The Hennepin County attorney’s office charged four men with felony assault and riot crimes Monday in connection with a shooting Nov. 23 near the Black Lives Matter encampment in north Minneapolis that wounded five black protesters.
Prosecutors said the shooting appeared to be racially motivated but declined to pursue hate crime charges, opting for felonies that carry the possibility of longer sentences.
The most severe charge of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon was filed against Allen L. Scarsella, 23, who is accused of shooting the five activists.
Shortly after the incident, Scarsella told an old high school friend who is now a Mankato police officer that he had shot several people. The officer described Scarsella, who is white, as someone who carried firearms, “had very intense opinions,” considered himself “a sovereign citizen and pro-Constitution,” and had “negative experiences with and opinions about African-Americans,” court documents said.
Nathan Gustavsson, 21, Daniel Macey, 26, and Joseph M. Backman, 27, who authorities said acknowledged they were present during the shooting, were charged with second-degree riot while armed. Macey is of Asian descent. The other two are white.
An acquaintance of Scarsella’s told investigators that he and Scarsella were at the encampment a few days before the shootings to record video of protesters. He said they made “inappropriate comments to [the] protesters, which sparked anger between BLM and his group and led to angry Internet postings.”
County Attorney Mike Freeman said his office didn’t have enough evidence to reach the threshold to charge any of the men with attempted murder or a hate crime, but the U.S. attorney’s office can consider federal hate crime charges.
“These are sick people,” Freeman said.
Senate Judiciary Chair Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said the likely rationale for passing on hate crime charges is similar to when such charges weren’t pursued in the case of Asma Jama, the woman struck with a beer glass at an Applebee’s restaurant in Coon Rapids for speaking Swahili.
In both cases, the most serious offense prosecutors could charge through hate crime laws would be a gross misdemeanor. Freeman said a hate crime conviction wouldn’t have added any significant jail time.
In response to the Coon Rapids assault, Latz said earlier that he plans to introduce a bill that will create an enhanced penalty for felony-level assaults motivated by bias, or when race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age or national origin is established as the motivation for the crime.
Latz also said he isn’t surprised Scarsella wasn’t charged with attempted murder. It may be difficult for prosecutors to prove Scarsella intended to commit murder, he said.
“Regardless of the political consequences, it’s good when the county attorney’s office focuses on what they believe they can prove and not only be responsive to what the public may want,” Latz said. “The law doesn’t give any room for that to be part of the equation.”
At the news conference, Freeman again addressed the activists’ demand to release any videos connected to Clark’s death, saying it wouldn’t be proper to do until the investigation is complete.
Freeman said he anticipates one or more of the four men will make a claim of self-defense and that such a strategy will fail. The charges said eight shots were fired at the five men after they confronted Scarsella’s group. Freeman said videos reviewed by his office don’t show the shooting.
One of the four defendants’ attorneys was available for comment Monday. Ryan Garry, who represents Macey, said his client “is not a white supremacist,” as activists have alleged.
He is a college student with no criminal history who “plans to plead not guilty,” Garry said.
Protesters speaking at a news conference at the Fourth Precinct after the charges were announced said they want a special prosecutor to investigate the shootings.
Investigators reviewed Internet postings in which participants referred to blacks in derogatory terms and discussed going to the encampment to “stir things up” and do some “reverse cultural enriching.” Potential agitators were encouraged to look like protesters but “feel free to carry” a firearm, charges said.
Scarsella’s cellphone includes photos of him, firearms and “some racist images,” the criminal complaint said. Other photos from a gathering near Pine County show Scarsella, Macey and others in camouflage clothing and holding guns. A Confederate flag was visible.