A man who had long denied his role in the death of a well-known anti-fascist demonstrator confessed to police that he was driving the vehicle that struck and killed the man in the late hours of Oct. 11, 2019, according to a probable cause affidavit filed Friday by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.
“Okay, I guess I better come clean then,” Christopher Knipe allegedly told a Portland police detective who questioned him June 28 – nearly three years after Sean Kealiher was hit by a silver Ford Explorer owned by Knipe while he was leaving Cider Riot, a now-closed bar that was popular with leftist activists.
On Thursday afternoon police arrested Knipe, 47, and charged him with one count of second-degree murder. Knipe appeared in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Friday afternoon where he entered a plea of not guilty and was assigned an attorney. He remains in custody.
Kealiher’s killing has drawn considerable media attention, and his mother, Laura Kealiher, has long insisted that Knipe was involved in the killing, going so far as to publicly name him. Family and friends have also accused the Portland Police Bureau of failing to swiftly pursue arrests because of Kealiher’s political views and actions at protests. Police have denied having any bias in the case.
Detectives previously interviewed Knipe, though court records don’t say exactly when the conversation took place. During a follow up interview June 28, Knipe told police his car had been stolen and that he was home on the evening Kealiher was killed. Within days of the killing in 2019, Knipe filed a stolen vehicle report with Portland police.
After he denied involvement in June, police told Knipe “they had information that contradicted his story,” prosecutors stated in court documents. Knipe “then admitted to being the person who drove the car that struck and killed Kealiher on October 11th, 2019 … and denied knowing that he had struck anyone with the car. He said he must have accidentally stomped on the gas.”
New information emerges
Prosecutors don’t explain what additional information police had that contradicted Knipe’s story. As part of a November episode in a podcast series focused on Kealiher’s case, OPB published an interview with a former co-worker of Knipe, Morgan Knoke. She was friendly with Kealiher from various protests they had attended together.
In her interview with OPB, Knoke said she confronted Knipe days after Kealiher’s death. According to Knoke, Knipe told her that he had attended a concert at the Bossanova Ballroom the same night Kealiher was killed. While the Bossanova Ballroom is located just blocks away from where Kealiher was killed, Knipe told Knoke he drove home after the concert and his vehicle was stolen from his apartment. During that conversation, Knipe allegedly confirmed it was his vehicle that killed Kealiher after it was stolen.
“I was suspicious simply because I knew how hard it would be to steal that vehicle. What is the pure likelihood that he was there, and then wasn’t, and then an hour later his car was involved in an incident that might’ve killed my friend?” Knoke told OPB.
Throughout 2021, OPB made numerous attempts to speak to Knipe. He did not respond.
Despite working together, Knoke said police had not contacted her about Knipe in the years after the murder, but said she was willing to talk to police if asked.
Knoke confirmed Friday that lead investigator Det. Scott Broughton spoke to her July 22.
According to the probable cause affidavit, at some point in the past three years Portland police obtained surveillance footage of Knipe at the Bossanova Ballroom on Oct. 11, 2019.
“Det. Broughton observed (Knipe) standing in line for a ticket in the company of two other white males later identified as Noah Caudle and Scott Duncan,” prosecutors wrote.
That video and others collected by police show the group of men, as well as Kealiher and two of his friends — Hyatt Eschelman and Christopher Aulerich — walking in the same direction toward the intersection of Northeast 9th Avenue and Everett Street, near where Kealiher was struck.
According to court documents, the videos then showed a silver SUV stopping at the same intersection before driving away and turning around to strike Kealiher.
“(Broughton) also located video that appeared to show (Knipe) nonchalantly walking away from the crash with Caudle,” prosecutors wrote.
Knipe allegedly initially denied knowing Caudle and Duncan.
After his arrest, Knipe again revised his story and admitted to being with Duncan and Caudle the night of the killing, according to court documents. He allegedly told police he didn’t know why he turned around to drive back toward Kealiher and that had no recollection of what occurred up until the crash.
The probable cause affidavit does not explain when Broughton obtained video evidence in the case or why he contacted Knipe on June 28, more than two and a half years after the murder.
Attorneys for OPB and The Intercept were independently in the middle of legal efforts to compel the city of Portland to release the investigative file around the case at the time of Broughton’s interview with Knipe. The city did release a version of the investigative file, but it was heavily redacted and provided little insight into the state of progress in the case.
The Intercept filed a lawsuit against the city of Portland, alleging that the city violated Oregon’s public records law when it refused to disclose the investigative file. A hearing is set for later this month.
OPB filed an appeal against the redaction on July 21, arguing that the city of Portland was violating state public records law by redacting too much information and that the absence of any progress in the investigation warranted the release of the investigative file. The next day, Broughton interviewed Knoke. OPB had been advised a decision on the appeal could come Friday.
Prosecutors in Multnomah County stated in their probable cause affidavit that police took Knipe into custody Thursday.
A spokesperson for the Portland Police Bureau did not immediately respond to a question on whether the potential decision on the release of investigatory information played any role in the decision to arrest and charge Knipe this week.