A Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office deputy was placed on administrative leave Saturday after a video was posted online of the deputy repeating false claims that anti-fascist activists had been starting fires in the area.
The deputy, who has not been publicly identified, is recorded saying: “Antifa motherfuckers are out causing hell, and there’s a lot of lives at stake. And there’s a lot of people’s property at stake because these guys got some vendetta.”
The incident seemed to run counter to official information coming from Sheriff Craig Roberts and other top law enforcement officials, indicating that antifa was not to blame for the fires.
But new details show misinformation within the sheriff’s office was not limited to a single deputy spreading rumors. At least one other officer was giving similar misinformation to county leaders as they made decisions about how to respond to fears and safety needs stemming from the wildfires.
Briefing county commissioners Thursday on behalf of the sheriff, Capt. Jeff Smith incorrectly told the commissioners that the department had credible reports of political extremists acting within Clackamas County to start fires and commit acts of sabotage.
The comments came as a deluge of questionable social media posts were whipping up fears in the county, leading some people to form armed vigilante groups to stop looters and alleged, politically-motivated arsonists.
Smith said in his briefing, which was in part to discuss the need to put a curfew in place, that the sheriff’s office had received reports of extremist groups staging gas cans “for later destruction.”
“Equally concerning, is there are reports of people from other extremist groups — it’s not confirmed antifa, but it’s suspected antifa,” Smith said. “Reports and sightings of people armed with chainsaws. And the goal was to fall telephone poles in hopes of starting further fires.”
The briefing alarmed some and helped galvanize support for the curfew, which the commissioners put in place.
“After hearing that from Capt. Smith here ... we gotta make an appeal to the Governor to call in the National Guard,” Commissioner Paul Savas said. “That is critical information. That is very unsettling. I’m fine with the curfew countywide now, more so than I was 15 minutes ago. But for crying out loud, we can’t allow a deliberate attack on property and people’s lives.”
When Clackamas County Chair Jim Bernard appeared skeptical that the gas can story was accurate and pushed for clarification, Smith was quick to explain that the gas can anecdote had not yet been confirmed. Smith then said, erroneously, the reports of antifa members armed with chainsaws and felling telephone polls were reliable.
Those reports were also wrong. Similar rumors have been repeatedly and publicly denied by both Sheriff Roberts and the FBI.
In the county meeting, Commissioner Sonya Fischer also pushed back and urged caution.
“Information evolves quickly,” Fischer said told OPB on Monday. “I was questioning the information because there were inconsistencies. Since then, the sheriff has clarified that the reports of suspicious persons or arson were not tied to any political group.”
Smith also told commissioners the sheriff’s office had received numerous confirmed reports of looting in Estacada, Colton, Molalla and Sandy.
“Lots of looting has been taking place, burglaries and whatnot,” he told the commissioners.
Smith was briefing the commissioners in place of Sheriff Roberts and Capt. Shane Strangfield, who were both attending a press briefing being held at the same time. At that briefing, Roberts directly contradicted what Smith was saying to the county board.
Asked if there were any confirmed reports of looting in evacuated areas, Roberts said, “No, not to my knowledge.”
“We’re aware of that possibility and we’re actively working to address that,” Capt. Strangfield jumped in.
Last week, the sheriff’s office reported stopping a trailer theft in Eagle Creek and a “tool heist” near Mulino, but neither incident was politically motivated. Deputies were responding to a flood of calls — more than 300 between Tuesday and Thursday.
The conflicting information, and ensuing reaction from residents, speaks to a broader crisis of reliable information, said Commissioner Fischer.
“There’s so much misinformation,” Fischer said. “This situation is one of those things where people are getting their information from their own source through social media. And so dispelling the rumors and trying to get accurate information to people is of the utmost urgency.”
Journalists working in evacuated areas to bring information to the public experienced the consequences of that misinformation.
Three hours after the commissioner meeting and the press briefing, a group of armed men stopped an OPB reporter in Molalla and told them to leave immediately. That same day, according to the Guardian, armed men also stopped independent photojournalist Nathan Howard outside of Estacada. The men accused Howard of being a looter, pointed rifles at him and forced him to leave the area.
Speaking at a fire briefing Monday, Roberts said Smith only had about five minutes to prepare for that briefing.
“He had some information that at that time he believed to be credible,” Roberts said. “It had not been vetted through a couple of our sources.”
Roberts said the information they’ve been receiving is checked with their own detectives and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. In this case, that information was soon determined to be incorrect.
“What we’re seeing in many of these cases is a friend of a friend of a friend said this,” Roberts said. “And when we get to the bottom of it, it is completely blown out of proportion.”
Roberts said one of his concerns is that vigilante groups could mistake so many firefighters coming to the area from out of state and driving rental cars with out of state plates for looters or criminals.
Roberts said “the last thing in the world” he would want is for a firefighter to be mistaken as being “up to no good and somebody confronting them.”
The sheriff asked county residents to let law enforcement respond to any potential criminal activity and to cease confronting people in evacuation zones.