The man who vandalized the Confederate memorial at the State Capitol in August is a 45-year-old political agitator who wanted to "fight back" against racism.
Tim Coomer, a local short-order cook, musician, and occasional political candidate, admitted to Phoenix New Times during an interview Tuesday that he spray-painted the memorial early on August 17 at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza.
Coomer said he understood why people might infer that a local TV news crew had prior knowledge of his arrival at the plaza that morning, but he insisted he had acted alone.
"It was the serendipity factor," he said. "Sometimes these things just happen."
Coomer said he vandalized the Confederate memorial "for God and country and the great state of Arizona." But it was a spur-of-the-moment decision that morning, he maintained.
"I acted unilaterally," he said. "There was no conspiracy between Channel 12 and me."
The explanation doesn't fully explain why Channel 12 (KPNX-TV) reporter Bryan West and cameraman Mike Brannock failed to get video or photos of Coomer, or why West didn't give viewers the whole story in his broadcast piece on the vandalism that morning.
Speculation arose in local media that Channel 12 might have facilitated the vandalism after New Times reported on August 23 how the details of West's piece didn't match the events caught on Capitol surveillance cameras.
West told viewers on August 17 that he'd shown up at the memorial that morning simply to use it as a background for a report on the aftermath of violent clashes days earlier in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"And this is what we found," he reported. "We found that this monument has been vandalized. Actually, when we showed up, there was a man that was on a bicycle that took off from the scene. That's why we were talking with police just a couple moments ago."
For a Facebook Live broadcast, West said, "As soon as we got here, we saw a person that was actually leaving the scene," adding that he could smell paint fumes. A few minutes after that, he said, "we were just showing up ... when we found out this was being vandalized."
Channel 12 later tweaked the story for its online article about West's discovery of the vandalism, stating that it had occurred while the news crew was preparing a live report.
But none of that caught the true sense of the scene before dawn on August 17. As the surveillance video showed, the vandal and the two newsmen in a Channel 12 van arrived at about the same time, roughly 4:40 a.m. A minute later, the suspect can be seen walking his bicycle from the direction of the parking lot, where the van was parked, to the Arizona-shaped, 6-foot-high memorial about 25 feet away.
The whole time the man spray-painted the front of the memorial over the course of about four minutes, the back of the memorial was lit brightly by the van's headlights. The vandal stepped briefly into the light several times, the footage showed. A light fog of spray paint could be seen wafting over the marker as he worked.
When he was done, the man picked up his bicycle and walked it back to the van's location. About a minute after that, Brannock walked to the memorial and set a TV camera on a tripod. Then West walked up, the video showed.
New Times obtained the police report from the Arizona Department of Public Safety on Tuesday following a public-records request.
On August 24, a day after New Times story was published, West told DPS investigators that he received a text from the station just before 3 a.m. that morning, informing him that he was being assigned "an exciting story about Confederate monuments in Phoenix."
After he and Brannock parked in front of the memorial, West — in the passenger seat of the van — "was not looking around at all," and was going through his normal routine of checking Facebook, Twitter, and emails while getting ready to do his report, he told detectives.
"He and the cameraman are trained not to be aware of their surroundings in the morning because they have people approach them all of the time who want their 10 minutes of fame," the report states, based on West's account. "West tried to avoid making contact with people because they were not in a good area, people were either asking for money or wanting air time."
He stayed in the van putting on makeup and setting up his audio earpiece while Brannock worked outside the vehicle. As the surveillance video shows, the shadow of one or more people walking in front of the van's headlights can be seen as the suspect painted the memorial.
When West finally got out of the van, Brannock told him that a man had approached him and asked "Can I be done?" or "Can I finish?"
West asked him where the suspect was, and Brannock said he was in front of the memorial, the report states. West also reportedly heard the hissing noise of the spray paint being used.
"He looked for the suspect and began to get nervous," the report states. He pondered whether to call 911 or a non-emergency number. He then called Phoenix police as the suspect continued to paint. When the suspect finished and walked past holding two cans of spray paint, West was back inside in the van, in one of its control-room seats. West described the suspect to police as a white man in his mid-40s with a short beard.
West denied he had ever seen the suspect before, and added for good measure that "the author of the New Times article has a reputation of trying to make other reporters look bad."
Brannock gave a slightly different version of events to the investigators. He said he was outside the truck for about 10 minutes, prepping for the live broadcast, when the suspect came up from behind and said, "Okay, all done."
The cameraman told detectives he didn't pay the man much attention but could smell paint fumes. He realized what had happened only after walking in front of the memorial, the report states. At that point, "West was walking up and called 911."
Brannock didn't get a good look at the suspect, he told authorities. He didn't return a phone call for this article.
Police responded to the scene five minutes after West called. They found white paint on the memorial, a white cross and the initials "BLM." (Presumably, the initials stand for Black Lives Matter. The initials cannot be seen in photos West took of the memorial after the vandalism.)
Within about an hour, the paint had been washed off with a power hose.
The day after DPS detectives interviewed the TV news crew, they received a call from Mike Broomhead, a talk-show host on KFYI, a Phoenix AM radio station. Broomhead supplied the troopers with an anonymous email he had received that named Tim Coomer as the suspect.
Coomer was described by the email writer as a Phoenix local and "far-left anarchist" who was known to "pull stunts" and who had run for sheriff previously. Coomer was "going around town telling anybody who would listen" that he'd defaced the memorial, the email stated. "I laughed it off when I heard it, as did everybody else because you never know the truth with that guy. But I saw the videos you posted, and it totally looks like him."
Troopers began hunting for Coomer over the next couple of weeks, checking a former workplace and interviewing his ex-girlfriend and 21-year-old daughter. A detective found a phone number for Coomer and called him, but Coomer hung up after introductions.
On Tuesday, New Times left a message for Coomer on his Facebook site. He called back later in the evening and arranged a meeting at a downtown Phoenix bar.
Coomer rolled up on a low-rider bicycle similar to the one he rode to the memorial in August. He's affable and knowledgeable about local politics — which makes sense because he's been a hopeful public servant much of his life.
He served in elected positions in junior high school, high school, and at Scottsdale Community College, he said. He ran against former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for the 1996 and 2012 election cycles. A couple of weeks ago, he filed with the city of Phoenix to run as mayor. Don't call him a politician — he's an "aspiring elder statesman," he said. Coomer doesn't believe in raising or spending any money for his campaigns.
He attends various local demonstrations and protests, and his political activism has got him in trouble before. His 2011 takedown and arrest during an Arpaio rally at the State Capitol can be seen on YouTube. He said he's been arrested more times than he can remember, but local court records show only a 2004 arrest on drug charges.
On the night of August 16, Coomer said he was "socializing" at a friend's home in central Phoenix, listening to the friend make "angry" mix tapes to reflect their outrage over the Charlottesville violence. After Coomer left the home on his bicycle, he "went into autopilot," he said. He recalled that a few days before, he had spotted some cans of white spray paint in a pile of equipment near the Capitol. "The inspiration hit me," he said, and he decided to vandalize the Confederate memorial at Wesley Bolin Plaza.
He saw the news truck after arriving at the plaza and rode up to it. As Brannock was setting up the camera, Coomer said he asked the men "Can you let me finish, at least?"
He said he felt committed to painting the memorial even with the news truck there. He wouldn't have minded if the news team filmed him in the act, he said, and he couldn't understand why they stayed by their truck.
"I was wondering what was taking them so long," he said.
Coomer said vandalizing the memorial was an almost-religious act for him.
"The racist, fascist order took control, and we just let them do it right here in Arizona," he said. "We owe it to ourselves to rise up and fight back."
Coomer said that in addition to recoloring the memorial, he drew a white cross on it "to point out the contradiction in Christian ethics and the brutal, historic legacy of the white supremacists."
Yet he had no idea how "BLM" came to be painted on the memorial, he said. He surmised that a second vandal must have hit the memorial just before or after he did. However, it seems unlikely that it happened afterward, in the short time between the end of West's reporting at the scene and the arrival of the cleanup crew.
Coomer said he didn't speak to the news team again. He rode off into the dawn, eventually chucking the two spray-paint cans into a trash can. He read later what West reported, and did not find it fully accurate, he said.
Before closing the case two weeks ago, DPS showed Bryan West a photo lineup of six men, including Coomer. West selected another man, not Coomer, as the vandalism suspect, the report states.
Coomer said he decided to "go public with it" after New Times contacted him.
But he could still be prosecuted for criminal damage if police catch up to him. If the estimated amount of damage is more than $1,000, he could be charged with a felony.
On or about the same day as Coomer's vandalism, someone tarred and feathered a Confederate memorial near Gold Canyon. A few days later, on August 21, someone hung two pink signs from the memorial at Wesley Bolin Plaza. They read, "I hear sunlight is the best disinfectant. This infected wound needs shade. Take a stand. Confront racism."
Coomer said the spray-paint incident was the only vandalism he's committed — but he has considered repeating the act.
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