by police, who wore a shirt displaying the slogan “Black Guns Matter.” Keltner wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “BLM: You’re (expletive) right Bikers lives matter.”

It was during that dispute that Keltner, can of pepper spray in hand, confronted a 9News television producer who was recording it, according to videos of the incident. The producer’s bodyguard, Matthew Dolloff, stepped in. Within a matter of seconds, Keltner slapped Dolloff on the side of the head, and Dolloff drew a handgun and fired it as Keltner discharged the pepper spray.

Keltner died within minutes, after a fateful moment captured on bystanders’ phones as well as the camera of a Denver Post photographer who’d been nearby. Also witnessing the shooting was Keltner’s older son, 24-year-old C.J.

Dolloff, 30, will face a charge of second-degree murder, the Denver District Attorney’s Office said, and his family’s lawyer has outlined plans to argue he acted in self-defense. Meanwhile, 9News has faced questions for its decision to hire contract security guards to accompany its crews to protests, though the station has said Dolloff wasn’t supposed to be armed.

Keltner’s family members gave brief interviews in the days after the incident. But later in the week, several either declined to speak with The Post or didn’t respond to interview requests. While online fundraisers have attracted financial support for Keltner’s family, some members have faced harassment on social media from people who attack Keltner’s perceived politics or assign him fault for his actions in the incident.

“At this time because of the evil that happened I’m not talking to anyone but family,” Keltner’s mother, Carol, of Jonesboro, Arkansas, wrote in response to The Post’s interview request.

After the DA’s office announced its charging decision Thursday, an attorney issued a statement on behalf of Keltner’s wife, Kevin Christine Keltner, and other family members that requested privacy and compassion. It also said the attorney, William P. Boyle, was still seeking answers from 9News and the two security firms involved in the hiring of Dolloff, who wasn’t licensed as a security guard in Denver.

“The Keltners look forward to justice for Lee and the charges of second-degree murder against Mr. Dolloff … are the first step in that direction,” Boyle said.

He urged that Keltner be remembered “as a father, grandfather, a husband and a Colorado artisan.”

Keltner is a longtime resident of Brighton, but his voter registration, submitted in July — and apparently his first voter registration on record in Colorado — listed a residential address in Idaho Springs. He was affiliated with the American Constitution Party, a conservative minor party.

He got his start in hat-making when he was in his early 20s, telling The Post for a business feature on Crossfire Hats in 2015 that he moved with his pregnant wife to Durango to learn the trade.

After he started his own business, he built a clientele along the Front Range. He worked early on out of The Grizzly Rose, a country-western dance hall north of Denver, and later inside the Livestock Exchange Building at the National Western Complex and out of his home, among other locations. He bought basic hats and reshaped them, adding flourishes or special treatments to order.

“When you work behind the hat counter, it’s pretty much because of addiction,” Keltner told The Post in 2015. “It gets in your blood and you get a passion for it. It’s an art, like painting, and I just kept doing it. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to make a living out of it for 21 years now.”

A few years earlier, a video series sponsored by the American Angus Association featured the National Western Stock Show and included a segment on Keltner, who said: “I love being an artist and creating new and different things. Because I do all the work myself, and I do them one at a time, it is truly special for the customer to get a piece of wearable art to show off their personality and their style.”

Donald Graham says he struck up a friendship with Keltner through his business about 20 years ago, meeting him at The Grizzly Rose.

The two struck a deal: In exchange for custom hats, Graham, a budding photographer, would take marketing photos for Keltner’s business. Keltner wore varying costumes and sometimes posed with one of his sons.

“He was a funny guy,” Graham said. “He was a lot of fun to hang out with. As a photographer, he was one of the most charismatic actors I’ve ever worked with — or models, I’d say. He’d dress up and goof off. … You’d see a loving father in one (photo), you’d see a sort of a back-hills hillbilly in another, you’d see a law-and-order guy in another.

“That’s just what came out — he could put himself into character so easily.”

Graham later invested in Keltner’s business when he was short of money to stock up on inventory, he said. But he hasn’t known him as well in recent years, Graham said, and was shocked to learn of his death outside the rally.

He was searching for answers in the days that followed.

“Well, I knew Lee pretty well. He was a very strong patriot,” said Graham, who works as a construction consultant and commercial drone pilot, though they didn’t much talk politics then. “He’s a veteran, he served in the military. He would do anything to defend the Constitution and defend the flag.”

“Like a lot of us,” he added, “we’re fed up” — about the tone and tenor of protests against police violence this summer, about the all-or-nothing tone of national politics and what Graham perceives as derision for conservatives by the left.

Keltner’s son said Sunday that his father had slowed down in recent years, since he suffered serious injuries in a wreck on his motorcycle.

“He was just trying to get by,” Jay Keltner said.

Earlier, Keltner had run into personal and financial setbacks, with three marriages ending in divorce or annulment, according to court records, and a bankruptcy case, settled in 2012, that included unpaid medical and business debts. He married his current wife in 2014 at Red Rocks, according to the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office.

Weil, the Rockmount Ranch Wear president, said he hadn’t been in touch with Keltner for the last five years or so. He said he was taken aback when he learned Keltner had been killed in Saturday’s incident.

It made him think of the toxic brew of politics in 2020, he said — with a pandemic raging, people taking sides in the presidential election and volatile clashes in the streets. Each side is polarized, holding little or no respect for the opposing side’s beliefs.

“What has happened to our society that politics becomes deadly?” Weil said. “What has happened? And how do we come back from that?”


(c) 2020 The Denver Post

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