Friday was supposed to be Aaron “Jay” Danielson’s 40th birthday.
Instead, his father and stepmother were sitting on their back deck in rural Spokane County, recalling his life and the circumstances that led to his death six days before, on a downtown Portland street corner, from a gunshot to his chest.
The instant in which Danielson’s life was taken has been the subject of countless news articles, fodder in the heated presidential campaign, and a significant flashpoint in the political divisiveness and unrest roiling much of the country.
But while that moment has been boiled down in the minds of many to a simple and stark dichotomy – the suspected killer, Michael Forest Reinoehl, was a self-proclaimed supporter of antifa; the victim, Danielson, was wearing a hat emblazoned with the logo of Patriot Prayer, a right-wing group – the truth, Danielson’s parents said, of who their son was and how he ended up dead at about 9 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 29, is vastly more complex and personal.
And it left them wrestling with difficult questions they may never be able to answer.
“What are the odds of Jay being the one?” Dave Danielson asked rhetorically. “Somehow, in my own mind and recently, it seemed like it was not destined to happen but it happened. And I’m figuring it happened for a reason. … It has to be meaningful somehow.”
‘Howl like a coyote’
Aaron Danielson spent the second half of his life in Portland, but the first half took place in and around Spokane, where Dave Danielson, his 80-year-old father, and Mary Porter, his 73-year-old stepmother, say he spent an idyllic childhood enthralled with the natural world.
His first home, they said, was on the edge of Green Bluff, and Dave helped build it himself.
“Often, in the summertime, we’d sleep out on the deck,” he recalled.
At the time, Dave was married to a different woman, his second wife, who asked not to be named in this story. He was also in the middle of what would be a 25-year teaching career, spent mostly at the R.E.A.L. School, an alternative Spokane high school.
Dave still talks passionately about his time at the R.E.A.L. School, working with kids who “were in trouble some way,” and about the educational theories of William Glasser, whose “basic philosophy was you don’t hurt anyone physically or emotionally.”
“It has been an important part of our relationship,” Dave said, referring to Glasser’s work, “in that you don’t want to hurt your partner.”
“This is his philosophy of life,” Mary said of Glasser’s influence on her husband.
When Dave built a treehouse for his son, he went all in.
“It had electricity running to it. It had a TV set. It had a wood stove in the treehouse, of all things,” Dave said. “It had a zip line.”
While his marriage with Danielson’s biological mother – also a teacher, as well as a writer and artist – ended when his son was still in elementary school, Dave and Mary became a couple when Danielson was 11 and helped raise him together, sharing custody with his biological mother.
“I love him like a son,” Mary said, “and he loved me like a mom. And we had a lot in common, with our interest in the out of doors, particularly.”
On one of their first outings together, Mary recalled plunging into icy North Idaho waters with Danielson during a huckleberry-picking trip. And soon after, Dave and Aaron accompanied Mary to Belize, on a trip organized for teachers and students of Rogers High School, where Mary taught biology for 27 years.
One night, while staying in dorms in the Central American rain forest, the croaking of frogs grew as loud “as the Indy 500,” Dave recalled.
“So Jay in his rubber boots and me in my flip-flops, we grab jars from the kitchen and we go out, and we’re catching a frog, one at a time, and we’re kind of competing to see who can find the craziest, coolest-looking frog, and each of them making its own noise, by different parts of its face,” Mary said, mimicking the sounds. “And all that night I was lying in my bunk bed, listening to this cacophony. It was so loud, you couldn’t even talk to the person next to you.”
“And that’s just an example of the interests that Jay and I shared,” she added. “If it was nature, we were out on it.”
Nature was always nearby at the house the couple built on 17 acres of land, where Danielson spent much of his upbringing and where, on Friday afternoon, as they spoke, a buck and a family of turkeys passed through.
“He could howl like a coyote,” Mary recalled. “He would talk to the coyotes, and they would answer him. It was so cool. He was so good at it.”
His proud parents said he was good at much else, too. He was athletic and engaged, they said, quickly learning to snowboard at Mt. Spokane, camping in national parks and otherwise enjoying, they say, a happy upbringing.
After attending Balboa elementary and Salk Middle School, Danielson went to Shadle Park High School, though he dropped out in 1999, during his senior year.
“But it didn’t matter,” Mary said. “That was the thing. He was so smart and self-taught and so – what’s the word I’m trying to say? – innovative, creative, good worker, reliable, strong.”
‘A firm believer’
Danielson worked briefly as a mover in Spokane before moving to Portland with a girlfriend soon after leaving school.
In Portland, Danielson eventually formed a small moving company with Luke Carrillo, who was “like a brother” to him, according to Mary.
Their niche, Dave and Mary said, was moving safes, hot tubs, stoves, statues and “anything big and heavy,” Mary said.
“And he was the master at figuring out how to do it, with just the two of them.”
“He invented several (moving) devices that he intended to patent,” Dave said. “They were good at what they did, and they were busy.”
Dave and Mary said they stayed in close contact with their son over the two decades he was in Portland, even though he had difficulty taking time off of work.
There were fondly remembered visits, and there were also phone calls and regular texts.
“We got two or three or four texts a day,” Mary said.
Those texts, they said, sharing some on Mary’s phone, were often photos of mountains, waterfalls, the ocean and other natural wonders. Other times they were satellite images of the universe, which Mary said he “was way into.”
There were also texts about politics.
Danielson inherited a strong patriotic streak from his father, who calls himself “a product of World War II” and who served in the Army in Vietnam.
“You’re anti-Nazi, you’re anti-fascist, you’re anti-communism,” Dave said of the political values that helped form his own views. “And I grew up on the policy that the … main foreign policy that America had for numerous years was to stop the spread of communism.”
His son, he said, “was a firm believer in the Constitution and the American flag. And our freedom, absolutely.”
While Dave is a Republican, Mary said she “calls herself an Independent,” is “very strongly” pro-choice and “has a strong environmental bent.”
“So Jay and I had our disagreements about these things,” she said. “But it was just discussions. … Dave was kind of between Jay and me.”
Recently, though, Dave and Mary said Danielson’s politics began to change.
‘Immersed in it’
It’s not clear when Danielson became involved with Patriot Prayer.
The group’s founder, Joey Gibson, told the New York Times that Danielson began regularly attending the far-right group’s rallies about three years ago.
His parents, however, said they weren’t aware of his involvement until after his death.
As for whether he was racist or intolerant, his parents are adamant he wasn’t. Mary said she “didn’t even know what his religious views were” and that he “did not go to church, that I’m aware of.”
“We had never heard of Patriot Prayer,” Mary said. “We were in contact with him every day, and we never heard of it.”
That changed, of course, when he was killed and the question of his involvement became the subject of discussion and speculation.
According to Mary, Chandler Pappas, another member of the group who was with Danielson the night he was killed, told her this week that her son’s involvement was limited and began more recently, about nine months ago, after he met Joey Gibson and found that “they just were like-minded in a lot of ways.”
In a video posted to YouTube, Gibson appeared to support the idea that he and Danielson got along well, describing Danielson as “one of the nicest guys that you will ever meet, one of the most gentle guys that you will ever meet.”
He also suggested in the video that Danielson deliberately didn’t advertise his involvement in the group.
“He showed up all the time,” Gibson said, “but he kept on the down-low because he owned a business in the city of Portland” and because he lived there.
The New York Times reported that members of Patriot Prayer have “repeatedly engaged in physical conflicts with activists in the city, including a brawl that led to criminal charges against Mr. Gibson and others last year,” and Facebook removed the group’s pages this week, as part of efforts to remove “violent social militias” from its social networks, a spokesman reportedly said.
There haven’t been reports or footage publicly released that show Danielson involved in any physical conflicts during recent Portland protests, except for his killing.
And though Dave and Mary couldn’t speak to the effect Patriot Prayer had on his thinking, they did say they noticed a recent shift in his political beliefs and concerns.
Jay’s politics, Dave said, “became more of an issue in the last few months. Before, we just accepted it. We enjoyed it and lavished in it and didn’t think too much about it.”
But as protests began to increasingly consume parts of his adopted hometown of Portland, Dave and Mary said their son’s conservative views began to change.
“This is very recent, pretty much as all of this has started to unravel here, basically since the Black Lives (Matter) movement started,” Mary said. “He started to get more and more concerned about government taking over, the U.N. coming in, China controlling everything. I mean, we started hearing about it. We hadn’t heard about it before that. He started getting very, very concerned.”
Dave said he was texting them and “having us watch videos of things almost on a daily basis for two or three months. So it had escalated.”
Some of what he sent, Dave said, was about how “Biden was linked with China” and how “their plan was to control the food as a possibility, so stock up. There was lots more that we deleted.”
“Some of them, I thought, were a stretch,” Dave said. “Some of them seemed right on.”
He also said he doesn’t believe his son was an extremist.
“Jay was always a Republican. He was always on the right. He believed in the flag, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights,” Dave said. “He believed you should have the right to bear arms, the freedom to assemble, the freedom of speech. And if that’s being an extremist, then he was an extremist. But he believed in America.”
And while he and Mary said Danielson’s concerns were global, his focus, as far as they knew, was the often chaotic, destructive and violent protests that have been happening in Portland over the past 100 days.
She said Danielson would ride into downtown Portland on his mountain board – a motorized street version of a snowboard – “and videotape all the destruction. And he was just horrified by it. He was so immersed in it down there, you know.”
“We know he was observing,” she added.
“And to our knowledge, he wasn’t taking part in any of the violence part of it, to our knowledge,” Mary said. “Of course we’re not there. But he was definitely observing it and upset by it and wanted to make a difference and had strong views and aligned closer with this Joey guy than anyone else that was trying to stop what is going on and then sending texts warning us, you know, be careful and this is what’s happening.”
Both Mary and Dave said their son held antifa responsible for what was happening and that “there could be a civil war,” Dave said.
“Jay blamed antifa a lot,” Mary said. “That was his focus, that there was something going on, something bigger. And he was trying to figure it out: what is going on that’s bigger? And he kept coming back to somebody’s funding this group and it’s somebody who wants power and it’s somebody who wants America to be destroyed and start over, to have America go communist. He didn’t know if it was China. He didn’t know where it was coming from exactly, but he knew there was something big.
“He just kept texting about, there’s something going on that’s bigger than what we know,” she continued. “And it’s leading us down a terrible path and we’re going to lose our freedoms and we’re going to lose – and government’s going to take over and we’re basically going to lose our freedoms. I mean, that was his concern.
“And he felt so strong about that, so adamant about that, we felt like he needed to try to do something.”
Asked what they thought about that, whether it seemed paranoid or possibly true, both Mary and Dave said they felt it was possibly true.
“I’m more and more convinced that he’s on the right track here,” Mary said.
Antifa, short for “anti-fascist,” is not a formal, centralized organization but rather a loose group of local cells of activists who are critical of capitalism and who oppose those they consider supporters of fascism, racism and other far-right causes, according to the BBC and other sources. While some antifa supporters argue violence for their cause is justified because it is necessary to protect marginalized groups, not all do. Last week, the Justice Department launched a criminal inquiry into the leadership and financing of protests against police abuse, according to USA Today.
Dave and Mary credit their son with helping them to ask deeper questions and see the world as he saw it.
“He would say, ‘I’m trying to warn you. I’m trying to prepare you,’” Mary said. “’You need to be educated. If you watch mainstream media, you will not really find out what’s happening.’ He didn’t trust anything. He didn’t trust Google, because he says, ‘You’ll Google, you’ll see what they want you to see.’”
As they all became more worried about the broader situation, Dave and Mary said they urged their son to take precautions.
“We’d always say, ‘Be safe, be safe. We love you,’” Mary said. “And he’d respond back, ‘Oh, I’m safe.’ Well, yeah right. … He didn’t have any idea he was in mortal danger. Absolutely not.”
The police affidavit
On the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 29, Danielson took part in a pro-Trump caravan that involved hundreds of trucks and clashed with left-wing protesters in downtown Portland.
People in trucks reportedly shot paintball guns, and protesters threw objects at the passing vehicles. Police responded to scenes of fights, disturbances and collisions throughout downtown and made some “minor arrests,” according to a Portland Police Bureau news release.
About 15 minutes after the caravan had left downtown, around 8:45 p.m., Danielson and Pappas were walking near the corner of Southwest Third Avenue and Southwest Alder Street.
Portland authorities’ account of what happened next can be found in a Portland police affidavit released Friday, along with a warrant for the arrest of Michael Forest Reinoehl on charges of unlawful use of a firearm and second-degree murder for Danielson’s killing.
There, Detective Rico Beniga describes Reinoehl’s apparent targeted killing of Danielson.
The affidavit says Reinoehl, who was killed by law enforcement as they moved in to arrest him a few days later in Lacey, Washington, first showed up on security footage walking near Pappas and Danielson without any indication of an impending confrontation, though Danielson appeared to be holding a can of bear spray in his right hand and “what appears to be an expandable baton in his left hand,” according to the affidavit.
Then, the affidavit indicates, Reinoehl hid in a parking garage alcove and, according to video, “conceals himself, waits, and watches as Danielson and Pappas continue walking by.”
Reinoehl then followed the two men, the document says. According to one witness quoted in the affidavit, an unidentified male with Reinoehl said, “We’re going to (expletive) kill you.”
Multiple witnesses said Danielson sprayed the bear mace before Reinoehl fired two shots.
The first, police believe, hit the can Danielson was holding. The second proved fatal.
The next morning, at 7 a.m., the doorbell rang at Dave and Mary’s house, waking them from sleep.
When Mary got to the door, a pair of sheriff’s deputies were outside.
“Is this where David Danielson lives, the father of Aaron?” one of them asked, according to Mary. “Would you go wake him, please?”
When he heard the news – his only son was dead – Dave “started sobbing and sobbing and sobbing,” Mary said.
“It was just absolutely heartbreaking,” she said. “He’s going, ‘No, no, no, not Aaron. Why Aaron?’”
Though the answer to that question isn’t only about America’s divisive politics, Mary and Dave can’t help but connect their son’s death to them.
And what they want, they said, is for his death not to be in vain.
“I just came to the realization … that, OK, now I know why it was Jay,” Mary said. “It had to be somebody like him, in order for change to happen. People need to see that this could have been their son, very easily. And something’s got to happen so it doesn’t continue. I don’t know what it’s going to be.”
Though they said they felt educated and informed by their sons views of antifa, the mainstream media and the dangers of what they view as Democrats’ accommodations of destructive protesters, their politics are not easily classifiable as they might seem.
The “dissension horrifies me,” Mary said at one point. “Let’s go back to peace and love and happiness and jobs and giving hugs.”
“We need to get law and order back,” she said at another.
The Black Lives Matter movement “started out with good intentions,” she said at yet another point in a more than three-hour conversation. “I think the people that were taking part really thought that they could help correct things. And then it almost escalated into a political party of its own. And then when they started asking to defund the police, we’re just going, are you kidding me?”
But while their support of police, to take one example, is strong, it’s not uncritical.
“There should be some change with the police,” Dave acknowledged. “They should have different types of training. They make mistakes and those mistakes should be corrected. There’s no doubt about it. Teachers make mistakes, doctors make mistakes. Police are no exception.
“But they (antifa) take a peaceful protest – and we recognize that as one of our Constitutional rights – and these agitators come in – antifa; as far as I can see, antifa – and they hijack the peaceful protest and turn it into rioting and looting and burning and do this awful stuff,” he continued.
Danielson “thought antifa was a dangerous organization,” Dave said. “And I do, too. I hadn’t even heard of antifa until a few months ago, but I think the Department of Justice should look into who’s funding antifa.”
Less than a week after their son’s death, they are still searching for answers to these questions – and to very personal ones that are closely related.
“It seems it has to mean something that a young man as wonderful as he was, that he was assassinated,” Dave said. “It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense. And maybe for Jay, this will serve as a catalyst, springboard, to wake people up that something awful has happened to our country and they have the power to do something about it.”
“Without using guns,” Mary chimed in.
Dave said he wants to see Democrats “get together with the Republican side and put a stop to this violence.”
“If I can lose the life of my son,” Dave said, “they can sit down at a table and be civil to each other and start to work something out. I deserve that as a citizen.”
Aaron “Jay” Danielson was an avid outdoorsman who moved from Spokane to Portland some 20 years ago. Danielson was killed in Portland on Aug. 29, shot by a self-proclaimed supporter of antifa during continued protests against police brutality.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.