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Fellow activists express disbelief at arrest of NATO summit bomb plot suspects

Michael Towson

Photo of bomb plot suspect Brent Betterly, 24, taken by a fellow Occupy protester in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Friends of three activists charged with plotting to hurl firebombs during the NATO Summit in Chicago reacted for the most part with disbelief Sunday, saying that the arrests appear to be an effort to undermine peaceful protest.

Brent Betterly, 24, Brian Jacob Church, 20, and Jared Chase, 24, were charged Saturday with a terrorist conspiracy to firebomb four Chicago police stations, the home of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and President Barack Obama’s local campaign headquarters.

Stephanie Auguiste, a 25-year-old from Hollywood, Fla., met all three of the alleged bombers through Occupy Fort Lauderdale, a Florida offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement. She said the police description of the trio as violent anarchists didn’t match the young men she knew.


Courtesy Stephanie Auguiste

Stephanie Auguiste, 25, met all three of the alleged firebomb plotters through Occupy protests in Florida.

She said that when she spoke with Betterly by phone last week about his time in Chicago, “He was telling me how local police officers were harassing them a lot and how they were pretty violent toward protesters. “ Betterly was “shocked” by the aggressive tactics but didn’t give Auguiste any indication that he was planning to strike back with force, she said.  

Auguiste also said she found it hard to believe that Church -- who she knew by his middle name, Jacob -- is the same person described in charging documents as remarking about the sight of a “cop on fire.” Rather, she remembers Church as a soft-spoken artist who liked making still-life sketches and opposed the National Defense Authorization Act on constitutional grounds.

“He’s not the kind of person who had the desire to commit violent acts toward anyone,” Auguiste said of Church. “He believed in peaceful protest.”

Both Church and Betterly had lived in South Florida. Their friend, Chase, was from New Hampshire. Auguiste said she only met him once but found him to be “extremely friendly, very warm.”

Chase and Betterly have had brushes with the law. According to a Reuters report, Chase was charged with attempt to commit assault and reckless endangerment in June 2003, after he pulled a knife in a fight with another man. The report also detailed an incident a month later where Chase was in another fight, after which he hit a man with his car. The man wasn’t injured, but Chase was reportedly found guilty of assault.

(Chase’s uncle, Michael Chase of Westmoreland, N.H., told the Union-Leader newspaper that his nephew had only become politically active when the Occupy Wall Street protests bloomed. Of the charges, he said, “Seems outrageous and completely out of character for him. … He’s no angel. He’s not happy with the economy. Nobody is.”)

Last October Betterly was charged for burglary of an unoccupied structure, grand theft and criminal mischief when after a night of drinking, he and two friends broke into an Oakland Park, Fla., school to swim in the pool, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Those felony charges are still pending. 

Olivia Ferguson

Olivia Ferguson, 36, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said she believes the charges against Betterly "about as much as I believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy."

Olivia Ferguson, 36, said she often shared a tent with Betterly on the plaza adjoining the Fort Lauderdale City Hall during the Occupy protests. An electrician, Betterly would sometimes visit the encampment overnight after having worked 16 hours that same day, she said.

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“I believe Brent is a terrorist about as much as I believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy,” said Ferguson, from Fort Lauderdale. Recalling Betterly’s fondness for drinking, she believes that the home-brewing kit allegedly being used to make Molotov cocktails was probably just for making beer. Recalling his blond dreadlocks and goofy charm, Ferguson said she gave Betterly the nickname “Spicoli,” after Sean Penn’s party hearty character in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

At one Occupy Fort Lauderdale meeting in October led by Ferguson and Betterly, a man in the group spoke up to advocate more forceful forms of protest – spray-painting and property destruction. “Brent and I said absolutely not,” Ferguson said. “We were totally against that.”

Another Occupy activist, Mike Howson, 25, said he was “really surprised” to see Betterly’s name surface in connection with a terrorist act. “Like most of us, there were political things you’d bitch about, but he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would actually go through with something like that.”

Michael Howson

Mike Howson, 25, of Sunrise, Fla., said Betterly "didn't seem like the kind of guy who would actually go through with something like that."

Howson, who resides in Sunrise, Fla., remembered Church being more reserved than the outgoing Betterly-- the type who “observes before he interacts with people.”

One activist who met Betterly and Church in Florida, and spoke about them on condition of anonymity, was not as surprised as their other fellow protesters, saying they were more inclined than most to push the limits of peaceful protest, 

“Jacob (Church) was immature and he was angry -- that’s a dangerous combination,” the activist said. 

The same activist was more surprised that Betterly was implicated in the plot, but recalled his increasing frustration when the Fort Lauderdale movement cleared out its camp in December.

“He went to Washington, D.C. for that national Occupy convention,” said the activist. “He then stayed near McPherson Square, and I can only surmise that he became somewhat radicalized by people he met there, because when he was here he was very much committed to nonviolence.”

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Evan Rowe said suspect Brent Betterly "didn't seem to have a coherent ideological motivation, but he was tactically eager to pursue actions which might get him arrested in the pursuit of the Occupy cause."

Evan Rowe, 34, who met Betterly through Occupy Fort Lauderdale, answered questions via email. “Brent was always super-eager and hard core,” he said. “He didn’t seem to have a coherent ideological motivation, but he was tactically eager to pursue actions which might get him arrested in the pursuit of the Occupy cause.”

In Rowe’s opinion, the arrests were a “public relations exercise” by law enforcement agencies that need to invent sophisticated terrorist plots to justify their out-sized budgets, he said.

In a statement to reporters Saturday, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said that the investigation of the NATO bombing plot had been going on for weeks and that the Chicago Police detectives were assisted by the FBI and U.S. Secret Service. Alvarez called the men “domestic terrorists” who had come to Chicago “to hurt people.”

Kris Hermes, a spokesman for the National Lawyers Guild, which is representing the three accused bombers, said Sunday that prosecutors have yet to show evidence to support police claims of terrorist acts. “This is a direct attempt to stifle protest and to turn the public opinion against peaceful protesters.”

Defense attorneys hope to learn more about the state’s case at a court hearing Tuesday. “We strongly believe that undercover cops in this case were manufacturing crimes,” said Hermes. “They were provoking these guys to do things that they would not have otherwise done -- and it’s not even clear that they did engage in any criminal activities.”

Hermes said that the same two undercover cops who busted Betterly, Chase and Church were behind the bust of Sebastian Senakiewicz and Mark Neiweem, both of Chicago. Senakiewicz was charged with falsely making a terrorist threat while Neiweem stands accused of attempted possession of an explosive device. Police have said the two plots were unrelated.

Sunday afternoon, thousands of protesters marched from Jackson Drive and Columbus Drive, near Lake Michigan, to McCormick Place, the setting for the NATO Summit. Some 60 countries are sending delegations to the event, where diplomats are discussing the war in Afghanistan and missile defense in Europe.

There were reports of clashes between protesters and police at the conclusion of the march, but it appears that the demonstration was largely peaceful.

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