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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Free speech or conspiring to riot? Trial of 5 Patriot Front members starts in CdA

A group of 31 men with the white nationalist group Patriot Front are removed from the back of a U-Haul rental truck and arrested after a traffic stop by multiple law enforcement agencies on Northwest Boulevard in Coeur d’ Alene. The stop was made just a few blocks from where the “Pride in the Park” event was being held in Coeur d’Alene City Park on June 11, 2022.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Prosecutors say 31 Patriot Front members loaded into a U-Haul truck last June and headed for downtown Coeur d’Alene to “maliciously and willfully” disrupt Pride in the Park.

Attorneys for the defendants contend the Patriot Front members had their rights to peacefully protest infringed by police.

Five members of the white nationalist group are on trial this week in Coeur d’Alene for conspiring to riot on June 11, 2022.

Devin Center, of Fayetteville, Arkansas; James Johnson, of Concrete, Washington; Forrest Rankin, of Wheat Ridge, Colorado; Robert Whitted, of Conroe, Texas; and Derek Smith, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, joined 26 other Patriot Front members intending to violate people’s rights to peacefully assemble at the Pride event at City Park, said Ryan Hunter, deputy city attorney, in opening arguments Tuesday.

“No one has the right to interfere with another person’s lawful and peaceful exercise of freedom of speech or freedom of assembly,” Hunter told the eight jurors.

All five defendants wore suits and sat behind their attorneys, conferring with them several times during the proceedings.

On June 11, the men wore blue shirts, khaki pants and white face masks when they, one-by-one, exited the back of the U-Haul after law enforcement pulled them over on Northwest Boulevard. Police seized metal shields, shin guards, a smoke grenade and megaphone that said “Patriot Front” on it.

Wes Somerton, chief criminal deputy city attorney, held shin guards, a megaphone and a hat, all wrapped in plastic and used as evidence in the case, for the jury to see Tuesday.

Police received a tip minutes before the arrests from a concerned citizen that a “little army” of men climbed into a U-Haul at a SpringHill Suites by Marriott on Seltice Way, near Interstate 90 and Northwest Boulevard.

Hunter said police seized an operations plan and speech from Patriot Front’s leader and founder, Thomas Rousseau, who was one of three people in the cab of the U-Haul.

Hunter said the group’s plan was to assemble on the outskirts of City Park and move into the Pride event until it hit “barriers to entry.” At that point, the group planned to use the megaphone to read a speech with “demeaning” and “insulting” language to rouse a physical response from Pride attendees.

The defendants’ attorney, Robert Sargent, said he agreed with a bit of what Hunter said.

“You don’t have the right to interfere with another citizens’ right to peacefully protest,” Sargent said. “That day, the government interfered with their right to peacefully protest. These citizens’ rights were taken away.”

Sargent argued his clients did not spit, yell or throw a stick at anyone. He said other groups were downtown demonstrating that day, too. Some were carrying rifles and others conducted loud prayers, but they were not arrested.

Sargent said if reading a speech, which Patriot Front intended, is disturbing the peace, then Martin Luther King Jr. should have been arrested.

He said the members’ reward for planning a peaceful protest was police pointing guns at them and ordering them to get on their knees before being booked into jail.

“The government unfairly punished them,” Sargent said.

The man who tipped police on the men in the U-Haul testified Tuesday.

The man, who identified himself as Keith and whose last name was redacted, said he was charging his electric vehicle and walking his dog outside the hotel when he saw a procession of about six vehicles and the U-Haul enter the back parking lot. No one got out of the vehicles initially, which he thought was odd.

When they did, the men, dressed mostly the same, exited together, formed an orderly line and entered the U-Haul before driving away, Keith said.

He said they were “super organized” and the process was like “military precision.”

“They look like a little army,” Keith said during the 911 call, which was played in court.

Coeur d’Alene police officer Emily Taylor responded to the hotel and interviewed Keith. She testified she saw three or four “homemade shields” in the back of a pickup truck that arrived with the other vehicles Keith mentioned.

Somerton showed dash cam footage from Coeur d’Alene police Officer Jacob Brazle’s patrol car. Brazle was one of the responding officers to the U-Haul truck on Northwest Boulevard.

The footage showed Coeur d’Alene Police, Idaho State Police and Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office personnel, some of whom pointed rifles at the U-Haul, pull the truck over.

Once the back door to the U-Haul was lifted, each Patriot Front member exited and was ordered to lay face down on the street. Police then detained them with their hands tied behind their back and moved them to a grassy area on the side of the street where they were placed on their knees, the footage showed.

Brazle said he contacted Rousseau, who was a passenger in the truck’s cab, and assisted in handcuffing and searching several members.

He said Rousseau told him he traveled to Coeur d’Alene to peacefully exercise his rights.

Almost all of the other 26 members are awaiting trial.

Alexander Sisenstein, of Midvale, Utah, was sentenced in November to two years of unsupervised probation and a $500 fine after pleading guilty to disturbing the peace.

Jared Boyce, of Springville, Utah, did not appear for his December pretrial conference and a warrant was issued, according to the Idaho Court Portal. In April, Boyce pleaded guilty to child pornography charges in Utah County, according to media outlets.

The trial for Center, Johnson, Rankin, Whitted and Smith resumes at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday with Judge James Stow presiding.