WASHINGTON – Two Minnesota men were hit with federal arson charges Tuesday in the alleged firebombing of a court office building – a case that is part of the Justice Department’s broad push to boost investigations and prosecutions of violence and vandalism surrounding national protests over police misconduct.
According to a criminal complaint, Garrett Patrick Ziegler, 24, and Fornandous Cortez Henderson, 32, were charged with arson and possession of molotov cocktails after detectives in Apple Valley, Minnesota, found a set of car keys near the crime scene that led them to the suspects.
The case was turned over to federal prosecutors and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as part of Attorney General William Barr’s drive to seek tougher sentences for those who have sown violence after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Protests over his death have swelled in the past week, and some cities have seen nighttime looting and rioting.
Barr has vowed to use federal force to help local authorities “dominate” the streets, and he has ordered Justice Department agencies to aid in those efforts.
As in the Minnesota case, ATF is helping local police departments with arson investigations related to the unrest, while other agents are helping patrol public spaces. Conduct covert surveillance and protect against threats to public safety, share intelligence with federal, state, local, and tribal counterparts
The surge of federal agents has been most notable in Washington, District of Columbia, where FBI agents, U.S. Marshals and others were given patrol-like assignments to buttress the efforts of local, federal and military police as they tried to deal with a variety of protesters, rioters and looters.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has received special permission to go beyond its standard legal mandate of investigating drug-related crimes to also investigate crimes related to the protests, according to an internal document first reported by BuzzFeed News.
The Justice Department authorization, which lasts for 14 days, allows the DEA to conduct “covert surveillance” and share intelligence with state and local officials, as well as patrol public places and make arrests for non-drug crimes as officials see fit. A DEA spokeswoman declined to comment.
It is unusual for federal agents to engage in street patrol-like duties, but they have been pressed into service by Barr, who has called the public vandalism and violence surrounding the protests “domestic terrorism.”
The FBI’s Washington Field Office issued a statement saying it “respects the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. We are working actively and closely with our local, state, and federal law enforcement partners and are committed to apprehending violent instigators who are exploiting legitimate, peaceful protests and engaging in violations of federal law.”
The attorney general has also instructed the FBI’s joint terrorism task forces to assist in the efforts. Officials said agents in the JTTFs have been assigned to gather video and photo evidence of possible lawbreakers, as well as take tips from local police departments about particular suspects or cases. One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss law enforcement practices, said the JTTFs’ work on identifying criminal activity related to the protests does not mean the agency has changed its rules for how it uses surveillance powers toward Americans – the legal limitations around national security intelligence authorities still apply, the official said.
Barr, who as attorney general in 1992 oversaw an aggressive federal response to riots in Los Angeles over police misconduct, has taken a similar approach this time.
As part of the Justice Department effort, Barr ordered special riot control teams from the Bureau of Prisons to deploy in Washington and Miami. While the District has seen tense clashes and vandalism in recent days, the situation in Miami has been relatively calm, and a Bureau of Prisons spokesman declined to say what the team was doing there. Another law enforcement official said Tuesday that the team had not been needed and would depart.