Benjamin Smith, the man who allegedly shot and killed June Knightly, and injured four others near Northeast Portland’s Normandale Park earlier this year, was reported to the Portland police non-emergency line in May 2021, OPB has learned.
The revelation comes the same day the FBI confirmed agents spoke with Smith months before the shooting.
“The FBI previously received information from the public regarding Benjamin Smith,” the agency wrote in a statement. “The FBI spoke to Benjamin Smith in 2021 and based upon applicable federal guidelines, no further investigative actions were taken based upon the available information.”
It’s the first acknowledgment the FBI has made that it investigated Smith prior to the February shooting that also left one person paralyzed. Before Thursday, the FBI had declined multiple requests for comment over the course of several months.
On Feb. 19, Benjamin Smith, 43, allegedly came out of his apartment and started yelling misogynist slurs at a small group of people who were holding back traffic for a racial justice march. According to witnesses, attempts to de-escalate failed and Smith drew a handgun, firing at the group. An armed bystander then shot and critically injured Smith.
Several people had flagged Smith’s violent online behavior to the FBI, going back to at least 2006. Smith’s former roommate told OPB that Smith had bragged about the FBI contacting him in 2021 with concerns about his potential for violent behavior.
The FBI did not confirm whether any information regarding Smith had been relayed to the Portland Police Bureau. But a member of Smith’s Indiana-based family did try to warn local law enforcement.
Benjamin Smith’s second cousin, R.J. Smith, told OPB he called Portland’s non-emergency line after receiving a death threat from his cousin on Facebook messenger.
“I didn’t want to assume it was an idle threat because I knew how volatile he could be, so out of an abundance of caution I did contact Portland PD,” R.J. Smith said.
Phone records confirm he made a three-minute call to Portland’s non-emergency line on May 10, 2021, nine months before the Normandale shooting.
R.J. Smith said he wasn’t surprised by the shooting because his cousin had recently threatened his life.
“His usual expectation was when he calls you an idiot you back down and when I didn’t that’s when he completely went off,” R.J. Smith told OPB. “The specific death threat was, he said I was a fascist and that people like him were going to put a fascist like me up against a wall one of these days. He’s like ‘I got the time for a road trip and you’ve got one incoming.’”
R.J. Smith said he believed his cousin meant that he wanted to execute people he disagreed with.
“He was really crafty about not mentioning guns or bullets but he would heavily imply it,” R.J. Smith said. “I knew he had firearms which is why I took the threat seriously.”
R.J. Smith said a dispatcher at the non-emergency line told him he should file a report with his local law enforcement in Indiana, where he lives. The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department in Indiana confirmed that R.J. Smith filed a report with the agency.
Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications confirmed the call took place and that the caller was referred to his local agency which had jurisdiction over the issue.
“I want to call because there is a citizen of Portland who has been making death threats against me online,” R.J. Smith is heard saying in audio of the call provided to OPB.
A dispatcher told Smith that because he was the victim he had to file a report with his local law enforcement agency.
“They would need to take your report and then they would contact our agency to move forward with anything that we are able to,” the dispatcher told Smith.
The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department where Smith filed a report had no further comment.
A police bureau spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions asking if the bureau had received any information on Smith.
‘Thousands of tips’
Law enforcement agencies have failed on several occasions to intervene with other people who went on to commit mass shootings. The FBI receives thousands of tips a day through its tip line, according to the Associated Press, and says it is limited in actions it can take when no laws have been broken.
“The FBI has the authority to conduct an investigation when it has reasonable grounds to believe that an individual has engaged in criminal activity or is planning to do so,” the Bureau’s June 16 statement read. “This authority is based on the illegal activity, not on the individual’s political views, position, or any other beliefs.”
Policies like red flag laws or moderate changes to who can buy firearms may be completely inadequate to prevent gun violence in a country with more guns than people, according to Sandy Chung, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon.
“It’s not just about mass shootings,” she said. “I think it’s a legitimate question for all of our elected at all levels, ‘why aren’t we just getting to the heart of the problem and working together to get more guns out of our communities?’”
Chung said if politicians are too afraid of the gun lobby to speak up, they’re complicit in the problem, adding that the solution can’t always lie with the police.
“When we’re looking at solutions outside the carceral system we have to take a couple of steps back and look at prevention,” she said.
She said things like after-school programs, neighborhood parks and green spaces all contribute to reduced levels of violence.
Previously in Oregon, the FBI has used the state’s red flag law to address potential threats before they arise. Red flag laws allow family or law enforcement officials to temporarily remove someone’s firearms if they pose a threat to themselves or others.
To do that, the FBI works through local law enforcement and the several task forces established such as the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Metro Safe Streets Task Force and the Violent Crimes Task Force. The Portland Police Bureau is required to compile an annual report outlining every case referred to them by the FBI. In 2021, only one case was referred to the police bureau, a 14-year-old boy who posted a bomb threat on Snapchat.
‘These issues go way back’
R.J. Smith, who said he makes no apologies for his cousin, paints a more complicated picture than previously understood. He said his cousin was always skeptical of authority, going much further back than posts on Reddit or internet chat rooms in the past 15 years. He recalled his cousin refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance after a video surfaced of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King in 1991. But he also recalled his cousin once tried to run over a neighbor’s unleashed dog after the dog chased him on his motorcycle. When asked if it was a reasonable response, R.J. Smith said his cousin responded, “I just don’t care sometimes.”
Others who know Smith said he became more radicalized and violent during the Obama administration and that had accelerated during the 2020 racial justice protests.
“I see a lot of things online blaming recent events,” R.J. Smith said, referring to online speculation about what caused his cousin to allegedly shoot five unarmed people this winter. “That is doing a disservice to trying to prevent this from happening in the future because these issues go way back, 30 years. It’s not something you’re going to pin on an event that’s happened in the last three to five years.”