A two-year investigation into the August 4, 2019, mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, concluded this week with the finding that the gunman, Connor Betts, was not inspired by antifascism or “aligned to any specific ideological group” when he opened fire outside a crowded bar, killing his sister and eight other people.
That conclusion, reached by investigators from the FBI and the Dayton Police Department, undermined persistent efforts by right-wing figures like Kellyanne Conway and Andy Ngo to tie the killing spree to the left-wing politics the gunman had expressed on Twitter.
The debunking comes as far-right commentators and politicians are promoting similarly ill-founded speculation that the killing of six people at a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, last week by a Black driver might have been politically motivated, based on a handful of mostly mundane social media posts referencing Black Lives Matter.
The investigators in Dayton, who conducted more than 125 interviews and reviewed the gunman’s electronic devices as well as his social media posts, reported that “the attacker fantasized about mass shootings, serial killings, and murder-suicide for at least a decade.” Betts finally acted on those fantasies, the report added, after “a decade-long struggle with multiple mental health stressors.” He was killed by police after firing 41 shots in just over 30 seconds from an AR-15-style gun equipped with a high-capacity magazine.
The right-wing effort to draw attention to the Dayton shooter’s left-wing politics was particularly frenzied because of the timing of the attack. Betts opened fire just hours after another young gunman had massacred 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The motivation for the El Paso attack was clear; the 21-year-old gunman, Patrick Crusius, called it a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” in a far-right manifesto that echoed the anti-immigrant rhetoric of then-President Donald Trump.
Conway, who was working for Trump at the time, used an appearance on “Fox & Friends” two days later to complain about the “scant coverage” of what she considered important facts: that the Dayton gunman had expressed support for antifascism on Twitter as well as for Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
The same day, Ngo, a far-right journalist and pundit who thrills his fans by attacking antifascists, and exaggerating their role, reported that the FBI had opened an investigation into the gunman’s “exploration of violent ideologies” in a New York Post column headlined “Dayton shooter Connor Betts may be antifa’s first mass killer.” Although he pointed to just one example of Betts having interacted with a self-declared antifascist group on Twitter, using his suspended @iamthespookster account — in a discussion of gun control nine months before the shooting — Ngo assured the Post’s readers that the shooter had “expressed support for antifa accounts, causes and individuals.”
Ngo, who is originally from Portland, Oregon, has earned a huge social media following, a book deal and regular appearances on Fox News because of his supposed expertise on the antifascist movement he first encountered in his hometown. But a close look at Ngo’s tweets about the Dayton gunman suggests that a key part of his method is his willingness to label almost any left-wing activist or group Betts retweeted “antifa,” with little regard for the facts.
Four days after the rampage, for instance, Ngo gave a deeply misleading account of a report from the Dayton Daily News which said that a journalist who had known Betts in high school thought he had recognized him at a protest against the Ku Klux Klan in Dayton in May 2019. The journalist, Hasan Karim, reported that the man he thought was Betts was one of several people in the crowd of about 500-600 protesters who were carrying a gun and that he wore sunglasses and a bandanna over his face. Betts, Karim wrote, “did not appear to be part of any group that was in the protest crowd.”
When Ngo tweeted about this article, he incorrectly referred to the protest — which was attended by a diverse array of anti-racist groups and individuals — as “an #antifa rally” and wrongly described what Betts was wearing as “black block-style clothing.” Although there was a small contingent of antifascist activists in black clothing at the protest, none of them appeared to be armed in news photographs and videos of the event, and Karim actually reported that Betts was alone.
Dayton Daily News reports in May the Dayton mass killer came armed w/a rifle (similar to the one he used to kill last weekend) to an #antifa rally of ~600 against nine KKK supporters. He wore black block-style clothing to mask his identity. https://t.co/Ix9bEhcBWe pic.twitter.com/U2HJTQpg3N
— Andy Ngô ???? (@MrAndyNgo) August 8, 2019
Karim confirmed in a telephone interview on Wednesday that the man he took to be Betts was not, as Ngo claimed, part of the small black bloc contingent of antifascists at the anti-Klan protest and was not dressed in all black clothing. The journalist, who grew up with Betts, said that he was convinced it was him based on a brief conversation with the man and the fact that Betts had a distinctive deep voice he was familiar with. Karim also said that it was not an antifascist rally, but one that drew a wide range of groups and individuals opposed to the KKK.
With a similar lack of rigor, in the months after the mass shooting Ngo moved on from referring to the Dayton gunman on Twitter as someone “supportive” of antifascism to calling him “a far-left activist who was part of antifa black block,” then an “antifa militant,” and then, finally, “the Dayton antifa mass killer.”
Following the release of the FBI report, Ngo did not respond to questions from The Intercept about whether he now regrets attributing a political motive to the gunman’s rampage that investigators with a deeper grasp of the evidence say did not exist.
For her part, Conway has been active on Twitter in recent days but has not mentioned that the FBI concluded that the Dayton shooter’s politics, which she asked the media to focus on, had nothing to do with his crimes. Instead, Conway has repeatedly faulted CNN for failing to follow the lead of right-wing outlets by speculating that the driver who crashed into the parade in Waukesha last week might have been carrying out a revenge attack for the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse two days earlier.
The fact that the driver, Darrell Brooks, who has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder, apparently expressed support for Black Lives Matter on Facebook in the past has been the central focus of inflammatory coverage of the Waukesha massacre from right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson, much of it based on old social media posts uncovered by Ngo.
Ngo helped kick off the wild speculation about Brooks’s politics on the night of the incident by tweeting: “The man in custody over the mass casualty incident at the #Waukesha, Wis. Christmas parade has posts on his social media in support of BLM causes, George Floyd & black nationalism. He also has a post about how to get away with running people over on the street.”
Because Brooks’s social media accounts were quickly locked, The Intercept was unable to confirm the authenticity of the screenshots shared by Ngo on Twitter.
As Daniel Dale of CNN reported, Ngo was wildly misleading about one of the Facebook posts he drew attention to, which was actually criticism from Brooks in 2016 of a Minnesota police officer’s plea for people to run over Black Lives Matter protesters.
The next morning, Ngo shared a screenshot of that Facebook post from Brooks and again falsely implied that it was advice he wanted to impart to others. “Darrell Edward Brooks, the man who was taken into custody by police over the #Waukesha Christmas parade mass casualty event,” Ngo tweeted, “had posted a quote in 2016 on a now-deactivated Facebook account: ‘Run them over. Keep traffic flowing & don’t slow down for any of these idiots…’”
Ngo’s effort to paint Brooks as a Black Lives Matter activist enraged by the Rittenhouse verdict has been hampered by a lack of evidence that he engaged with the movement or the trial in any substantial way. The extent to which Ngo and the right-wing commentators who rely on him for material are reaching to cast Brooks as a Black Lives Matter “militant” was apparent during a particularly bizarre segment of a Tucker Carlson rant last week.
As the Fox host made the case that the rest of the media were ignoring “the obvious conclusion” that the killings in Waukesha were probably revenge for the Rittenhouse verdict, Carlson showed his viewers an image from Facebook that Ngo had surfaced as if it were truly weighty evidence. It was, Carlson explained somberly, “a picture of a fruit bowl arranged to display the letters BLM with a raised fist” that Brooks had posted.
To be precise, the image was actually posted on the Facebook account of Kreative Fruitz, a Wisconsin company that specializes in decorative displays, with the caption: “Black Lives Matter… My Black is Beautiful… My Black is Kreative… My Black is Fruity…” Brooks apparently did then share the company’s post with an approving emoji in July 2020, but it would be hard to find a more underwhelming piece of visual evidence to support the charge that Brooks is a politically motivated extremist.
Politicians who live inside the same hermetically sealed information sphere as Carlson, Ngo, and Conway have been eager to embrace the idea that the mainstream media is ignoring “the obvious conclusion.” That’s why Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, thrilled the far right on Monday by saying that Brooks had “clear anti-white animus, and this was an intentional act.”
“It seems like, for corporate press,” DeSantis continued, “they’re more apt to characterize a parent who goes to a school board meeting to protest bad policies as a domestic terrorist than somebody who intentionally rams an SUV into a crowd of innocent people.”
“We’ll see what the actual motivation was,” DeSantis added. “It very well may have been in response to what happened with Kyle Rittenhouse.”