3/9/2023 News Roundup
<<The man accused of shooting five people, killing one, near Portland’s Normandale Park last year pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and other charges on Wednesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
Benjamin Smith, 44, faces the potential of life in prison. He’ll be sentenced on April 18. Victims will get to make impact statements during that hearing.
Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Marshall told members of the public gathered for the guilty plea that the proceeding was an attempt to make sense of a situation “that shouldn’t be part of the human experience.”
“I’m sorry you have to hear these things,” Marshall later told the courtroom before reading some of the details of the case.
Smith appeared in court on Wednesday in blue jail scrubs. He sat next to his defense attorney for most of Wednesday’s brief hearing.
One by one, Smith pleaded guilty to nine charges, including second-degree murder, four counts of attempted murder and four assault charges.
On Feb. 19, 2022, Smith came out of his Northeast Portland apartment and started yelling at a small group of people who participated in a peaceful racial justice march. According to witnesses, attempts to de-escalate failed and Smith drew a handgun, firing at the group.
Smith shot and killed June Knightly, 60, a longtime racial justice activist. Another unnamed victim was paralyzed from the neck down, according to court documents filed by prosecutors. Smith’s bullets also struck three other people.
During the shooting, an armed bystander returned fire, critically injuring Smith.
In the years leading up to the shooting, Smith was reported numerous times to law enforcement. That included a threat assessment conducted by the FBI, which said it contacted Smith in 2021.
Beyond pleading guilty, Smith did not deliver any type of statement to the court on Wednesday.>>
<<Benjamin Smith, the man accused of fatally shooting one traffic volunteer and injuring four others during a racial justice march at Normandale Park, pleaded guilty on nine counts in Multnomah County court Wednesday. Kat Knapp, the wife of shooting victim June Knightly, said Smith’s plea was a small satisfaction during a press conference following the hearing.
“Today, we can take some small satisfaction that Benjamin Smith has finally had to accept the truth,” Knapp said. “We can see that he is, in fact, guilty as charged on all counts.”
On February 19, 2022, Smith approached a group of unarmed traffic safety volunteers who were helping guide a protest near Normandale Park against police killings. During Wednesday’s hearing, Smith—who lived nearby the park—admitted to shooting five people, killing one woman named June Knightly. The four surviving victims have not been identified by the court in order to protect their identities. Smith allegedly stopped shooting when another person shot him in the hip. Smith was treated at Oregon Health and Science University for a month following the shooting, before being booked into the Multnomah County jail in late March 2022.
Smith originally pleaded not guilty to all charges when he was booked in March. Smith changed his plea Wednesday, pleading guilty to one count of murder, four counts of attempted murder, two counts of assault in the first degree, and two counts of assault in the second degree. By changing his plea, Smith forgoes his right to a trial and will be sentenced by Multnomah County Circuit Judge Christopher Marshall on April 18.
“There are just some life events that should not be a part of the human experience, but they are,” Marshall said Wednesday to a crowded courtroom. “I know for many of you it’s difficult to be here.”
At the press conference following Wednesday’s hearing, Knapp criticized the Portland Police Bureau for incorrectly stating that the five traffic safety volunteers were armed at the time of the attack. Knapp said the Portland Police Bureau has not apologized or corrected that statement.
“The only reason Benjamin Smith finally pled guilty today is because one of the shooting victims had the presence of mind to turn on their helmet camera and document what was quickly becoming a dangerous situation,” Knapp said.>>
<<Benjamin J. Smith, haggard, in a wheelchair and wearing prison scrubs, sat before Judge Christopher Marshall in Multnomah County Circuit Court today and pleaded guilty to murdering June Knightly, 60, as she helped direct traffic around a protest march. He also pleaded guilty to eight other violent, armed felonies that night in February 2022.
In a press statement after the hearing, Katherine Knapp, Knightly’s wife of 20 years, said: “Finally, Smith cannot escape the reality of his crimes.”
Smith, now 44, will almost certainly spend the rest of his life in prison. Formal sentencing is set for April 18.
Smith lived near Normandale Park in Northeast Portland. On the evening of Feb. 19, 2022, demonstrators began a protest march there against police shootings, both nationwide and in Portland, including protests about the police shooting of Patrick Kimmons, who had been killed by police in September 2018 after he shot and wounded two people.
Smith, armed with a semi-automatic pistol, left his apartment and confronted the marchers, demanding that they leave the area. As protest volunteers tried to calm Smith, he began shooting. Knightly died from a gunshot to the head; four others were wounded, including one person left paralyzed. (These four other victims were the source of Smith’s eight charges of attempted murder and first- and second-degree assault, to all of which he pleaded guilty.) A demonstrator then returned fire, hitting Smith in the hip, and thereby ending Smith’s attack.
Marshall began today’s proceedings with a request for calm in the courtroom, acknowledging slowly, repeatedly and seriously, “These are events that should not be part of human experience, but they are.” The dozen or so supporters of the demonstrators remained still.
At the close of the hearing, Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies wheeled Benjamin Smith back to confinement.>>
<<A man who was arrested and charged with killing a person in a mass shooting at northeast Portland’s Normandale Park in 2022 changed his plea to guilty during a hearing on Wednesday.
Benjamin Smith faced nine charges, including second-degree murder and multiple counts of attempted murder, but pleaded not guilty to the charges during his initial court appearance last year.>>
<<Smith confirmed his change of plea to guilty on all nine counts. The entire proceeding lasted about 20 minutes.
Smith is accused of opening fire at a group of Black Lives Matter supporters who were gathered for a protest and march at the park near Northeast Halsey Street and 57th Avenue on Feb.19, 2022.
According to witnesses, Smith, who lived across the street from the park, first harassed the group of people and yelled at them to leave.
Members of the group told Smith to leave them alone and go home. Smith allegedly took out a gun and fired shots at the group, court documents said.>>
<<Sixty-year-old June Knightly was shot in the head at close range and died, according to court documents. In the wake of the shooting, friends of Knightly told KGW that she regularly attended demonstrations and would often provide security or direct traffic.
Her wife and partner of more than 22 years, Katherine Knapp, spoke outside the courthouse on Wednesday afternoon. She said while she takes some satisfaction in Smith’s change of plea, but is upset with the way the incident was first described by police: as a confrontation between an armed homeowner and armed protesters.>>
<<Knapp believes that gave people the wrong first impression of how the shooting unfolded that night.
“I want to make this very clear. The only reason that Benjamin Smith finally pled guilty today is because one of the shooting victims had the presence of mind to turn on her helmet, camera and document what was quickly becoming a dangerous situation,” she said. “The Portland Police Bureau, as well as local and national politicians and pundits, have long characterized people associated with racial justice protests as threats to the peace, thereby giving potential vigilantes license to take violent action on their own behalf.”
Four other people were injured and hospitalized in the shooting, including one woman who remains paralyzed by the injury. Smith was also shot in the hip area when one of the demonstrators returned fire. He was taken to the hospital and later released, going directly to jail.>>
<<On Wednesday, Benjamin Smith, the man accused of killing one woman and injuring five others during a protest in Normandale Park in early 2022, pled guilty all nine charges he faced.
Smith, 44, pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree murder, four counts of attempt to commit any degree of murder or aggravated murder, three counts of first-degree assault, and one count of second-degree assault, according to court documents.
On February 19, 2022 at Normandale park, a group of protesters were confronted by a man who told them to leave, then drew a pistol and opened fire, according to an affidavit filed by Deputy District Attorney Mariel Mota days after the killing.
The protest was being held against the Minneapolis police killing of Amir Locke.
Mota referred to videos taken at the scene. After several protesters told him to leave them alone and go home, Smith stated that they should “make” him leave and aggressively approached a person, who pushed Smith back. Smith responded by drawing his gun. Brandy “June” Knightly, 60, was shot in the head at close range and died at the scene. Smith injured five others and only stopped shooting when someone fired back, striking him in the hip, according to Mota.
According to Mota, one of the injured was shot in the neck and is paralyzed from the neck down. Two people were shot multiple times, one of whom was shot in the abdomen, and the fourth was shot in the arm.
Smith was severely injured and was hospitalized for several weeks. On March 24, 2022, he appeared in court for the first time and pleaded not guilty.
It was later revealed that the FBI contacted Smith in 2021 after receiving tips about him, but they ultimately abandoned their investigation.>>
[KW NOTE: It is weird how tentative the language in these reports is. “Alleged” and “accused” even after he has plead guilty.]
<< It’s a problem that’s not secret to many business owners around the Eastport Plaza in Southeast Portland.
FOX 12 spoke to multiple local business owners and they all point to crime as the main reason many are leaving Southeast 82nd Avenue, including Walmart. Though a spokesperson for Walmart told FOX 12 last week there is no single reason for a decision to close a store, other business owners said they’re dealing with similar problems as Walmart: vandalism and shoplifting. Darrel Hanson has owned his muffler shop on Southeast 82nd avenue for nearly four decades. He said he’s watched the surrounding neighborhood decline in recent years.
“The whole 82nd area has changed in the last 20 years, especially in the last 10 years,” Hanson said. “Each year it keeps going down and down and down. More crime, garbage, homeless people, drugs and nobody wants to help.”
When he heard Walmart pulling out of his neighborhood a few blocks away, he wasn’t shocked.
“It hurts this community when they leave,” Hanson said. “A lot of people depend on that store.”
He blames the out-of-control crime in the area for Walmart’s exit. He said he’s watched fellow small businesses close and friends leave Southeast 82nd Avenue.
“I have a lot of friends, a lot of friends I deal with before said, ‘I’m leaving Portland.’ Well, they left,” Hanson said. “That’s like Walmart, they left.”
The Eastport Plaza sits in the Lents Neighborhood in Southeast Portland.
According to Portland Police crime data, between Jan. 2022 and 2023, there were 147 burglaries, 634 personal property thefts, 424 car thefts, 53 robberies, and three stolen property offenses. This is just what’s reported to the police. Hanson said some fellow business owners don’t even call when something happens to their property.
An example can be seen on the north side of the Eastport Plaza. The U.S. Post Office has every window covered with plywood to hide broken windows. Those who use the post office told FOX 12 it’s been like that for weeks. A spokesperson for the United States Postal Service said on Monday they were sending out a contractor to get measurements to replace the windows. Hanson said the vandalism at the post office is just one case after months of ongoing property crime.
“We’re basically going through hell and we’re going through really sad times,” Hanson said. “We have no support, no backup.”
Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez sent FOX 12 a statement in response to Walmart closing up shop in Portland and the increase in crime around the Eastport Plaza.
“While it’s critical to support local, small businesses, big box retailers offer an affordable option for working-class families throughout the city, including East Portland. Rising crime and an inhospitable business climate have been too tough on Portland businesses, and we need to work harder and smarter as a city to keep employers and shopping options from leaving.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler also responded to FOX 12′s request for comment, sending this statement:
“As they indicated to their comments to media, Walmart’s decision to close the two stores was based on poor overall business performance. Mayor Wheeler and his team regularly work with local businesses to find ways we can best support them as they navigate through the uncertain economy and rising crime. The role of local, small businesses are integral to our economy and the Mayor is committed to ensuring we retain our businesses and help them succeed.”
Economic prosperity and public safety continue to be top priorities for the Mayor–particularly re-staffing the Portland Police Bureau. Mayor Wheeler and Police Chief Lovell are working to hire 300 police officers and public safety specialists in three years, an effort that is well underway with over 100 newly hired personnel. In the FY22-23 budget, Mayor Wheeler expanded 311′s hours to 24/7 coverage and increased staffing for the Bureau of Emergency Communication (BOEC) to reduce 911 wait times.>>
[KW NOTE: There are a number of problems with this story. A trivial but telling one concerns the Post Office windows: Surely it is discoverable when the boards went up, but the report relies on the subjective memory of unnamed people nearby. I use that Post Office, and my memory is that they started boarding up windows in 2020 and it was fully boarded over last summer. This wasn’t a process that took “weeks,” as reported, and the decision not to replace the broken windows is a policy decision, not evidence of civilizational decline. Similarly, the report offers stats for the past year, but nothing for the year before, or ten years ago, or twenty — probably because it wouldn’t support the rising crime/declining prosperity narrative they are framing. SE 82nd has been a famous mess since at least the sixties, and there seems to be a urban renewal (or rebranding) effort about every ten years. I personally remember two: the attempt to rename it “The Avenue of Roses”, and the effort to designate the entire area “The Jade District.” Even the Walmart rep says that the decision to close the store is a complex business decision, only for FOX 12 to immediately identify its problems as “vandalism and shoplifting.” The real tell comes at the end, linking “economic prosperity” to “re-staffing the Portland Police Bureau.” This isn’t so much as news story as a propaganda piece dishonestly associating policing and economic stability.]
<<Mayor Ted Wheeler has fired back at Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Twitter over Abbott’s comments about Walmart pulling out of the city.
On Sunday, Abbott shared FOX 12′s story on Twitter about Walmart pulling it’s last two remaining stores out of Portland and commented, “This is what happens when cities refuse to enforce the rule of law. It allows the mob to take over. Businesses can’t operate in that environment, and people can’t live in it.”
On Monday, Mayor Wheeler quoted Abbott’s tweet and responded.
“Governor Abbott, are the dozens of Walmart stores that have closed in Texas in recent years all communities that ‘refuse to enforce the rule of law?’ The retail industry is changing and retail theft is a national issue,” wrote Wheeler.
Walmart’s decision to completely pull their business out of Portland has gained national attention over the past week and highlighted what many say is a rampant property crime problem in the city.>>
<<Walmart last month announced it was closing its two Portland stores, but it’s drawn a fresh round of attention this week as politicos sparred online over the cause.
The retail giant will lay off 580 employees when the stores close March 24, according to regulatory disclosures.>>
<<In announcing the closure, Walmart said little more than that the stores hadn’t met its financial expectations.
“There is no single cause for why a store closes,” Lauren Willis, a spokesperson for Walmart, told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “We do a thorough review of how a store performs and weigh many factors before making the difficult decision to close a facility.”
Walmart has also announced store closures this year in Arkansas; Washington, D.C.; Florida; Illinois; New Mexico; and Wisconsin, according to Insider. It’s given no specific reasons for the closures elsewhere, either.
A fresh round of news reports declared that Walmart is closing all of its Portland stores. And it is, in fact, closing the two within city limits.
The company continues to operate stores in the metro area, including Gresham, Happy Valley, Milwaukie, West Linn and Vancouver.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over the weekend took aim at Portland over the issue, saying the closure is “what happens when cities refuse to enforce the rule of law.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler fired back Monday, noting that dozens of Texas stores have closed in recent years, adding, “The retail industry is changing and retail theft is a national issue.”>>
<<What role did crime play in Walmart’s closure?
Absent confirmation from Walmart, it’s difficult to say. The company’s CEO did tell CNBC in December that shoplifting might force price increases or store closures.
Cody Bowman, a spokesperson for Wheeler, said the company had not made any requests of the mayor’s office regarding retail theft.
Other major retailers, though, have asked the city to address shoplifting. Nike recently sought to hire off-duty police to provide security to reopen a temporarily shuttered store, a proposal the city rejected as not feasible given the police bureau’s staffing. And a broader coalition of retailers have asked for more reliable police response to theft reports and prosecution of alleged shoplifters.>>
<<Willis, the Walmart spokesperson, said the Portland Police Bureau had been “a great partner and we are extremely appreciative of their efforts to combat crime at this store.”>>
<<The National Retail Foundation’s annual security survey found that “shrink,” the industry term for lost inventory, primarily theft, was 1.4% in 2021, slightly under the five-year average of 1.5%.>>
<<That amounts to $94.5 billion in losses nationwide, the organization said. Retailers, though, attributed more of the incidents than past years to organized theft rings and said violence and aggression associated with the incidents had increased. Many have ramped up their security spending, though Walgreens’ CEO admitted this year that the chain may have overestimated its losses and spent too much on new security measures.>>