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Politically Charged: Officials create ‘fictional gang' to punish Phoenix protesters

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Posted at 5:45 PM, Feb 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-07 17:17:44-05

Amy Kaper promises she is not a gang member.

The 29-year-old graduate student does not run drugs, traffic guns, or work in any organized crime ring.

But, she did protest police violence last year.

For that, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the Phoenix Police Department are aggressively prosecuting Kaper — and a group of 17 other defendants, including three minors — for being part of a criminal street gang following an October 17 protest in downtown Phoenix.

In fact, officers and prosecutors allege the group is as dangerous — and in some ways more dangerous — than notorious gangs like the Crips, Bloods, and Hells Angels.

Inside the case: Watch testimony behind the Phoenix protest gang charges

“It’s scary,” said Kaper, who didn’t know others in the group and attended the protest with her boyfriend after seeing an online flier. “It feels like totalitarianism. It feels like we’re not allowed to speak out about our rights. And unless you’re on the side [police are] on, they’re going to arrest you and try to ruin your life.”

Amy Kaper

Kaper and the other defendants could face between eight and 32 years in prison.

The gang charges, based on broad and easily-abused statutes, are a clear “political prosecution” intended to silence dissent and scare protesters from organizing, according to community activists, defense attorneys, and legal groups like the ACLU.

The case, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court (CR2020-139581), is one of several troubling criminal cases against protesters and activists brought by county prosecutors and Phoenix police in recent months.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has repeatedly declined to discuss details of the case.

But ABC15 has spent months investigating the gang charges and other protest prosecutions. The station interviewed defendants and their attorneys, obtained hundreds of pages of police reports and grand jury transcripts, and watched hours of police body camera and surveillance video.

The evidence shows police and prosecutors presented grand jurors with dubious claims, one-sided evidence, exaggerations, and lies.

The gang charges are maybe the most egregious example, said Jared Keenan, an ACLU Arizona attorney.

“I think [prosecutors] are going to have a hard time justifying it. I don’t know how they justify it to themselves when they go home at night,” Keenan said. He continued, “It’s what we see in other countries that don’t have free societies. They try to use the criminal legal system as a weapon against critics, and that’s exactly what’s happening here.”

THE ARREST

On October 17, a group of 17 people met in a park on the western edge of downtown Phoenix.

Some knew each other and have organized to protest together before. Others, like Amy Kaper, did not.

“I had been a big Black Lives Matter supporter for a couple years now… My partner and I saw the flier on Instagram and decided to go, it was really close to his apartment, so that was that,” she said.

In recent years, Phoenix police have shot and killed people at a higher rate than most other American police departments.

When the group met at the park, Phoenix police officers from the Tactical Response Unit were already waiting for them. Law enforcement agencies across the Valley had been monitoring and surveilling protesters and activists for months, police reports and court testimony show.

With dozens of officers in tow, the 17 protesters began marching down Washington Avenue, chanting several things like “Black Lives Matter.”

But officials specifically focused on one chant: “A.C.A.B.”

Or, “All Cops are Bastards.”

ABC15 obtained excerpts of the police body camera footage and surveillance videos presented to the grand jury and shown in other court proceedings. The station also found witness video shot and posted online by an alt-right extremist organization, AZ Patriots, who were walking next to police and taunting the group of protesters.

Many of the 17 people in the group also carried umbrellas.

“Yeah, I didn’t bring one,” Kaper said. “I was handed one when I got there. I was under the impression it was to protect us from tear gas. And I learned later it was also to protect us from alt-right protesters, or whatever they were, who were following us. Because they can dox you, which did happen to me after I was arrested.”

As the group chanted and marched on Washington Avenue, some protesters tipped orange cones, toppled temporary street signs, and dragged construction barriers to slow and annoy the police.

At one point, one person in the group released a smoke maker — the same type often used in gender reveal parties, court records show.

The demonstration lasted roughly a half an hour and ended at the corner of First Avenue and Van Buren. The group slowed, huddled, and formed a makeshift dome with their umbrellas.

A team of officers then moved in and arrested the group.

Videos reveal a chaotic scene with officers shouting, protesters screaming, and a Phoenix police grenadier repeatedly firing pepper balls into the huddle of protesters.

The protesters were arrested and later charged with five criminal charges: riot, obstructing a public thoroughfare, unlawful assembly, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and assisting a criminal street gang.

‘THE ACAB GANG’

After the arrests, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office repeatedly declined to provide a public explanation regarding the gang charges.

In a previous statement, the office denied it engages in political prosecutions and placed responsibility for the charges on the grand jury.

“While some will attempt to describe these defendants as 'protesters,' a grand jury found probable cause to *charge this group with crimes, including the planning of violence.” The statement continued, “Ethical rules regarding trial publicity prohibit MCAO from trying this case in the media or saying anything that may influence a jury in these cases. Therefore, we cannot provide details about the evidence that was presented to the grand jury.”

Grand juries typically hear select evidence only from prosecutors in a confidential process, secret from the public.

Through a spokesperson, County Attorney Allister Adel, who’s been working part-time following a brain aneurysm and surgery, also released this statement in advance of this report.

But ABC15 obtained the full grand jury transcript and video from an 85-minute bond hearing for one of the defendants.

The combined evidence clearly reveals the justification police and prosecutors are using to support the gang charges.

READ POLICE TESTIMONY: Full grand jury transcript

“I’ve represented a lot of gang members. I grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by gangs. I’m very familiar with what a criminal street gang is and there’s nothing close to this,” said attorney Ken Countryman, who represents defendant Suvarna Ratnam. “The only thing I can think is that the gang members I spent my formative years trying to avoid would be sitting on the porch laughing about this because this is really a joke.”

Arizona statutes regarding criminal street gang classification are broad and only require two of the following criteria to be met: (1) Self proclamation; (2) Witness testimony or statements; (3) Written or electronic correspondence; (4) Paraphernalia or photographs; (5) Tattoos; (6) Clothing or colors; (7) Any other indicators.

Phoenix police Sgt. Doug McBride, a “grenadier” who manages the Tactical Response Unit and former gang detective, testified that all members of the group met the criteria for three reasons.

The first is the chanting of “All Cops are Bastards,” which he claimed is self proclamation. The second was most of the group dressed in black, which meets the colors requirement. And the third was many of the group carried umbrellas, which McBride claimed was part of their uniform.

In a court hearing to deny bond to Ratnam, McBride said ACAB is a “specific group of individuals” and also focused heavily on the umbrellas, calling them dangerous weapons used to “gain an advance over law enforcement to commit criminal acts.”

Prosecutor April Sponsel also called Ratnam, who studied psychology at Harvard University and was also arrested during an August protest, a “threat to our community.”

Ratnam told ABC15. “I didn’t even have a speeding ticket until two months ago. So I just haven’t come to terms with it yet.”

Sponsel is an MCAO veteran and former gang prosecutor. She trains officers how to testify in court and currently works in the First Responders Bureau, a special unit to prosecute alleged crimes against officers.

Suvarna Ratnam

Sponsel is also married to a DPS trooper, which prompted some defendants to request her disqualification from the case, court records show.

A judge denied the request.

“I think being married to a police officer is an obvious conflict of interest. I can’t see how it wouldn’t be. It’s your spouse. It’s the person you sleep next to in bed every night. Of course, it’s going to sway your judgement,” Kaper said. “A huge part of our protest was about the (DPS) killing of Dion Johnson. And there was no justice in that. So yeah, it was a huge part of it.”

Defense attorneys for multiple defendants believe the bias is obvious.

They told ABC15 that Sgt. McBride’s and Sponel’s claims range from outrageous exaggerations to outright lies. In one motion, defense attorney Christopher DuPont said the officials created a “fictional gang” to punish the protesters.

“‘ACAB’ is not a gang at all but a political slogan,” DuPont wrote in the motion to compel prosecutors to release more evidence. “In a continuing affront to the First Amendment, most likely motivated by hatred for a group using such an impolite name (ACAB), state prosecutors abetted by Phoenix police, alleged that the protesters had assaulted police officers with deadly weapons, including toy smoke bombs and collapsible umbrellas — even insinuating without foundation that protesters had weaponized their fingernails.”

ACAB is a common protest chant that originated almost a century ago and is used across the world.

But maybe the most stunning grand jury testimony was when McBride and Sponsel repeatedly compared the group to notorious street gangs like the Bloods, Crips, and Hells Angels.

DuPont’s motion attempted to put the allegation into context.

“The state called a witness to testify at grand jury that ACAB was just as dangerous — and in many ways more dangerous — than notorious gangs like the Crips and the Bloods, two gangs that have accounted for as many as 15,000 homicides in the United States during their 30 year run.”

‘I DIDN’T DO THESE THINGS’

Ryder Collins was one of the 18 people arrested on October 17 and charged with assisting a criminal street gang.

“That night in jail, I thought, any minute now they’re going to be like. 'you can get out of here, you don’t know anybody here,'” he said. “That never happened."

Collins is a registered nurse. He’s married to a nurse. He lives in Prescott.

He was in Phoenix that evening to shoot photography of the buildings.

“We walked around and caught the sunset in the afternoon,” Collins said. “It’s really kind of cool. The light will go through the buildings and make these really cool shadows.”

Ryder Collins

While downtown, Collins said he saw the commotion and walked over to see what was going on.

Video recorded by the AZ Patriots and police prove it.

Just before the 20-minute mark, the AZ Patriots' video shows Collins taking a picture of the group from a distance and then walk up to the counter-protestors on the sidewalk to ask what was going on.

When the group is arrested, Ryder was on the opposite corner. He estimates he was at least 150 feet away.

The video also proves he wasn’t anywhere near the huddle. An officer away from the arrests shouts, “Watch that guy right there. He’s with them.”

Officers arrested Collins and continue to claim he was part of the group.

In the grand jury testimony, Sgt. McBride said Collins met the criteria for being a part of ACAB. Video does not show Collins ever joining the group, chanting, or carrying an umbrella.

But McBride testified that Collins was working “in concert” with the group.

Collins’ attorney said prosecutors have not provided any evidence to back up McBride’s testimony, court motions show.

Officers at the scene also scolded Collins.

According to body camera transcripts filed in court, one officer told him, “You’re going to jail — do dumb shit, win dumb prizes.”

“I’m sure they’ve ruined other lives like they’re attempting to ruin mine,” Collins said. “And it’s just not right. I didn’t do these things that they’re charging me with.”

Amy Kaper thinks that is the goal: Punish people who protest against police.

“I think they’re doing it to silence us. Obviously when you’re facing four felonies, they can silence and shut you up pretty quick,” she said. “[One officer during booking] said, ‘I heard you talking about your job, you said it seems really important to you and really like it. Well just so you know, that if you keep doing this stuff, you’re not going to have a career anymore.'"

“I was like, 'Is that a threat?' And he was like, ‘No, I just want you to realize the weight of what you’ve done here,’” Kaper said.

Editor’s note: This report is the start of an ongoing series of ABC15 investigative reports called “Politically Charged.” Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.