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Air Force suspect in killing of two CA officers has first court appearance in federal death penalty case

Steven Carrillo, the suspect in the June 6, 2020 killing of Northern California sheriff's deputy Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller. (Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office/TNS)

Who will defend a man from facing the execution chambers of both the state and federal criminal justice system?

That’s the question being tackled by U.S. District Judge Lauren Beeler, who on Tuesday presided over the first court appearance for Steven Carrillo, the Ben Lomond man accused of murdering Federal Protective Services Ofc. David Patrick Underwood in Oakland in late May, before murdering Santa Cruz Sheriff Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller exactly one week later.

Carrillo — who faces both federal and state charges of murdering a peace officer, making him eligible for two death sentences — appeared in a video court hearing alongside his state court attorney, Jeffrey Stotter, who informed Beeler that he wished for a federal defense attorney to take over the Underwood murder case. The federal public defender’s office, which is representing Robert Justus, Carrillo’s co-defendant, informed the court that it had a conflict and couldn’t also represent Carrillo.

That leaves an open question as to whom will defend Carrillo, who was a sergeant with the U.S. Air Force based at Travis Air Force Base at the time of both crimes. Federal authorities have linked Carrillo to the so-called Boogaloo movement, an extremist anti-government movement that believes the second American Civil War is on the horizon.

Carrillo’s next court appearance has been set for early next week, where it is expected he will be appointed an attorney.

Authorities allege that Carrillo met Justus through a Facebook group associated with Boogaloo, where the two discussed targeting “soup bois,” a term used by the movement’s followers to refer to federal agents. “Let’s boogie,” Justus allegedly responded to Carrillo’s suggestion that they use protests over the police killing of George Floyd as cover for an attack.

A day later, the pair reportedly met up at San Leandro BART, then drove to Oakland in Carrillo’s white van.Federal prosecutors say Justus exited the van, walked around the Ron V. Dellums Federal Buildings, where Underwood and his partner were stationed in a security booth, then returned to Carrillo. Justus allegedly drove the van while Carrillo — the leader of an Air Force anti-terrorism squadron known as the Phoenix Ravens — allegedly used a homemade AR-15 to open fire on the security booth, killing Underwood and wounding his partner.

A week later, Carrillo allegedly ambushed Santa Cruz deputies at his Ben Lomond home, lobbing pipe bombs and opening fire with the same weapon. He killed Gutzwiller, severely injured a second deputy, and reportedly shot another officer in the hand before attempting to carjack a getaway car. He was tackled and detained by a local resident, and arrested that same day.

Days after Carrillo’s arrest, Justus presented himself at the federal building in San Francisco, and allegedly confessed to the FBI. His confession placed most of the blame for the attack on Carrillo, with Justus describing himself as a semi-willing participant, according to the criminal complaint against both men.

Boogaloo movement

It is not known how Carrillo came to find affinity with the Boogaloo movement, but his Facebook posts in months leading up to both attacks indicated growing resentment toward law enforcement, according to friends who’ve spoken to this newspaper. At his first Santa Cruz court appearance, Carrillo’s attorney said his client had suffered a traumatic brain injury and “extreme personal family loss,” but stopped short of admitting Carrillo was responsible for killing Gutzwiller.

Alex Newhouse, a researcher with the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism who focuses on far-right extremist groups, said the Boogaloo movement has existed online since 2018, but has recently become more visible. It has two distinct idealogical factions, a white supremacist wing, and a libertarian wing that views itself as a loosely organized militia.

“They are extreme, extreme libertarians and sometimes that results in them attempting to present themselves as anti-racist, but at the core is a right wing movement that aligns itself with Three Percenters, Sovereign Citizens, and anti-government activists,” Newhouse said. “The term ‘movement’ is the best way to describe them — they are very decentralized. The closet thing to organization is specific Facebook pages where you have a whole bunch of people interacting in the comments.”

The name, Newhouse said, stems from a meme that jokingly referred to a second civil war as, “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” It has evolved to include the terms “Big Igloo” — a play on the word “Boogaloo” — as well as “Big Luau,” which is why some adherents have begun wearing Hawaiian shirts at rallies.

“At a luau what do you do? You roast a pig, and a pig roast is slang for killing police,” Newhouse said. He later added, “It started as a pseudo joke on 4Chan, but it became real once people started stockpiling ammo and talking about blowing up government buildings and that sort of thing.”

According to the FBI, Carrillo indicated his Boogaloo affiliation by scrawling, in his own blood, the words “Boog,” and “I became unreasonable” on his white van, after the shootout with Santa Cruz deputies. The feds also reportedly found a Boogaloo patch on a ballistic vest at Carrillo’s home.

The “I became unreasonable” slogan is a reference to Marvin Heemeyer, a Granby, Colorado man who became a martyr in some anti-government circles when he drove a modified bulldozer into a town hall and several other buildings amid a zoning dispute with city officials in 2004.

“Notes found after his death discussed, ‘I was always willing to be reasonable until I had to be unreasonable,’” said Joanna Mendelson, an Associate Director with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “(Heemeyer) wrote, ‘Sometimes reasonable men must do unreasonable things.’ Carillo’s attack took place just a few days shy of the June 4 anniversary of Heemeyer’s death.”


© 2020 the San Jose Mercury News