Alicia Cardenas’s friends knew she had enemies, but they never thought she was in imminent danger. With her thick gray and black hair, piercings, and tattoos on nearly every inch of her body, Cardenas was both a physical force and an iron-willed artist who friends say wielded her words with purpose. She had no qualms telling fellow members of Denver’s piercing and tattoo scene — a community she had helped turn from a male-centric bastion of bikers and bros to a place of greater acceptance and inclusivity — that she would not tolerate anyone working with toxic men; she would publicly criticize exploitative apprenticeship practices. “It’s not like she went out there to make people pissed,” says Desiree Ortega-Stange, a close friend. “She was just calling people out on their shit.”
For more than a decade, Cardenas had owned Sol Tribe, a successful tattoo and piercing shop that clients and employees describe as a sanctuary. But on Dec. 27, 2021, it was transformed into a crime scene. On a dark winter evening during the typically sleepy week between Christmas and New Years, Lyndon McLeod, 47, drove to five locations in and around Denver, murdering five people along the way. At Sol Tribe, his first stop, he shot and killed Cardenas, along with jewelry manager Alyssa Gunn Maldonado, and shot Maldonado’s husband and Alicia’s childhood friend, Jimmy, in the chest. Then he drove one mile to VI Collective, a private home with an adjoining appointment-only tattoo studio, where he posed as a deliveryman and shot through an interior door at artist Jeremy Costilow and his family, but missed. On his way out of the neighborhood, McLeod set Costilow’s van on fire.
McLeod’s third stop was an apartment building near Denver’s Cheesman Park, where he murdered local contractor Michael Swinyard. He then headed out to the suburb of Lakewood, Colorado, stopping at Lucky 13 Tattoo and killing tattoo artist Danny “Dano” Scofield. His final stop was the Hyatt House hotel, where he murdered hotel clerk and artist Sarah Steck. He ran from the hotel on foot, and a couple blocks away, he was confronted by a female police officer. The officer survived; McLeod did not.
Like so many mass shooters, a portrait of a darkly violent and dangerous man emerged from his social media posts in the days and weeks after his murderous spree. Like many, McLeod had been on law enforcement’s radar in the past, for being violent or misusing weapons; business associates, his former tattoo artist, and active online misogynists were not surprised he’d turned to violence. But unlike most of the mass murderers to which Americans have become so accustomed, McLeod had laid out his plans for Cardenas and others in a series of novels: thinly veiled works that could have tipped anyone off — especially law enforcement, who’d been informed of their existence — to the danger the future victims faced. And while those who crossed paths with McLeod obsess over how he ended his life, Cardenas’s community remains determined to uphold the legacy of how she lived hers.
Alfredo Cardenas, Sr., had an image of his daughter as his Facebook profile photo, showing Alicia wearing a black and red headdress, earlobes stretched nearly to her shoulders, her lips painted black and red stripes across her cheeks. It’s a nod to the family’s ancestral Manito culture, which Alicia reconnected to in her early twenties, and it remained an important part of her life until its end.
“Aztec dancing has always gone on in Mexico, but it wasn’t really a tradition here. But during the fifties it was brought here during the Chicano rights movement,” explains Dr. Renee Fajardo, a program director in the Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Chicana/o Studies and a friend who danced with Alicia. The practice involves participants dressing in traditional Aztec outfits, like headdresses with long feathers, and moving rhythmically along with the beat of a single drum as either a performance or ritual ceremony.
“We’re from southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, descendants of Spanish conquistadors that were married into people from Montezuma’s descendants,” Dr. Fajardo says. “Indigenous, Spanish, French — we’re a woven people.”
Born in 1977, Cardenas always had a passion for performing. “She was a bigger-than-life presence, even as a child,” recalls her brother, Al, three years her senior. “She had an artistic side to her.”
As a high school student at elite Denver Kent School, she continued performing, but her days as a thespian were cut short by a defining experience. “When they were casting West Side Story — which was her very favorite movie — they cast a white girl in the lead as Maria,” Al recalls. “She was really disheartened.”
After that, Al noticed a dramatic change in his sister: “That’s when she started getting into the alternative dress, really going into the goth and the makeup and the spikes and all that punk rock stuff.” Around 15, she came home with her first tattoo, and when her dad flipped out about it, she came home with another. By 16, she was apprenticing to be a piercer.
When she was 20, Alicia opened her first successful shop, Twisted Sol. For 13 years, she ran it with a male business partner, and the two had a working relationship that she later described as volatile, combative, and passionate. She questioned whether she ever felt “safe” with that kind of male energy in her space. “He would’ve killed for me — literally would’ve killed for me,” Cardenas says in a 2018 interview. “But that warrior mentality, that aggressiveness that he had as an alpha male for so long, he might’ve accidentally killed me in the process.” (When reached for comment, the former business partner, who declined to be interviewed for this story, disputed her characterization that he would have hurt anyone. “‘I was a professional martial artist,” he wrote. “Not an angry animal.”)
After his exit, Cardenas founded Sol Tribe, and set out to have a different kind of space, one that truly felt safe. When asked in a 2020 interview, about what it was like starting out as a woman in a male-dominated field, she described it as “DIFFICULT” — all caps. “I had to work twice as hard for half as much,” she said. “I protected myself by laying down boundaries, basically telling all the men that I would not sleep with them to make my way to the top.”
McLeod’s self-published trilogy, which he called the Sanction series, is a meandering, confusing take on science fiction. One main character — “the inmate” — is woven throughout. This confident, well-read teacher and poet believes “pain demands a response,” and is in prison because of that mantra. He seems to represent what McLeod considered to be a “true” man, and guides the convoluted story of masculinity, religion, and artificial intelligence, all while surviving in modern society. McLeod abandons any typical narrative form, throwing so much contradictory and complex information at the reader that it becomes near impossible to follow the many graphic descriptions of sexual violence and mass murder. Ultimately, it’s about a man’s quest to seek vengeance against anyone who’s wronged him.
In the end, McLeod published three large volumes, and garnered wide support from online fans, many of whom found him through his Twitter account and his participation in online forums. Right-wing reactionary Jack Posobiec even tweeted in November 2019 to his more than one million followers, “Should Poso read Sanction?” (Though the tweet was later taken down, McLeod appeared to approve.) But the most disturbing revelation of all would come after his killing spree and death, when everyone would discover that the names of some of the books’ victims — including Alicia Cardenas and Michael Swinyard — were taken directly out of his real life.
McLeod — six-foot-five, covered in tattoos, often sporting a thick black beard and slicked back long hair — was no stranger to police. According to records shared with Rolling Stone by the Denver Police Department, a German citizen named Andre Thiele reached out to them in January 2021 with an urgent tip, warning that McLeod’s violent writing led him to believe he intended on carrying it out in real life. He says he simultaneously sent the same tip to the FBI. Thiele admits to Rolling Stone that he used to be part of the “manosphere” — a wildly misogynist corner of the internet where men share and encourage twisted and violent views towards women — and followed McLeod’s work for a few years. Eventually, though, he grew alarmed at the urgency and seeming inevitability of McLeod’s threats.
In his tip to the police, Thiele quoted McLeod from a private chat room for his fans. “My people don’t do subtweets and passive aggressive horseshit,” McLeod wrote, according to Thiele’s tip. “Which is why I used real names. If -I thought- I was gonna be forced to write it down, I’d at least take full responsibility for it and not hide behind a traditional roman à clef. So I inverted it, I used real names in the book so that my enemies would know just who I meant to insult and threaten (and sometimes compliment too, I guess).”
And yet, it seems the cops did nothing. Thiele says he hasn’t heard from Denver PD since January 2021, when they thanked him for his tip and said they’d reach out with questions. A spokesperson for the police department tells Rolling Stone that the department was unable to link McLeod to the address provided in the tip, and didn’t believe he was living in Denver at the time. “Based on our initial review, there was not sufficient evidence to file criminal charges or a legal basis for monitoring McLeod at the time,” they wrote.
The police investigation is ongoing, and though the FBI could not comment on an active investigation, a spokesperson said in an email to Rolling Stone, “the FBI continues to work very collaboratively with our local law enforcement partners to identify why the subject chose to commit these senseless acts of violence.” Theil says that they, too, were not in contact after he sent in his tip.
“I am depressed. I ask myself every day, ‘should I have done more?’” says a former member of the “manosphere” who alerted police to McLeod’s novels
Adding to the trauma of friends and family of the victims, a short film made by McLeod surfaced in February, showing him dressed in tactical gear just like he was the day of the rampage, and preparing for his eventual crimes. He mailed the film on an SD card to his one-time girlfriend, who received it after his death, with instructions to sell it online to make money.
“I am depressed. I ask myself every day, ‘should I have done more?’” Thiele, 53, writes from Mainz, Germany. There were elements in the books — like taking a flamethrower to a kindergarten, or threatening to rape a woman he named — that struck him as too plausible to ignore, and though he flagged it to authorities, he wonders if he could have changed the outcome. “Should I have flown to Denver [and confronted] him personally, should I have stirred the pot more intensively, ‘coerced’ the police into acting, find more witnesses and victims, gone to the press? It’s smothering. I feel serious guilt. I am sad beyond belief.”
No one in the tattoo community who spoke with Rolling Stone said they ever read any of the books before the shooting, or even knew of its existence. “If I had read that book, I’d have taken it one hundred percent seriously and would’ve been in fear for my life,” says Costilow, the tattoo artist who survived the attack. After all, the hint that he was telling the truth was right there in the pen name: his books were signed Roman McClay, a twist on the name for a novel inspired by real life: roman a clef.
Helen Zuman knew McLeod from outside the tattoo community. They met online, after she published her own work based on reality, a memoir about her time with a cult-like group called Zendik. McLeod had also once been part of the group — which, before it dissolved in 2013, was based around a commune called Zendik farm, encompassing all aspects of members’ lives, including sex.
Zuman and McLeod connected online in 2008 because of their shared history, though their time at the farm didn’t overlap. The two developed an intermittent friendship. “I was shocked. And horrified. And grief-stricken,” Zuman says of hearing about McLeod’s shooting spree and death. “He wanted revenge and thought he was honor-bound to get it.”
After a hiatus in the mid-2010’s, they resumed what Zuman calls the “second phase” of their friendship, during which she brought him on her podcast in 2019 to talk about his books. Shortly after, he went dark, and Zuman wouldn’t hear about him again until she read the news of his rampage and watched a video he posted a few days before. “In the year and a half since he’d disappeared, he’d chosen armor over the heart,” she said on her podcast two weeks after his spree. “He’d turned himself into a fungus-plagued cicada, hallowed himself out. In the time I’d known him, I maintained hope that he’d find his way back from rage and willful isolation, and find his place in the family of humans.” But he never did.
Thiele echoes Zuman. “I grasped that he needed to fulfill his promise to act [in order] to finish his book,” he says. “Today, I see his killing spree as the fourth volume of Sanction.”
Sol Tribe Tattoo and Piercing is at the center of Denver’s Baker neighborhood, a hip and rapidly gentrifying area. Facing out at cars and trucks darting south on a four-lane drag of Broadway, the shop’s all-caps sign declares “TATTOOING * PIERCING…AS YOU LIKE IT” — Baker is the kind of place where you can pop into a vintage store, pick up some high quality crafting supplies, grab an Instagramable, shaved-brussel-sprouts salad, then meet a friend for a movie at the Mayan Theater, an art deco landmark built in 1930. Stalwarts like Mutiny Information Cafe, a secondhand bookstore and coffee shop, co-exist with artisanal doughnuts and biscuit makers, and old pubs hang on as trendy cocktail bars try to supplant them.
“Broadway is a very unique strip,” says Erika Righter, a close friend of Cardenas, a few weeks after the shooting. We’re in the back room of her charitable gift store, Hope Tank. A mural Alicia painted wraps around the walls. “There are 26 women-owned businesses in four blocks. Many of us are solo parents. [We’re] very, very intentional about creating welcoming spaces.”
Alicia Cardenas was a “bastion and figurehead of the community,” says one Denver tattoo artist
Righter says that throughout Covid, she and her fellow business owners kept one another going when life outside came to a standstill. “We had to board up our businesses for months and months, but there was a whole world happening behind those boards. We were all still here. We had our kids back here. We were buying each other’s products. We were sharing information about grants.” One of those kids was Cardenas’ own 12-year-old child, whom she co-parented and homeschooled with her ex. (The ex could not be reached for this story.)
Weeks after our conversation, Righter was forced to close her brick-and-mortar store after her rent was raised. Cardenas, too, had been feeling the strain of gentrification, says Righter. But life and financial concerns aside, Cardenas used any spare time she had to provide vulnerable people in her community with food, health care services, and shelter.
“This is somebody who, when we had protests following [the murder of] George Floyd, we had police firing on protestors, she was sewing up people’s hands that had been blown up right here,” Righter recalls of Cardenas administering first aid skills she’d learned from years of street protests.
When it came to hygiene in tattooing and piercing, Cardenas was strictly by the book — in fact, she helped write it. In 1999, she was part of pushing through the first National Environmental Health Associations’ Body Art Model Code, which carefully delineates professional health, ethics and safety standards in the industry. (The code, updated in 2019, is still used today.) Friends and family say her fierce commitment to standards and order was an outgrowth of the lax environment in which she cut her teeth as a piercer.
Jimmy Maldonado, who came up with Cardenas, describes the early scene as a wild one. “We definitely paid our dues working in these fucking psycho crazy biker shops,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It was just way different. It was run by a lot of just, like, fucking racist people…and a lot of Hells Angels and stuff like that. And us — me and Alicia — being people of color, it was really weird for us.” But because the various tough guys knew them personally, he says, they respected the new approach they were taking.
Ian McKown, a longtime tattoo artist at nearby Old Larimer Street Tattoo, describes Cardenas as a “bastion and figurehead of the community.” Though they never worked together, their paths often crossed in real life and online. “We butted heads quite often, but it was never to the point of disrespect,” McKown says. He tattoos a lot of cops, and he says she made it very clear she didn’t see them as a positive force in the city — but she never showed him disrespect. “She took everything I had to say and said, ‘I’m gonna give this some thought,’” he says. “She didn’t tell me to fuck off.”
Not far from Sol Tribe, World Tattoo occupies the first floor of a modest two-story building. But for a brief period from 2013 to 2015, the space was called All Heart Industries, and was owned by Lyndon McLeod. McLeod had spent years as a client of Denver tattoo artist Jeremy Costilow and despite having no experience as an artist himself, when Costilow mentioned friends of his were looking to open a new shop, McLeod said he wanted to invest.
It didn’t take long for employees to realize McLeod was not a steady hand for a fledgling business. “It was him against everybody else, and his opinion was always right, even though he had zero experience in the industry,” says Randy Mickulesku, former manager at All Heart. “And everybody else in there had been doing it for 10 years.”
By the time they opened, Costilow — who served as a kind of unpaid advisor to the All Heart crew — had been tattooing McLeod for five years, but he never felt like he got a real read on him. “I saw problems with him on and off, mentally, but I just didn’t know what I’d gotten myself into,” Costilow says from his studio. It was there that, just a few weeks prior, McLeod had attempted to kill him, his girlfriend Chelsea Matthews, his three-month-old daughter Lily, and another friend. Costilow was already walking with a cane after a motorcycle accident last year nearly killed him, all the progress he’d made erased as he hobbled away to save his life. He rolls up his pant leg to reveal a healing wound from the earlier accident, and bullet holes from McLeod’s gun dot the door between his studio and home.
Mickulesku and Costilow mostly had a business relationship with McLeod, though they’d been to his home a couple of times over the years. “It was a weird house,” Mickulesku recalls. “The outside of it was army green and black. Just very uninviting. He had a lot of weird artwork: Skulls that were spray painted black, animal skulls everywhere. It just didn’t seem like a home.”
“I saw real hand grenades, and thought it was a joke. There were guns stashed in the walls and floors,” Costilow says. Local news confirmed Costilow’s observations with the home’s current owners, who, according to the news report, “found several gun safes hidden throughout the house in areas meant to be heavily disguised or unfindable when filled with everyday items.”
In that time, the two also got to know McLeod’s then-girlfriend. “He just was terrible with women,” Costilow says. “He didn’t like women to have any say so or any authority in anything, so I started noticing that. I thought, that’s enough for me. I can’t stand an alpha male prick.” Mickulesku says he also noticed the girlfriend would come in with marks on her face, and seemed scared of McLeod. (The ex-girlfriend did not reply to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)
After All Heart closed for good in 2015, Costilow says a mutual friend delivered him a disturbing message about McLeod. “About a year and a half later, [the friend] came to my shop, and spent pretty much the whole afternoon telling me that Lyndon was gonna kill me,” Costilow says, because McLeod erroneously believed Costilow was having an affair with his ex girlfriend. “I wasn’t that scared, but he was a big guy and I didn’t think it’d be anything to do with weapons, guns, actual murdering. I figured we were gonna fight. I figured, he’s pissed at me, he’s gonna find me out somewhere, we’re gonna fist fight.”
For the next couple of years, Costilow would glance over his shoulder, his senses on high alert for threats of danger, but he didn’t think there was any use in alerting law enforcement. And despite him going down the street to All Heart and telling staff there to let McLeod know he dared him to make good on his threat, he didn’t see Mcleod again until he showed up at his back door on Dec. 27, 2021 dressed as a delivery driver, asking Costilow’s girlfriend Chelsea if he lived there — just as McLeod wrote in his book.
Staff at All Heart Industries turned over at a rapid clip, and by 2015, the business appeared doomed. Costilow and Mickuslecku, both tired of McLeod’s aggressive behavior and lack of savvy, officially cut ties with the business. The two say that departure left McLeod angry over his failure to successfully break into the industry.
“I think it was all he had,” says Mickulesku, who recently learned he was named in the books as well, though not as a victim. “I don’t know what was going on in his head for sure when he opened it, but I think that he thought he was going to be a part of something, and it just didn’t work out.”
McLeod visited Sol Tribe in 2017, but Cardenas didn’t engage: “He was trying to interact with her, and she just really wasn’t giving him the time of day”
McLeod eventually let go of his lease, and Alicia Cardenas took over the space to be used as an annex to the nearby Sol Tribe, with the goal of eventually making it Maldonado’s own shop.
Maldonado already knew McLeod — not well, but definitely by reputation. He remembers McLeod would come around Cardenas’ older shop, Twisted Sol, a decade and a half ago. He’s unable to recall whether or not McLeod was actually pierced or tattooed there, but the shop was known as a hangout spot.
Maldonado remembered that face one day in 2017, when McLeod stopped by the shop when Cardenas and Maldonado were there. He was apparently there to ingratiate himself with the new owners of his former space. Though he wasn’t outright hostile, Maldonado recalls giving McLeod a cool reception. “You could tell he left a little mad or a little irritated that I wasn’t entertaining his idea, or I wasn’t entertaining him,” he says, “Or he wasn’t he wasn’t getting the reaction that he thought that he was going to get from me.”
As for McLeod’s interaction with Cardenas, Maldonado recalls, “He was trying to interact with her, and she just really wasn’t giving him the time of day. And I think that really pissed him off.”
The next time Maldonado saw him was when he lost his wife.
On Dec. 27, 2021, Jimmy Maldonado was in the backroom at Sol Tribe in the middle of piercing a client, while his wife, Alyssa, was in the office next door, and Cardenas worked in the main space. A little after 5 p.m, when he heard two loud bangs. “He shot Alicia, and then he shot Alyssa. And by the time I kind of realized what was happening, I looked up and he was just right there in the doorway and he shot me,” Maldonado tells Rolling Stone. He says between how quickly everything happened, his state of shock, and his injuries, it’s difficult to clearly remember much about that day. He can piece together playing dead on the floor, Sol Tribe patrons helping him up and rushing him out the back door to hide behind a car in the back alley, and then running into the business next door for cover. The next thing he knew, he was waking up from surgery in the hospital, with a bullet still lodged in his back.
“Alyssa loved her life. She loved her family,” Maldonado says of his late wife. And as for his lifelong friend Alicia Cardenas, he’ll always remember her as a strong woman. “If she wanted something, she would do whatever she needed to get it done,” he says. “She was a caring and compassionate person. She was just a badass.”
It’s hard to see how there will ever be justice when the outcome for the victims was so permanent, and the perpetrator is dead. Some will fixate on the signs missed by law enforcement, whether they could have stopped McLeod, and whether or not Cardenas would have done anything different if she knew her name was mentioned in his books.
Cardenas’s brother Al is amazed by “the level of neglect of incompetence by police” and can’t understand why they didn’t act on Thiele’s tip. “There was so much evidence that he was gonna do this,” he says.
And while McLeod used death to achieve his goals, Cardenas fulfilled hers in life through her community, her work, her friends and her child. “I feel like, in my eyes, that if she knew the day before that she was gonna go that next day,” her friend Ortega-Stange says, “I feel like she would’ve been ready.”