Michelle Knopp lives off the beaten path on a 40-acre ranchette near a swath of towering wind turbines south of Calhan.
Beyond Peyton Highway, beyond Ellicott Highway, and even beyond Soap Weed Road, her place is reached on a winding rutty dirt road — an hour from Colorado Springs, where Knopp works full time at a food market.
Far from the city’s hum, her compound lies at least a quarter-mile from her nearest neighbor. Only a whistle of the wind pierces the silence.
Except on April 28 when shattering glass and the thunk, thunk, thunk of more than a dozen tear gas canisters fractured her world.
A string of vehicles snaked over the dusty road and up her driveway and then waged an attack on her property, she says. The invaders wore uniforms and carried guns and badges.
They didn’t produce a search warrant beforehand and carried out a reckless campaign of destruction despite her giving them permission to search, she says.
It was the third time in as many months that “lawless rogue cowboys,” as she calls them, came calling.
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office led raids on Knopp’s house on Feb. 10 and Feb. 18 before showing up again on April 28 with tactical gear designed to blast through barriers if need be.
They came looking for her son, Harley Moore. He’s wanted on seven felony warrants for an assortment of charges, the most serious of which are burglary, theft and criminal trespass.
But it wasn’t enough to inquire and poke around the premises, which contains several outbuildings. Deputies stormed the house with tear gas launchers, broke windows and door locks and sent a robot into the house that clumsily knocked into and damaged interior furnishings.
All of which raises questions about just how far law enforcement officials can go in executing search warrants and why they acted like Harley Moore was Public Enemy No. 1.
“Nothing he’s accused of warrants such a display of force,” Knopp says. “They used my house as a training exercise. I gave them permission, and they did this to me. They acted like jack-booted thugs when they came in here.”
Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Jackie Reed declined to comment specifically on the Knopp raids, citing an ongoing investigation involving Moore, but she notes in an email a “threat assessment” is conducted prior to deploying tactical resources. Court records show deputies believe Moore is involved in a “criminal enterprise.”
But some organizations that monitor police activities say officers’ use of military-style resources can lead to more violent interactions when responding to suspected crime.
Knopp has lived on the 40-acre tract since 1999. On Feb. 10, while en route to her job, she saw a line of sheriff’s vehicles coming down the road. “I lost count of the number of cars,” she says.
One officer detained her about a mile from her home, allegedly so she wouldn’t tip anyone off at the house, she says. Officers said they had a search warrant and were looking for a friend of her son.
According to the search warrant affidavit, issued Feb. 5, deputies described Moore as one of several “prolific thieves” who had burglarized buildings, stolen farm equipment, and stolen diesel fuel from the county’s Department of Transportation (DOT) fuel depot in the eastern part of the county.
But Moore was not listed as being wanted at that time, and Sheriff’s Sgt. E.R. Gerhart said in the affidavit he wanted to search for a two-way radio allegedly stolen from the county DOT facility, two motorcycles, an all-terrain vehicle and another individual, termed “a wanted fugitive,” but not Moore.
The court declined to release property inventory lists showing what was seized under the warrants in question.
Knopp tells the Indy she told officers she didn’t know the individual they were looking for, and she didn’t describe to the Indy any property being seized that day.
She did say deputies searched the house, broke her bedroom door and busted into a gun cabinet where her husband has about 20 firearms stored, many of them heirlooms he’s inherited or collected through the years, she says. Again, she offered to unlock the doors, but they ignored her, she says.
On Feb. 18, officers returned. Though her husband offered them the key to a large metal outbuilding, they said they didn’t need a key and broke the metal frame on the door to gain entry, she says.
That day, they handcuffed her husband and her son, Moore, and placed them in a sheriff’s vehicle with Moore’s two children — her grandchildren, ages 4 and 7. “They were absolutely terrified,” Knopp says of the kids.
The deputies didn’t tell Knopp why they didn’t arrest Moore that day, but court records show affidavits for his arrest warrant weren’t filed until after March 17.
Also on Feb. 18, agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives showed up, she says, and confiscated guns from the gun cabinet that were capable of being converted into automatic weapons, she says.
“They took them and said they were going to do ballistics and DNA tests to see if they were involved in crimes,” she says.
Knopp says as far as she knows, her son’s alleged crimes didn’t involve firearms.
She acknowledges her son stays at her place when he has visitation with his children but lives with his grandmother other times in a mobile home in the Peyton area.
In a search warrant affidavit filed at 3:10 p.m. on Feb. 18, Det. Robert Frederiksen stated that very morning he was made aware of an “organized criminal enterprise operating in the rural eastern regions” of the county and that deputies had seized stolen firearms and vehicles involved in the enterprise from various locations.
He further stated that during a Feb. 10 search for vehicles, an AR-15 gun modified to “possibly allow fully automatic firing” was recovered from an outbuilding on Knopp’s property. The firearm was illegal because its serial number had been scratched off.
He also noted deputies found “numerous firearms” inside the house.
A burglary suspect from the criminal enterprise told another deputy on Feb. 17 the guns stored there were stolen, the affidavit said.
The suspect “said the modified firearms are then sold for money, narcotics, or sexual favors by the members of the enterprise,” the affidavit said, which also noted the suspect said several “felons,” including Moore, “exercise dominion” over the home while there.
The affidavit listed these items to be searched for and seized: weapons; records that would indicate involvement in organized crime; burglary tools and those used to modify firearms; cell phones; items identified as stolen; and illegal drugs.
The inventory of what was seized was not released. Knopp didn’t mention whether she was given a list of what was being sought in the Feb. 18 search.
At about 4 p.m. on April 28, officers again returned to her home as she was turning onto Calhan Road with her grandchildren. Soon, a sheriff’s vehicle pulled her over with its flashing lights activated. When an officer asked her where her son was, “I said, ‘I’m not answering your questions,’” she tells the Indy.
“The deputy said, ‘It’s going to get worse if you don’t cooperate,’” she says.
She then received a text from a deputy, who said, “Michelle, it’s Aaron with the Sheriff’s Office again. We don’t want anyone to get hurt, we want to make this as simple and painless as possible. If you have any idea where he is, please let us know. We’re at the point where we’re about to give anyone in the residence the following escalation of force announcement: All occupants of [her address], this is the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office. All occupants come out the front door immediately with nothing in your hands. This is a lawful order for you to exit now and follow the instructions of the deputies outside. Exit now with nothing in your hands and we can guarantee your safety and you will not be harmed. This is a lawful order for you to exit immediately. If you do not come out now, we will escalate our level force and we can no longer guarantee your safety.”
She estimates there were about 35 sheriff’s vehicles and the BEAR (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response) vehicle that resembles an Army tank, which has come to be standard equipment for larger police agencies in the last decade, as well as the massive mobile command center vehicle.
Deputies pressured Knopp, threatening to get a search warrant and telling her if she didn’t cooperate, “it wasn’t going to go well” for her, she says.
“I said, ‘I already gave you consent,’” she tells the Indy a day after the raid, and asked if they planned to kill her husband. She also told officers she didn’t know where her son was. He’s 27, she says. “I don’t have to watch him all the time.”
Knopp says deputies mobilized a robot that barged into her house, damaging some furnishings, including a plaster pedestal. They also shot 14 canisters of tear gas into her home, two of which lodged in walls. Several smashed through windows, ripping through drapes. Tear gas permeated her house, causing her to become sick for days because the gas wouldn’t dissipate.
Deputies broke down a backyard gate, shattered a patio door and tore down all the security cameras on the property.
“How am I supposed to secure my home?” she wonders as she tiptoes around the glass and broken gate.
Deputies also smashed in the door on a storage trailer belonging to her son, though a set of bolt cutters sat feet away with which they could have simply cut off the lock, she says.
Before leaving hours later, a deputy told her husband they were going to “keep doing this until they got him [her son].”
At 2:45 the next morning, an officer returned with a paper he claimed was a search warrant. It stated the search’s goal was to find Moore.
At 7:56 p.m. on April 28, Deputy Brian Nulk submitted a search warrant affidavit saying he had been assigned to surveil Knopp’s home and saw a man matching Moore’s description walking on the property and entering the house. He noted that at 3:30 p.m. that day, Knopp and her grandchildren were “contacted” via a traffic stop nearby and were not at the house. Moore had not been seen to leave the premises, the affidavit said.
Officers did not find Moore at the house.
Call screens with details of the Sheriff’s Office deployment obtained by the Indy show 24 personnel were involved, that operations kicked off about 4 p.m., that deputies staged on the property and that at 7:59 p.m. a deputy announced, “Warrant in hand ... we will go with the flash bang plan.” The operation ended at roughly 2 a.m.
The day after the raid, glass remained strewn throughout the premises, and the patio door was left a jagged, gaping opening to the home’s lower living area.
“I’m a law-abiding citizen,” Knopp says. “They’re acting like he [her son] has serial killer status. He hasn’t been convicted.”
A court records search shows Knopp has had one brush with the law. The Sheriff’s Office stopped her in early January for an expired vehicle license plate. The case was dismissed in late March. Her husband, who asked not to be named due to his employment situation, has a clean record.
Moore, the youngest of Knopp’s three sons, has had multiple encounters with law enforcement, mostly for minor offenses. His criminal history began at age 15 in October 2008, when he was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. The case was dismissed four months later.
His next case came in 2012 when he was charged with the petty offense of trespassing. That charge, too, was ultimately dismissed.
Moore was charged later that year with speeding 5 to 9 miles per hour over the speed limit, to which he pleaded guilty and paid an $80 fine and court costs. He also faced a charge of harassment that year, but it was dismissed in September 2013.
He was stopped in March of 2013 by a state trooper on charges of failure to display proof of insurance and expired license plate. The first charge was dismissed and he paid a $35 fine for the second.
In early 2014, a woman was granted a temporary restraining order against Moore, but the case was dismissed within two weeks. A second attempt to have Moore subject to a restraining order, filed by the same woman, was dismissed in late December 2014, the same date the woman filed for divorce. The case was closed in mid-2016.
Meantime in 2015, Moore was charged with stalking, felony menacing real/simulated weapon, careless driving, failing to report an accident and leaving the scene of an accident. He pleaded guilty in February 2016 to careless driving and was placed on two years’ probation in exchange for dismissal of the other charges.
Also in 2015, he faced fines for a variety of traffic offenses, such as turning without a signal, speeding and expired license plate.
In 2018, he was stopped by the Sheriff’s Office for speeding and paid a fine.
In early 2019, he was again charged with careless driving and leaving the scene, but the charges were dismissed in June 2020.
In September 2019, he was charged with felony trespassing on farm land with intent to commit a felony and theft, as well as misdemeanor trespassing. Pleading guilty to the trespassing charges in a plea deal in which the theft charge was dismissed, Moore was sentenced in June 2020 to a deferred sentence, ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and pay court costs.
He also was stopped in November 2019 by a state trooper and cited for not using a seatbelt, to which he pleaded guilty and paid court costs.
Most recently, Moore was charged with a series of felonies between March 17 and April 2, including burglary of a building, vehicle theft and theft, as well as misdemeanor charges of theft, trespassing, tampering, criminal mischief and auto parts theft. The offenses allegedly occurred between Oct. 4, 2020, and March 24, 2021, court records show.
Those charges likely are part of the “criminal enterprise” cited in the search warrant affidavit and formed the basis for the raids on Knopp’s property.
The Sheriff’s Office refused to discuss the ongoing investigation, but generally speaking, Reed says, how many people participate and types of equipment used in such operations are based on a risk assessment.
“It can range from a full response to include Tactical Dispatchers, Medical, EMTs, Crisis Negotiators, SWAT and the BEAR to a partial response where just a few members would be deployed without the BEAR,” she says.
It’s not the first time a call-out has led to damage. County Attorney Diana May says the county has paid two claims for damages caused during execution of search warrants in the last eight years, in 2013 and 2016, totaling $958. “Both were paid for damages to the front doors only,” she says.
But the county settled a lawsuit in 2013 for $75,000 that stemmed from an Oct. 6, 2009, SWAT team raid of the home of Rose Santistevan, 69, on South Prospect Street. It was part of a drug bust in which her son, Kirt, was targeted, the Indy previously reported based on court documents.
But Kirt Santistevan was sitting in Teller County Jail on a DUI charge at the time, a fact known to deputies, according to Santistevan’s lawsuit. Though her house displayed signs warning she used oxygen, officers forced their way in, “battering in her door with a ram, shattering glass all over her living room, and charging in while displaying automatic weapons,” the lawsuit said.
Santistevan was “seized at gunpoint” as her home filled with smoke and she tried to breathe with an oxygen hose. She was rushed to the hospital for respiratory and heart problems and spent a week there, according to the lawsuit.
Use of militaristic apparatus and tactics draws criticism from all corners of the political spectrum.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan independent watchdog, says militaristic SWAT teams were initially deployed only in extraordinary emergencies, such as hostage situations. But the wars on drugs and terror made money and equipment more available to law enforcement, leading to more SWAT units across the country, POGO says.
Now, SWAT teams execute search warrants in non-high-risk situations, which in some cases has led to injury or death of innocent people, POGO says in an article published a year ago.
In 1990, the Pentagon started its 1033 program which transfers equipment to community law enforcement. Between 2009 and 2014, POGO reports, thousands of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies were given some $18 billion in surplus military equipment through the 1033 channel and other programs. Equipment ranged from tanks to assault rifles to night-vision goggles. (Colorado Springs Police Department even acquired several helicopters but grounded them in 2009 due to maintenance and operational costs.)
Those bequests fueled an appetite for military goods “for what has amounted to urban warfare ... transforming the map of American policing organizations from civil servants into a patchwork of geographically dispersed militias, each with its own agenda and rules of engagement,” POGO’s website says.
The Charles Koch Institute, named for the Kansas billionaire active in conservative causes, notes on its website that a 2017 study found, “Overall, police militarization statistics seem to suggest that utilizing certain types of military equipment may result in reduced crime within a community but increased use of force by police officers against community members.”
The institute takes issue with requests for equipment funneled through state coordinators that thereby sidestep local oversight. The rules require local agencies to use the property within one year of receipt or return it to the Department of Defense. While it’s free, departments must fund maintenance and conversion costs, along with insurance, fuel and storage — costs that can only be justified if it’s used frequently.
“This creates an incentive for the agency to utilize the equipment in circumstances where it may not be appropriate or reasonably necessary simply to justify its retention by the agency,” the institute says. “It also encourages police to shift resources away from catching individuals who are the largest threat to public safety to activities that will reap financial benefits for the department through civil asset forfeiture or seizure of property associated with low-level drug possession.”
Likewise, the liberal-leaning ACLU issued a report in 2014 based on data collected nationwide that showed police treat neighborhoods like war zones.
“American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight,” the ACLU reports. “... [T]he use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.”
A 2017 study published by Research & Politics: SAGE Journals and conducted by four professors from American universities found “a positive and statistically significant relationship between [military equipment] transfers and fatalities from officer-involved shootings across all models.”
Local departments have acquired military equipment, but neither of the Sheriff’s Office’s large tactical vehicles came through the Pentagon.
According to an accounting provided several years ago, the office’s military equipment included 44 5.56 mm rifles used by patrol deputies, and four 7.62 mm rifles used by special teams. It’s also gotten a cargo carrier vehicle used by search-and-rescue crews and a snowmobile.
The Sheriff’s Office obtained an armored Lenco BEAR tactical vehicle in 2005, which cost $264,152 and was funded with money from the Department of Homeland Security’s Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program, Reed says.
The manufacturer’s website describes the vehicle this way:
“The Lenco BEAR is ideally suited for long range troop transport missions and base perimeter patrol and security. The large, open floor plan and custom bench seating can accommodate 16-18 fully equipped troops with weapons and gear. The large double rear doors and additional side cargo doors allow for easy entry or egress, as well as rapid deployment. The rotating roof hatch and optional Gunner Protection Kit can accommodate weapons mounts for an M249, Mk19, M2 .50 Cal and additional weapons as necessary.”
Reed didn’t release deployment records for the BEAR, but says it was used 49 times “for a variety of operations” from May 2020 through April 2021, about half the 103 times the SWAT/Tactical Support Unit deployed during that same period.
“The usage of the BEAR has remained consistent since 2018 with our efforts to eradicate illegal marijuana grows,” she says, adding it’s also used by other departments through mutual aid agreements. Usage during 2020 was lower than previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other planned events that didn’t occur, such as wildfire evacuations and drills, she says.
The Sheriff’s Office and CSPD share a mobile command center, which cost those departments $443,772, purchased in 2012 with CSPD money and funds the Sheriff’s Office received through Immigration & Customs Enforcement.
The CSPD received several Humvees from the military and assigned one to each of four substations and another to the Specialized Enforcement Division.
The Humvees are used to help protect the public during severe weather events, such as blizzards, but also for critical incidents, such as active shooters, hostage situations and barricaded subjects, Lt. Jim Sokolik says via email. But most equipment is not related to weaponry at all.
“I believe there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what type of equipment we have received from the program,” he says via email. “The items are primarily clothing, gym equipment, tools and containers. The program allows us to receive equipment that has already been paid for by taxpayers and repurpose equipment that still has use left in it. This is a savings to our community, as otherwise, we would have to purchase these items.”
Over the years, the department also has acquired 140 M16A1 rifles outfitted for patrol and 14 M14 rifles, used by specialized enforcement. CSPD also got cold-weather clothing, gym and exercise equipment including a treadmill, and even a flat-screen television.
Its BearCat vehicle, an armored off-road vehicle purchased by the South Central Region of Homeland Security and given to CSPD, was deployed 62 times over the last year. It made appearances from May 30 through June 6 for “riots” outside the Police Operations Center, 705 S. Nevada Ave., when Black Lives Matter supporters took to the streets after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
CSPD provided a detailed listing of deployments, including dates, addresses to which it responded and reasons for its use. Among those: barricaded subjects, SWAT team deployments and seeking fugitives. The vehicle drove 326 miles in 2020.
Sokolik notes the BearCat enables officers to respond to dangerous situations to provide medical aid, for example. “We have had to replace three windows from two different incidents from the damage inflicted by suspects trying to kill officers,” he says.
After the searches took place at Knopp’s home on April 28, deputies handed her a one-page document they said was a search warrant at 2:45 a.m. after the search took place, she says.
A search warrant is composed of several parts, including a cover sheet, which is the actual warrant signed by the judge; Attachment A, an affidavit in which an officer submits evidence so a judge can determine whether probable cause exists to search a premises; and Attachment B, which states what’s being sought in the search.
Attachment B was the only page Knopp was given, which stated they were searching for Harley Moore on April 28. Rather than a case number, the page said, “Error! Reference source not found” on the copy given to Knopp. (She didn’t say whether she received anything before or after the other searches, and could not be reached to clarify.)
The version of that page filed with the court has that phrase marked out and “21-691” handwritten above it.
State law dictates the grounds for issuance of a search warrant as being to seize any property that’s stolen or embezzled; designed or intended for use as a means of committing a criminal offense; used as a means of committing a criminal offense; is illegal to possess; would be evidence in a criminal prosecution; is required or authorized to be seized by any state statute, or is kept, stored, maintained, transported, sold, dispensed, or possessed in violation of a state statute or poses a serious threat to public safety or order or to public health.
Officers may “use and employ such force as may reasonably be necessary in the performance of the duties commanded by the warrant,” the law states.
Local attorneys familiar with criminal procedure gave mixed reports about whether Attachment B was sufficient, but all three interviewed by the Indy found it unusual to obtain a search warrant to look for an individual.
Shimon Kohn, a long-serving defense attorney who also has prosecuted criminal cases, says unless the warrant is displayed to the property owner showing the judge’s signature, “It’s entirely invalid.”
“The cover sheet is the actual search warrant signed by the judge,” he says.
Jeremy Loew, another criminal law attorney, didn’t pass judgment on serving someone with only Attachment B but says using a search warrant to find a person is “not really common.”
Ed Farry, a veteran criminal and civil rights attorney, says as long as officers had the warrant prior to the search, it’s legal, regardless of when the actual paperwork is handed over to the property owner.
It’s not clear whether the warrant was issued prior to deputies engaging in the search, however.
Farry called it “uncommon” to obtain a search warrant to look for a person. “It’s extremely uncommon,” he says. “It’s so uncommon, this is the first I’ve heard of such a thing.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1981 that officials can’t search a home of someone else for a suspect without a warrant, except in exigent circumstances or with consent.
“...Whatever practical problems there are in requiring a search warrant in cases such as this,” the decision said, “they cannot outweigh the constitutional interest at stake in protecting the right of presumptively innocent people to be secure in their homes from unjustified forcible intrusions by the government.”
That said, all three attorneys say tactics such as blasting multiple canisters of tear gas through windows, smashing doors and destroying property seem heavy-handed.
Says Farry, “Even if they have a warrant, that would not justify that other conduct.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Kohn says. “If they believed there was a threat, sending in dogs is sufficient. If that is insufficient, they can send in a robot. There’s no reason for tear gas and blowing up her house. They’re playing with toys, that’s what they’re doing. There’s absolutely no need for this.”
Loew agrees, saying, “They could have gone in and searched the house. They didn’t have to destroy everything. The whole thing is crazy.”
Officers also are required by law to provide the property owner a receipt containing an inventory for what they seize. Knopp didn’t say whether she received such an inventory list after each search.
A property owner can petition the court for return of the confiscated property, arguing it was illegally seized without a warrant, the property was not described in the warrant, probable cause didn’t exist that the property sought was located on the premises or the warrant was illegally executed.
If a judge rules any of those factors were at play, the property seized cannot be used as evidence.
Knopp finds irony in how the Sheriff’s Office treated her on April 28 compared to when she reported a burglary 10 years ago. It took a deputy six days to arrive and take a report, she says. When she reported someone shooting at an empty trailer parked on her property some time back, the agency did nothing.
Three weeks after the April 28 search, Knopp still battled the choking odor of the tear gas and had started ridding her home of furnishings that emitted the offensive smell.
She also said she’d taken time off work, because she suffers from various physical ailments from the gas and from the emotional trauma caused by the invasion and its aftermath.
“I can’t stop crying,” she says. “I can’t sleep. I feel so exposed. I feel violently violated. This whole thing is overkill. We unlocked everything, but they still destroyed my home. This is like Russia, and I’m not keeping my mouth shut.”
But she stopped short of saying she planned to take legal action.
“I’m not allowed to question them,” she says with a sigh. “I guess it’s within the scope of what they’re allowed to do.”
Meantime, as of the Indy’s press time, Harley Moore remained at large.