Federal officers may be leaving Portland, but federal charges will linger for many
The federal officers who battled for weeks with protesters in downtown Portland — firing tear gas and flash bangs as some protesters targeted them with fireworks and lasers — pulled back last week from guarding the federal courthouse at the center of the conflicts.
Even as the hostilities have calmed and federal agents have withdrawn, the legal repercussions for many protesters have lingered in the form of federal charges, including assaulting a federal officer, arson, damaging federal property and operating a drone in a restricted area. Among the charges are 24 felonies, 45 misdemeanors and five citations. Federal officials have declined to prosecute at least 23 cases, according to the Justice Department.
President Trump argued that federal officers were sent to Portland to fight “anarchists and agitators,” but the list of defendants is broad, said Lisa Hay, federal public defender for the District of Oregon.
“The defendants are as varied as the protesters you see on TV,” said Hay, whose office has worked on 60 such cases. “Professionals, lawyers, stay-at-home moms, young people, college students.”
Federal officials say those demonstrators turned violent, pointing to multiple injuries law enforcement officers suffered during the protests. Drew J. Wade, public affairs chief for the U.S. Marshals Service, said agents were attacked with “construction hammers, industrial lasers, bricks, molotov cocktails, frozen water bottles and canned food, commercial-grade fireworks/mortars, and nail-laden boards set as booby traps.”
Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that there had been 277 injuries to about 140 federal law enforcement officers in Portland. Among those reported were 113 eye injuries from lasers, including momentary blindness and blurred vision, making that category the most common reported injury among federal law enforcement.
“We’ve had a number of officers who have days-long blindness. So far they’ve all kind of come back,” Cuccinelli said.
Noelle Mandolfo, a Denver-based yoga teacher and life coach, is among those charged for allegedly assaulting an officer with a laser. She said she was on a pandemic-inspired road trip through the Pacific Northwest when she stopped in Portland on a whim, planning to stay only a day.
Videos taken by journalists and other protesters early July 27 show Mandolfo, maskless and shoeless, being held on the ground by two officers in camouflage gear as she asks, “Why are you doing this?” Mandolfo is bleeding from her nose; she later said she documented “28 bruises and a dozen lacerations.”
The video does not show what led to the arrest. On the advice of her lawyer, Mandolfo declined to answer questions from The Washington Post about the misdemeanor charge for allegedly shining a laser at officers.
Mandolfo said she was not prepared for a violent protest that night.
“I don’t have a shield. I don’t have supplies. The mask that I’m wearing was a snorkel I had in my car,” she said, adding that the arrest caught her off guard. “No one told me what was going on.”
Mandolfo has since left Oregon to visit her father in California. Her trial is set for late September but could be delayed. She is currently facing a misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to a year in prison.
Portland has experienced nightly demonstrations during the more than two months since the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, even as the frequency of protests has died down in other cities. U.S. agents joined the fray in Portland last month as a federal courthouse was targeted with graffiti and fires, but they turned the scene over to state and local law enforcement last Thursday in an agreement with the Oregon governor.
Portland accounts for about 30 percent of the more than 270 federal charges brought nationally since May that the Justice Department ties to the civil unrest.
“To say this is unusual would be a colossal understatement,” said John Henry Hingson, a criminal defense lawyer from the Portland area, adding that Oregon’s legal system was already under heavy strain because of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent restrictions on gatherings.
Of the 70-plus federal charges currently being pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon, more than half are charges of assaulting federal officers. There are also at least five citations violations, petty crimes such as trespassing or creating a disturbance that do not involve further prosecution.
Among those charged in the alleged targeting of federal officers is 18-year-old Isaiah Jason Maza Jr., accused of setting off an explosive at the courthouse that injured a deputy U.S. marshal on July 22. He made his first court appearance Monday on felony charges of assaulting a federal officer using a dangerous weapon and depredation of federal government property.
Another 18-year-old, Gabriel Agard-Berryhill, made his first court appearance last week on a felony arson charge for allegedly starting a fire at the courthouse with fireworks.
Both Agard-Berryhill and Maza have argued in court that they were given the explosives by other protesters and did not realize they would be so damaging. If found guilty, they each could face up to 20 years in prison.
Chris Fellini, 32, who works for a Portland grocery store, is one of four charged with assaulting an officer with a laser on the evening of July 5 and the early morning of July 6.
An affidavit signed by an officer in the Federal Protective Service says that Fellini was spotted shining a laser pen at a U.S. Border Patrol agent who had been clearing the area around the courthouse. Fellini was about 120 feet away, the affidavit said.
Officers allege he threw away a black cylindrical object before his arrest, and that he was carrying a can of pepper spray and a two-inch knife.
In an interview, Fellini, who has been charged with a misdemeanor, declined to discuss that night, but he has pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial. He said he that the range of people who protested against federal law enforcement differentiated that demonstration from others he had attended in Portland and other cities.
“Doctors, lawyers, chefs, moms and dads are all turning up in the streets together,” Fellini said. “This is something much bigger than just a protest.”
One Portland-area mother, facing charges of assaulting a federal officer, was part of the “Wall of Moms” that formed in mid-July to separate federal officers from other protesters. The woman said she became disoriented when federal officers fired tear gas and was separated from her group.
Soon, officers without name tags forced her to the ground, she said. The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of retribution from authorities, said she has been accused of striking an officer but denies that charge.
“That’s not the Wall of Moms,” she said. “Instead of going after those [vandals], they’re going after peaceful people.”
Peaceful demonstrators can end up in legal trouble when protests get violent, said Hingson, the lawyer.
“It’s the fog of war,” he said, “or, ironically in this case, tear gas.”
Protesters have been injured, too — some seriously, such as 26-year-old Donavan La Bella, who suffered a fractured skull after being struck in the face by a less-lethal munition used by law enforcement. The incident is being investigated by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Even running these risks, some say the experience has only strengthened their anger about racial injustice.
“If it can happen to me, just an average suburban mom,” it can happen to anyone, said the Portland-area mother.
David Fahrenthold contributed to this report.