Eight Months Later, a Vigilante Shooting Over a Trump Sign Divides Topeka

Two white men in Kansas shot into a car of Latino teenagers and went home. Almost a year later, neither shooter is in custody.

Families of the five youth victims from a Halloween shooting incident council each other following a press conference Monday afternoon at Santa Fe Park. Around a hundred showed up in support as a few parents of the victims spoke through translators about their sons dramatic experience and wanting justice.
Families of the five teenage victims from a Halloween shooting incident console each other following a press conference at Santa Fe Park in Topeka, Kan., on April 12, 2021. Photo: Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal/Imagn

Grainy black-and-white security footage shows a backyard with a shed and a modest deck framed on either side by statuettes of a dog and an owl. Lights glow in the distance from neighboring homes, street lamps, and passing cars. It’s a quiet night — Halloween 2020.

Several minutes into the video, a light on the side of the shed flashes on, and four people run by. One appears to be limping slightly. A woman walks out of the house onto the deck, looking in the direction of the running figures. Abruptly, she turns and goes back into the house. A minute or so passes. The shed light turns back on as two figures run through the frame in the opposite direction. The woman runs across the yard to open the shed door, and the video ends.

The woman didn’t know it at the time, but she had witnessed the aftermath of a shooting. Earlier that night in Topeka, Kansas, two men — then-39-year-old Army veteran and Walmart employee Robert Sinner and his then-34-year-old brother, Justin — had confronted a car full of five teenagers they thought took a Donald Trump sign from a used auto lot near their house. The Sinners live around the corner from the car dealership; the day before the shooting, the owner of the lot, Rick Wright, told them that the teenagers had been repeatedly taking his Trump sign.

It appears that the Sinners were expecting a conflict when they approached the teenagers the next evening. According to court filings, they claim that they noticed a group of people “behind their house” trying to steal the Trump sign. The Sinners were armed with a handgun and a rifle when they approached the car, according to a police report, and when the boys tried to drive off, the men started shooting. They fired more than 30 shots, continuing after the car had driven away and putting one of the boys in the intensive care unit for 10 days with a bullet in his back. A crash followed, and two other boys were taken to the emergency room with gunshot wounds. The Sinners claimed that the boys had tried to run them over and clipped Justin with the side of the car.

When officers arrived at the scene, they took the word of the vigilante shooters and let them go home. It took a week for Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay to file charges against Robert; no charges have been filed against Justin. Robert was charged with four felonies, including three charges of aggravated battery and one charge of criminal discharge of a firearm.

But the same day he charged Robert, the district attorney brought charges against the teenage driver. Both Sinner men were listed in a police report as victims of aggravated assault by a motor vehicle. During a preliminary hearing on March 29 to discuss the teen’s motion for defense under the state’s stand-your-ground law, Kagay’s office dropped charges against the teenager without giving a specific reason. (Robert Sinner also filed a motion for immunity from prosecution under the state’s stand-your-ground law, which justifies use of deadly force in defense of self or a third person, and does not require that a person retreat before using force. A judge denied that motion in March.) Meanwhile, Sinner is not in custody and it’s likely that his trial won’t be set for months, or even until next year, given the backlog of cases facing court systems around the country as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. This month, according to an attorney working with the families, Sinner allegedly showed up at the workplace of the mother of one of the teens.

All of the boys were juveniles at the time — though one has since turned 18 — and The Intercept spoke only to their parents for this story. Their parents say life hasn’t been the same for them since the shooting. They’ve since gone back to school, but they don’t feel like kids anymore. And it’s hard to focus when they know their assailants have been at home, free, since October. The families want to see charges of attempted murder, which they say Kagay has brought in other less serious cases, and much more swiftly.

The only available footage of the incident leaves more questions than answers. Another video from the auto lot’s security camera sheds better light on the course of events that night. The Topeka Police Department now has that footage and declined to release it under a public records request because Sinner is still awaiting trial. Only the home security footage was obtained by The Intercept. The witness in that video did not respond to requests for comment.

The shooting would have been disturbing no matter when it happened. But the fact that it took place just five months after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, setting off worldwide protests for police and criminal justice reform, made it more sinister. Tensions had long been brewing in Topeka, a place where recent spurts in economic development have brought prosperity to some areas of the city, while others have continued to decline. Topeka’s downtown and southwest suburbs are bustling with entrepreneurs, while areas like North Topeka, where the shooting happened, are home to poorer residents.

To many advocates, the DA’s reluctance to restrict the Sinners’ movements — or to charge Justin at all — was a sign that things in Topeka haven’t changed much, even after major protests following Floyd’s killing. “I know I would have been thrown under the jail,” said PJay Carter, president of Black Lives Matter Topeka, who has been helping to support the families since the shooting, including by referring them to one of the attorneys on the case. “I have been thrown under the jail twice for way less.”

There’s been little local attention to the shooting outside of the efforts of individual organizers helping the families — all of whom came to the U.S. from Mexico and for many of whom English is a second language — navigate the fallout and the court system.

Kagay’s decisions to charge Sinner with aggravated felonies, to charge the driver, and not to charge Justin are “political,” Carter said. Kagay is a Republican and “has constituents that he needs to answer to and keep happy.” (Kagay’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

Had the shooters not been white, and the boys not Latino, Carter thinks things might have turned out differently. Police collected close to 40 rounds from the crime scene, Carter said. “If the shoes were on the other feet — the Latinos dispersed 40 rounds at a white kid?” he said. “It’d be national news.”

Maria Escobar, the mother of the teen who was shot in his back, thinks that dynamic is certainly at play. “From the beginning it was like they pushed us aside,” she said in Spanish. “Because we are Hispanic, and the shooters are white, they’re from here. At first I felt like I didn’t have to be fighting, because it’s not my country, I don’t feel like I have rights. Even though my son was born here, his parents are not from here.”

She felt powerless when she saw how relaxed Sinner looked in court, she told The Intercept. “I saw Robert very calm, very confident and relaxed in court. And that made me feel helpless.”

Carter thinks local media coverage bears some of the blame for how prosecutors treated the Sinners. Most outlets relied on reports from the police, who took the Sinners at their word, Carter said, adding that local news reported the story with bias from the start. “This wasn’t reported as ‘some civilians tried to murder some kids over defending a Trump sign that wasn’t theirs or on their property.’” The delay in charging Robert and the absence of any charges against Justin send “a message to the community that as long as you’re doing this for this, then it’s OK,” Carter said. “You won’t go to jail for attempting to murder someone over a Trump sign.”

Rick Wright, the owner of the used auto lot, also thought local media presented the story with bias — but against the Sinners. Wright told The Intercept that local reporting suggesting that the Sinners hunted down the teens was inaccurate and suited to fit a media agenda, and that the teens had tried to hit the Sinners with their car. “The shooting didn’t happen over a yard sign. It happened because somebody tried to run them down,” Wright said.

But the Sinners claimed that the sign was in their yard when it wasn’t. The men left their home to go after the boys and had tried to block the only route the teens could have used to escape. Wright’s expressed concern over previous attempts to take the sign raises a few questions: Why would it be appropriate for the Sinners to respond at all and not, for example, law enforcement? And if the shooting didn’t happen over a yard sign, then why did it happen?

Several hundred protesters rally around the south steps of the Kansas Statehouse to protest George Floyd's death in Minnesota, Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Topeka, Kan. The participants also recalled the 2017 death of Dominique White, who was fatally shot in Topeka while he fled from police. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Several hundred protesters rally around the south steps of the Kansas statehouse to protest George Floyd’s death in Minnesota, on May 30, 2020, in Topeka, Kan.

Photo: John Hanna/AP

“There’s tensions between all sorts of different things” in Topeka, said Josh Luttrell, an attorney representing the family of one of the teens in the case. Luttrell ran against Kagay last year for district attorney and lost by just under 16,000 votes. “You have racial tensions, you have economic tensions, you have a system that treats people differently and has different outcomes for people, and that’s becoming more and more apparent,” Luttrell said. “In all of that, you kind of lose sight of the fact that these were kids.” The fact that the dispute took place over a sign and that one of the brothers would be protected for firing into the car “is crazy to me,” he said. “They’re so lucky that he didn’t die. And for what?”

The district attorney has handled a number of recent cases in which his office brought much more severe charges against alleged shooters in incidents in which no one was physically harmed and in cases in which people had less severe injuries than those suffered by the teens, according to advocates who have been studying the DA’s charging practices while working with the families since the shooting. Danielle Twemlow, an organizer who has been working with the families of the teens to help them navigate the charges and is part of a support group that meets with the families weekly, said she came across several such cases while researching Kagay’s charging practices in efforts to understand his suggestions in the case. For example, in one recent case, a teenager was charged with attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault after trying to steal a valuable backpack from a victim and firing 10 shots into their car. In another case, in which someone allegedly fired multiple rounds that all missed the victim, the DA’s office charged the suspect with attempted first-degree murder. In another incident in 2019, a grandfather who was running a generator in a garage went to sleep inside his home with his grandchildren, and his granddaughter died. Kagay’s office charged him with first-degree felony murder.

“Kagay did not act immediately on arresting the Sinners, on charging the Sinners, which really makes it feel like there was an agenda,” Twemlow said. “It’s really just beyond me how Justin Sinner has not been charged.” Sinner’s lawyer declined to comment.

The level of the charges against Robert, and the fact that Justin has not been charged, Twemlow said, make clear that “it’s not fair and equitable, and that he’s not taking it seriously.” After reviewing a handful of similar cases, Twemlow said she called Kagay’s office to ask for data on how it had suggested charges in the past. She wanted to know if the office had been “keeping track so he knows he’s being equitable and just,” she explained. Twemlow said Kagay’s office told her it does not keep that data and that she could review public records instead. “If he really isn’t holding a lot of bias in how he makes these sentence recommendations, then he should be more transparent about how that process happens for him,” she said.

“They don’t want to ruffle feathers or have to fend for themselves in a vulnerable moment when they run into these people at the store or something.”

Things had been intense in Kansas last summer, as they were across the country. Protests against police brutality met with brute force from law enforcement as the 2020 presidential election loomed. As has been the case in many cities over the last year, Topeka saw a bump in organizing activity around issues of racism, policing, and the politics of violence. Kagay attended a Black Lives Matter rally in Topeka in May and said he wanted to find a way to help residents feel safe.

In August 2020, a mural of Floyd was vandalized in Topeka, and a man found a noose next to a “Black Lives Matter” sign he had posted in his yard. A few months earlier, some 30 miles east in Lawrence, someone drew a sign with an image of Floyd in a noose and a note criticizing Black Lives Matter. Topeka’s mayor, who had expressed support for protests last summer, received threats ahead of a discussion of proposed police reforms with the city council. Ahead of the meeting, a Black Lives Matter Topeka protest in downtown Topeka met a “Back the Blue” rally organized by a retired Topeka police officer. The man had started a local “Blue Shield” group on Facebook that month to oppose local calls for police and criminal justice reform. (The group moved from Facebook to an uncensored social media site called Wimkin in November.)

Just over two months after the shooting, when a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol, several people from Topeka were arrested as part of the attack, including a 2019 city council candidate who had helped promote and attended the “Back the Blue” rally and was active in the “Blue Shield” group. With national political leaders split along party lines over how to respond to the Capitol rioters, many local officials have tried to sweep contentious issues — like the Halloween shooting — under the rug. That means that any chance the Sinners would face tougher charges for the incident — which stemmed from the allegation that the teens took a Trump sign — has been all but erased.

“It’s been really heated,” Twemlow said, adding that she thought those tensions contributed to Kagay’s decision not to bring harsher charges against Robert and not to charge Justin at all. “It was like he didn’t want to take the chances of making his base angry.”

Carter, the Black Lives Matter Topeka president, agreed. “I feel like this was definitely Trump-inspired,” he said of the shooting. “The fact that it was over a Trump sign, and they felt justified in it. And also, there’s been no repercussions for that. Still to this day — like as of this moment.” According to the DA, the law doesn’t suggest that the Sinners need to face consequences, Carter said. “It’s like, OK, if you’re doing it for Trump, it’s OK? Kind of like what’s happening with the Capitol. They’re making a lot of arrests and things of that nature, but what really is happening with that? … It doesn’t take the government that long to get things done. I know that from experience.”

The shooting didn’t get the same attention that colored some protests last summer in Topeka. And overall, local interest has died down, but some outlets did cover a small rally the families held in April at the soccer field where the boys play together. Part of the reason there haven’t been major protests over the shooting is that the Sinners are still out there, Carter said. The families feel vulnerable and have tread lightly since it happened.

“It’s open season and there’s nothing they can do to actually complain about it, because the system and the government is not built in a way to protect them,” Carter said. “They don’t want to ruffle feathers or have to fend for themselves in a vulnerable moment when they run into these people at the store or something. … They want justice, but they want to be safe and protected as well. And it’s unfortunate we’re living in a day and a time where you can’t really expect both without a fight.”

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