Clackamas County Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Smith, bottom left, speaks to the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners during a meeting on Sept. 10, 2020.
Two days before the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office announced a deputy was on administrative leave after he suggested anti-fascists started wildfires in the area, a captain with the agency told county commissioners a similar story in a public meeting.
Law enforcement, including Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts, have tried to bat down unfounded rumors of coordinated arson plans and widespread looting in evacuated areas, saying there was no evidence to back them up. Sheriff’s offices across the state, along with the FBI, have roundly debunked the claims.
But it’s apparent that some of the rumors got a boost from the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office.
During an emergency county meeting Thursday to discuss implementing a curfew, Capt. Jeff Smith told the county board of commissioners that the sheriff’s office had “reliable sightings and reports” of antifa affiliates in the Estacada area with chainsaws. He said they planned to cut down power poles in hopes of sparking new fires.
He also said authorities were receiving reports that people were hiding full gas cans all over the county to later ignite.
During a news conference on Sunday, Roberts highlighted a similar story as an example of an unfounded report. A 911 caller reported a suspicious truck hauling containers of gasoline, but it turned out the driver was just delivering gas to people in the area who have generators to keep their power on.
“There’s just a lot of misinformation about folks trying to set fires,” the sheriff said. “I want to reassure everybody that we are on this and if you see anything suspicious, I encourage you to call us.”
The sheriff’s office didn’t respond to an inquiry Sunday and Monday about Smith’s comments to the county commissioners on Thursday.
During a news conference later Monday, Roberts said the information Smith provided about extremist groups had been discredited.
“I want to clarify for the record that one of our captains indicated a source stating antifa was involved in possible criminal activity,” the sheriff said. “That source has since determined to be false.”
He said no one arrested thus far in the evacuation areas have been associated with any groups and that detectives along with members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force have been checking each person arrested for ties to extremist groups.
County Chair Jim Bernard said Monday that Smith has been the only person he’s heard from directly lending credibility to the coordinated arson claims. Bernard said he still hasn’t heard any confirmed reports of antifa or any other groups that have organized to set fires as of Monday.
“I was shocked and am still shocked that a sheriff’s officer in uniform in a public meeting would suggest otherwise,” Bernard said. “Frankly, I think he should be disciplined for it.”
“We don’t need outside forces in our community scaring people, and we certainly don’t need sheriff’s deputies scaring people.”
Roberts said during Sunday’s news conference that the majority of around 330 emergency calls his agency has received recently related to suspicious activity in evacuation areas have been unfounded.
Roberts also said he was concerned that armed residents had been patrolling the county and detaining people at gunpoint, spurred on by rumors of looting and arson. He urged people to call 911 instead, and he said deputies could start arresting people who continue to illegally detain others.
Bernard said he was afraid residents returning for property or good Samaritans hoping to help could end up getting shot.
“I think it’s scary that people are out there with guns who think they have the right and the experience to protect certain areas of the county when it’s illegal to do that,” he said.
Commissioner Ken Humberston said at the beginning of the meeting Thursday that the curfew was requested by the sheriff’s office, which felt it was necessary “because of problems they are having on the streets with looting.”
After Smith’s account of extremist groups in the county, Commissioner Paul Savas called the information “unsettling” and urged Bernard to ask Gov. Kate Brown to deploy the National Guard to the county. The sheriff’s office wouldn’t have enough resources alone, Savas said.
“I’m fine with the curfew countywide now more so than I was 15 minutes ago,” Savas said. “But for crying out loud, we can’t allow a deliberate attack on property and people’s lives and somehow just leave the National Guard out there sitting at home waiting for the call.”
Commissioner Sonya Fischer suggested holding off on calling the National Guard until Roberts could confirm they were necessary. She later said she was concerned about perceptions of there being a threat.
When Commissioner Martha Schrader asked how the sheriff’s office had confirmed antifa’s presence in the county, Smith said the information came from a sheriff’s office sergeant, but he didn’t know the exact source.
“We’ll really have to know that for sure,” Schrader said. “Because if that’s true then we don’t want to have another layer of panic going on out there.”
The curfew was approved and went into effect that night. It initially covered all of Clackamas County from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. with the exception of first responders and people actively evacuating but has since been scaled back to areas under level 2 and 3 evacuation orders.
The sheriff’s office announced Saturday that Deputy Mark Nikolai, who has acted as public spokesperson for the agency in the past, had been placed on administrative leave after a video was published on social media telling the person recording that deputies “need the public’s help” with anti-fascists in the area. Nikolai suggested deputies could leave residents in charge of public safety if fire conditions got worse.
The Clackamas County Peace Officers Association, the union that represents law enforcement in Clackamas County, released a statement Saturday afternoon calling the video “sensationalized,” and said he was “speaking freely with a community member about the community’s understandable fear of looting and other criminal acts as our County burns.”
Roberts, in a statement addressing the video of Nikolai but not Smith’s comments, said the mission of the sheriff’s office “is to provide calm and safety especially during unprecedented times such as these.”
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