Editor’s note: Since this story was published on June 15, the FBI has confirmed OPB’s account that the agency received information from the public regarding Benjamin Smith, the man accused of shooting five people near a Portland park last February, ahead of that shooting. The agency also said in an emailed statement that it spoke to Smith in 2021 and “no further investigative actions were taken based on the available information.”
A Portland man accused of shooting during a peaceful demonstration in February was contacted months before the shooting by the FBI, due to concerns about his state of mind and potential for violence, according to his former roommate and a law enforcement source familiar with the investigation.
Benjamin Jeffery Smith faces one murder charge, four counts of attempted murder and four counts of assault for the shooting at Normandale Park in Northeast Portland.
The revelation that Smith was known to the FBI renews — once again — a conversation about the difficulty of preventing gun violence in a society saturated with guns and with few restrictions on their ownership.
When the FBI contacted Smith in 2021, it had already received multiple tips over many years that he might be dangerous. People who met him in online furry communities — groups of people who share an interest in anthropomorphic animals — told OPB that Smith seemed violent and said they had reported him to the FBI in the past. Months after being contacted by the FBI, Smith, 43, would stand accused of shooting five people with a handgun at a peaceful protest on Feb. 19 in Normandale Park. One person died and another became paralyzed.
Several people who knew Smith told OPB that they contacted the FBI to file complaints about the alleged future shooter’s violent and threatening behavior. The earliest of those warnings were sent as far back as 2006.
Kristine Christensen, Smith’s roommate, told OPB that, rather than deter his behavior, the 2021 contact with the FBI was a source of boastful pride for Smith.
Smith talked about “how the FBI contacted him out of concern for possible terrorist stuff,” Christensen said in an interview. “He took it as a proud thing, but it was also one of those things where I was like, ‘I wish they would have investigated you further.’”
A law-enforcement source familiar with the investigation who declined to speak on the record about an ongoing investigation confirmed to OPB that Smith was contacted by the FBI.
Smith’s defense attorney declined to comment.
About a year after the FBI visit, Smith allegedly shot and killed June Knightly, 60, a longtime racial justice activist who was at Normandale Park during the Feb. 19 shooting. A member of the crowd returned fire, shooting Smith, who was hospitalized in critical condition. Smith has since been released from the hospital and is being held in a Multnomah County jail. The person who shot Smith has not been charged.
Determining what to do with people like Smith, whose behavior suggests they might commit a violent crime, is a question that has plagued the FBI for years, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.
“An assessment may detect a potential threat, but facts and evidence may not be sufficient under current law to imprison someone or deprive them of their rights,” said Renn Cannon, the FBI special agent who was in charge of the Portland field office from February 2017 to January 2021. “The bar is set pretty high.”
Law enforcement and civil liberties groups seem to agree the right to free speech and the right to bear arms are increasingly coming into conflict.
“The prevalence of guns in our society and gun violence, is really infringing other civil liberties including the First Amendment,” said Sandy Chung, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon.
February’s Normandale Park shooting was the 58th mass shooting of 2022, a year that has so far had more mass shootings than days. The May 14 shooting at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store was the 197th mass shooting of the year. The May 24 shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which took place on the 144th day of 2022, was the 213th mass shooting of the year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as four or more people injured or killed.
From the May 24 shooting in Uvalde through June 15, 62 people have been killed and 231 injured in 54 mass shootings across 20 states.
Can the FBI prevent mass shootings?
The Normandale shooting is not the first time the FBI has been warned about potentially violent people and failed to prevent an attack.
The agency received two tips about the 19-year-old who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. The first tip, called into the FBI in September 2017, alerted the FBI to a YouTube video in which the young man said he wanted to be a school shooter. A second tip came four months later also alerting the FBI to his troubling behavior.
The Parkland school shooting was the following month.
The failure prompted the FBI to overhaul its tip line, adding staff and revising protocols to a system that was fielding more than 2,100 calls per day in 2017, according to the Associated Press. At least some of the tips sent to the FBI about Smith, the Portland shooting suspect, were sent after that overhaul. Although the agency contacted Smith at least once, the agency appears to have taken no further action.
The FBI declined multiple requests for comment about whether agents made inquiries or had investigated Smith prior to the shooting.
“Unfortunately it’s an ongoing matter and we’re not able to talk about ongoing matters at this point,” Kieran Ramsey, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland office, told OPB during a June interview.
Ramsey said that when the bureau successfully prevents a violent attack, it is by definition a non-event. He said that can make it difficult to measure the FBI’s efforts.
“We will never know the ‘what if’ scenario if we did not get involved,” Ramsey said. “But you know what? We don’t want to know.”
FBI agents in Portland notched a high-profile success in 2019 when the agency, working through the Joint Terrorism Task Force, petitioned to have Shane Kohfield’s weapons temporarily seized and had him committed to a veterans hospital. Kohfield had used a bullhorn to make death threats against anti-fascists while standing outside Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s home. Kohfield had already hit the FBI’s radar after he sent plans to Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, detailing how Kohfield would kill anti-fascists.
More recently, Ramsey said the FBI was able to work with local Oregon law enforcement to get an extreme risk protection order against a person whose threatening behavior had become increasingly intense.
“That’s the success to me,” he added.
Reports from the public are key, Ramsey said. The FBI wants friends, family or more distant acquaintances like classmates and coworkers to report warning signs such as increased anger, suicidal ideations or plans to commit violence.
“We want people to see these things and then make a report and have multiple avenues of reporting,” Ramsey said.
In Smith’s case, it appears that is exactly what happened — repeatedly. As his case shows, even when the system works and people who have made violent or troubling statements are investigated, the results can still be horrific.
After receiving a credible tip, the FBI spent nearly a year investigating the man who would later kill 49 people and wound 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016. After sifting through the man’s phone records, following him, interviewing him twice, and using informants to record over a dozen of his conversations, the agency concluded he did not pose a threat and closed the case.
When the FBI receives a tip that someone may pose a credible threat to the community, the agency conducts a threat assessment. But without robust nationwide gun laws, federal law enforcement must fall back on a patchwork of local and state laws to address potential threats.
The tools available to law enforcement in Oregon include civil commitment and extreme risk protection orders, commonly called red-flag laws. It is difficult to meet the standard for consigning someone who has not committed a crime to a hospital for a temporary mental health hold. Red-flag laws allow immediate family members or law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily confiscate someone’s firearms if they pose a threat to themselves or others. The state’s Judicial Department, which oversees state courts, found no extreme risk protection orders or any other restraining orders filed against Smith.
In many other states, Texas among them, there are even fewer options for addressing potentially dangerous people. After expressing interest in a red-flag law after a mass school shooting in 2018, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott backed off, and the state has since loosened gun laws, passing legislation in 2021 allowing gun owners to carry a handgun in public without training or a permit. Texas is among 31 states without a red-flag law, a number which could change if Congress passes proposed legislation incentivizing their adoption.
A long history of violence and hate
Smith had a long-established reputation for espousing violence and making threats online. His violent behavior and signs of mental health struggles go back more than a decade.
Smith’s lawyer declined to comment on his client’s case. Smith’s brother, Aurthur Killion, told OPB he was unaware of the FBI contact. Killion said Smith had had issues with protesters in the neighborhood but otherwise seemed fine when they spoke about a week before the Normandale Park shooting.
Smith was first named as a suspect two days after the mass shooting, though not by police. Anti-fascist researchers discovered Smith was well known in the furry community for praising Nazis, the Proud Boys, and Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old from Illinois who traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and fatally shot two protesters while working with local militia to provide armed protection for businesses.
A member of Portland’s furry community who goes by Triss Winters has known Smith for years and said Smith had been ostracized by their community. Furries are people with an interest in anthropomorphized animals, such as Bugs Bunny or the Beast in Beauty and the Beast.
“Not many people wanted anything to do with him,” said Winters, who didn’t want to use their real name for fear of harassment. “He was pretty much a loner, he didn’t play well with others. He had a reputation of being abrasive, loud. ... He’s always been what I would describe as a bit unhinged.”
Winters hosted a party in 2012 that Smith attended. Winters said Smith threatened to stab someone with a hunting knife for taking his picture.
Smith’s online activity is rife with racism, anti-religious sentiment, Nazi sympathies, and anger towards the Black Lives Matter movement. At one point in February 2021, an account that appears to be owned by Smith celebrated a man in Pennsylvania who shot and killed three neighbors over a snow removal dispute.
“People that just willingly disrespect the property of another, and then shit talk them after they have done so,” Smith appears to have said on Reddit. “Got what they fucking deserved.”
Later, in 2021, in a group chat on the messaging app Telegram, a person who group members claim was Smith praised Rittenhouse and expressed antisemitic views.
A member of the furry community who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retribution told OPB they reported the chats to the FBI through its online tip site soon after the chats were posted.
In 2009 and 2010, Smith wrote on a blog that he was considering taking his own life. An Oregon court also convicted Smith of criminal mischief and harassment and sentenced him to anger management and community service.
On multiple occasions throughout 2006 and 2007, Ariadne Conill, a software engineer who has never met Smith and doesn’t live in Oregon, reported Smith to the FBI’s Internet Crimes Complaint Center, called IC3. Issuing threats online through social media, email or text messages is a federal crime, and can be reported through IC3′s online portal.
Conill said Smith became irate and started harassing her and her friends online after she had helped create a digital media player that replaced an older program Smith used.
“He was doxxing people, and then he was like, ‘I’m going to go on a road trip, and I’m gonna stab you,’” Conill said that Smith told them. “This was an ongoing thing and multiple people, including myself, who were the recipients of his behavior contacted IC3.gov.”
Conill said they never received any follow-up from the FBI on their complaints.
Gun violence could infringe on free speech
Cannon, the former special agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland office, said he was not familiar with the specifics of Smith’s case or any contact made by FBI agents.
“When information comes from members of the public to the FBI regarding the potential for violence by an individual, the FBI opens a threat assessment,” Cannon said. “Threat assessments utilize basic investigation tools, including background checks, review of criminal cases and interviews to assess dangerousness and whether further investigation is warranted.”
If there’s evidence that indicates a need, Cannon said, law enforcement might open a case, refer someone to mental health experts or take measures such as requesting an extreme risk protection order to temporarily prevent someone from possessing or buying firearms.
Offensive speech is often constitutionally protected.
With more guns than people in the country, Chung, the executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, said the sheer number of firearms and shootings is starting to have a chilling effect on other civil liberties.
“There are communities and people who are afraid of going out to protest, even if they may feel very strongly about the issue, because of the potential for violence,” Chung said.
It’s not just protests. She pointed to violence at churches and other religious institutions as examples of unchecked gun violence infringing on civil liberties.
Cannon said the tools available to prevent crime are imperfect. “It’s arguable whether we have as many tools as we should,” he said.
Chung went a step further.
“The Constitution is pretty clear about a ‘well-regulated militia’,” she said. “It’s not an infringement of civil liberties and civil rights to have these gun-control and gun-safety laws.”
She said indirect solutions like red-flag laws are helpful, but the fundamental problem is that America is simply too awash in guns.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect June Knightly’s correct name.