Six months after black-clad protestors smashed windows and attacked police during May Day protests in downtown Seattle, an exhaustive police investigation appears to have sparked charges against five suspected rioters.
The riotous string of protests that saw a federal courthouse attacked, several shops smashed and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s home vandalized prompted Seattle police to circulate photos of several masked protestors, hoping to identify those most responsible for the violence.
Federal authorities continue to pursue a wider investigation into a group of anarchists believed to have planned some of the violence.
In charges filed earlier in November, King County prosecutors contend photos and video collected by Seattle police in the wake of the May Day protests support the charges filed earlier this month against five Seattle-area residents.
Among those charged is 24-year-old Phillip Neel, a Leschi neighborhood resident suspected of injuring a police officer during the protest, which authorities claim was turned violent by a small group hoping for destruction.
Prosecutors have also identified the protester caught on camera smashing the downtown Niketown store while wearing a pair of Swooshed shoes as Ballard resident Kellen M. Linnell.
Neel and Linnell, 27, have been charged with felony property destruction, as has Jason J. Michaels, a 29-year-old West Seattle man. Matthew A. Erickson, 26, of Seattle, has been charged with riot, as has Shoreline resident Meaghnn A. Gonzales, 21.
Charges filed Nov. 20 describe an intensive, long-running police investigation into the May Day activities. Law enforcement officers were ultimately able to identify several of the suspects, according to charging documents, as were members of the public.
Setting the scene in charging papers, Seattle Police Department Det. Wes Friesen noted a variety of labor movement-oriented events drew thousands of people downtown on May Day, and that a small, core group of protesters seemed committed to causing violence.
On May Day, a group of demonstrators, wearing all black, massed at Westlake Park around 12:20 p.m. Friesen asserted the masked demonstrators chose their “black bloc” attire so they could conceal their identities while fighting police or rioting.
According to the detective’s account, the black-clad demonstrators included “several known anarchist extremists” from Seattle and Portland, Ore., who previously had destroyed property as a political act.
“Property destruction carried out by black blocs tends to have symbolic significance,” Friesen said in court documents, noting that common targets for rioting anarchists have been banks and chain stores.
The 50 or so demonstrators in “black bloc” were scattered through a larger crowd of nonviolent protestors unaware that some among them planned to vandalize downtown businesses, Friesen told the court. The group was walking toward the downtown core when the protest turned violent.
(A)narchists Remonstrate w/photojournalist
(Note: Leah, Kteeo(?), & p(a)ls can be seen in this 9-13-12 clip)
Near the intersection of Pike Street and Third Avenue, a black-clad demonstrator attacked a videographer for a Seattle television station. The demonstrator hit the man in the face with a wooden dowel before fleeing.
“Black bloc” demonstrators then surrounded a car, taunting occupants and climbing atop the vehicle, Friesen told the court. Members of the group then proceeded to a Wells Fargo bank branch at Fourth Avenue and Seneca Street, where they caused about $26,000 in damage by breaking windows and throwing paint bombs.
“Employees in a terrified state activated their bank robbery alarms to identify the seriousness of the situation and to initiate an emergency response by the police,” Friesen told the court. “Officers were unable to respond to this specific incident in a timely and safe manner based on the group’s actions.”
According to charging papers, demonstrators had blocked traffic to a degree that prevented officers from reaching the bank until the vandals had moved on to the William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. Courthouse in the 1000 block of Sixth Avenue. They damaged several parked cars on their way.
Investigators contend 12 people dressed in black – what investigators describe as “black bloc” uniform – vandalized the courthouse, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. According to an FBI agent’s report, a vandal threw an incendiary device similar to a road flare at the courthouse.
The FBI is currently investigating that vandalism, as well as several Portland residents suspected to have traveled to Seattle to riot.
The group then looped back on Sixth Avenue to Pike Street, where demonstrators damaged a Nike retail outlet and an American Apparel store. Friesen described the scene there as a “massive frenzy of destructive violence” that included incendiary devices.
Describing the incidents as a “spree of violence and property damage,” Friesen said police responding to the area forced the demonstrators to retreat to Westlake Park. They continued to vandalize property on the way, Friesen continued, while some ditched their black clothing to blend into the May Day crowd gathered at Westlake.
Protesters then began a second march to a totem pole memorializing John T. Williams, a Seattle woodcarver killed by a Seattle patrol officer in August 2010. That march took a particularly anti-police tone, with marchers chanting “No justice, no peace, (expletive) the police.”
Having been directed by Mayor Mike McGinn to seize all weapons at the protest, police attempted to do so while allowing the march to proceed. As the protest wore on, though, one officer was struck in the head with a glass bottle while others were kicked or manhandled.
While police arrested several people during and immediately after the protests, many of the demonstrators suspected of vandalism or attacking police were not immediately apprehended.
Seattle Police Chief John Diaz formed a task force to continue the investigation. Officers assigned to the group pored over hundreds of hours of footage in an effort to identify those responsible for the vandalism and property destruction; photos of several suspects were publicized by the department.
Friesen now contends that effort ultimately led to the identification of the five defendants charged earlier this month.
Linnell is alleged to have participated in the vandalism of the Nike store and the Bank of America branch, and to have climbed atop an occupied car during the protest. Friesen noted Linnell wore a pair of Nike shoes during the protest, as well as a bright pink headband identifiable on several videos.
According to charging documents, Linnell was identified by a tipster who saw a photo of him on KOMONews.com. The tipster directed police to Linnell’s Ballard home, which police searched on June 15 in an effort to recover clothing worn at the protest. The detective said officers also seized “incendiary devices,” paint and unspecified weapons.
Detectives contacted Linnell at an Eastside worksite later that day. Asked about the vandalism, Linnell denied destroying any property while refusing to cooperate with police when asked to identify the vandals.
“Linnell said even if … he knew who they were, he would not tell, because it was against his moral and ethical code,” Friesen told the court. “Linnell stated he would only help if the person had committed a violent act against another person.”
Gonzales was identified as a suspect after her boyfriend arrived at a meeting with his community corrections officer wearing paint-spattered black clothing, Friesen told the court. The Department of Corrections officer recognized the man’s girlfriend from photos publicized by police.
Investigators searched the man’s Shoreline home and recovered clothing alleged to have been worn by Gonzales during the protest. Gonzales and her boyfriend were both arrested.
According to the detective’s statement, Gonzales admitted she was pictured in the photos publicized by police.
“I remember I was very angry and upset with the way the police were treating people,” Gonzales told the detective, according to charging documents. She was unable to explain footage showing her throwing an object at a police officer, denying that she did so.
Writing the court, Friesen argued Gonzales is suspected of hitting a police officer in the face with a book. She has not been charged with that more serious crime, but is instead facing a single riot charge.
Neel is accused of kicking a police officer in the knee during one of the May Day marches. According to charging documents, Neel was identified through photos taken during the protest, which purportedly show him damaging an American Apparel store window.
SWAT officers and May Day Task Force investigators searched Neel’s Leschi neighborhood home on July 10 after obtaining a warrant.
Officers detained Neel and three other residents while searching the home. According to charging documents, officers recovered clothing Neel is alleged to have worn during the protest; Neel declined to speak with police.
Erickson was caught on video damaging a downtown Bank of America branch and subsequently identified by police who had other dealings with him, Friesen told the court. Michaels, who is accused of vandalizing the Nike store, was also identified by an officer who’d previously had contact with him; she said Michaels described himself as an anarchist at the time.
Court documents show Friesen completed his 19-page report on the May Day demonstration in late August. King County prosecutors filed charges against the five defendants without fanfare on Nov. 20; none of the defendants have been jailed.
What relationship, if any, the new state charges have to the ongoing federal investigation into anarchist activity in the Northwest remains unclear.
At least two protesters suspected of smashing windows at the Nakamura Courthouse have previously faced minor charges in federal court. But court documents and a widely publicized grand jury proceeding indicate federal prosecutors are preparing to level more serious allegations.
In a statement filed in federal court in early October, an FBI special agent outlined the allegations against six Portland anarchists suspected of traveling to Seattle for the May 1 demonstration. An FBI surveillance team apparently followed the group north from Portland.
Five of the six protestors are suspected of damaging the Nakamura Courthouse during the May Day demonstrations. They were joined in the vandalism by seven other anarchists in “black bloc” and several unaffiliated demonstrators.
Writing the court, the FBI agent said the protesters came to Seattle to riot.
“Although many anarchists are law-abiding, there is a history in the Pacific Northwest of some anarchists participating in property destruction and other criminal activity in support of their political philosophy,” said the agent, who is assigned to the FBI Seattle office’s terrorism task force.
The agent went on to name six Oregon residents suspected in the vandalism. All are anarchists known to Portland-area law enforcement; the FBI agent contends text messages and surveillance show they traveled to Seattle for the protest, and, in one case, described the day as “awesome.”
Inquiries are ongoing before federal grand juries in Seattle and Portland, though no indictments have been publicly issued.
An FBI surveillance team followed five of the suspects north from Portland when they drove to Olympia the day before the May 1 riots, the FBI agent told the court. The surveillance team broke off after the group arrived in Olympia but text messages recovered by the FBI and rental car receipts indicate they arrived in Seattle the following morning.
Having identified the Oregon suspects, investigators in Portland searched a Mississippi Avenue “squat” where several were believed to be living. The search was conducted as part of an investigation into vandalism of a Portland KeyBank in which one of the men is accused.
Text messages recovered in that search purportedly show the group planned to participate in a riot. In subsequent searches, investigators recovered other clothing they contend links the suspects to the vandalism. Investigators also seized electronics and CDs, which they’ve now thoroughly searched.
Writing the court, the special agent asserted several vandals are suspected of destroying government property, crossing state lines to riot and conspiring to commit the same crimes.
The charges filed in King County earlier this month are among the most serious allegations made to date in the May Day demonstration.
All five defendants have been charged with riot. Linnell, Michaels and Neel have been charged with second-degree malicious mischief, while Neel has also been charged with fourth-degree assault.
Protester Paul W. Campiche previously pleaded guilty to attempted assault of a police officer and was sentenced to seven months on home detention. Robert Ditrani, 24, was initially charged with assault in the May Day protests, but has since pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and was sentenced to a suspended jail term.
Charges against two other people involved in the May Day protests – Joshua Garland and Maria Jannett Morales – were subsequently dismissed with prejudice.
None of the defendants charged on Nov. 20 has been jailed. Each is expected to be arraigned in coming weeks.