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Judge rejects guilty pleas for militia members who destroyed records related to murder of police

  •   6 min reads
Judge rejects guilty pleas for militia members who destroyed records related to murder of police
Steven Carrillo opened fire from a white van on federal officers in Oakland. Photo: U.S. Attorney's Office.

SAN FRANCISCO – A federal judge rejected a plea deal last week by three admitted Boogaloo militia members accused of destroying records relating to the murder of law enforcement officers by an active duty U.S. Air Force staff sergeant stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, according to court records.

U.S. District Judge James Donato rejected the pleas at a sentencing hearing on Feb. 22. According to a transcript of the proceedings obtained by the Vallejo Sun, Donato found that the proposed sentences of up to one year in prison for the three defendants were not “consistent with the interests of justice.”

Donato’s ruling sends the three defendants – Jessie Rush, Simon Sage Ybarra and Kenny Miksch – to a trial later this year. A fourth defendant, Robert Blancas, reached a separate deal with prosecutors and is scheduled to be sentenced in April.

The three men previously admitted in court filings to being members of the Grizzly Scouts militia group, which was founded by Rush and affiliated with the Boogaloo movement, a loosely-aligned network of far-right militants seeking to spark a second civil war.

One of the Grizzly Scout members, former U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Steven Carrillo, pleaded guilty earlier this month to murder and attempted murder for shooting two Federal Protective Service officers outside an Oakland courthouse during protests in 2020. He is also charged in state court with the murder of a Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s deputy, whom he allegedly shot while attempting to escape days after the murder of the officer in Oakland.

During last week’s hearing, Donato pointed to the fact that none of the three defendants came forward or alerted law enforcement after the murder of the Oakland officer and in fact sought to conceal their association with Carrillo.

“This was a group of people dedicated to killing law enforcement officers,” Donato said. “I haven’t had a case where I have seen more of a public threat than these people, because this group had one principle in mind: killing law enforcement people.”

He pointed to Miksch writing on a group chat, “so it begins,” just after the murder of Federal Protective Service Officer David Underwood in Oakland as evidence that they were not immediately horrified by Carrillo’s conduct.

“Did any one of them have the decency to step up and say, ‘This got out of hand. I didn't mean this. I didn't want to be involved in this’?” Donato asked. “Not one.”

Rush, a security guard and U.S. Army veteran, founded the militia group in April 2020, which was called the “1st Detachment, 1st California Grizzly Scouts.” Rush appointed himself commanding officer with the rank of major. Prosecutors said he appointed Blancas and Miksch as lieutenants and Ybarra a corporal who was in charge of recruitment. The group had 15 members, prosecutors said.

The group communicated via a Facebook group called “/K/alifornia Kommando” and a WhatsApp group called “209 Goon HQ” and met several times for in-person training, including for firearms training. Prosecutors said that they considered law enforcement officers to be “enemy forces” and discussed taking prisoners, using lethal force, and tactics for killing police.

By late May, Carrillo joined the group and they discussed plans to spark a civil war, prosecutors wrote in court filings. Ybarra allegedly met with Carrillo behind a gas station in Los Gatos, where they assembled an assault rifle in his van. Prosecutors said Carrillo contacted Ybarra about attending a protest in Oakland on May 29 over the police murder of George Floyd, intending to use the protest as cover to “snipe some you know what’s.”

Carrillo then went to the protest and opened fire from his van on Underwood and another officer while another alleged Boogaloo Boi, Robert Justus Jr., drove past the Ron V. Dellums federal courthouse. Justus is also charged with Underwood’s murder and is awaiting trial. He previously told the FBI he felt threatened by Carrillo and felt he had no choice.

Prosecutors said that learning of Underwood’s murder did not stop the Grizzly Scouts’ activities. According to a sentencing memorandum by prosecutors, Carrillo sent the group a link to an article about the potential invocation of the Insurrection Act in response to the continuing protests over Floyd’s murder. “That effectively means the federal gov has declared war in things they’re afraid of,” Rush responded, according to court records. “Anything like this or a move that resonates with this is our trigger point. If y’all aint giving with that bail now.”

A few days later, on June 6, Santa Cruz County sheriff’s deputies were investigating an abandoned white van with firearms, ammunition and bomb-making equipment at a property in Ben Lomond, an unincorporated area in Santa Cruz County.

As they approached the property, Carrillo allegedly texted the group asking for assistance, saying that police were approaching his property and he would likely be involved in a shootout. The others in the group responded that they couldn’t get there in time.

Miksch later admitted to prosecutors that the group listened to police scanners and he told Carrillo that the deputies have a dog but he didn’t think it was a planned raid because “true raids are usually done at 3-4 in the morning,” according to court records. Rush agreed. Then Carrillo said he’d “offed a fed” and Rush told him to erase the evidence on his phone and try to escape.

As the deputies approached Carrillo’s location, he allegedly opened fire on them, killing Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller and wounding another. Carrillo fled and allegedly carjacked a Camry. He abandoned it and allegedly smeared “BOOG” and “I became unreasonable” in his own blood on the hood of the car. When he allegedly tried to steal a second car, the owner tackled and disarmed him, swatting away Carrillo’s gun and a pipe bomb. Carrillo was arrested a short time later.

Prosecutors said that Carrillo’s arrest did not stop the group’s activities either as they worked to destroy evidence of their involvement with him. Ybarra drove from Los Gatos to Turlock to meet with Rush and help destroy records, according to prosecutors. They moved to an alternate communications platform and invited other members to connect with them there.

“We burned tf out of everything,” Blancas told Ybarra a month later. “All physical files I had were literally burned.”

Carrillo was charged on June 12, 2020, in state court in Santa Cruz County with murder and attempted murder for the shootout with deputies. Carrillo was indicted on June 25, 2020, for the murder and attempted murder of the federal police officers in Oakland.

Prosecutors said that the Grizzly Scouts’ activities only stopped after federal agents served search warrants at their homes on Aug. 6, 2020, seizing numerous firearms including assault-style weapons, stockpiles of ammunition, and tactical equipment.

All four were arrested in April and indicted for the evidence destruction charges. They reached a deal with prosecutors in September to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to destroy records to impede a criminal investigation. Prosecutors sought sentences of one year each for Rush and Ybarra and 10 months for Miksch. Each would then be released on probation for three years.

Their defense attorneys each argued that their clients should not be sentenced to prison. Rush’s attorney, Adam Pennella, pointed to Rush’s PTSD after serving two tours of heavy combat in Afghanistan. Ybarra’s attorney, Martin Sabelli, argued that Ybarra, who was 23 at the time, had suffered psychological trauma during his childhood.

Miksch’s attorney, David Cohen, described the Grizzly Scouts not as a violent militia, but as a live action roleplay or paintball club.

“The purpose of the organization was to share internet memes, joke about internet counterculture, and discuss political theories,” Cohen wrote. “Some subset of these members would occasionally gather for day trips in the woods, where the men would engage in firearms practice at outdoor ranges and light roleplay as soldiers.”

But during last week’s sentencing hearing, Donato rejected that characterization and said it was “so far off the mark with the facts before me that I just -- I can't even see how it's possible for someone to have said that with a straight face.”

Donato also rejected arguments that they had cooperated with law enforcement and behaved themselves since their homes were searched, saying that it “reflects some of the cravenness of their behavior.”

“Because after both of those events, May 29th and June 6th, what's the one thing they did do?” Donato said. “Didn't go to the police; we know that. Didn't lift a finger to help the victims; we know that. The one thing they did was cover their tracks. Delete, delete, delete. Hide. Run away.”

“I think one of the defendants said, ‘Just send me home. I shouldn't be in prison at all. Send me home with 200 hours of community service,’” the judge continued. “That does not even remotely serve the interest of our republic, fairness to our citizens, or the goals and purposes of sentencing and justice.”

Blancas is also facing separate federal charges for child enticement after searches allegedly revealed sexual chats with a 15-year-old girl. He is scheduled to be sentenced on April 14.

Rush, Miksch and Ybarra are scheduled to go to trial on June 6.

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