Assessing the Obama ‘Assassination’ Plot

Three men now under arrest in Denver on federal and local gun and drug charges spent last Saturday night discussing their hatred for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, according to documents made public by the government late Tuesday. One of the suspects allegedly talked about killing Obama on the "day of his Inauguration" using a .22-250 caliber sniper rifle and high-powered scope--the same model rifle that was found in one of the suspect's possession by police during a routine traffic stop last weekend.

The three men under arrest, whom authorities believe to be white supremacists, talked about how they hated Obama because he was black, how they "could not believe how close he [Obama] was to becoming president, and how no "n----r" should ever live in the White House, a female witness told the Secret Service, according to the documents. (The witness is unnamed in the papers.)

According to a set of court complaints released by federal authorities, two of the three suspects, under questioning by the Secret Service, told investigators that they were present for discussions about killing Obama in what one of them characterized as a "shooting on a grassy knoll." One suspect told the Secret Service that the men did not have a political motive for killing Obama, but rather, as paraphrased by the government documents, "the only reason to kill Obama is because Obama is black."

Federal, state and local authorities are now trying to determine whether the conversation threatening Obama's life was simply, as one official put it, "drugs talking" or whether the suspects really had motive, means and a genuine opportunity to attack the candidate on the night that he accepts the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Authorities say the suspects had been using drugs heavily at the time of the discussions, and investigators seized quantities of methamphetamine.

As news of the arrests first circulated Monday and Tuesday, some law-enforcement officials went to great lengths to play down the gravity of the threat to the candidate and the Democratic National Convention, which will culminate Thursday when Obama delivers his speech accepting the nomination before a crowd of 75,000 at Invesco Field. "We're absolutely confident there is no credible threat to the candidate, the Democratic National Convention or the people of Colorado," declared Troy Eid, the U.S. attorney for Colorado.

But other federal officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said it was too early to dismiss the suspects' menacing conversation as merely drug-fueled racist bravado. "No one should take this lightly," said a senior federal investigator directly involved in the case. The investigation is ongoing. It is not yet known if any of the defendants have lawyers or have entered pleas.

According to the complaints, which were filed in federal magistrate's court in Denver on Tuesday, the investigation began late last Saturday night with a routine traffic stop. According to the documents, a police sergeant in Aurora, a Denver suburb, was on traffic patrol at 1:37 a.m. when he saw a blue Dodge pickup swerving and driving erratically. The patrol officer pulled over the truck and, while checking the identification of the driver, 28-year-old Tharin Robert Gartrell, discovered that the man's driver's license was suspended and that he was on probation for possessing methamphetamine. A search of the pickup turned up what cops believed was a mobile methamphetamine lab, several grams of amphetamine (in Gartrell's pants pocket), three boxes of bullets, one bulletproof vest and two bolt-action rifles. One of the guns, a Ruger Model M77 Mark II .22-250 rifle, was loaded and had a hunting scope and bipod shooting stand attached. A check on the gun disclosed that it had been stolen in Kansas in 2005, according to the documents.

Gartrell told the local police that he had no knowledge of the gun and the drugs, but that the truck belonged to his cousin, Shawn Adolf, who was staying at a Hyatt hotel in Denver. A criminal record check disclosed that Adolf was wanted on several felony warrants. Officers visiting the hotel room identified by Gartrell did not find Adolf there, but rather 32-year-old Nathan Johnson. Police searched Johnson and found him in possession of a small quantity of drugs.

A few hours later, police and Secret Service agents knocked on the door of a sixth-floor room at the Cherry Creek Hotel, located on a gritty stretch of road near two strip clubs. According to the court documents, a man in the room said they couldn't come in, because his wife was changing clothes. The police then heard a woman scream and glass breaking. They entered, and the woman told them that Shawn Adolf had jumped out of the window because he didn't want to go to jail. Federal officials say Adolf survived the jump but was soon arrested on outstanding felony warrants. Later in the day, the Cherry Creek Hotel began welcoming Democratic convention attendees, including a contingent of journalists from NEWSWEEK and its sister publication, The Washington Post.

The court documents say that about three hours after Adolf jumped, investigators interviewed an unnamed female witness who had been partying with all three suspects at the Hyatt hotel. She told investigators that as they proceeded to "chill and do drugs," Adolf, Johnson and Gartrell all started talking about their dislike for Obama and how no black person should ever be elected president. She said she believed that all three were "racists and possibly associated with white supremacist groups."

Under questioning early Sunday afternoon, Johnson told investigators how one of two women at their drug party initially talked about killing Obama with a trick camera that concealed a gun in the lens. Johnson claimed that Adolf on an earlier occasion had talked about killing Obama on the day of his acceptance speech using a .22-250 sniper rifle. Johnson said he believed Gartrell was present in Denver to help Adolf kill Obama, even though he never heard Gartrell threaten Obama.

According to the federal complaints, on Sunday night Gartrell told investigators that he was present when Adolf, Johnson and a woman talked about killing Obama by shooting him from a "grassy knoll"—a  possible allusion to conspiracy theories about a sniper who was alleged to have helped Lee Harvey Oswald assassinate President Kennedy. The documents say that Adolf admitted to investigators that he was in possession of a bulletproof vest because "someone wanted to shoot him."

In a jailhouse interview with Channel 4, the CBS-TV affiliate in Denver, Johnson acknowledged being present during conversations in which his friends had talked about killing Obama. "So your friends were saying threatening things about Obama?" Channel 4 reporter Brian Maass asked Johnson. "Yeah," Johnson replied. Maass then asked: "It sounded like they didn't want him to be president?" "Well, no," Johnson responded. The TV station also reported that an unnamed suspect had informed authorities they planned to "shoot Obama from a high vantage point using a … rifle … sighted at 750 yards."

Two officials familiar with the investigation said that the suspects might have hoped to shoot Obama either from inside Invesco Field while he gave his acceptance speech on Thursday night, or while he was traveling to or from the stadium. But given the tight security around the convention in general and the candidate in particular, officials said they believe it is extremely unlikely any such plot could have succeeded.

The officials said they believe the suspects are virulent racists and possibly neo-Nazis, though it is not yet clear whether they are members of any known white-supremacist group. The Southern Povery Law Center, which tracks white-supremacist groups, told The New York Times that they had no record of the men in their databaes. One official said it was possible they were affiliated with the Aryan Nation, a well-established neo-Nazi faction that the Feds virtually drove out of business years ago following a major crackdown. Some news reports suggested they were affiliated with a motorcycle gang. 

Colorado's Arapahoe County and federal authorities filed an assortment of gun and drug charges against the three suspects. Adolf faces federal charges of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and being a felon in possession of firearms and body armor. Johnson also faces federal methamphetamine and firearms charges, while Gartrell only faces minor federal drug possession charges. The only known public comment from any of them is the jailhouse interview granted by Johnson.

A senior federal official said the Feds have yet to determine whether they will charge any of the defendants with any offenses related to the alleged threats against Obama. According to the official, even "uttering" a threat against a president or presidential candidate can be prosecuted as a federal crime; more serious related charges could include conspiracy.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver, which will play the lead role in deciding whether any threat-related charges will be filed, is continuing to play down that aspect of the investigation. At a press conference late Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Eid said the threat to kill Obama "was more aspirational perhaps than operational." He said investigators are moving forward "with an open mind."

In a written statement, Eid maintained, "We've conducted an intensive investigation, chased down numerous leads, and carefully reviewed the evidence to date. It is a very serious crime to threaten a presidential candidate. In this case, however, there is insufficient evidence at this time to indicate a true threat, plot or conspiracy against Senator Obama."