Investigators are frustrated by people they say are withholding information about the felling of trees June 3 that blocked four tourists from leaving their campsite, the final straw in a harrowing day that ended with two officers escorting the family to safety.
About 10 Forks-area residents either saw five alders being downed on U.S. Forest Service land or took part in the crime, Brian King, Clallam County chief criminal deputy, said Friday.
But some are refusing to answer questions or not talking at all, stymieing the nearly three-week-old investigation.
He said the board-feet value of the trees was $183. Chopping them down would be a misdemeanor in county and federal district courts. The perpetrator or perpetrators could face additional charges based on their intent, King added.
“We want to know who felled those trees, not just who was present, but who was the actor, who was the individual or individuals that actually felled those trees, and people have that knowledge, and they are just not sharing it with us,” he said.
The multiracial family of four live in Spokane. They travelled to Forks in a converted white bus that King said drew the attention of town residents for the wrong reasons.
King said locals were reading and exchanging social media posts that falsely said members of the left-wing movement antifa was busing anti-fascist protesters into rural areas to trash white-owned homes and businesses.
Similar false reports were posted on social media around the nation, a ruse perpetrated in part by the white supremacist group, Evropa, according to NBC News (https://tinyurl.com/AntifaFalsehood).
Shannon Lowe, a former radio reporter, told the Peninsula Daily News in a story published June 12 that her partner’s mother, who was traveling with them along with Lowe’s adult daughter, wanted to experience the setting for the book and movie series, “Twilight” (https://tinyurl.com/PDN-FamilyOrdeal).
Instead, Lowe said they were confronted early the afternoon of June 3 by a man who asked if they were in Forks for “the protest.” She said they also were targets of obscene gestures from across the street when they stopped at what King said was the Forks transit center, not the visitor center as Lowe had first described it to the PDN.
A short time later, they were confronted again at the Thriftway-Outfitters parking lot by about two dozen people who asked if they were with antifa, Lowe said. The family said they were not but were followed anyway by vehicles for about 5 miles to their Forks-area campsite on what is known locally as the A Road.
One man in a car and another at an intersection were carrying guns, Lowe said.
When they tried to leave, their exit was blocked by the trees felled at a small bridge where people were gathered on the other side, Lowe said.
The family called 9-1-1, fearing for their safety. After a deputy arrived, four high school students cut them free from the barricade, she said.
“There’s a group of about 10 people — that’s not a hard number — that were present at or about the time those trees fell,” King said.
“Someone within that group, or a subset of of that group, is responsible for felling those trees.”
Lowe, a former member of the National Guard, said being prevented from leaving, after all that happened, felt like a prelude to an ambush.
If people wanted them gone, why was their exit prevented?
Talking to the perpetrators may lend a clue.
“It could have been simply just to punish them,” King said.
“We don’t know what was in (their) mind, what was in this group’s mind when they did this.”
About 35 people have been interviewed in the investigation, some more than once, although some within the group of 10 have refused to meet with deputies, King said.
“They are responsible for it, or they fear being labeled as a snitch, and that is extremely unfortunate,” King said.
King said there is no indication that criminal harassment was involved at the grocery store parking lot or, so far, at the campsite, but the family’s treatment by residents was the kind of behavior that would justify a no-harassment order.
Family members also said the day’s events did not feel racially motivated, King said.
“The common, general definition of harassment certainly would fit here, especially over the length of this incident,” he said
With the continued lack of cooperation of witnesses, the investigation into who cut down the trees is moving into a slower phase of obtaining search warrants for cellphones and Facebook accounts.
“We are using those more advanced investigative methods that you typically use on cases such as homicides, drug trafficking networks, all those different things because of the roadblock that we are running into, specifically as we get to the point of identifying specifically who within that group of people did this,” King said.
“What we are focusing on is the adhering of all the information about there being a belief that antifa was in the county and that information was being shared widely.
“We know incrementally the reports of the concerns over a white bus and white buses being antifa and multiple people beginning to identify those on social media networks seeing white buses.
“There were reports from Sequim to Forks, including Port Angeles, of a white bus.”
King said getting to the bottom of what happened that day has been been as difficult in some ways as a murder investigation.
For starters, there was a long chain of events. Lowe said the family arrived in Forks at about 1 p.m. that day and left about nine hours later.
“You’ve got people in transit going up and down the road, and this buzz is occurring, with everyone talking about how antifa might be here, and everyone is attracted (to the A Road) to find out what’s gong on, so it’s a very challenging investigation, one of the more challenging investigations we’ve had in a long time,” King said.
Residents from across the county have tried making amends to the family, from buying newspaper ads to starting GoFundMe accounts to offering travel packages.
The Forks City Council has offered a formal apology, and other Forks residents have vowed to tackle racism head-on “through education and communication,” according to an ad Thursday in the Forks Forum, the PDN’s sister newspaper.
People stepping forward to take responsibility for cutting the trees is about more than a misdemeanor charge, King said.
“It’s time now to step up and be a hero,” he said.
“It’s time for people to do the right thing. To get past this as a community, to move past this, we need to have the answers, not only for the individuals in this case but the community as a whole, and to move beyond this a community and heal and grow as individuals who need to accept responsibility for their actions.”