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Peter Chilson

The Activist

      No one knew what to think of David Porter. People said he was mouthy. “Likes to talk, that one.” On campus some regarded him as a hero. But everyone saw he was off. Even the football coach: “I learned not to tell him anything unless I wanted my words twisted all catawampus.” As for the FBI, they cared only for what happened one sunny Wednesday in July 2016, when Professor David Porter, PhD, 59-year-old scholar of Early Modern England and chair of the History Department at High Plains State University, Lithium Springs, Colorado, lobbed two sticks of dynamite at a beloved hot spring in the mountains above town. One carved a shallow hole in the trail near where the spring bubbled from cracks in the granite. The other blew apart a gnarled Douglas fir and killed a 19-year-old Greek exchange student named Hannah Galanos who was sheltering from the sun. It’s likely David didn’t know what he’d done. He was alone, distracted. His wife had left him. He was losing his job. He walked ten miles back to his Jeep Wrangler and drove to the sheriff’s office to tell deputies a story about stumbling on the trail when he heard the explosion. “Scraped my face and hands. I smelled burnt powder. It’s the oil companies, they bombed the springs.” 

      David hadn’t thought this through. Deputies noted his face was cut up as if he’d been too close to the blast. Not to mention that oil companies gave up on the mountains long ago. 

       News of a body at the bomb scene and David’s statement to the sheriff broke two days later, July 17, page one of the High Plains Observer above a headline about an attempted coup in Turkey. Because the spring—known as Sulfur Waters for the odor—was on Forest Service land, the FBI, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Forest Service, and the Lithium County Sheriff all piled on. They found powder marks and blast patterns consistent with dynamite missing from the ski patrol supply at Lodgepole Creek Resort, an hour’s drive from Lithium Springs. It took weeks to identify the body and release Hannah Galanos’s name. They found no evidence Hannah and David knew each other. The only person who’d had much interaction with Hannah was Alexa Zaitseva, a Russian history professor tutoring Hannah in the poetry of Pushkin.

      Twelve days after the bombing and hours before David was to meet FBI agents at his office, he vanished. Students saw him in the library that morning. A security camera caught him, too. He’d shed his trademark plaid kilt for jeans, shades, white sneakers, and black T-shirt. His long blonde-gray hair fell across the backpack slung over his shoulder. He wore a blue ball cap and dime-sized tunnel earrings. Alexa Zaitseva was there. “We passed one other,” she said. “That’s all. We weren’t friends, you know.” 

      Out the library doors, the camera stayed with David for 375 steps across Red Square—the name students gave the cobblestone open space at the center of campus—and he was gone.  



      I grew up in Colorado, graduated from High Plains State, class of 1984, and spent decades at Denver newspapers. I retired in Lithium Springs to be near the mountains. The bombing story was unraveling before me, a tragedy of ambition gnawing at everything the university stood for: innovative research and cultivation of verifiable facts on a campus where I majored in English and edited the student paper. Then it got worse: A student was dead on my old news beat. When an editor friend called about doing a magazine piece, I couldn’t pass it up. She told me to take a week. I insisted I’d need a month.

      Police reopened Sulfur Waters trail, which starts outside town. I began there. High up, the trail breaks out of spruce and Doug fir forests to cross a scree slope that drops to the spring at the base of Miller’s Peak that rises 14,000 feet over vast farmlands, once hunting grounds of Arapaho Indians. The spring fills two pools. A soak on a snowy day is magnificent. But under alpine summer sun, the spring is no comfort. Hannah Galanos must have been grateful for the shade of that fir. She might even have tried the water, facing out on the Great Plains that wash in from Kansas and Nebraska to meet the Rockies.

      Odd name, Lithium Springs, but we Coloradans love our minerals—gold, silver, coal, molybdenum. Stimulants, too: Brewpubs, pot palaces, the great outdoors, the idea that something’s in the water and air. It was the 1970s when Colorado began selling adventure and well-being on John Denver and “Rocky Mountain High.” It’s unclear who named the town, never mind there is no lithium in the spring. That didn’t stop the city from putting up billboards with the image of a fountain against mountains over the words: 


Population 22,000



      Later, the town replaced them with the slogan, “HOME OF THE LIONS!” Fit for a college town of athletic teams, glass and brick laboratories, the maroon cube art museum, the humanities center with classical Roman columns on the campus where David Porter rose to chair the History Department on two books he printed himself under a publisher he made up. 

      Alexa Zaitseva, I would learn, couldn’t forgive him for that.


      A week after the bombing, Alexa was walking to her office in Lyman Hall when she heard David shouting in Red Square. He’d propped a SAVE SULFUR WATERS poster against a bench. A dozen students gathered. “See these?” David pointed at swollen cuts on his face. “Oil companies did this.” He was wearing a green el campo hat and red plaid kilt the breeze pressed against his knees, lanky frame defined by arms that windmilled when he spoke. “They’ll kill for oil.” This was David’s habitat where he could say anything. Rants required no peer review. At a glance he passed as the hip, dynamic professor. But he looked uneasy in the kilt, fingering the fabric while he spoke. 

      A young woman shouted, “Nice legs, dude!”    

      Alexa didn’t stop. She was used to David’s stunts, and, besides, she had an appointment with Hannah Galanos. She’d read about his report to the sheriff and the yet nameless body. She had no reason to believe Hannah wouldn’t show. “At the time I didn’t know what to think of the bombing,” Alexa told me later. 

      I, too, was in Red Square that day. David had agreed to see me after his speech. On the phone he promised, “I’ll tell you everything.” Alexa, whom I hadn’t yet met, kept her distance so David might not recognize her. Alexa’s mother taught her to hide in plain sight: Wear different clothes every day, on the simple side, so it’s hard to spot you in a crowd. Change your hair. Hide your face. Alexa thought of her mother when she ignored a phone message from the FBI that morning: “We’d like to talk to you about David Porter.”

       Alexa didn’t trust the FBI. She thought of them by her mother’s term: “State security.” Alexa was born in Volgograd, Russia, where she witnessed her mother’s death. Golda Zaitseva was a journalist investigating Russian army atrocities in Chechnya. When Alexa was 16, in 1995, out with her mother in a city park, a man on a white Vespa shot Golda dead. Alexa and her father fled to America—the Rocky Mountains. She often wondered what her parents would think of David Porter and the university that employed him. 

      Alexa ducked into Lyman Hall. But Hannah Galanos never showed. Alexa knew Hannah to be studious to a fault. She’d appeared in Alexa’s office in May, introducing herself in stumbling Russian, “like she was auditioning,” Alexa put it when I met her. “She talked about Pushkin’s poem ‘Arise, O Greece, Arise.’ She wanted to know it in the original Russian.” 

      Alexa recalled the meeting, word for word: Hannah in the doorway, braiding her fingers. “She talked about Pushkin’s love for Greece. ‘We have a stamp in his honor.’ she said. Can you help me study his work?’ Hannah had these sincere green eyes. She told me about her family olive farm near the Aegean Sea. How could I refuse? She reminded me of myself at her age.”

      In her office, while David ranted in Red Square below her window, Alexa felt a tingling dread as she typed an email. “Hannah, I hope you are okay. Let’s reschedule.” Her phone lit up with another call from the FBI. 

      When David finished, I introduced myself, the journalist he’d spoken to on the phone. He squinted, gaunt face forming a V to his chin, cheeks sunken beneath gray stubble. His unblinking pale blue eyes had a perpetual alertness. But I also saw sadness in the way the outer edges of his eyes sloped, as if weighed down by some trauma. His lips parted like a man anticipating a blow.

      “Leave me alone,” he said. 

      I’d read his columns and letters. Now I witnessed how his eyes deflected critics as they took in believers, and how easily David shut off his passion. The more I learned the more I wondered at his weave of contradictions and accusations. I watched him hurry from Red Square, kilt fluttering in the breeze, and realized this story was more bizarre than I’d thought. 

      High Plains State is prismatic in summer. Afternoon thunderstorms blow in from the mountains and collide with sunshine, wrapping the grounds in misty colors. Cobblestone paths wander among green lawns, modern classroom buildings—Bauhaus red brick, steel, and glass. Granite masonry defines the oldest structures, standing since the 1880s, like Thomson Chapel, a miniature French gothic church with steeples and high sloping roofs. And the administration building, Colorado Hall, a four-story Tudor castle across Red Square from the red brick box of Lyman Hall, home of School of the Humanities, including the History Department. 

      No unit at the university operates with such self-deception as History, where faculty nurture small disagreements, and illusions of importance. People fall in and out of favor. It’s hard to exist there without being labeled, at some point, a sexist, a racist, a fascist, a communist, a socialist, a capitalist, a militarist, an atheist, a pacifist, a misogynist, or misanthrope. 

      Alexa used a sniper metaphor. “Speak up and someone will blow your head off.”

      David Porter became History Department chair because no one else wanted the job, the meetings, the paperwork, the arguments, even the raise. College officials were evasive when I asked about David. The provost said, “No one saw this coming.”  

       Alexa Zaitseva saw. So did Jordana Night, History Department secretary and Alexa’s friend. When David didn’t keep an appointment with FBI agents bearing a search warrant, Jordana let them inside his office. They found a typed note: all caps, single spaced on college letterhead in the typewriter that sat on his desk like a museum piece. 



       The note—David signed messages with lowercase “d”— burst in the thick of a storm he could no longer bluff his way out of: Divorce papers, letters from the IRS and the Oneida Indian Nation police in New York state. Jordana had a look at the papers on his desk before the agents ushered her out. “David had no place to go but over a cliff,” she told me. 

      Jordana tipped me off to Alexa Zaitseva. “You want to know about David, talk to her.” 


      I arranged to meet Alexa at her office a couple of days after the sheriff released the identity of the body at Sulfur Waters and announced that David Porter was a suspect. The door was open when I knocked. Alexa sat at her desk on the phone in jeans and green blouse, running shoes. She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, pressing her cell against her ear, straight brown hair falling around her face. 

      “Watch for a black Jeep Wrangler,” she said. “That’s his car. You better hope I don’t find David first.” 

      She ended the call and glared at me standing in the doorway, her eyes red and moist. “That was the FBI,” she said. “I’ve been avoiding them, but no more.” And Alexa started right in. “I met Hannah three times, right here. She was brilliant. David knew there was a body and there he was doing his activist thing pretending he had nothing to do with the bombing.” She went on about the meeting Hannah missed the morning of David’s rant in Red Square, shouting from his megaphone as Hannah lay dead. That memory was as vivid to Alexa as the day a stranger shot her mother. 

      She blinked as if she’d just noticed me. “What do you want?” Then she waved a hand. “Oh, right, the reporter.” 

      Alexa’s office holds two leather armchairs. French windows look out on Red Square. Bookshelves rise floor to ceiling, some holding file boxes. One box is labeled, “Surveillance Subjects of the East German Stasi.” Another, “Surveillance Lit.” I asked about them. 

      “I’m interviewing people who lived through decades of scrutiny in former Soviet vassal states,” she explained, “phone taps, being followed, that sort of thing. Sustained surveillance does interesting things to a national culture.” That’s when she told me about her mother, “Vespa man,” and her flight from Russia with her father.

      Beside her desk, Alexa faced me, legs crossed, back straight, eyes locking me in place. Her colleagues recall a gathering when she cornered a student who claimed to run the 10-mile trail to Sulfur Waters every week. Alexa was skeptical. “Poor boy,” one professor said. “Alexa walked that trail all the time. She peppered him with questions, but he passed.”  

      David Porter, Alexa explained, learned to tie up colleagues with bureaucracy. He filed complaints against critics. He’d pull colleagues aside to whisper that a student had accused them of micro-aggressions, and he was duty-bound to report the grievance. He’d call anyone who publicly disagreed with him a racist or he’d say, “this conversation makes me uncomfortable.” Then, at a faculty meeting a year before David became chair, Alexa questioned David’s proposal to put a bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr. on Red Square. According to the meeting minutes, she called the statue a “good idea,” but added, “who’s going to make the art, approve it, and pay for it? Bronze is pricey.” 

       The Office of Human Resources term for the paperwork David filed was a “Workplace Aggression Claim.” He accused Alexa of “disrespecting colleagues” and “assaulting the reputation of a civil rights leader.” Human Resources took six months to conduct interviews and review emails to find Alexa had done nothing wrong. 

      “Yes, it got weird,” Alexa told me. 

      To some faculty and students, David was the activist the campus needed. One graduate student told the student paper, “Professor Porter speaks the truth!” Others feared him, referring to his years as chair, 2010-2015, as the “Rain of Porter” for the orders and thoughts that flowed from his office. Alexa showed me a few. His first week as chair David wrote: “People are scuffing hallway floors with their shoes. I’ve instructed the custodian to report offenders.” And this: “Faculty must smile at all students.”   

      I read his books—A History of Trauma and Gender in Elizabethan Theatre, 98 pages, and a College Instructor’s Guide to Shakespeare’s England, 85 pages—published by Harvard Researchers Press. The press had a skeletal website, no backlist, and bogus email contact. Both books bear a gold star for the “Elizabethan Scholars Prize”—of which I found no Internet record. The writing is full of typos, sentences like, “English is just the best languige (sic)” and paragraphs that begin, “In my humble opinion.” Not quality stuff, but High Plains State didn’t really “hire” David. He arrived, Alexa said, “like acquired baggage” as a “spousal accommodation” when History hired his new wife, Karla Porter, with tenure. Alexa, the search committee chair, admired Karla’s three books, published by Oxford University Press, about 19th-century medical science. She had verifiable awards, a National Science Foundation grant. She’d met David when she was professor of medical humanities at University of Missouri, where he was an adjunct. The university found a star in Karla Porter, who wanted to live near the Rockies. They approved David’s hire with tenure. Alexa was the lone nay vote, suggesting David be hired part-time instead. So, in 2008, David Porter arrived on campus, a tenured professor.

      “David’s books are bullshit, but Karla’s a wonderful scholar,” Alexa said. “I didn’t know her well. We’d meet at parties or the hallway, talk about classes. I was furious with David when she left.”

      Karla Porter was soft-spoken, generous, funny. Students eagerly talked about her. She cut her blonde hair pixie short and favored earth tone skirts and suit jackets. In class, she told tales of medical monsters and haywire experiments that made tame stuff of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Using a medical school mannikin, she walked students through a 19th-century dissection, using forceps, scalpel, a dash of fake blood. Students shrieked and laughed. David, meanwhile, taught Introduction to the Study of History, and a course on Elizabethan England. He, too, was popular. Students liked his irreverence. 

      But there were rumors of abuse. Police records show four late night police calls to David and Karla’s home. Neighbors I spoke to asked not to be named. One said she heard a woman shout, “How could you do this?” and “You lie to everyone. Facts matter, David!’” 

       In February 2014 the University of Missouri took Karla back. She answered when I called her office to talk about David. “He’s a monster,” she said, and clicked off.


      I met Alexa Zaitseva a dozen times from August to October 2016. We talked in her office. At coffee shops. She called a lot, sent emails offering one more fact or anecdote about David Porter. The world had to know what she knew, understand her pain, that Hannah Galanos weighed on her mind. She kept mentioning that David’s black Jeep Wrangler was gone from his house. “It’s going to turn up somewhere,” she said. 

      Early one morning Alexa’s voice crackled through my phone. “I know where to find that Jeep.” 

      I was groggy, fumbling with my phone.

      “Are you listening?”

      “What Jeep?” I asked.

      “David Porter’s car.” Alexa was shouting. She texted me a picture of a fresh post from his Facebook page, a photo of a black Jeep Wrangler at the Sulfur Waters trailhead. “I’ll pick you up. I want to get there before state security.”

      “State what—?"

      On the way, in her Subaru Forester, we talked about Hannah Galanos. “Pushkin was her hero. He admired the Greek revolt against the Ottoman Empire,” Alexa said. “But I don’t think history alone interested Hannah. I sensed she was dealing with deeper problems. I know what that’s like. We’ll never know. David murdered a young woman just getting started.” Alexa pounded her fists on the steering wheel. “Fuck!”

      Aspen trees lined the parking lot, empty except for the Jeep Wrangler resting against a log, front bumper slightly bent. The tires had been knifed and windows shattered. Someone slashed the paintjob with a blade or key and bashed the body. Deep dents looked like the work of a hammer. Alexa plucked a piece of paper from under the windshield and held it up, unharmed by rain or dew. A typescript note read, “I did it for Jesus Christ. I surrender everything to Him.” 

      “Bless his soul,” she said. Alexa slid the paper back under the wipers and circled the car. The Jeep was empty. 

      Alexa called the sheriff to report the wreck.

      While we waited in her car, Alexa talked about a meeting in David’s office. His desk was snowy with paper, pages dripping on the floor, dusty with shoe prints. He was sitting behind two computer monitors, so Alexa saw only the top of his head, then his eyes as he looked up at her. 

     “I asked him about course scheduling, and he started talking about how his father had been a university provost and historian of Japanese culture, how he worked hard but no one appreciated him, so he shot himself. David wouldn’t tell me his father’s name or where he worked.” Alexa laughed. “He kept smoothing the kilt over his knees. I mean, he’s making up stuff about his father the Japan scholar and he’s in this kilt”—Alexa’s voice popped on “kilt”—"as if any identity he chose was as easy to inhabit as a costume.”

       I scribbled notes, Alexa checked her phone. Fresh selfies popped up on David’s Facebook page under the SAVE SULFUR WATERS banner. 

      “Look,” Alexa said, tapping her phone. “David on the run, one selfie at a time.”

      David’s wounded face looking at the camera, mangled Jeep in the background.

      David in the woods. 

      Hours later, David smiling in front of the glass and steel Denver FBI headquarters.


      During his first months on campus in 2008, David Porter appeared to be an annoying eccentric. He attended faculty senate meetings in jeans and T-shirts, stretched out in a chair at the back of the room, eyes closed, head resting against a wall as some faculty recall. One night, David accused the college president, an economist, of profiting off Sulfur Waters by bottling and selling the water. Faculty demanded evidence. David shuffled his papers. “Confidential,” he said. 

      Another of David’s causes was that High Plains State rests on stolen Indigenous lands. A true claim. Lithium Springs is an hour’s drive from the Sand Creek Massacre site near Eads, Colorado, where in 1864 soldiers surprised an Arapaho and Cheyenne camp, killing hundreds, mostly children and women. But David couldn’t stay on topic. In 2013, he wrote the student newspaper, claiming the university owed the Oneida Indian Nation a billion dollars for the land. The claim puzzled everyone. An online reply from someone with the handle, “Chief,” pointed out that Oneida lands lay in New York 1700 miles away. “Get your Indians straight, Cowboy!” 

      Being exposed never stopped David. He claimed the Oneida adopted him at age four. “My harassers say I’m not Indian,” he wrote in a 2014 letter to The Denver Post. “I’m Oneida. I know what it means to see my identity stolen.” 

      David grew up with his mother in a clapboard house beside a Phillips 66 station in Clearfield, Kansas, a farming town. David’s father, Rick Porter, left after he was born. When I visited Clearfield, the town clerk confirmed Rick Porter once owned a laundromat. I tracked him to Pennsylvania where he did time for car theft and worked odd jobs. He died in 1985. Ethel Porter, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in the clapboard house. At 90 she is spry, with thick curly gray-brown hair. She wore overalls when we met on her front porch. The Phillips station was abandoned, surrounded by corn fields. I asked about David, but she said she’d spoken to the FBI and the university. 

      “Someone from High Plains State talked to you?” 

      “Yes, a year ago. Young woman. She stood right where you are.”

      Holding up my phone, I showed Ethel Porter a picture of Alexa Zaitseva.

      She peered at the photograph. “That’s her. She was nice. Don’t think she liked David. But I have nothing to say. I gave up on my son and husband long ago.”


      At the trailhead I asked Alexa about her visit to Clearfield. “You never told me you met David’s mother.” 

      Alexa wiped her mouth. “I can’t do everybody’s homework.” 

      Three white Chevy Suburbans with federal government plates rolled up. A sheriff’s vehicle followed. Doors opened. Agents and deputies spread out to search the Jeep and woods. Alexa waved. A man khaki cargo pants and FBI windbreaker approached. He had thinning gray hair and new hiking boots. 

      “Shorter than I imagined,” Alexa murmured, “and pudgy.”    

      He was pale and drawn, with dark stubble over a weak chin. He looked from me to Alexa. Wrinkles around brown eyes softened his face.

       He said, “Dobryy den’ uchitel’,” (Good morning, teacher). “I’m Abernathy.”

       Alexa sighed with slight exaggeration. “Your accent needs work.” 

       “Studied Russian in college. I know your mother’s work. A fine journalist. You’re like her, I think.” He looked at me. “Hello.”

      “He’s press,” Alexa said. 

      I handed Abernathy my card and ID. He studied me. “Fair enough. But you report nothing before our investigation is finished. No joke.”

      Alexa held up her phone, showing David’s selfie at the Denver FBI. “How will you keep this quiet?” 

     “Yeah, saw that,” Abernathy said. He pulled out his wallet and gave her his card. “You like green tea?” he said a little awkwardly, as if asking Alexa on a date. “I have a thermos and cups in my car. I want to let you in on what we know.”

      Alexa jerked her thumb at me. “He wants your card, too, and tea.” 

     In the shade of aspens, we sipped from Styrofoam cups over a Colorado topographic map spread across the hood of a Suburban. “Porter has no center, no focus,” Abernathy said. “You were on to David before anyone.”

      Alexa closed her eyes. “Some will do anything to hide abuses. People get hurt. They die. The killer gets away. Hannah was bright, she had a feel for languages. Pushkin’s poetry is difficult in the old Russian.” Her voice was shaking, tea in hand, shifting her weight in the dirt. “We were reading ‘The Captive of the Caucasus.’ I never understood what she saw in Pushkin’s idealist, lovesick Russian officers. I’m not much for romantics. But Hannah loved that poem. A motivated, independent soul like Hannah Galanos is rare…and she was blown to bits.”

      Alexa recited a few words of the poem, haltingly, as if sifting for a piece of what Hannah saw in the work: “Hearts, born for war,” she said, “And often, the game will idle. Game brutal confused. Often bombs threatening shine…the burning thirst for destruction.” 

     Abernathy squinted at her. I thought he might recite a few lines himself. “That poem goes on forever,” he said. “You know it that well?”

      Alexa rolled her eyes. “My mother loved the poem, too. I had to learn it.”

      “Your mother, of course. Are all journalists romantics?” Abernathy glanced at me but didn’t wait for a reply. “We learned about your tiff with Porter over the King statue and his Oneida tribal claims. But here’s something you may not know. Porter has ties to a white supremacist group, the Lord’s Militia. Six months ago, he posted on their web site about Jewish oil companies destroying the mountains. We linked the post to his office computer.” On the map Abernathy tapped his finger on Lodgepole Creek Resort. “Here, we think they hit the ski patrol supply and stole the dynamite David used at Sulfur Waters.” Then he said, his voice softer and his words slower as if to honor the dead. “A dynamite blast killed Hannah Galanos. But the target and the dynamite make this more than a murder. This is terror.” 

       Alexa closed her eyes and set her cup on the hood. “Lord’s Militia…Never heard of them.”

      “They popped up on our radar with the dynamite theft.”  

      Alexa picked at the edges of the map. “So, David became their stooge?”

      “Maybe,” Abernathy said.

      After a while, Alexa said, “David had a way of cultivating people on campus. He’d make eye contact or wave, stop you on the sidewalk and mention some cause, drop a rumor. He’d lean in close like you were the center of his universe and say, ‘Did you know blah, blah about this or that person?’ He’d whisper, “I fight for the underdog’ or ‘I’m for the marginalized and abused.’”

      Agents measured and photographed footprints and tire tracks. I kept quiet, out of Abernathy’s gaze, letting my tea go cold. I thought about High Plains State, an institution charged to celebrate facts, crosscheck facts, boil and squeeze them. But this time the university betrayed the facts. I realized, as Alexa did, that David knew nobody would hold him to account—until someone got hurt. David cast his lot with anyone who fueled him or looked the other way. Agents searched and dusted the Jeep, digging under the hood, jacking it up, crawling beneath. An FBI helicopter flew by to check out the spring. Abernathy tossed his tea in the dirt. Alexa leaned over the map, running her fingers over the roads. 

      “It fits how this worked out,” she said, murmuring to herself. I had to lean in to catch her words. “David chased every avenue to power. Civil rights activist to monkey wrencher. Why not Jesus and white supremacy?”


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