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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Five Patriot Front members convicted of conspiracy to riot in Coeur d’Alene

A group of 31 men with the white supremacy group Patriot Front was arrested after a traffic stop by multiple law enforcement agencies on June 11, 2022, on Northwest Boulevard in Coeur d’Alene.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A jury deliberated for a little over an hour before convicting five Patriot Front members Thursday for conspiring to disrupt a Pride celebration last June in downtown Coeur d’Alene.

Devin Center, James J. Johnson, Forrest Rankin, Robert Whitted and Derek Smith stood in suits behind their attorneys and showed no emotion after a clerk read the guilty verdict to the charge of conspiracy to riot by disturbing the peace, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

The five men will be sentenced at 9:30 a.m. Friday by Judge James Stow.

It’s been more than a year since law enforcement agencies swarmed a busy arterial leading to downtown Coeur d’Alene and arrested 31 of the white nationalist group members.

The men, who wore blue shirts, khaki pants and white face masks, were packed into a U-Haul moving truck and bound for City Park to protest Pride in the Park before police intercepted them on Northwest Boulevard, just north of the park.

Police seized metal shields, a smoke bomb, shin guards, two-way radios, megaphones and an operations plan from the members and from inside the truck.

“They knew going in there that their conduct is likely to cause at least a disturbance of the peace,” said Ryan Hunter, deputy city attorney, in closing arguments Thursday.

The operations plan said the members would form on the outskirts of the park and proceed inward until they experienced “barriers” to their approach, Hunter said. They planned to use a megaphone to recite a speech, which Hunter said at the start of the trial included “insulting” and “demeaning” language.

Center testified Thursday that Patriot Front’s founder, Thomas Rousseau, intended to give the speech at the park, and members planned to hand out the group’s flyers.

Hunter argued in closing arguments the group’s message was not at the center of the case.

“What is at the center of this case is conduct,” he said.

Hunter said the masked men, carrying shields and flag poles, planned to storm out of the U-Haul outside the park, potentially deploying smoke and using a bullhorn. They intended to engage in a “tumultuous manner” with Pride attendees trying to enjoy the park.

“What they proposed to do was not a protest,” Hunter said. “It was a crime.”

While the defense argued law enforcement speculated the members’ planned to riot, Hunter said officers used “deduction.”

“Any conspiracy charge is going to be pretty dependent on reasonable inferences,” he said.

Several officers who testified said the members did not use force or disturb the peace and complied with police, Sargent argued.

“We don’t have to like the content we hear, but the cornerstone that makes this country great is there’s no dictator that can shut our mouths as citizens if we’re exercising free speech,” he said.

Sargent said the members protested several times before in other parts of the country and were not arrested.

In this case, they were ordered out of a U-Haul, told to get face down on the pavement and detained on their knees with their hands behind their back for a lengthy period before being booked into jail.

“I wanted to let you now my clients suffered for their right to free speech,” he said.

Sargent said he applauded law enforcement for stopping the truck after a citizen reported the men dressed in similar clothing piling into the vehicle. However, he took issue with the arrests.

“I would suggest instead of these five citizens who are on trial, it should be the government on trial for abusing these citizens,” he said.

Sargent said it was his pleasure to represent the defendants, whom he called “Sons of Liberty.”

Sargent told reporters he was “extremely disappointed” with the jury’s verdict. Wes Somerton, chief criminal deputy city attorney, said he was surprised how fast the verdict was reached.

Center and Whitted were the only two members to testify during the three-day trial.

Center, a 23-year-old heavy equipment operator from Fayetteville, Arkansas, said the group planned to peacefully protest that day, and the shields and other protective equipment were simply to protect themselves from violent attackers. He said he was assigned to carry a shield at the Pride celebration.

He also said members wear face masks to protect their identities, and the group typically uses U-Haul trucks to transport members in a “discreet manner” to demonstrations.

Center, who has been a member for two and a half years, said people have taken photos and videos of members’ faces before and posted the information online, exposing them to harassment. People have also damaged their personal vehicles in the past, and their license plate numbers could reveal their identities, again exposing them to potential harassment. He said that’s why they choose U-Haul trucks.

Center said nonviolence is a cornerstone of Patriot Front’s organization. He described the group as a fraternal organization devoted to creating a brotherhood of “patriotic young Americans” who seek to improve themselves so they can improve the community.

Whitted, a manager at a marketing organization from Conroe, Texas, said the group believes in traditional American values put forth by the country’s Founding Fathers and “original inhabitants.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the group as “a white nationalist hate group” that broke off from a similar far-right group after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

Sargent asked Center whether he had ever been a “neo-Nazi” or “skinhead,” and if he had ever participated in a “skinhead rally,” to which Center replied, “No.”

Center said dressing alike and painting their shields persuades more people to listen to their message.

“It’s a spectacle,” Center said.

Whitted also said he went to peacefully protest the celebration, which included drag performances.

“I don’t think there should be kids involved at all in something like that,” he said.

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, according to media outlets.