Editor’s note: After this story was published, the New York Times, citing enforcement officials familiar with the investigation, reported that Michael Reinoehl, the suspect in the shooting death of Aaron J. Danielson, was killed Thursday evening when “a federal fugitive task force” moved in to arrest him in Thurston County.
PORTLAND — The Saturday evening confrontation transpires in seconds on a downtown block.
There are shouts, a plume of spray, and two gunshots.
One man, Aaron “Jay” Danielson, is fatally wounded, a death that has spawned divergent narratives of the encounter between two men who appeared to be from different ends of the nation’s political spectrum.
Danielson, 39, of Portland, was a supporter of Patriot Prayer, a right-wing group that has for years organized flag-waving demonstrations that often result in brawls with left-wing protesters. A friend who was with Danielson the night of the shooting has alleged he was hunted down and shot due to his opposing political views.
Portland police have not publicly identified a suspect in the killing. But the Oregonian, citing unnamed police sources, identified the man as Michael Reinoehl, a 48-year-old man who has lived in the Portland area. In an interview aired on VICE TV Thursday night, Reinoehl said what he did was justified to save a friend’s life.
Reinoehl, who is white and has a neck tattoo of a black fist that symbolizes the Black Lives Matter movement, was a regular at this summer’s Portland protests. He has portrayed himself in social media posts as “100% ANTIFA” and told a reporter in July that he sometimes worked as security during protests. Reinoehl also had been cited by Portland police in July for possessing a loaded gun in a public place, and had an outstanding warrant in Baker County, Oregon, on separate illegal gun possession and other charges from June.
Since the deadly Aug. 29 shooting, amid an ongoing Portland police homicide investigation, people with a wide range of political views have decried the violence that took Danielson’s life. Though it was captured on video, some details remain unclear, and there also is plenty of disagreement when assigning blame.
“I think it was planned,” Patriot Prayer supporter Chandler Pappas, the friend who was with Danielson when he was shot, said in an interview with a conservative journalist, Andrew Duncomb. “I think they were looking for someone to hurt.”
In the interview on VICE TV, Reinoehl did not give details of the shooting but said lives were in danger.
“You know, lots of lawyers suggest that I shouldn’t even be saying anything, but I feel it’s important that the world at least gets a little bit of what’s really going on,” Reinoehl said. “I had no choice. I mean, I, I had a choice. I could have sat there and watched them kill a friend of mine of color. But I wasn’t going to do that.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has commented on the shooting in a statement that harshly criticized Patriot Prayer.
“I will not allow Patriot Prayer and armed white supremacists to bring more bloodshed to our streets,” Brown declared in the Sunday statement that talked about tragic outcomes from Kenosha to Portland when armed right-wing vigilantes “take matters into their own hands.”
Patriot Prayer demonstrations have attracted some supporters who are white supremacists, and frequently drew supporters from the Proud Boys, which was launched as a fraternal group of “western chauvinists who refused to apologize for creating the modern world.” The group also has been banned from Facebook and Instagram because of the platforms’ policies against hate groups.
Patriot Prayer’s leader, Joey Gibson, in a Fox News interview this week, attacked Brown’s comments, rejecting racist labels and saying anyone can show up at a rally.
“This is the attempt of the far left to dehumanize people so we don’t treat them like humans,” Gibson said in the interview.
Bear spray and gunshots
For Trump supporters, the Saturday caravan was preceded by an afternoon rally in a mall parking lot east of Portland that drew more than 1,000 people. Journalists covering this event and the caravan took photographs, and at least one video of Pappas with Danielson who appeared to be prepared for hostile encounters. The images show Pappas had a paintball gun, and both men appeared to have canisters of bear spray holstered at their waists. A reporter with the Portland Tribune said in a tweet that Pappas and “another man he was with” had knives, though it’s unclear if the other man was Danielson.
“I’m here to stop people from assaulting these people,” Pappas is quoted in the tweet by reporter Zane Sparling.
Trump supporters who drove into town ended up in numerous skirmishes with protesters. They fired paintball guns and released bear spray, which is derived from chili peppers and carries a label that says it should not be used on humans — yet in recent weeks it has repeatedly been used by protagonists from the right and the left. On Saturday, protesters, sometimes in response to provocations and sometimes initiating the action, were seen by reporters throwing fireworks at vehicles as well as other objects. Fights broke out on streets.
By 8:45 p.m., the skirmishes had waned. Danielson, wearing a Patriot Prayer ball cap, was walking southeast with his friend Pappas, along Third Avenue near the intersection of Southwest Alder Street.
One video, which captured the run-up, a release of bear spray and the shooting, was taken by livestreamer Justin Dunlap, a supporter of the Black Lives Matter protests who has been out on Portland’s streets many nights this summer. The video shows two men crossing Third Avenue toward the side where Danielson and Pappas are standing. It’s unclear in the video whether the two men intended to confront the Patriot Prayer supporters — as Pappas contends — or were merely walking in that general direction.
A second video, taken by another videographer, doesn’t include images of the shooting. But it records the audio of men’s voices right before it, as well as the aftermath of the deadly encounter. It was taken by Nathan Millsap, whose video of right-wing rallies and other events is often posted on social media by conservatives.
In this video, someone yells: “Hey, hey we got some right here. We got a couple right here.”
Then a quieter voice says, “He’s macing you. He’s pulling it out.”
“Right here?” another man calls out. He seems to be responding to the voice who had said, “We got some.”
Then, two gunshots are fired.
In interviews posted on social media, Pappas says that the killer and a second person were drawn to the sight of two men wearing Patriot Prayer hats. He said one of the men who approached Danielson and him yelled, “We got some right here.”
Millsap, who recorded the dialogue before the shooting, did not respond to The Seattle Times’ messages this week seeking further context about his video.
The verbal exchange also can be heard more faintly in the other video shot by Dunlap from less than half a block away from the shooting.
Dunlap, in interviews with The Seattle Times this week, said he believes the initial shouting came from the victim, Danielson, and the man with him, Pappas.
Dunlap’s video also appears to show that, about the time the words “Right here?” are yelled, Danielson appears to walk toward the two men crossing the street, holding something at his waist and moving his arm toward them before a cloud of spray erupts into the air.
Almost simultaneously, one of the men crossing the street — a tall, thin man in a white vest and short-sleeved shirt — stops and turns toward Danielson. Then, two loud pops are heard. Danielson staggers off in one direction and collapses, while the man in the vest turns and runs in the other direction, Dunlap’s video shows.
Pappas says a bullet pierced Danielson’s bear spray canister, causing the cloud of spray seen in the air. But the video appears to capture the sound of an aerosol spray with a cloud emerging just before the shots are heard.
“I think the victim had the mace, yelled something and then directly sprayed it at the other two guys crossing the street,” Dunlap said.
A veteran of the Portland protests
Scenes captured in the aftermath of the shooting have further inflamed passions.
In a video aired on Fox News, a protester with a bullhorn says she just got word that the person who died was with Patriot Prayer. She declares that “our community held its own and took out the trash.” She says that she is not going to shed any tears. Some people can be heard cheering.
In other videos, taken soon after the shooting, Patriot Prayer leader Gibson is shown just outside a line of yellow tape closing off the block of crime scene. Protesters verbally and physically harass Gibson as they push him through the downtown streets. He takes refuge in a gas station. Some of the left-wing protesters form a protective line around the station until police arrive, video shows.
Two days after the killing, friends of Danielson gathered in a park to talk to reporters about a man who they said was a “proud Portlander” and a freedom-loving American, who was quick to crack a joke. His friends called him Jay and said he loved the waterfront and was always ready to lodge a friend in need.
“He was not a radical. He was not a racist,” said Luke Carrillo, Danielson’s roommate and business partner in a moving company. Carrillo said his friend died “expressing his beliefs, a right which is guaranteed to all of us through the Constitution.”
In recent days, more details have emerged about Reinoehl, who VICE described as a former military contractor. He has been an active participant in Portland’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations for weeks. Some photos and videos taken during the protests show him wearing a white vest and other clothing similar to that worn by the tall, thin man seen on video of Saturday’s fatal shooting.
In a June 8 Instagram post, Reinoehl described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “revolution” with a need for people who are “willing and ready to fight.”
A protester interviewed by The Seattle Times recalls how Reinoehl would sometimes act as a kind of scout observing where people are coming from and watching out for possible trouble. And, in a Bloomberg QuickTake News video posted July 27, Reinoehl, who said he sometimes brought his daughter to the protests as a form of education, described how he had been “working security” during the protests and wrestled a gun away from another man threatening some young Black protesters.
“I have military experience, and so I jumped in there, and pulled the gun away from people’s heads, avoided being shot in the stomach, and I got shot through the arm,” Reinoehl told a reporter, before displaying a blood-soaked bandaged wrapped around his upper right arm.
He also has faced some recent run-ins with the law, court records show.
In June, he was charged in eastern Oregon’s Baker County for unlawful possession of a firearm, driving under the influence, reckless driving and reckless endangerment.
According to Baker County District Attorney Greg Baxter, based on a police probable cause statement, the man was alleged to have driven his vehicle over 100 mph while racing his 17-year-old-son, who was driving another car. The man appeared to be under the influence of a controlled substance and had his 11-year-old daughter with him in his car, the statement said. Police say they found a concealed firearm in his car but that he didn’t have a concealed carry permit, Baxter said.
After he failed to appear at a court hearing in Baker County on July 8, a warrant was issued, court records show.
Three days earlier, on July 5, Portland police also cited Reinoehl during the downtown protests for interfering with an officer, resisting arrest and “possession of a loaded firearm in a public place.” It is illegal to openly carry a loaded firearm in Portland’s public places. He was released, and as of earlier this week, had not been charged for that incident.
A next-day rally
The day after the shooting, Pappas was the last speaker at another rally much smaller than the one he attended the day before in the mall parking lot. This one was in Sandy, Oregon, a town outside of Portland near the Cascade mountains.
Some of those present wore Patriot Prayer hats and Make America Great Again hats. One man waved a flag of the Proud Boys, the right-wing fraternal group banned by Facebook.
A sign below the speakers declared the theme of this event: “Save the Children From Trafficking Now.” And a woman read an “anonymous” letter that described how a “well-known public figure” used his position of power to gain custody of his young daughter from his ex-wife so that he could traffic the girl for sex. Such stories are familiar to followers of QAnon, a conspiracy theory that has had a growing presence on social media with false claims of a Democratic sex-trafficking ring that President Trump is trying to break up.
Later, Haley Adams, a conservative activist clad in camouflage pants and a protective vest, took the stage, declaring, “We are in a war now,” and introducing Pappas as her best friend. She said that after the killing, she hadn’t planned to be here, but then she thought of Danielson. “Jay wanted us to be here,” she said.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.