A federal affidavit says members of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force tracked Portland anarchists to Seattle where they joined the May Day protest and allegedly attacked the federal courthouse.
A grand-jury investigation. Five search warrants. Surveillance in two states and a review of hundreds of hours of videotape and photos. Not to mention the three witnesses jailed for refusing to testify.
That’s the running toll so far in law enforcement’s efforts to bring the weight of the federal criminal-justice system — including possible prison terms — on a group of black-clad vandals suspected of damaging a federal building in May in Seattle, according to a search-warrant affidavit.
The Oct. 3 affidavit, signed by a member of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, reveals the federal government began tracking a small group of dedicated anarchists in Portland in April. Agents followed members of the group as they first drove to Olympia in a rental car on April 30.
The crimes they are suspected of committing include conspiracy, destruction of government property and interstate travel with intent to riot, according to the 34-page document.
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Authorities believe the anarchists were among about a dozen black-clad protesters who attacked the William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. Courthouse during the May Day protest, surging at the building with sticks, spray paint and at least one burning object, according to law enforcement.
The search warrant, which was mistakenly unsealed in U.S. District Court in Seattle on Thursday then quickly resealed, identifies six suspects, but none has been charged.
To Neil Fox, a criminal-defense lawyer who is president of the Seattle chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, the investigation is about much more than catching six vandals. He believes the damage to the courthouse is merely a “jurisdictional hook” to allow the feds to go after anarchists.
“I think there’s a lot of bad feelings between law enforcement and the anarchists and they’re using this as a tool in this longstanding battle,” Fox said.
Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to characterize the investigation.
May Day began with peaceful demonstrations in downtown Seattle, but shortly before noon a swarm of protesters, dressed all in black, massed together and began striking out. They targeted Nike and banks; they slashed tires and broke windows and sprayed anti-capitalist graffiti as some made their way to the Nakamura courthouse. Afterward, members of the so-called “black bloc” protesters shed their dark clothing and blended into the crowd.
The search warrant says the courthouse building, on Spring Street and Sixth Avenue, sustained tens of thousands of dollars in damage, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office could not provide a specific dollar amount. Destruction of government property in excess of $1,000 is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment.
Seattle police focused their investigation into incidents unrelated to the courthouse damage and arrested eight people. Charges were dropped in all but three cases. Those three all pleaded guilty; two are serving suspended sentences and one spent about two months in jail.
Meanwhile, the FBI set out to find those responsible for the courthouse damage. Agents reported spending long hours reviewing surveillance-camera footage, news video and still photos of the crowd that day, trying to identify suspects based on clues: the white strip around one suspect’s waist, the “fringe” of a shirt, the shape of a backpack.
What the warrant makes clear is that state and federal agents were watching some members of the small group of Portland anarchists even before May Day. The affidavit says they were tracking members as early as April 9, when they and others were “all observed by FBI surveillance at an event” in Portland that day changing out of black clothing.
Three weeks later, agents watched the anarchists as they headed up for the protest, spending the night in Olympia.
The investigation picked up speed after the Portland Police Bureau conducted a search May 3 of a known anarchist “squat” — crash pad — where they recovered “distinctive clothing” from some of the alleged conspirators that was observed being worn by members of the black bloc protesters in Seattle.
That led to a trio of FBI searches July 25 in Portland — two homes and a storage shed — where they recovered clothing, phones and laptop computers, according to the federal affidavit temporarily unsealed last week.
“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 philosophy,” the affidavit states.
An additional search warrant related to the May Day protests was executed in July targeting an address in South Seattle.
Among the items seized in the searches were clothing and backpacks that match some of the six suspects’ May Day attire. Authorities also seized five cellphones, six digital storage devices, two iPods and one camera. The unsealed affidavit reveals the FBI obtained a warrant to search the contents of those devices.
They’ve had a chance to examine several cellphones, the affidavit reveals. The affidavit cites text messages sent among some suspects discussing plans for the protest, and recapping their days afterward.
“We are all OK,” a May 1 text about the protest from one activist reads. “It was awesome.”
While the warrants were being executed, prosecutors also were bringing witnesses before a federal grand jury. Three witnesses wound up being held in civil contempt for refusing to testify, though one, Leah Lynn Plante of Portland, was released on Wednesday after a week. Her lawyer declined to comment and she did not return a phone message.
Grand-jury proceedings are secret, and Langlie, the U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman, declined to comment on specifics.
Katherine Olejnik, a 23-year-old recent Evergreen College graduate living in Olympia, was among those jailed. Her father said his daughter has been an activist in social-justice causes since her youth. She is not suspected in the courthouse vandalism, court papers say. She was called in to testify Sept. 27 about someone she knows, according to her lawyer.
Even after Olejnik was given full immunity from prosecution by the judge, she declined to testify. U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones said he had no choice but to send her to jail for up to 18 months, or until she changes her mind.
“What (prosecutors) decided to do is choose people and punish them for their association,” said her attorney, Jenn Kaplan.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a general statement Sept. 13 about grand-jury proceedings, noting, “We do not investigate or seek to silence lawful free speech, or dissent. We do, however, investigate and enforce the law where speech crosses the line and becomes threats or acts of violence.”
Matthew Duran, a roommate of Olejnik’s who works in computer security, was jailed for civil contempt Sept. 13 after he, too, refused to testify before the grand jury. A longtime social-justice activist, he describes himself as an anarchist, according to his attorney, Kim Gordon. He is not suspected in the courthouse vandalism.
“One of our concerns was they were really targeting him because they perceived him to be associated with the anarchist community,” Gordon said. “It’s kind of a fishing expedition.”
Appeals of Olejnik’s and Duran’s case are pending.
Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.