Las Vegas Shooting Documents Highlight Difficulty of Determining Extremist Ties

  • May 30, 2018
Paddock extremism

In October 2017, Stephen Paddock became the deadliest mass shooter in American history when he opened fire from a Las Vegas hotel window into a large crowd of people attending a country music festival. Since the attack, there has been widespread speculation about Paddock’s possible ties to various extremist groups, and new documents released by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department have reignited that conversation. The Center on Extremism analyzed the newly released documents and found that without independent corroboration, the witness accounts are not sufficient evidence of extremist ties.

Paddock used assault rifles equipped with bump stocks – which allow a rapid discharge of bullets akin to automatic weapons fire – to shoot hundreds of rounds into the panicked crowd, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds more. More still were injured while jumping over a fence or were trampled by fleeing concertgoers.  At the end of his nightmarish killing spree—which lasted slightly more than ten minutes—Paddock took his own life.

The enormity of Paddock’s crime has created an intense desire to understand his motives, but Paddock was a reclusive, even secretive, man who left behind no manifesto, no suicide note, no explanation at all for his murderous rampage.  The absence of clear information has led to much speculation about Paddock’s motives, especially by people with ideological agendas of their own. A host on the National Rifle Association’s television channel claimed the reason for Paddock’s spree was that there were “a lot of pro-America, pro-freedom, quite frankly Trump supporters there.” Others claimed that Paddock was some sort of right-wing extremist.

Most mass shooters in the United States are not ideologically driven, but some are. Killers with extremist motives have been responsible for a number of the most notorious such sprees in recent years, including the mass shootings in Charleston, Chattanooga, San Bernardino and Orlando.

This past month, under court order and in response to FOIA requests, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) released thousands of pages of documents related to Paddock’s shooting spree, mainly reports made by police, victims and witnesses of the deadly attack. A few of the documents include accounts by people who claim to have encountered Paddock in the days or weeks before the shooting.  Two of those statements make allegations that—if taken at face value—would situate Paddock as a right-wing anti-government extremist.

Before examining these specific witness statements, it is worth summarizing the previous evidence in the public record that might suggest Paddock could have been an anti-government extremist. There isn’t much to go on. Indeed, a preliminary LVMPD report on the shootings, released in January 2018, stated flatly that there was “no evidence of radicalization or ideology to support any theory that Paddock supported or followed any hate groups or…terrorist organizations...investigators could not link Paddock to any specific ideology.”

One of Paddock’s brothers, Eric, seemed to agree. In comments to reporters shortly after the shootings, he claimed that Stephen had “no affiliation, no religion, no politics.”  However, Eric lived thousands of miles away from Paddock, had little contact with him, and was unaware of basic details about Paddock’s life, such as his interest in and large collection of firearms.

There were a few accounts of Paddock in the public record that suggested at least a possibility that Paddock might have anti-government attitudes, but little evidence.

A real estate broker who formerly worked with Paddock claimed that he disliked “taxes and the government.” An Australian man met Paddock several times in the United States and the Philippines while dating the sister of Marilou Danley, Paddock’s girlfriend. After the shooting, he told The Guardian about Paddock’s extensive collection of firearms and claimed that Paddock was an ardent defender of the right to gun ownership.

Skipper Speece, another Paddock acquaintance, sold guns in Paddock’s home town of Mesquite, Nevada and told reporters that Paddock was a regular visitor to the gun shop where Speece worked but that Paddock never talked about religion or politics. Speece himself is an anti-government extremist who in 2014 was the personal bodyguard to Cliven Bundy, the rancher who led more than 100 militia members and supporters in an armed standoff with the federal government at his Nevada ranch. Of course, Paddock’s connection to Speece could have been mere coincidence.

Beyond these vague characterizations, the recently released witness reports make some very specific allegations related to Paddock’s beliefs that, if true, would certainly tie Paddock to the anti-government extremism of the so-called “Patriot” movement, a broad umbrella movement that includes the militia, sovereign citizen and tax protest movements.

While some media accounts have accepted these witness reports at face value, they deserve close scrutiny.  The LVMPD released no other documents related to these accounts, only the raw accounts themselves.  At this point, it is not known if any attempt was made to confirm the accounts. The LVMPD preliminary report, which claimed there was no evidence of any ideological leanings on Paddock’s part, suggests that law enforcement may have discounted these reports or investigated them but could not confirm the allegations therein.

The first account, which on its face seems the less reliable of the two, is from a self-described Las Vegas housewife (all names are redacted) who claimed that, several days before the shooting, she took her son to a restaurant where she encountered Paddock.  The woman could not name the restaurant but thought it might be a Denny’s or an IHOP. She claimed that she and her son were one booth over from two men, one of whom she said she later recognized as Paddock.  The woman claimed that the two were talking about Waco and Ruby Ridge—two deadly 1990s armed standoffs that remain causes célèbre for right-wing extremists.  She claimed the men were angry over Ruby Ridge and “the federal government in general,” and alleged that one of the men said something about “courtroom flags having golden fringe” that made them “not real flags.”  This is actually a specific conspiracy theory of the sovereign citizen movement.  The woman said she thought they were strange and wanted to leave.

paddock ruby ridge

In favor of this witness statement is the fact that the vast majority of Americans have never even heard about sovereign “fringe on the flag” conspiracy theories, which makes it relatively unlikely that the woman might have known about it to fabricate it.  However, the fact that the woman did not know Paddock but only claimed after the shooting to have recognized him from this brief, chance encounter, does nothing to strengthen the story. It would also be rather a convenient coincidence that the reclusive Paddock would have discussed his ideological beliefs with someone else in the witness’s hearing.

Theoretically, law enforcement may have tried to confirm this encounter by identifying the restaurant and checking if there was any security video footage—or possibly credit card records.

The second account was from by someone with the initials “PH,” who was interviewed in jail by an LVMPD detective and an FBI agent. PH—who was recently incarcerated on a drug possession warrant but did not seem to want any favors or special treatment in exchange for his information—claimed he had actually met Paddock not long before the shooting, when he answered PH’s online ad.

PH, a down-on-his-luck unemployed cook, told the officers that he had been trying to make some money through online selling of  $40 schematics for assault rifle “auto sear” devices. Drop-in auto sears are used to make AR-15 assault rifles fully automatic. It would thus be illegal to actually make and install one in a firearm, but PH claimed to be selling them for “educational purposes” only (a common disclaimer used by people selling manuals and instructions for the modification of firearms to full automatic fire).

PH said that Paddock replied to his advertisement and they set up a meeting but when they met, Paddock was not interested in the schematics—he allegedly wanted PH actually to construct auto sear sets for him and offered to pay $500 for each. 

PH also claimed that, during the conversation, Paddock kept “carrying on” about “anti-government stuff,” such as FEMA concentration camps and door-to-door gun confiscation (both common militia movement conspiracy theories). PH described Paddock as “just too fanatical about stuff, you know. Like, I said he sounded like an internet nut.”

paddock fema

Perhaps most chillingly, according to PH, Paddock claimed that “somebody has to wake up the American public and get them to arm themselves” and that “sometimes sacrifices have to be made.”

The men parted after PH said that he told Paddock he didn’t want to make the auto sears because he didn’t want to end up in prison. However, at one point during their brief encounter, because of Nevada laws about gun-related private sales, PH asked Paddock if he was a Nevada resident and Paddock showed him some sort of identification, which was how he knew Paddock’s name.

PH’s story raises some issues—his description of Paddock isn’t exact (though their alleged encounter did take place at night, which might account for low visibility), while his claim that Paddock talked about someone needing to wake up the American public seems suspiciously on-the-nose, given that it occurred during a brief ten-minute conversation with a total stranger. However, PH’s story was given in an interview, not in a self-written witness statement, and the interviewers had the opportunity to ask PH many questions about the details of his alleged encounter.

Some aspects of the story are theoretically verifiable. PH mentioned specific e-mail exchanges with Paddock using a specific e-mail account, which could have been confirmed.  Moreover, PH’s online ad could itself have been verified.

Leaving aside whether or not any aspects of this witness account were substantiated, evidence provided by the second account is still not as strong as one would like to see.

Investigators who seek to uncover motives (political or otherwise) prioritize first of all evidence from the individual in question:  actions as well writings, video or sound recordings, even things such as websites visited or things “liked” on a social media site.  For example, Dylann Roof,  the white supremacist who murdered Charleston churchgoers in 2015, conveniently left not only a manifesto but also an online photo album of himself in white supremacist poses. Paddock left behind nothing of this sort.

The second most important type of evidence consists of characterizations by people who knew the suspect well:  partners, family members, friends, co-workers.  Here, again, Paddock’s reclusiveness leaves the investigator wanting. He was retired, was estranged or distant from family members, and seemed to have few friends. The one person he was indisputably close to in the last several years was his girlfriend, but she has not been forthcoming publicly and police have not yet released their interviews with her.

That leaves the third and least trustworthy category of evidence:  accounts by people who knew the subject only very slightly or who merely encountered the subject a limited number of times, usually in a superficial way.  Here, unfortunately, is where most of the evidence sits that might shed light on any ideological beliefs Paddock may have held:  a former realtor, a girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend, someone who posted an advertisement to which Paddock may have responded, and someone next to whom he may have been seated at a restaurant.  In short, accounts that may or may not be accurate—and in some cases may be apocryphal.

Was Stephen Paddock some sort of right-wing extremist?  A sober analysis of the information so far publicly available can only conclude that he remains mostly a mystery.

It’s worth nothing that even if Paddock had ideological ties, that does not mean his shooting spree was necessarily ideological in nature. His spree may have been spurred by mental health issues or other, still unknown, causes.

Extremists often engage in non-ideological as well as ideological violence. In 2009, Frank Garcia, a man with past ties to the sovereign citizen movement, killed four people outside a hospital in New York in an act of workplace violence. In 2012, white supremacist J. T. Ready shot and killed four people in Gilbert, Arizona, before killing himself; his spree was an act of domestic violence. In 2007, Aryan Nations member Jason Hamilton killed three and wounded several more in Moscow, Idaho, in what appears to have started as a domestic violence killing.

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