June 17, 2008 in City

Activist sentenced for vandalism

Staff writer
 

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Read Riehl’s statement (PDF)

A self-styled anarchist from Spokane who broke windows at military recruiting offices in 2005 to express his opposition to the Iraq war was placed on three years probation and ordered to pay $4,867 in restitution Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Whaley.

Travis Riehl, who pleaded guilty in March to a felony count of destruction of government property, was only expected to be placed on one year of probation under terms of a written plea agreement. He could have been sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison for the crime.

The 24-year-old activist was the reason members of a terrorism task force were secretly watching a group that gathered last July 4 in Riverfront Park, ending in a confrontation with police, his attorney told the court.

“I wasn’t prepared for the repercussions that have already occurred from my actions against the military recruitment center windows,” Riehl told the judge, “and I was not prepared for the psychological anguish that has already accompanied those repercussions.”

The judge said he wanted to exceed the sentencing recommendation of the plea agreement because he wanted to get Riehl’s attention and re-direct his interest into “productive and legal activities.” He urged Riehl to stay employed and get a college education.

“I see in you an incredibly bright, intelligent and committed citizen,” the judge told Riehl in an hourlong sentencing hearing.

Social activism can be accomplished without breaking the law, destroying property and concealing your identity with a black mask, sending a wave of fear through the community, Whaley told the defendant.

Riehl has been affiliated with a handful of “social action groups,” including Spokane Lack of Action Collective (SLAC), Alternative Solutions and Possibilities (ASAP) and a third group called Critical Mass.

Young people affiliated with those groups were involved in a demonstration last July 4 in Riverfront Park, and undercover detectives were there secretly videotaping the activities to determine the identities of Riehl’s associates.

He was not among more than a dozen of the activists who were arrested following a skirmish with a police riot squad. Charges against the one protester who hadn’t settled his case were dropped last month by the city after police videos of the event surfaced just hours before the young man’s trial was to begin.

Riehl was “legitimately frustrated against military recruiters” when he broke windows at a U.S. Army recruiting office at 2925 E. 29th Ave. on Oct. 16, 2005, and at the Washington Air National Guard office, 1009 N. Washington, later that same day, Assistant Federal Defender Kailey Moran told the court.

Photographs of the damages at the two recruiting offices were posted on a publicly available Web site, where they were spotted by an FBI analyst.

That information led task force agents to get a search warrant for Riehl’s home, where they found the digital camera used to take the vandalism pictures and computer equipment. From there, Moran said, task force investigators attempted to learn the identities of his associates.

It was inappropriate for a federal terrorism task force, which investigated vandalism to the military recruiting offices in Spokane, to brand Riehl as a terrorist, Moran told the court.

“Is he a terrorist because he was involved in this act of vandalism?” she asked. “The government came to swat a fly with a tank.”

Moran said federal terrorism task forces, formed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, may not have enough to do, so they find themselves “going after” U.S. citizens like Riehl who commit relatively minor crimes.

Those comments triggered a blunt response from Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Lister, who told the court that Riehl was not involved in a harmless prank, but felony-level destruction of government property when he broke the windows. He then took photos of the damage and posted them on a MySpace page.

The prosecutor told the court she was “really angry” with Riehl’s unwillingness to accept full responsibility for breaking the law and for suggesting to the court his life was disrupted during the terrorism task force investigation. “He wants to break the law, then hide behind the First Amendment,” Lister said.

Given what she heard in court from Riehl and his attorney, Lister told the judge she was “wishing I would have requested a different resolution of this case.”

“This is not merely juvenile vandalism,” the prosecutor said. “It’s … a blatant disregard for government property.”


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