^
Keep New Times Free
4

Arizona Counterterrorism Agencies Monitor Police Victims, Ignore Right Wing Threats

Arizona Counterterrorism Agencies Monitor Police Victims, Ignore Right Wing ThreatsEXPAND
Tom Carlson

On the morning of June 15, 2019, officers of the Tempe Police Department knocked on the door of the apartment Ivaughn Oakry lived in with his three children and their mother, MeKayla Brand.

Brand had called the police department’s non-emergency line to report that Oakry had come home intoxicated and “put his hands” on her during an argument. By the time police arrived, Brand had left the apartment. She advised police that Oakry was inside with their children.

As body camera footage of the incident would later show, the Tempe officers entered Oakry’s home without his consent. Oakry did not act aggressively toward the police, and when the officers pointed their tasers at him, Oakry’s children began to scream. His one-year-old son, wearing only a diaper, ran up to him. Oakry bent down and picked the child up.

A kind of standoff ensued. The police demanded Oakry put his son down. Oakry continued to hold the infant, turning his shoulder away from the police so as to shield the boy from the tasers trained on him.

Brand returned to the apartment and attempted to defuse the situation.

“No — that’s not how this works,” one of the officers can be heard telling her. “You called us out here. Things have changed. You need to get out of the apartment now.”

Moments later, multiple officers repeatedly tased Oakry, who fell to the ground while still holding his infant son. The police then arrested Oakry on charges of assault and child endangerment. (The charges were later dropped, and Oakry has since filed a $5.5 million lawsuit against the City of Tempe over his mistreatment.)

Americans tend to see these kinds of law enforcement interactions differently, as the tumult of this past summer’s George Floyd protests showed. Many would characterize Oakry as a victim of police brutality. Others would defend the actions of the police.

Few, though, would conclude Oakry was worthy of being surveilled by a counterterrorism unit. But following the incident, the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC), an ongoing law enforcement collaboration between federal and local agencies, began monitoring Oakry.

In this, Oakry is not alone. Records obtained by Phoenix New Times show that, even before the Floyd protests, Arizona counterterrorism personnel were keeping close tabs on the activities of civil rights activists and victims of police violence across the state. Locally, that includes Black Lives Matter activist groups, police violence reform group Poder in Action, Phoenix African-American community activist Jarrett Maupin, Tempe Against Police Violence, and another victim of police violence, Dravon Ames.

At the same time, Arizona counterterrorism personnel have shrugged off explicit threats made by members of far-right groups, including some related to election safety.

Ivaughn Oakry, seconds before he was repeatedly tased as he held his 1-year-old baby.EXPAND
Ivaughn Oakry, seconds before he was repeatedly tased as he held his 1-year-old baby.
City of Tempe


ACTIC, commonly known as the “Arizona fusion center,” was established jointly by Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and the Arizona Department of Public Safety (AZDPS) in 2004, two years after the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

At the time, the American law enforcement and intelligence landscape — municipal, federal, and everything in between — was in a state of upheaval and restructuring in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. ACTIC was part of a large network of state and regional “fusion centers” that sprang up nationwide during this period.

“Fusion centers” are so-called because they connect state and local law enforcement counterterrorism resources (city police, sheriff’s offices, state police) with federal counterterrorism resources (the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and others).

Local law enforcement personnel active in ACTIC are generally employed in “homeland defense,” “counter-terrorism,” “threat mitigation,” or “intelligence” units of their respective agencies. Many of these local police counterterrorism units were also created in response to the 2001 terror attacks.

Over time, the missions of counterterrorism fusion centers like ACTIC have crept over from an exclusive focus on potential acts of terror to mitigation of “all hazards.” Today, ACTIC consists of more than 25 Arizona law enforcement and public safety entities and at least 16 federal agencies. The lead state agency, through its Intelligence Bureau, is the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

New Times found that, almost immediately after they stun-gunned him in front of his children and arrested him, Tempe Police Department focused the attention of this imposing counterterrorism apparatus on Oakry.

According to emails obtained by New Times, at 10:05 on the morning of Tuesday, June 18, 2019 — just three days after the Oakry incident — Anna Churan, a “licensing specialist” with the Tempe Police Department, wrote to several “terrorism liaison officers” in the department advising them that Sergeant Kevin Renwick had asked her to monitor the social media accounts of several activists and individuals. One of those individuals was Oakry.

Perhaps the most widely utilized feature of ACTIC is the terrorism liaison officer (TLO) program. TLOs are local law enforcement officers, employed by counterterrorism or “threat mitigation” units of their respective ACTIC-engaged local law enforcement agencies. They disseminate ACTIC intelligence and threat and vulnerability assessments within their respective local agencies and feed intelligence gathered by these agencies back into ACTIC, for the use of other local, state, and federal ACTIC entities.

According to Tempe police spokesman Greg Bacon, Renwick is the officer in charge of the department’s TLOs, as head of the Threat Mitigation Unit. 

Bacon declined to disclose what Churan’s duties as a “licensing specialist” at the Tempe Police Department are, or whether she is a law enforcement officer with any law enforcement or counterterrorism training. He did say that Churan had been tasked with assisting Renwick and his TLOs in the summer of 2019.

When asked by New Times why Tempe police TLOs were monitoring the social media accounts of Oakry, Bacon declined to comment. But the emails tell most of the story: Police were concerned Oakry might post body-cam footage of the incident online.

“Per Renwick, the body cam [footage] has been released to the family and potential for them to post it [sic],” Churan wrote to the TLOs. “I am still looking if they have, so far nothing. Facbook [sic] https://facebook.com/ivaughn.oakry, nothing recent posted.”

Other email correspondence between Churan and Tempe police TLOs shows Churan consistently monitoring Oakry’s social media sites and YouTube over the following days, awaiting the release of body cam footage. It is not known for how long Oakry was the subject of this monitoring.

Following the publication of this body-cam footage to social media on November 4 of that year by Phoenix rapper Renaissance the Poet, Tempe police issued a statement emphasizing that the infant was not injured and defending the actions of its officers.

The concerns related to Oakry were part of a broader Phoenix-area counterterrorism interest at the time that also included Dravon Ames. Ames made national headlines in 2019 after a violent May 27 encounter with Phoenix police where officers pointed a gun at him and his pregnant fiancée, Iesha Harper, in front of their two young children, ages one and four.

“Get your fucking hands up!” one of the Phoenix police officers screams in the video of the incident. “I’m gonna put a fucking cap right in your fucking head!”

Ames’ offense? His four-year-old daughter had shoplifted a doll from a Family Dollar.

The release of the video, filmed by a neighbor and published on social media, fanned the flames of local outrage at Phoenix police, a trigger-happy department that had shot 44 people in 2018 (more than any other department in the nation, and twice as many shootings as the New York Police Department that same year), killing half of those shot. 

Voices of community activists were joined nationally and internationally by media personalities, such as Trevor Noah (who covered the incident on “The Daily Show”) and rapper/producer Jay-Z, who provided funding for legal counsel to Ames and Harper. (The couple later sued the City of Phoenix and, in August 2020, settled the case for $475,000).

Less than a month after the incident, Ames, Harper, and community activist Jarrett Maupin held a press conference, discussing the May encounter and calling for police reform. Records obtained by New Times show that Phoenix Police Department counterterrorism personnel were already monitoring Ames’ activities by that time.

On the morning of June 17, Phoenix police/ACTIC TLO All-Hazards Analyst Brenda Dowhan sent out an advisory alerting Arizona and federal counterterrorism personnel — AZDPS, local police department TLOs, FBI, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security personnel — to the imminent press conference.

“Members of Black Lives Matter AZ will hold another Press Conference in front of City Hall this morning at 1100 with the Ames family. The event originally scheduled for 1400 hrs, ‘Confronting the Policing Crisis: Turning the Tables,’ has been cancelled. Additional protest events for the week will be forthcoming,” wrote Dowhan, who has a documented history of monitoring constitutionally protected activities of Phoenix-area activists for local police and ACTIC that dates back to the days of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Records indicate that Dowhan’s primary role is to keep tabs on the social media activity of activists targeted by the fusion center. 

Dowhan, Churan, and other Arizona TLOs then teamed up to monitor the activities of certain individuals affiliated with the press conference. Among those targeted was Katt McKinney, founder of Black Women of Faith and leader of All Black Lives Matter Arizona. Records indicate that Churan actually wrote an email to Tempe police TLOs advising them to “monitor” McKinney the day after she appeared with Ames and Maupin during the June 17 press conference.

“She [McKinney] has also been doing interviews with Maupin recently about the Phoenix PD [Ames] incident. Per Phx PD they are aware of her, and she has been by Maupin’s side for years,” wrote Churan, who then provided TLOs with links to both McKinney’s personal and her Black Women of Faith Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts.

McKinney was disturbed, though unsurprised, when asked by New Times for her thoughts on this attention.

“That’s funny they would try to label us a ‘terrorist group’ — they know damn well we’re from here. We not no terrorists — we’re trying to stop the terrorists,” said McKinney. “I’m just talking about the killing of Black men and women and children. That’s terrorism on us.”

Maupin, Ames, Iesha Harper, and another supporter at a 2019 press conference.EXPAND
Maupin, Ames, Iesha Harper, and another supporter at a 2019 press conference.
Meg O'Connor

Other records suggest the actions of Phoenix-area counterterrorism personnel may have gone beyond passive social media monitoring of civil rights advocates and victims of police violence into the active gathering of information on critics.

On the evening of June 19, 2019, Ames, along with concerned community members and activists, attended a meeting of the Phoenix City Council. Attendees at the meeting urged council members to substantially cut certain aspects of the police department’s funding, fire officers involved in the Ames/Harper incident, and institute reforms such as mandated use of officer-worn body cameras and independent investigations of police shootings.

In an email string titled “Monitor social media,” in which terrorism liaison officers discussed their activities monitoring critics and victims of police violence, Churan recommended TLOs “obtain minutes from these last few meetings once the city releases them.” Because, reasoned Churan, “they should be listing all the comments, even the ones that people didn’t get to speak but filled out a [comment] card.”

Poder in Action, a Phoenix-based civil rights organization that focuses largely on police reform, helped organize civic engagement around the June city council meeting, as well as other meetings related to police violence incidents in 2018 and 2019.

Poder in Action protesters.EXPAND
Poder in Action protesters.
Melissa Fossum

Its executive director, Viri Hernandez, says it’s “unacceptable” that local law enforcement would deliberately gather city council meeting comment cards for the apparent purpose of monitoring critics’ social media. She argues such action could have a chilling effect on public conversations regarding police reform.

“It’s scary,” Hernandez told New Times. “That makes me feel worried, and responsible for my community members. It is not okay that peoples’ First Amendment rights — to go and speak, to voice their stories and concerns — be used as a way for police to track us, or further investigate or further surveil us, just because they don’t like what we’re saying.”

Email records obtained by New Times suggest also that terrorism liaison officers may have also had a hand in efforts to discredit Ames.

The day after his June 2019 press conference, Churan emailed Tempe police TLOs about an unrelated arrest of Ames in 2018. According to the police file in that incident, officers arrived at a scene where Ames was standing outside a vehicle that appeared to have just been in an accident. They smelled marijuana and Ames admitted to having smoked the drug. When they went to arrest him, Ames allegedly resisted. A scuffle ensued during which Ames was ultimately punched several times and tased in the back. He was arrested on two counts of aggravated assault on an officer.

“I provided Phoenix TLO Analyst [Dowhan] with limited info of our charges on Ames,” Churan advised Renwick and other Tempe police TLOs in a June 18 email.

On July 3, Tempe police released body-cam footage of the October 2018 Ames arrest. Local media quickly published the video and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA, the Phoenix Police Department union) promoted the video as a means of discrediting Ames.

“Welly, welly, well. This model citizen is just a magnet for cops. Why is this?” PLEA posted to its Facebook page, alongside the footage. “Maybe he’s shopping for a payout of the tax dollars of the hard working, law abiding Arizona communities and settled on Phoenix ... We wonder what the trial would look like if the Phoenix City Council decides to seek truth and not just pay these people to go away. We might see this story from a point of reason in a trial, where a judge would not allow the clowns to run the circus. Would that be fair to the good people of Phoenix?”

Though Tempe police spokesman Bacon denies it, Maupin told New Times he believes the department’s release of body-cam footage of the Tempe arrest and PLEA’s promotion of the unflattering materials was part of a joint effort to smear Ames.

Jarrett Maupin
Jarrett Maupin
Tom Carlson

“Prior to the [dollar store] incident, the initiation of the lawsuit, and early subsequent press conferences, Tempe Police had been silent on the Ames/Harper case,” Maupin said. “Only when we pressed for officers to be fired, stoking the ire of the local police unions, did the Tempe Police release the footage, synchronized with a full-on character assassination of Ames by PLEA. It should be noted that PLEA took things from there, embarking on an almost monthlong attempt to criminalize Ames.”

Maupin is not alone in this belief. Poder In Action’s Hernandez said such coordination is part of a long-running pattern with Phoenix police and PLEA. She pointed to the case of Erica Reynolds, a Black woman who was sexually assaulted by Phoenix police officers during an illegal “search” of her rectum and vagina in December 2018. The search yielded no illegal contraband and Reynolds, a mother of two who had recently given birth, was released from police custody bleeding and traumatized. She later sued and settled with the city for $1.6 million.

After Reynolds sued, “Immediately, departments started talking about other investigations and potential criminal cases and all these other things started moving,” Hernandez said, part of “an attempt to justify the fact that they had sexually assaulted this woman.”

The great antifa attack of November 4, 2017, was an Internet-born conspiracy rumor, one with no basis in reality, pumped out by alt-right delirium engines.

Some versions of the nightmare had filthy anarchists beheading white people in the streets. In other scenarios, black-clad anti-fascists were preparing to murder every single Trump supporter in a roiling orgy of civil unrest.

The day came and went. Nothing happened.

Though members of the far-right and those who consume its media (including the current President of the United States) claim antifa is a domestic terror organization, the FBI disagrees. The bureau’s director, Christopher Wray, recently said Antifa is “not a group or an organization [but] a movement or an ideology.” That ideology is “anti-fascist,” which is where the portmanteau “antifa” comes from.

Still, the notion of “antifa”— whatever it might be — looms large in the minds of many local counterterrorism officers, dating back at least to the run-up to the rumored 2017 antifa attack.

“Need to discuss the Antifa Day of Violence Against Police on 11/4,” Renwick wrote to his Tempe terrorism liaison officers, scheduling a meeting a few weeks before the feared day.

The conflation of Internet conspiracists’ fantasies with factual intelligence hardly ended there. A review of available records suggests some Arizona counterterrorism personnel have been marinating in alternate realities for some time.

On June 29, 2017, Mesa Police Department gang investigator Brent Smith emailed a briefing on anti-fascist groups to fellow Mesa PD gang investigator Ramona Moretta. On July 5, Moretta forwarded this apparent intelligence item on to at least one Arizona terrorism liaison officer.

It read:

“[ANTIFA] groups have become far more organized, equipped, funded, and even trained in special camps to bring about immense social disruption, property damage, business and financial loss, and violent clashes with law enforcement. [...] The members of ANTIFA are very mean-spirited, and violent. Recruitment programs reach into the 6th grade level of school, and indoctrination into Marxism is not hidden [...]. The ability to be mobile, bring additional resources to multiple cities simultaneously, is also a new development aided by large cash infusions from financial pockets dedicated to the overthrow of America, her values and principles, traditions and form of government intent on creating a Communist system.”

The briefing went on to warn that anti-fascists were intent on “[tracking] white nationalists and Far Right groups in every region of the United States.”

The source of this briefing shared among the Arizona counterterrorism community on the perils of “ANTIFA” was
ammoland.com, a web-based retailer of ammunition and gun paraphernalia, and font of right-wing propaganda.

And, in an email dated January 31, 2019, Tempe police personnel speculated — without citing any evidence other than reporting in unnamed “media outlets” — that incendiary devices reportedly found outside the headquarters of police in Eugene, Oregon, were planted by “ANTIFA” in retaliation for an officer-involved shooting. (This case remains unsolved, and the only “media outlets” asserting anti-fascist involvement were far-right conspiracy mills such as thetruthaboutguns.com.)

Even our nation’s youth merit a watchful, jaundiced eye. In a briefing entitled “Discontented 2/28/19,” Mesa police TLO Christopher Adamczyk shared an overview of national and Phoenix-area protest activities over the previous week. Discussing the environmentalist youth group Zero Hour with his fellow TLOs, Adamczyk wrote:

“[T]hey are youth-led, and use their youth to gather sympathy for their cause. They purposefully use the word ‘revolutionary’ when describing themselves and their platform, but they are about as far from revolutionary as the Shriners. Their ideology falls along the environmentalist/social justice line wherein they weave elements of Marxism (the status quo must be dismantled) and socialism (this is a peoples’ movement).”

Members of AZ Patriots, an offshoot of the anti-immigrant group Patriot Movement AZ.EXPAND
Members of AZ Patriots, an offshoot of the anti-immigrant group Patriot Movement AZ.
Zee Peralta

In early 2019, a group called AZ Patriots splintered off from their precursor group, Patriot Movement AZ.

Like PMAZ, AZ Patriots is anti-immigrant and anti-Islam, known for protesting outside mosques and immigrant shelters. The group is also known for inciting physical altercations with left-leaning protesters such as antifa activists. Hernandez of Poder in Action says AZ Patriots regularly engages in violent and threatening behavior during its protests.

Throughout 2020, as the coronavirus has invaded and upended ordinary life in America, AZ Patriots has sought to use the pandemic to draw attention to its cause, organizing and promoting “Reopen Arizona” protests where members have occupied the grounds of the state Capitol while carrying assault rifles, and even attempting to gain access to the Governor’s office.

The group has also been visible during the months of widespread civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Heavily armed AZ Patriots members have often countered Black Lives Matter, calling themselves “Blue Lives Matter” protesters.

But it seems these activities have not been given the same kind of counterterrorism attention that civil rights activists have received. Indeed, in his “Discontented 2/28/19” briefing, Mesa TLO Adamczyk seemed to laugh off PMAZ and AZ Patriots activities and criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center for describing them as a “hate group.”

In response to a New Times public records request seeking records in possession of Renwick pertaining to the “Reopen Arizona” protests, Tempe police spokesman Bacon stated that no records existed. Dowhan, with Phoenix police, did not respond in any way to New Times’ requests for public records pertaining to AZ Patriots, Blue Lives Matter protests, or Black Lives Matter. 

Other records obtained by New Times, though, indicate that Arizona counterterrorism personnel are likely to view “patriot” groups as allies.  Tempe police TLO Derek Pittam stated as much in August 3, 2018, email correspondence with his fellow TLOs, wherein he acknowledged that the “mainstream ‘Patriot Movement’ [...] tends to be pro-law enforcement.”

In February 2018, the Phoenix-based anti-immigrant hate group (and AZ Patriots associates) Riders United for a Sovereign America held an event at a Tempe Elk’s Lodge. Arizona State University criminology professor Dr. Charles Loftus was the event’s featured speaker. Loftus, described in Riders USA promotional materials for the event as a counterterrorism expert well-versed in “Islamic Fascism,” was expected to discuss means of “effectively neuter[ing]” certain “domestic terrorist groups” such as Black Lives Matter and antifa protestors.

Loftus is also the academic advisor of ASU’s College Republicans United, a group that has come under fire in the past for racist behavior and statements, and whose members made statements in support of white nationalists and white nationalism in private group chats (and in conversations with this reporter) earlier this year.

CRU and its members have a substantial history of association with AZ Patriots. In late 2019 and much of 2020, CRU founder Rick Thomas also served as a paid contractor providing recruitment and “field services” to the far-right “Demand Daniel” Daniel McCarthy for U.S. Senate campaign. This campaign, Thomas, CRU, and AZ Patriots were all organizers of the “Reopen Arizona” pandemic-related protests earlier this year.

A flyer from an anti-shutdown rally held in April.
A flyer from an anti-shutdown rally held in April.
Operation Gridlock Arizona

Email records indicate that Tempe police and its TLOs took it upon themselves to monitor the social media accounts of “BLM/Anti Law Enforcement groups” to see if “they were talking about” the Riders USA Loftus event. Groups monitored included Students for a Democratic Society, Tempe Against Police Violence, “BLM Arizona,” and “BLM Phoenix,” emails show.

As it turned out, none of those groups seemed even to be aware of the Riders USA event. Still, Tempe police terrorism liaison officers determined they would provide “extra patrol[s],” just in case.

This clear bias among local law enforcement doesn’t merely manifest itself in the arena of political protests. It also carries grave ramifications for civic life in Arizona.

In fact, the day prior to Mesa TLO Adamczyk’s “Discontented 2/28/19” briefing, supportive of the activities of AZ Patriots, members of the group were harassing Arizona voters and election workers.

On February 27, 2019, AZ Patriots leader Jennifer Harrison and several members of her group entered the Phoenix offices of the Maricopa County Recorder. Active in-person voting was underway at the location at that time, and Harrison was filming voters with her cell phone within 75 feet of the active polling location, which is illegal.

In a formal complaint she would later file over the incident, Maricopa County Assistant Director of Election Services Kristi Passarelli said her staff also observed Harrison apparently photographing voter information off computer screens in the office. According to Passarelli and email records relating to this incident, elections staff advised AZ Patriots that they were breaking the law and asked them to stop filming and step away from the polling location, but they refused. Passarelli said that her staff then called the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to have Harrison and her group removed.

The following day, according to emails obtained by New Times, then-Deputy Maricopa County Recorder Kathren Coleman followed up on Passarelli’s complaint. Coleman stated that she was serving as a liaison between the recorder’s office and ACTIC. In this capacity, she advised TLOs in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office that she had located AZ Patriots’ video of the incident on Facebook.

Coleman also noted that social media conversation regarding the video included discussion of attempts to conceal recording devices at election offices in the future.

Most disturbingly, reported Coleman, some comments advocated for violence at the polling place, and potentially against voters.

“I say we go in with guns a blazin and see what they say. We have been politically correct for too long,” said Coleman, reciting the threat from the AZ Patriots Facebook group to MCSO counterterrorism personnel.

Passarelli told New Times that she was not aware of any ACTIC or MCSO follow-up to investigate the incident.

MCSO did not respond to New Times inquiries regarding the incident.

Maricopa County Elections Department Co-Director Scott Jarrett, who has served in the position since June 2019, told New Times: “This is the first I have heard of the threat related to AZ Patriots, and I have not been informed of that from MCSO or ACTIC for any of the elections I have overseen.”

The Arizona Secretary of State is responsible for the administration of elections statewide. Arizona Secretary of State Director of Communications C. Murphy Hebert stated that, while the agency does have heightened concern over election safety at this time, and has been working closely with ACTIC to ensure election safety, no specific election safety threats have been disclosed to the office of the Secretary of State.

Back in June 2019, when New Times initially sought Phoenix Police Department records possessed by terrorism liaison officers relating to various individuals and groups, the department disclosed the number of “possibly responsive” records it had located for each request.

According to Phoenix police, its TLOs were, at that time, in possession of 10,092 “possibly responsive” records relating to Black Lives Matter, and 10,965 “possibly responsive” records relating to “antifa.”

The department had far fewer records on right-wing organizations and individuals. PPD claimed 4,615 “possibly responsive” TLO records relating to Patriot Movement AZ; only 1,633 records pertaining to AZ Patriots; 2,126 records relating to neo-Nazi terror group Atomwaffen Division (with leadership reportedly based in Tempe); and, even more remarkably, zero records relating to Robert Sterkeson.

A Phoenix-area resident and self-described Nazi, Sterkeson has been operating a website and network of social media accounts under the banner of “BombIslam” since 2005.

Over the past 15 years, Sterkeson has made a name for himself in fascist and racist circles, primarily for harassing Muslims outside of Phoenix-area mosques and disrupting events held by the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR-AZ.

Sterkeson has a history of arrests and law enforcement encounters that involve violence, property damage, and concerns relating to weapons.

For example, Glendale Police Department responded to a domestic violence complaint against Sterkeson in 2003. At the time, his mother’s husband advised police that Sterkeson had a history of violence and mental health issues. Another Glendale PD report, from 2001, suggests Sterkeson was the primary suspect in an investigation of a bomb threat made against a high school he had been expelled from. Records indicate he had been expelled as the result of a separate incident the previous year that involved threats made against school administrators. In Glendale PD records relating to that incident, Sterkeson is quoted as saying he had a conflict with school administrators because he had written an essay supportive of the Columbine High School mass murderers, and school officials didn’t like what he had to say.

On October 27, 2018, white supremacist Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and shot 11 people dead with an assault rifle. That same day, Robert Sterkeson walked into the lobby of the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, unfurled a large Nazi flag, and shouted anti-Semitic hate at people attending a conference of the Jewish National Fund.

It is not known to what degree Sterkeson and Bowers knew or communicated with each other. But it is true that Bowers shared a post authored by Sterkson on the right-wing social media site Gab the day prior to the synagogue shooting.

When the Phoenix Police Department responded to New Times’ public records request for TLO records relating to Sterkeson by claiming to have no records, this was not entirely true.

Records obtained from the Arizona Department of Public Safety show that on November 16, 2018, Phoenix police TLO Dowhan Brenda Dowhan distributed an “Officer Awareness Bulletin” regarding Sterkeson to TLOs at multiple agencies.

The bulletin briefly described the October 27 Jewish National Fund incident, Sterkeson’s history of disrupting CAIR-AZ events, and a short description of Sterkeson’s criminal history and death threats against former employers.

The bulletin also discussed a threatening video Sterkeson had made earlier in that year, wherein he stated, “vote for me and I will livestream myself strangling to death ‘these [left wing] politicians’ on the house lawn... who wants to join a right wing death squad... [...].”

The November 16 “Officer Awareness Bulletin” ended with the following statement: “Sterkeson may be armed and there is a possibility his actions could necessitate a public safety response. Use caution if contact is made.”

According to records obtained from AZDPS and other ACTIC-involved agencies, there was one further record pertaining to Sterkeson in existence within the Arizona counterterrorism community: an item of intelligence entered into the ACTIC “web tip” system by Phoenix police TLO Kevin Ham on January 9, 2017.

“Subject Sterkeson has a history of making anti-Islamic statements, and has also threatened to shoot Islamic and Mexican people,” wrote Ham, who went on to describe several incidents relating to threatening and criminal behavior Phoenix police had had with Sterkeson, dating back to 2007.

But the advisory and fragments of intelligence made few waves within the Arizona counterterrorism community.

About four months after the Sterkeson incident at the Arizona Biltmore meeting of the Jewish National Fund, a man named Stuart Whittington contacted the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and stated that, on February 22, 2019, Sterkeson had stolen an M4 assault rifle from him, along with three magazines, ammunition and a scope.

MCSO records indicate that a deputy responded to Whittington’s complaint and interviewed Sterkeson. According to the report of this interview, Sterkeson told the deputy that the alleged theft was a “civil matter.” The deputy evidently agreed; records indicate the case was subsequently designated as a “civil matter,” and no further action was taken.

In August 2019 — one day after alleged gunman Patrick Crusius went on a racially motivated shooting spree in an El Paso Walmart, killing 23 people and wounded 23 more — Sterkeson was invited to join the “Nationalist Army” private chat group on Discord, a gaming chat platform favored by the far right. The chat invite featured a picture of Crusius. Members of the group claimed to be fascists and openly praised mass murderers like Bowers, Dylann Roof, Anders Breivik, and, above all, Brenton Tarrant, the shooter who killed 51 people in a New Zealand mosque and live-streamed it.

To this group, Sterkeson posted a photo of what appeared to be an M4 assault rifle and a samurai sword. He also posted a picture of himself holding the same assault rifle. A member of the group even offered to help Sterkeson live-stream if he ever “[planned] on going on a shooting.”

Sterkeson’s other social media accounts contain at least one video of him holding what appears to be the same rifle and implicitly threatening Muslims. Other videos created by Sterkson reference racial mass murders and glorify Tarrant, Breivik, Roof, and others.

On March 5, 2020, the presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders held a campaign event at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. The coliseum is property of the State of Arizona. As such, security and law enforcement duties at the event were handled by the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

As Sanders was taking the podium and beginning to address the assembly, a man standing in the bleachers to the side of the stage unfurled a large Nazi flag. Members of the audience quickly grabbed the flag away from the man and ran him out of the stadium. Later that evening, Sterkeson would confirm that he was the Nazi behind the flag.

I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Phoenix and help keep the future of New Times free.

In addition to being in charge of security at the Sanders campaign event, the Arizona Department of Public Safety is the lead state agency administering ACTIC. Its spokesman Sgt. Kameron Lee told New Times that AZDPS troopers securing the Sanders event did not have any contact with Sterkeson at any point during the incident and were not aware of his presence in the coliseum that evening, either before or after the flag incident.

In light of that admission, consider that Sterkeson was known to be in possession of an allegedly stolen assault rifle, ammunition, and a scope. The few ACTIC records in existence pertaining to Sterkeson warn of his history of explicit threats to shoot Muslims and Mexicans, as well as his threatening actions and statements towards both Jews and left-wing politicians. But when left-wing Jewish presidential candidate Bernie Sanders came to speak in Arizona, the same local law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies that surveil victims of police violence and civil rights activists were apparently oblivious to Sterkeson’s activities.

When asked by New Times whether AZDPS personnel monitored Sterkeson’s activities in any way relative to the Sanders campaign event, AZDPS spokesman Lee declined to comment.

Sterkeson could not be reached for comment.

Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.

 

Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.

 

Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.