Why did undercover Austin Police Department Detective Shannon G. Dowell provide material support for an activist protest that resulted in them being charged with a felony in Houston?
That’s the question I want answered after speaking with Ronnie Garza, a member of Occupy Austin who faces felony charges resulting from actions at the Port of Houston on December 12, 2011. On this day, the National Port Shutdown day of action, seven activists from Austin, Dallas, and Houston blocked the main entrance into the port by laying in the road and linking arms inside lockboxes (also known as sleeping dragons), which physically linked them together so that police cut them apart. The use of these instruments resulted in these seven being charged with Unlawful Use of a Criminal Instrument or Device, while others who merely linked arms and legs faced lesser misdemeanor charges. I was present at this day of ‘Gulf Port Action‘ and wrote about it on my blog, Approximately 8,000 Words.
But it turns out that a secret undercover agent with the police department had infiltrated the activist group, and he is the person who acquired the materials and built the “lockboxes” for this action. Further, apparently other members of the police department were also involved in enabling an action which, but for the undercover agent’s intervention, might never have been classified as a felony.
In addition to Garza, other members of the Gulf Port 7 include Iraq veteran Eric Marquez, who has been stuck in jail since December and Remington Alessi, a Green Party candidate for Houston sheriff. If convincted, they face up to two to ten years in state prison.
The cases were brought before Judge Joan Campbell of the 248th District Court who dismissed all charges due to lack of evidence. However, the felony charges were later reinstated by a Houston grand jury. Garza told me that the latest development of uncovering an infiltrator came to a head at a discovery hearing on Monday, August 27, but is the result of months of hard work by many including his attorney, National Lawyers Guild’s Greg Gladden. Photos of the officer at Occupy Austin have been obtained by Gladden.
On February 2, 2012, Occupy Austin received an anonymous email tip that a member, known only as Butch, was actually an undercover police officer. He was last seen by us on the following day, the day Occupy Austin was evicted from their encampment at Austin City Hall after almost 6 months of continuous occupation. Butch was not just any member of Occupy: he obtained the materials, constructed, then delivered the lockboxes to Austin activists before they left for Houston. Funds for the lockboxes came from Occupy Austin’s general funds allocated to the trip by its assembly.
In the days that followed that first anonymous tip, further investigation conclusively proved that Butch was actually Austin Police Department Narcotics Detective Shannon G. Dowell. He was subpoenaed by the court and asked to bring the notes of his investigation and any digital files. In court, he testified that he had brought these files — which mostly consisted of copies of his notes and some photos of the devices — on a thumb drive but accidentally dropped the drive in a gutter outside his hotel. Other digital records such as emails pertaining to the department’s ongoing investigations of Occupy Austin and Occupy Wall St had been deleted, he said.
Under close scrutiny by Judge Campbell, Dowell said that two other officers were involved in the undercover investigation of Occupy Austin, along with at least two police lieutenants. Due to the sensitive nature of their work, Judge Campbell gave prosecution until next week to reveal the names of the other undercover officers. When asked by Campbell who supervised his investigations, the transcript of the hearing even implicates Austin Police Department’s Chief Art Acevedo:
Q: How many did you work under? Not with supervising officers, how many are there?
A: If you go to the lieutenant, three, if you go to the commander, four, all the way up to the Chief of Police.
Lieutenants Jerry Gonzalez and Mark Spangler have been subpoenaed as well. Correction: I previously incorrectly listed the Lieutenants name as Mike Spangler.
Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Public Information Officer Sean Mannix told me that the APD could not make a statement at this time since it pertains to an ongoing trial.
I spoke with Gregg Gladden, the NLG attorney representing Garza, and he said the case had all the hallmarks of a provocateur from the beginning. This kind of behavior has a long history of being used to break up activist movements and the tips and subsequent investigations proved his suspicions correct. He told me that Judge Campbell seemed upset by the behavior of the police and their refusal to comply with her requests for evidence. Gladden said:
The behavior of Austin Police Department is shocking to my conscience. I believe it is shocking to the conscience of the court. and it is one of the worst ways I can think of for the government to be spending its money, our money. The case needs to be dismissed and the Austin Police Department needs to rethink its role in society.
With discovery to resume next week this is very much an ongoing story, and what’s been learned so far just leads to more questions. Who, if anyone, ordered Dowell to assist in constructing lockboxes? What was Austin Police Department hoping to accomplish and just how involved were Dowell’s supervisors or Chief Acevedo in these decisions?
I will update Firedoglake as this story develops.