Hunter S. Thompson’s Last Stand Dear Dr. Thompson: Felony Murder, Hunter S. Thompson, and the Last Gonzo Campaign
Hunter S. Thompson was one of the 20th century’s greatest literary social critics, and one of the most anti-authoritarian. In the tradition of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, Thompson never flinched at exposing the hypocrisies and contradictions of American life and ideology, and his contempt for authority permeated not just his writing but his life as well.
Thompson killed himself in 2005, shortly before his remains were shot out of a giant cannon in Aspen, Colorado. Yet, right up to the end, Thompson made himself a gadfly and a nuisance and an enemy of the agents of the state who have so much power over the lives of the powerless.
In Dear Dr. Thompson, writer Matthew Moseley has provided an entertaining first person account of Hunter S. Thompson and his "Last Gonzo Campaign." Through the book, which is both a true crime account and a study of Thompson the man, Moseley details Thompson’s involvement in the Lisl Auman case in which, Auman, then barely out of her teens, was kidnapped by a drug addled gangbanger who murdered a police officer. Later, prosecutors claimed Auman had assisted the murderer and, thanks to media hysteria and prosecutorial recklessness in the name of "sending a message" to cop killers, Auman was sentenced to life in prison without parole under the felony murder law in Colorado.
Then one day, while serving her life sentence in a Colorado prison, Auman wrote a letter to Hunter S. Thompson a few hours away in Aspen. Thompson’s assistant Deborah Fuller read the letter aloud to Thompson. The letter spawned the "Free Lisl!" campaign which would turn out to be Thompson’s last great campaign against injustice.
Lisl Auman was handcuffed in the back of a police car in the parking lot of an apartment complex when skinhead Matthaeus Jaehnig, whom Auman had met that morning, murdered a police officer.
Denver’s Westword newspaper provides a concise description of the scene:
Freeze this image in your mind.
It’s the afternoon of November 12, 1997. Lisl Auman, 21 years old, is standing in front of a boxy condominium…Behind her is the hulking form of Matthaeus Jaehnig, struggling frantically with the lock on the condominium door. In front of Lisl are first two, then three police officers. She has her hands up. She is taking one, two hesitant steps forward.
In seconds she will be on the ground, hands behind her for the handcuffs, an officer’s knee in her back, his voice in her ear, yelling, calling her a bitch. She will be bundled into a police car and driven a short way off in the condo parking lot.
Jaehnig, meanwhile, will have veered from the door, around a set of stairs–coming within a few feet of the officers–and into an alcove…There is no exit from it other than the stairs he has just passed or the locked doorway to a second condo.
Officer Bruce VanderJagt arrives…VanderJagt is a courageous and much-admired eleven-year veteran of the Denver Police Department. He has twice received a Distinguished Service Cross–once for disarming a gunman terrorizing the employees of Porter Memorial Hospital, once for running into a burning building to help save the occupants…VanderJagt peers around the corner. There’s a fusillade of shots. More quickly than the mind can grasp, a bullet rips away the right side of VanderJagt’s head. For long seconds he remains standing. Then he falls.
Minutes later, Jaehnig takes VanderJagt’s service revolver and kills himself.
Auman is taken to the police station for questioning. Police assumed that Auman had been an accomplice of Jaehnig’s and that she and Jaehnig were allies and perhaps friends. The truth was more complicated.
Auman and Jaehnig had only met earlier that day. Jaehnig was the friend of a friend whom Auman had asked for help in retrieving some of her belongings from the apartment of a former boyfriend who had been abusive and had been keeping many of Auman’s belongings in his apartment at the Hudson Hotel in Buffalo Creek in the mountains above Denver.
Auman’s friend invited along Jaehnig, a skinhead with a long history of violence in Denver. But Lisl Auman didn’t know anything about Jaehnig’s past. By the time the group reached Buffalo Creek, it was apparent that Jaehnig was someone to be feared, and when Jaehnig started burglarizing Shawn Cheever’s apartment, Auman couldn’t do much about it.
Many hours later, as Jaehnig was leading the police on a high speed chase through the city streets of Denver, Auman had become a hostage to the heavily armed and obviously violent Jaehnig who forced Auman to hold the steering wheel while he leaned out the window and fired wildly at the police in pursuit.
The chase eventually ended at the apartment complex in Denver where Auman fled from Jaehnig and where Jaehnig murdered Bruce VanderJagt.
Was Auman a hostage or was she an accessory to murder? And if she was an accessory, could she be charged with first degree murder for a crime that took place while she was locked in the back of a police car?
Under the felony murder law, the answer to the latter question is yes.
Moseley describes the concept of felony murder:
Felony murder is a favored statute of prosecutors because it allows them to cast the widest possible net around a crime to include people who may have had no intent for the crime to happen. Colorado law states u2018 the purpose of the felony murder statute is to hold a participating robber accountable for a non-participant’s death, even though unintended, as long as death is caused by an act committed in the course of or in furtherance of the robbery or in the course of immediate flight therefrom. [Emphasis Moseley's] Prosecutors have used it to ensnare forty-five people under the age of eighteen in Colorado, and over 2,000 juveniles in the U.S., who are all serving sentences of life without parole.
The problem in the Auman case is that it was not clear at all that Vanderjagt’s murder in Denver had anything at all to do with the theft that occurred in the mountains many, many hours before. Nor was it clear that Lisl Auman was in the course of immediate flight from the burglary. Indeed, it was most likely that Auman ran to police protection in flight from Jaehnig himself, who had obviously been endangering the life of Auman for hours before the final shoot-out.
However, as one of the attorneys who sympathized with Auman noted, the way the law was being interpreted by the courts meant that "she could have jumped out of the car [as Jaehnig sped down the highway] and she still would be guilty."
A prosecuting attorney later pointed out that the fact that Auman had been in police custody did not matter: "It does not matter where she was. She could have been at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. She could have been on Mir Space Station." She was still guilty because, as the prosecutors claimed, both Auman and Jaehnig were in the course of immediate flight from the burglary of Shawn Cheever at the Hudson Hotel in Buffalo Creek, Colorado.
Another benefit of the felony murder law is that prosecutors don’t even need to show that the defendant intended to kill anyone. According to Jeffrey Hartje, a criminal law professor at the University of Denver, "Conspiracy and felony murder are the favored children in the prosecutor’s nursery…With felony murder and conspiracy, you don’t have to show intention, making a conviction much easier."
Freed of having to show that Auman intended to kill anyone, the prosecutors simply sought to show that she was somehow in league with Jaehnig. In order to convince a jury of the justice of locking Auman away forever, in spite of the fact that she seemingly was no accomplice at all, prosecutors contended that Auman had handed Jaehnig the gun he had fired at police. The police had absolutely no physical evidence of this, but a police officer later changed his original statement to claim that he had indeed seen Auman hand Jaehnig a gun.
The police and prosecution painted a picture of Auman as a surly skinhead and as a misfit and as a angry young women who raged against authority. The local media dutifully repeated and reprinted the prosecution’s theories. The police, the public and the media had apparently decided that someone had to pay for VanderJagt’s death, and since Jaehnig was dead, Auman was going to have to do.
After an endless number of press conferences organized by prosecutors, numerous condemnations of Auman in the press, and a short trial, the jury voted to convict in spite of the fact that no fingerprints or evidence of gunpowder residue could be produced to connect Auman to any weapons, and the fact that no intent was ever proven.
Auman was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Auman writes to Thompson
While serving her life sentence, Auman wrote a letter to Thompson, noting that Thompson’s books had been banned from the prison library. (The prison system says this is not the case.) After being read the letter, which briefly outlined Auman’s plight, Thompson declared to his staff "What the f*** are you so cheerful about? If I were you I’d slit my wrists." According to Moseley, from this point on, Lisl’s case slowly "sparked an inner rage" in Thompson.
In January 2001, Thompson used his Hey Rube column at ESPN.com, which the editors thought was supposed to be about sports, to write a column denouncing the treatment of Auman, thus beginning Thompson’s public campaign to free Lisl Auman.
At his high-powered Super Bowl party that year, Thompson called together all the powerful and influential friends he could muster, including various well-connected attorneys and politicos, "and the National Committee to Free Lisl Auman was born that night."
Thompson wouldn’t accept that someone could be locked in prison for life for a crime that occurred when the "guilty" party was locked in the back of a police car. He also refused to believe that there was anything unique about Auman’s story, or that she was justly paying the price for her carelessness, or that she was "asking for it." For Thompson, Auman was exactly like a million other non-criminal young women, except that they had been lucky enough to not find themselves on the wrong end of a police smear campaign. For Thompson, America is a place where people end up on the wrong side of the law without much effort.
As Thompson would later write in an appeal for help from friends and colleagues:
There is no such thing as Paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment… What happened to Lisl Auman can happen to Anybody in America, and when it does, you will sure as hell need friends….Take my word for it, folks. I have been There, and it ain’t Fun.
Thompson Joins the Fight
There’s no room to delve into the legal details of Lisl Auman’s appeal here, but what is important is that, by shining light on the Auman case, Thompson shone a light on prosecutorial misconduct, police corruption, and the injustice of the felony murder statutes.
This suited Thompson perfectly well. Dear Dr. Thompson provides a variety of amusing and interesting insights into Thompson’s views of police power and the corrupting nature of government power. Thompson’s gift for thoroughly accurate hyperbole would rub many the wrong way, but his disdain for official abuse of power seemed to know no bounds, and this came through in his comments and behavior throughout the campaign to free Auman.
Thompson was well aware of the political nature of the district attorney’s office, and he doubted the scruples of then district attorney Bill Ritter who would later use his position as a launching pad to become governor of Colorado.
According to Moseley, "Thompson thought Ritter wouldn’t support Lisl because of pressure from the police union, which he called a mafia. u2018The police union needs a cooperative DA and the DA needs a cooperative police union…[But you shouldn't be] allowed to abuse just because you have a gun and a badge. It is savage behavior. It’s uncivilized. It goes back to the law of the tooth and the fang…’"
For Thompson, the prosecutors served the police and the police served the prosecutors. The public, on the other hand, was on its own. This cozy arrangement was all the more troubling to Thompson because he saw that so little was being done about it.
When queried on the matter, Thompson would become rather animated.
"They (the police) just think they can get away with it. They tell each other that. u2018We the brave, the true, the just.’ S**t on them." he said getting peeved and pounded on the kitchen cabinet. "See I get a little excited when I think about taking on the cops again. Somebody says u2018Aren’t you worried about this [his involvement in the Lisl Auman case] Aren’t you concerned to fight the police? After all they are very powerful.’ Well, they are as powerful as you let them be."
By the time he got to commenting on the chief of police at the time, Thompson certainly wasn’t holding back:
Richard Nixon was so crooked he had to have his servants screw his pants on every morning, and so is Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman. He and his force have committed more crimes against humanity than Lisl Auman ever dreamed of.
The sheer ferocity of Thompson’s outrage in the matter was what made Thompson such an effective force behind the Free Lisl! Campaign. Thompson vowed to overturn the felony murder law and free Lisl Auman. He railed against the injustice of her imprisonment to influential friends, lawyers, celebrities and reporters. Lisl Auman, who had been locked away years earlier and forgotten, was suddenly someone Thompson would not let be forgotten. He worked behind the scenes, "work[ing] the phones every night," to make sure that Auman’s appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court was the best that could be mustered. Moseley himself, a seasoned public relations man, was enlisted by Thompson to make sure that the press, which had so obediently followed the prosecution’s line in the court of public opinion during her trial, might this time give Auman a fair chance. Thompson used his celebrity status and threatened to crusade against and to even run for office against local politicians who maintained that Auman should remain in prison. This wasn’t an idle threat. Thompson had caused political havoc in Colorado before, and everyone knew it. In a close race, an enraged Hunter S. Thompson could spell defeat for those he might target.
Thompson wasn’t simply thrashing about looking for attention. Although Auman’s freedom essentially came down to a decision by judges, Thompson wasn’t so naive as to think that judges aren’t influenced by the public or the press. Just as politics and a hostile media had helped lock Auman away, so, Thompson hoped, an overwhelming campaign to turn public opinion in her favor might help save her.
Thompson knew the public must begin to see "justice" in America as he saw it, even if just for a little while. As Auman’s appeal progressed, Thompson called long time Denver Post reporter Ed Quillen and, according to Moseley, "Quillen was so taken with the conversation that he wrote a provocative column about Lisl’s case" containing the following lessons to be learned:
1. When a policeman is killed, somebody has to pay. If the killer is already dead, then some other party must be found and prosecuted, no matter how far the prosecutors have to stretch to make a case, no matter how many cops have to change their stories before the trial.
2. Do not ever talk to the police without a lawyer, no matter how innocent you think you are. Until your lawyer gets there, keep your mouth shut. That’s your right and you should exercise it.
3. If you somehow end up in the company of a homicidal maniac whom you’ve never met before that day, pray he lives through the shoot out.
Thompson’s Last Good Deed
In the end, although the Supreme Court did not overturn the felony murder law, it did conclude that the jury had received faulty instructions during her trial, and in 2005 Lisl Auman was freed from prison and remains out of prison to this day. It was a technicality. And it was one that called no larger issues of law into question, suggesting that perhaps the court was looking for a reason to set her free without upsetting the legal apple cart too much. And ultimately, it suggests that Hunter’s scorched-earth campaign against all who maintained the justice of Lisl’s imprisonment, just might have made the difference.
Thompson killed himself shortly before the Court handed down its decision, so he never knew how it had all turned out. But many were uneasy with the fact that it had taken so much to get justice for Lisl Auman.
"Do you think anyone gave a rat’s ass about Lisl until Hunter came along?" asked Mary Ellen Johnson of the Pendulum Foundation, who tracks felony murder cases. "No. They didn’t and it shouldn’t be that way. I wish no child had to have a guardian angel like Hunter Thompson and that it was based on justice, but it was not. Lisl’s story is not even that unusual. The only thing unusual about it is Hunter. Otherwise nobody would care."
And people did care because of Thompson. Not only did he help to free Lisl Auman, but he inspired those around him to understand that justice is not free in America, and it’s not blind, and it can be turned against you to serve the political ambitions and the thirst for vengeance in others.
Lisl’s case is not unique, but at least she was actually tangentially involved in the murder committed by Matthaeus Jaehnig that day. Others, like Tim Masters or Randall Dale Adams, to just name two, were not guilty of anything criminal in any way, and were locked away for years to suit the prejudices of prosecutors and police.
Dear Dr. Thompson is an important contribution to the literature on miscarriages of justice, but it is also an important account of the final days of Hunter S. Thompson, who, in addition to writing some of the best journalistic prose of the last fifty years, never backed down from a chance to take on the same forces whom he wrote so forcefully against for so long.
And finally, Moseley himself deserves credit for working to bring the details of this case to light. The same institution that wanted to lock up Lisl Auman for life is none too enthusiastic about advertising the fact.
According to Moseley, the district attorney’s office took over a year to respond to his request to review the case files, and when they finally did respond, they demanded hundreds of dollars in "retrieval" and "redaction" fees.
These are just some of the many barriers that the state throws up against anyone it doesn’t want snooping around, and the state holds almost all the cards. Moseley wasn’t discouraged, however, and in the end he produced a work of journalism which is no doubt an embarrassment to some powerful people, but is nevertheless an important account of how the legal system works in America.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.