Denver photojournalist captures shooting as it unfolds

By Bryan Piestsch

The harrowing set of photos taken by a Denver Post photographer that captured a fatal shooting unfolding on Saturday did not make it onto the front page of the newspaper the next day.

That was not because Helen H. Richardson, a Post staff photographer, was dawdling, but because she spent three hours after the shooting at the Denver Police Department headquarters being questioned as a witness.

“It’s 4 o’clock and I have a deadline,” she recalled telling the police after the shooting.

Richardson was near Civic Center Park in Denver on Saturday afternoon steps away from the fatal shooting, which left an attendee of a “Patriot Muster” rally dead and a private security guard, hired by a television news station, in police custody for a first-degree murder investigation.

Richardson had been photographing the far-right rally while a far-left counterprotest took place nearby.

After people started to disperse, she was at the southern end of the park, near the Denver Art Museum, when an argument broke out.

“I don’t really know what compelled me to walk that way,” Richardson said in a phone call on Monday.

One of the men in the argument, Lee Keltner, abruptly disengaged from that confrontation, she said, and then slapped the private guard, Matthew Dolloff, who had not been involved in the argument.

Richardson said that the events unfolded in seconds and that Dolloff had come from behind her. Instinctively, she kept capturing the episode, “knowing to calm down, to focus, to keep shooting,” she said.

After slapping Dolloff, Keltner sprayed a Mace-like substance at him, “it seemed like simultaneously,” Richardson said, as Dolloff pulled out a firearm and opened fire.

“There was never a thought, Am I going to run?” she said. “I didn’t have enough time to, really.”

Two seconds after Keltner struck Dolloff, Keltner was shot and splayed on the pavement.

In the photo of Keltner lying on the ground, Dolloff, his head turned hard to his left, appears to look directly at Richardson’s camera.

“In that moment it felt like it was only me and him,” she said. “Is he going to start spraying bullets into the crowd?” she recalled thinking. “I had no bulletproof vest, nothing.”

“I felt this sense of, I am open; I am really vulnerable,” she said. “And then it was over.”

Keltner, 49, who owned a custom hat shop in the Denver area, died after being taken to a hospital, the police said on Saturday.

Dolloff, 30, had not yet been charged on Monday, a police spokeswoman said, and his lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Any charges would occur at a hearing within 72 hours of his first advisement — an initial court appearance under Colorado state law — which was on Sunday, said H. Michael Steinberg, a defense lawyer in the Denver area who is not representing Dolloff.

Richardson is one of four staff photographers at The Denver Post, which has been gutted by layoffs after a hedge-fund bought the paper in 2011. She photographs a variety of subjects, like sports, wildfires and other breaking news. The rally on Saturday is one of only a few protests she has photographed in 2020 because she was furloughed earlier in the year, she said.

The photos on Saturday “just happened,” she said. “I just shot at the right time.”

Richardson’s photo of Keltner spraying Dolloff was a “moment of everything coming together in one frame,” she said, adding that it is difficult in fast-moving situations to situate the camera in focus and with the correct exposure.

“To get that moment,” she said, “it’s not easy to do. I was shocked.”

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