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Inside a far-right militia member’s plan to start civil war from the Bay Area


Steven Carrillo slid open the van door and readied his rifle, equipped with a silencer.

Carrillo, 32, a member of a far-right anti-government militia, aimed for two federal building guards in downtown Oakland. It was four days after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in May 2020. Carrillo hoped what he was about to do would be blamed on nearby Black Lives Matter protesters.

Carrillo pulled the trigger, firing 19 rounds from his AR-15-style rifle. One security officer fell, dying.

Days later, Carrillo, an active-duty U.S. Air Force sergeant, would also allegedly ambush and kill a Santa Cruz County sheriff’s deputy.

Long before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, before a Santa Ana federal judge suggested former President Donald Trump committed crimes while trying to stop the counting of electoral votes, and before five members of the men’s hate group the Proud Boys were indicted for seditious conspiracy, Carrillo and a group of men he met through Facebook allegedly plotted to provoke a civil war themselves.

Their case both warns of a resurgence in far-right extremism, openly fomented on mainstream social media platforms, and illustrates the difficulty of measuring responsibility for violence discussed versus violence committed.

Late last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau’s domestic terrorism caseload had more than doubled since spring 2020, to 2,700 from 1,000 investigations by September 2021. Much of the danger, he said, came from people who were radicalized online. Some fell into foreign groups like Islamic State, Wray told the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“But we’re also countering lone domestic violent extremists radicalized by personalized grievances ranging from racial and ethnic bias to anti-government, anti-authority sentiment to conspiracy theories,” Wray said.

For GrizzlyScouts0724

For GrizzlyScouts0724


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Members of the "boogaloo boys" join other gun rights advocates in front of the State House as pro-gun supporters gather on January 18, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia.

Members of the “boogaloo boys” join other gun rights advocates in front of the State House as pro-gun supporters gather on January 18, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia.


Getty Images

For GrizzlyScouts0724

For GrizzlyScouts0724


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Top of story: Before Steven Carrillo (center) was accused of killing two men in the Bay Area during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, he found people with common interests through a Facebook group called K/alifornia Kommando, which was devoted to the “boogaloo” network — an anti-government fringe whose members are known for wearing Hawaiian shirts, being heavily armed and believing in a coming second civil war. Above: Members of boogaloo groups attended rallies in Phoenix (top); Lansing, Mich.; and Richmond, Va. (two photos) in 2020 and 2021. Photos by Getty Images

What happened in the Bay Area two years ago appears to fall best under that latter description, tied to a loose confederacy of anti-government individuals calling themselves “boogaloo bois.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center considers boogaloo groups to be part of a strident and increasingly popular anti-government movement. It doesn’t classify them as a hate group, as the center does with the Proud Boys. Some boogaloo sects profess to be anti-racist, while others have white supremacists in their ranks, according to researchers at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Generally, their common enemies are members of law enforcement and the government.

Brian Levin, an extremism expert at Cal State San Bernardino, said while many boogaloo followers might not commit violence, the constant talk of it can encourage the most disturbed among them to do so.

Tremendously concerning, Levin said, is that the boogaloo groups found a haven on Facebook, one of the least subversive gathering places on the internet.

“Why are we giving Dr. Evil the luxury penthouse of communication infrastructure?” asked Levin, director of the university’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, referring to extremist groups.

As of September 2021, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, said it has banned 1,000 “militarized social movements” and removed 4,000 pages, 20,600 groups, 190 events and 54,900 Facebook profiles.

“This is an adversarial space and we know that our work to protect our platforms and the people who use them from these threats never ends,” Meta said in a statement. “However, we believe that our work has helped to make it harder for harmful groups to organize on our platforms.”

But as recently as January, a report by the tech watchdog group Tech Transparency Project slammed Facebook as a “breeding ground” for anti-government extremist groups like the Three Percenters. The report said militias were found to be promoting their content and even running recruitment ads on the platform.

Meanwhile, the United Nations-affiliated Tech Against Terrorism initiative found in March that Western governments are much more aggressive when it comes to identifying Islamist terrorist groups than they are far-right terrorist groups, making it more difficult for tech platforms to scrub their feeds of far-right propaganda.

These issues can be seen throughout the case of Carrillo and his fellow militia members, documented in hundreds of pages of federal court records, evidence photos and hours of statements in open court reviewed by The Chronicle. They tell a story about what happens when virtual life wields outsize influence, and when a man with murderous ideas, encouraged by other troubled men, decides to step out of Facebook and into the world.

Digital soldiers

Steven Carrillo was a decorated Air Force veteran of 12 years with deployments across the Middle East before he met a group of antigovernment people online and joined a militia. Now, he has been convicted of one murder and is being tried in another, both of people in law enforcement.

Steven Carrillo was a decorated Air Force veteran of 12 years with deployments across the Middle East before he met a group of antigovernment people online and joined a militia. Now, he has been convicted of one murder and is being tried in another, both of people in law enforcement.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office 2020

Carrillo was a decorated Air Force veteran of 12 years with deployments across the Middle East, according to his attorney, James Thomson. But something changed on his last tour. At a June sentencing hearing in a San Francisco federal courthouse, Thomson said Carrillo spiraled after leaving Kuwait, though he didn’t elaborate and later declined to comment for this story.

In 2018, Carrillo’s wife died by suicide, Thomson said. He blamed himself for her death, Thomson said, and had his own failed attempts at ending his life.

Carrillo, who was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, met the men who would become his brethren early in the pandemic, in a Facebook group called K/alifornia Kommando devoted to the boogaloo fringe. Boogaloo’s lineage can be traced back to 4chan, a basically uncensored message board where mass shooters’ written screeds have often turned up and where the false QAnon conspiracy theory originated. But boogaloo groups really grew on Facebook, according to researchers at Bellingcat, an independent collective that uses social media to track fringe and criminal groups.

Boogaloo followers generally see law enforcement as agents of a corrupt government that should be overthrown. They attend various protests, often clad in Hawaiian shirts and body armor and carrying big guns.

The boogaloo bois, as they sometimes call themselves, can be easy for some to dismiss. The very name “boogaloo” sounds like a joke and derives from a 1984 movie about break dancing, “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.”

The loose ideological network underwent a shift during the early days of the pandemic, the Brookings Institution, a public policy nonprofit, found. Boogaloos followers’ meme culture became more violent and anti-government, often due to complaints about COVID-19 restrictions.

The now-defunct K/alifornia Kommando page’s stated purpose was to organize squads across California for “boogaloo,” meaning civil war.

Jessie Rush, 29, of Turlock (Stanislaus County) started the Grizzly Scouts, a boogaloo militia, with people he met in the group. Rush was, his attorney has said in court filings, a “severely damaged” Army veteran overwhelmed by the pandemic, social unrest, the loss of his job and misinformation on social media.

The group included a transient 33-year-old man from the Bay Area, two men in their early 20s who were, their attorneys would say, lost and adrift in the upheaval of the pandemic, and others whose names the government would never learn.

The Scouts met up near Turlock, the Central Valley farming town, for target practice and tactical training. They gave themselves military ranks. They spoke about killing law enforcement personnel and about war in a WhatsApp chat called “209 BOOG HG.”

Rush made sure the others knew this wasn’t fantasy. This was, he said, “no LARPing shit,” or live action role-playing.

They were preparing for battle.

Real life

The rhetoric of boogaloo followers intensified nationally after a Minneapolis police officer murdered Floyd on May 25, 2020. Like Carrillo, other boogaloo followers viewed the ensuing protests as an opportunity to sow chaos that could be blamed on the Black Lives Matter movement, according to Middlebury Institute research. The Grizzly Scouts also discussed trying to pit police against imagined left-wing antifa groups as a means to inflict harm on both, prosecutors said.

In the days after Floyd’s death, police clashed with many peaceful protesters across the country. Trump amped up tensions, calling people who were allegedly looting “THUGS” in tweets, adding the infamous line: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Carrillo and another Grizzly Scout named Simon Sage Ybarra, 23, met in person on May 27.

Carrillo drove to Los Gatos, where he talked with Ybarra and assembled an untraceable AR-15 style rifle in a gas station parking lot, prosecutors said.

The next day, Carrillo messaged Ybarra to ask if he’d like to go to a protest in Oakland. Carrillo had learned a Black Lives Matter demonstration was planned for the next night near the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building.

Carrillo asked if Ybarra wanted to “snipe some you know what’s (sic),” referring to law enforcement personnel.

Ybarra, prosecutors believe, didn’t respond.

The next morning, Carrillo was on Facebook, telegraphing his plans to use protesters as foils.

“Go to the riots and support our own cause,” he wrote. “Use their anger to fuel our fire.”

Carrillo met that day with an alleged accomplice, Robert Justus Jr., 30, a fellow Grizzly Scout from Millbrae. Justus has pleaded not guilty to aiding and abetting a murder and attempted murder. He told the FBI he felt he had no choice but to drive the heavily armed Carrillo to Oakland.

They rode to downtown Oakland in a white Ford Econoline van with a missing hubcap. At 9:27 p.m., Justus parked and cut the lights.

Directly in front of the van was the federal building’s guard outpost. It sat at a busy corner of 12th and Jefferson streets, in the shadow of a glimmering mirror-paned office tower.

Inside the guard post were two security officers. One was David Patrick Underwood, a Black 53-year-old community volunteer from Contra Costa County whose relatives would later say had left home that day happy. (The other guard’s name hasn’t been released.)

A large crowd of protesters had been moving around the area for hours. Some demonstrators were gathered just feet from the guard post. Underwood and his partner, federal authorities would later say, were monitoring the protest while manning the post.

In the van, Carrillo prepared the rifle.

Then it was time.

At 9:43 p.m., Justus turned on the lights and pressed the gas, driving down Jefferson Street in the direction of the post.

Carrillo slid open the moving van’s side door. He fired at Underwood and his partner. In a hail of 19 rounds, both men were hit. As the van fled, Underwood lay dying.

Security footage shows the white van used by Steven Carrillo during the May 2020 killing of David Patrick Underwood, a contract security officer for the Department of Homeland Security.

Security footage shows the white van used by Steven Carrillo during the May 2020 killing of David Patrick Underwood, a contract security officer for the Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. Department of Justice 2020

‘Get here’

Carrillo’s plot to use the protest as cover almost seemed to work.

The next day, at a news conference, officials declined to say whether they believed the protest and shooting were related, but they didn’t rule it out.

The Grizzly Scouts continued to chat with Carrillo in the days after the shooting, though government records don’t make clear what, if anything, they knew about what he had done in Oakland. The conversations were still about civil war and killing.

But before any war got started, the van was discovered on June 6, 2020.

It was found in rural Santa Cruz County, near Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Carrillo’s home in Ben Lomond was not far away. Through the van window a passerby could see guns, ammunition and what appeared to be bomb-making supplies.

Carrillo learned the van had been discovered; court records don’t reveal how. A number of federal documents are sealed pending the resolution of Carrillo’s state case. But federal court records suggest the Grizzly Scouts were listening to police radio traffic in Carrillo’s area after the discovery of the van.

Carrillo told the group the deputies were coming for him. He said he needed backup.

“Kit up and get here,” Carrillo wrote.

Then, he typed: “Dudes I offed a fed.”

The other Grizzly Scouts started to panic.

Rush, the group’s leader, immediately told Carrillo to “factory reset” his phone in an attempt to wipe the message from its memory. Rush and fellow Scouts Robert Jesus Blancas, Ybarra and Kenny Miksch deleted records from their chats with Carrillo, prosecutors said.

Carrillo allegedly waited at his home for authorities, hiding with his rifle.

When a group of sheriff’s deputies arrived, Carrillo allegedly shot at them. Deputies returned fire and heard an explosion.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller was shot and killed in June 2020 in Ben Lomond, an unincorporated area near Santa Cruz, when he and two other law enforcement officers were ambushed by a suspect. Steven Carrillo, a former Air Force sergeant who joined an antigovernment militia online, is being tried for the killing.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller was shot and killed in June 2020 in Ben Lomond, an unincorporated area near Santa Cruz, when he and two other law enforcement officers were ambushed by a suspect. Steven Carrillo, a former Air Force sergeant who joined an antigovernment militia online, is being tried for the killing.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office

Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, 38, was shot and soon died. Gutzwiller, a friend would say, was a man of infectious happiness whose family came first. He left behind a 2-year-old son and a pregnant wife.

Carrillo, who was shot in the hip, fled on foot and carjacked a motorist in a Toyota Camry but was soon found and arrested, according to an indictment.

When deputies later looked at the white Camry, they saw Carrillo had evidently used his own blood to smear a message on the hood: “I became unreasonable. BOOG.”

Line no longer blurred

After trying to wipe their phones of evidence that they knew Carrillo, other Grizzly Scouts planned a meeting and gathered in Turlock.

There, they started a new group chat without Carrillo.

After their arrests in 2021, three Scouts decided to plead guilty. They faced federal charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and destruction of evidence, exposing them to sentences of up to 14 months in custody. The explanation that Carrillo and his alleged conspirators have given for their actions — that they were radicalized on Facebook — is similar to the defense of some Capitol riot defendants, who say they were misled by misinformation online.

Lawyers for Rush and two others filed a joint brief, in which they attempted to explain their clients’ conduct.

“These young men, like many young men who are lost, joined the Grizzly Scouts for a sense of belonging,” the attorneys wrote. “Belonging, of course, often manifests in statements totally divorced from actions and reality.”

“I am unrecognizable to myself, and I feel nothing but shame and guilt,” Rush wrote in a letter to the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Rush and the two others, including Ybarra and Miksch, appeared in court for sentencing in February. But U.S. District Court Judge James Donato decided to throw out their guilty pleas, suggesting he wasn’t happy with the proposed sentences of 12 months in prison for Rush and six for the other two.

“This is because these individuals are a manifest threat to public safety, safety of law enforcement officers, and safety of the people around them,” Donato said.

The prosecution of the Grizzly Scouts came as the number of national security and domestic terrorism cases reached a milestone. Federal prosecutors last year filed more such cases than in any single 12-month period since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and are on track to keep up the pace through the 2022 federal fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, according to records obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

The group noted, however, that the number of prosecutions “is likely a significant undercount,” as these types of prosecutions are typically filed under seal and because domestic terrorism statutes are broad and inconsistently applied.

The judge set a June trial for Rush and the other two, but later decided to accept the guilty pleas. He sentenced Rush and the two others to six months in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release.

Donato said he considered the heavy combat Rush had seen in Afghanistan and efforts to improve his mental health as mitigating factors, the Vallejo Sun reported. In the cases of the other two, he considered their age at the time of their crimes — 21 and 23.

As for the van’s driver, Justus, his case remains pending.

Erroll Southers, former deputy director of the California Office of Homeland Security, said the sentences for Carrillo’s fellow Grizzly Scouts sent a message: There’s a price for involvement in violent extremist groups and enabling other members.

Southers sees that as a necessary point to make while the threat of right-wing extremism grows and the nation continues to grapple with the aftermath of the Capitol attack, amplified in recent weeks by dramatic Jan. 6 committee hearings revealing how close Trump came to pushing the country to the brink.

Southers, now associate senior vice president for safety and risk at the University of Southern California, said he expects coming months to be active for right-wing extremists who want to affect the midterm elections in November, perhaps by acting as armed “poll watchers” in states where they’re able. Historically, polling place intimidation has been used to suppress the votes of Black and brown Americans. Southers said fringe groups also may show up more often at abortion-related protests and LGBTQ-related events.

“I don’t think between now and November, you’re going to see less activity,” Southers said.

Underwood’s sister, Angela Underwood Jacobs, thinks Facebook owns a share of the blame for what happened to her brother. In January, she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the social media platform and Meta in Alameda Superior Court. The suit accuses Facebook of putting her brother’s killer and the killer’s alleged accomplice together and says the platform helped foster the online boogaloo community.

Underwood’s killing, the lawsuit states, “was the culmination of an extremist plot hatched and planned on Facebook by two men who Meta connected through Facebook’s groups infrastructure and its use of algorithms designed and intended to increase user engagement and, correspondingly, Meta’s profits.”

Facebook has said the claims are without legal basis.

Consequence

It was two years after the Oakland shooting, almost to the day, and Carrillo shuffled into a federal courtroom in San Francisco, shackled at the ankles. The 34-year-old wore a faded red jailhouse jumpsuit with his dark hair slicked back.

He had pleaded guilty to Underwood’s murder and was scheduled for sentencing. He has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of Gutzwiller in Santa Cruz County. Federal prosecutor Jonathan Lee said Carrillo could still face a life sentence without parole in Gutzwiller’s death. Messages left with the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office weren’t returned, but he has a hearing in that case on Aug. 26.

One side of the courtroom gallery contained several dozen of Underwood’s loved ones. A deputy passed them boxes of tissues as the hearing began.

David Patrick Underwood, a contract security officer, was shot and killed while guarding the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland. The man who shot him hoped to provoke a civil war.

David Patrick Underwood, a contract security officer, was shot and killed while guarding the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland. The man who shot him hoped to provoke a civil war.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle 2020

Carrillo’s attorney told the judge he’d been asking to plead guilty to Underwood’s murder since just weeks after his arrest.

Thomson said jail staff had quickly diagnosed Carrillo with a mental illness, though the attorney didn’t give the name of the condition. Carrillo was prescribed medicine that soon began to work.

“Each day,” Thomson said, “he becomes a little clearer about what has gone on and about the sorrow he feels.”

Before the court hearing, Thomson had struck a deal with prosecutors for Carrillo to serve 41 years in federal prison, pending the judge’s approval. A few of Underwood’s loved ones would first be given a chance to speak.

Tammy Evans, a first cousin, hadn’t planned to walk to the lectern. She had often said Carrillo wasn’t worth her breath. But now she needed to speak.

“He was like my big brother. My only brother is now gone,” Evans said, refusing to look at Carrillo. “You didn’t know him. But you still chose to take him from us.”

Trinity Jacobs, Underwood’s niece, wanted Carrillo to know she felt sorry for him.

“You could’ve had hopes and dreams and now you have nothing,” she said, looking straight at Carrillo. “Your life has gone to waste, and for what?”

Carrillo declined to speak in court.

U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, who initially wasn’t sure a 41-year sentence was long enough, accepted it, saying Carrillo had been through a “perfect storm” of misfortune and mental illness.

Some of Underwood’s loved ones were satisfied with the sentence. Others weren’t.

A moment later, Carrillo rose and was led out of the courtroom, chains clanking at his feet.

Joshua Sharpe is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: joshua.sharpe@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @joshuawsharpe

 





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