Home A project of States Newsroom
News
How North Idaho prosecutors lost the case against Patriot Front’s white nationalist leader

Share

How North Idaho prosecutors lost the case against Patriot Front’s white nationalist leader

Feb 12, 2024 | 6:25 am ET
By Daniel Walters
Share
How North Idaho prosecutors lost the case against Patriot Front’s white nationalist leader
Description
Patriot Front founder Thomas Ryan Rousseau leads his group as they march with anti-abortion activists during the 49th annual March for Life rally on Jan. 21, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

This story was originally published by InvestigateWest on Feb. 8, 2024.

Nearly two years ago, police in North Idaho had the leader of America’s largest white nationalist group and 30 of his followers unmasked, zip-tied and in custody. 

They’d been caught on June 11, 2022, based on a tip that said a “little army” of masked men had been seen filing into the back of a U-Haul truck. Coeur d’Alene police pulled open the back door, found a squadron of men equipped with white masks, metal flag poles, homemade sheet-metal riot shields and a smoke grenade. 

And on the group’s leader, Thomas Rousseau, police found a note laying out a detailed plan to establish a “confrontational dynamic” at that day’s gay pride festival. 

Rousseau is the head of Patriot Front, a secretive racist organization of young men that has been running a guerrilla marketing campaign for white nationalism since the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. 

Patriot Front frequently targets minority communities with racist propaganda vandalism, said Jeff Tischauser, research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate organization. They spray-paint over gay pride murals. They deface George Floyd memorials. And they show up to events like Coeur d’Alene’s Pride in the Park with masks, shields and smoke bombs in an attempt to intimidate participants into staying home, he said. 

But this time, every one of them was arrested, booked into jail and charged by local prosecutors with conspiracy to riot by disturbing the peace. Anti-extremism experts have been watching the case closely ever since, hoping Patriot Front would face consequences. 

“The prosecution in Coeur d’Alene finally had an opportunity to hold them accountable for their harassment and their intimidation of the diverse community,” Tischauser said. 

Instead, Rousseau’s case never got to trial.

While most of Rousseau’s underlings have either been found guilty of conspiracy to riot or pleaded to a lesser infraction, Judge John Cafferty dismissed the case against the white nationalist leader in November. 

“This is an important case. It should not be dismissed lightly,” Cafferty said, according to court transcripts. “I tried to do what I could to not get to this point.” 

But after a year and a half of delays, lost evidence and failures of prosecutors to follow court orders, he said he didn’t have a choice. The prosecutors, on the other hand, blamed judges and defense attorneys for the case devolving “into a forum for fishing expeditions justified by nothing more than bumper sticker claims.”

In all, it highlights just how difficult it is for an overwhelmed and understaffed team of prosecutors to take on a case involving so many extremists at once. 

It’s one reason why, Kris Goldsmith, head of an anti-fascist research organization, said the Patriot Front case should not have been handled by local prosecutors to begin with. 

“Expecting a city prosecutor to take on a national white supremacist organization is disappointing,” Goldsmith said. “The FBI is just sitting on their hands.” 

In fact, court documents suggest, the FBI made prosecuting Patriot Front a lot harder. 

Coeur d’Alene police arrest of Patriot Front members
The 2022 Coeur d’Alene police arrest of Patriot Front members had immediate consequences for the group, unmasking and exposing the identities of 31 members. (Courtesy of David Neiwert)

Prosecutors understaffed, overloaded with Patriot Front-related cases

The Coeur d’Alene community has already had plenty of practice defying hate groups. Over two decades ago, community members stood up to white supremacist Richard Butler and the other neo-Nazis on his Aryan Nations’ compound in nearby Hayden Lake. And Patriot Front had targeted the city repeatedly with graffiti and racist propaganda fliers. 

“We need to catch these people,” Steve Widmyer, then mayor of Coeur d’Alene, wrote in 2021 after a local college was targeted that August. “Disgusting.” 

In 2022, police caught 31 of them at once. 

Yet, the size of the catch, ironically, may have helped the biggest fish get away. 

Even the limited size of local courtrooms quickly became a problem. 

“We could have asked to join all 31 cases, but the reality is that Kootenai County does not have a facility to handle something like that,” Wes Somerton, the head of Coeur d’Alene’s criminal prosecutors, later told the court. 

Instead the prosecutor’s office initially charged all the cases separately, though they later tried to combine them. 

While prosecutors did not return interview requests from InvestigateWest, court records show how the sheer size of the caseload quickly clogged up the local judicial system. The city prosecutors handling the cases had to pinball between the courts of nine judges. Scheduling alone was a nightmare: One week, there were two different Patriot Front trials scheduled before two different judges in two different courtrooms, involving the same witnesses. 

As a small city, there are only four attorneys in the city prosecutors’ office, tasked with handling all misdemeanors and infractions within city limits. And then, in the middle of the Patriot Front prosecutions, one of the four went on paternity leave, meaning prosecutors were left pulling double-docket duty. A prescheduled summer vacation meant every case on the docket had to be handled by two prosecutors. 

In July 2023, neither remaining city prosecutor showed up for a scheduled hearing in one Patriot Front case. Judge Destry Randles was unsympathetic. 

“The court is not in the business of tracking down attorneys when they are not where they are supposed to be,” Randles said, according to court transcripts. 

Similarly, after Deputy City Attorney Ryan Hunter was chastised for failing to get the defense some court-required information, he pointed to the short-staffed prosecutor’s office for why it slipped his mind. In court documents, he wrote that he’d fallen “victim to the ever-present cracks into which things fall for every person, attorney and judge alike at some point.”

A number of Patriot Front members, meanwhile, were represented by aggressive private attorneys, paid at a rate of $150 an hour by the Kootenai County taxpayers, instead of a harried public defenders office. 

The public defender’s office had concluded they’d only be able to represent one of the 31 defendants without there being a conflict of interest. So for the others who couldn’t afford an attorney, the county recruited other local private lawyers to pinch-hit. 

After trying to represent himself for six months, Rousseau applied for a public defender in December 2022. Instead, he was handed private attorney Kinzo Mihara. Mihara was a Marine veteran who’d been given a Carnegie Medal for dragging a man from a burning helicopter cockpit, and not afraid to brag about it in court. 

He worked evenings and weekends to get caught up on the Patriot Front case, according to an affidavit. He unleashed repeated salvos of bombast against the prosecutors, declaring in one court document that the prosecution team “spits upon the grave, and defiles the memory, of the Patriots who gave their last drop of blood and dying breaths in support of our great Constitution.”

In court filings, Hunter accused Mihara of “hyperbolic hostility and vitriol,” of being “self-congratulatory” and “braggadocious,” and of abandoning “professionalism in favor of performative advocacy.” 

But ultimately Mihara’s tactics worked. He managed to turn a key collection of evidence — what may have seemed like a massive coup for law enforcement — into the prosecution’s downfall. 

The FBI, local police and attorneys struggle with runaround for accessing evidence

After officers had arrested Patriot Front members, they’d hauled away a potential treasure trove of evidence: 37 Patriot Front devices, according to police records, including cellphones wrapped in signal-blocking foil, SD cards, GoPro cameras and a USB stick. In all, there were roughly 3,500 gigabytes worth of everything from Hitler pictures to swastika logos to — in one case — child pornography. 

It was like opening Pandora’s box, one judge later said. The Patriot Front cases ground to a halt as defense attorneys demanded time to sift through all the new information. 

The data didn’t help the prosecutors. Some judges had ruled the police didn’t have probable cause for the July 11 arrest of Patriot Front and barred them from using it. 

But the defense thought it could help them. If one of those cellphones had information that could help prove a defendant’s innocence, then the defense was legally entitled to see it. 

Mihara argued there just might be. In court documents, he wrote that the cellphone of a Patriot Front videographer potentially contained a video of Patriot Front leadership instructing members to refrain from violence and to be respectful while protesting Pride in the Park. 

Just one problem: The police had already handed all 37 devices over to the FBI, before a sealed federal warrant had been signed. Mihara called the move “ludicrous.” 

In an email to InvestigateWest, the Coeur d’Alene Police Department said they would have likely sent them to the FBI anyway, as they “have an electronic forensics lab that could process the phones in a timely manner whereas our agency resources would have taken months to complete.”

But that analysis took more than seven months to complete, according to court records. And when they were finally done, the FBI wouldn’t give back the actual phones. (The FBI declined to comment for this story.)

Mihara was incensed. The idea that a prosecutor could simply hide evidence by sending it to a federal agency, he wrote in a court filing, “embodies the very tyranny our forefathers saw in their British masters.”

At one moment, the runaround turned into a full circle: The prosecution encouraged defense attorneys to reach out to the FBI. The FBI told them to talk to the city prosecutors. 

And even when the city shared the FBI’s electronic copy of the data, it wasn’t good enough, Mihara said. His digital forensics expert testified that the data was wildly incomplete. They needed to see the physical phone itself. 

That was impossible, as prosecutors formally acknowledged in court on Aug. 2. They didn’t have the power to tell the FBI to give the phone back. Legally, at least, the evidence was lost. Several judges weren’t happy. 

“There is no faith in the process when the prosecutor can play hide the ball with evidence,” Judge Randles said. 

Hunter had argued that even if a cellphone video of Patriot Front leaders urging nonviolence did exist — and that was doubtful — it was irrelevant. Patriot Front wasn’t even being accused of planning violence, just of “disturbing the peace.” 

Yet the frustration in courtrooms over the prosecution’s approach was building. Court transcripts show a litany of complaints from several judges: Prosecutors had released evidence to the defense in “drips and drabs.” Filings were coming in late. Necessary objections weren’t being properly filed. Court orders to disclose weren’t being followed. The city would claim they’d turned over everything, only to announce they found more they needed to turn over. 

Finally, one judge had had enough. 

“I have never, in my 10 years, seen anything that even approaches this level of failure to properly disclose evidence,” Randles said, according to court transcripts. 

In August, he dismissed the case against one Patriot Front defendant, Richard Jessop of Idaho. In November, Judge Cafferty followed suit, dismissing the case against Rousseau. 

Richard Jessop was unmasked during the 2022 arrest of Patriot Front members in Coeur d’Alene.
Richard Jessop was unmasked during the 2022 arrest of Patriot Front members in Coeur d’Alene. His case was ultimately dismissed in August 2023, with the judge accusing the prosecution of playing games with the evidence. (Courtesy of David Neiwert)

When judges did allow the Patriot Front cases to reach the jury, however, the Coeur d’Alene prosecutors had been undefeated. Juries were convinced by the prosecutors’ arguments that while Patriot Front had the free speech right to protest, their “anarchist tactics of unlawfully violating other people’s First Amendment rights should not be tolerated.” 

Seven Patriot Front members were convicted of conspiracy to riot — sentenced to a few days in jail, a year or two of probation, a $1,000 fine, and were banned from the area around the park. (Mihara is representing four of them on appeal.) Twenty took plea deals, copping to participating in a parade without a permit and getting off with a fine. Four, including the videographer, have bench warrants out for their arrest. 

And the Patriot Front phone with the child porn on it? It belonged to Patriot Front member Jared Boyce of Utah. He was convicted on multiple counts of sexual exploitation of a minor and sentenced to a year in jail. 

Coeur d’Alene is appealing two cases that had been dismissed, though Somerton, one of the two prosecutors overseeing it, is retiring in April. 

“My client looks forward to the day that this case is ultimately put to rest in his favor,” Mihara wrote in a statement to InvestigateWest. 

But for now, Rousseau — the man behind everything — has been able to walk away. 

Civil action and extremism

This January, 19 months after police caught him in the U-Haul, Rousseau marched through New York wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat — no mask, no Idaho criminal conviction — and shared a message of defiance. 

“Every day, every year we’re going to stay out here,” Rousseau told onlookers in a video shared on social media. “We’re going to keep doing demonstrations. We’re going to keep making ourselves known.” 

Rousseau did not respond to an interview request InvestigateWest sent to his phone number listed on court documents. 

Goldsmith, from the anti-fascist research organization, has argued that there’s a slew of strategies the FBI could take against Rousseau, including getting him on tax evasion.

“The FBI has everything they need to take down this little gangster-wanna-be and his crew of neo-Nazis,” Goldsmith said. 

But Coeur d’Alene’s history suggests another course, which has often been the more reliable route for those aiming to take on extremists. Ultimately, it was a civil lawsuit, brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center nearly 25 years ago, that bankrupted the Aryan Nations and forced them to sell their compound. 

In fact, civil cases, with their lower burdens of proof, have often been the more reliable route for those aiming to take on extremists. They were used against the organizers of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. And they’re already being used elsewhere against Patriot Front. 

Less than a month after being arrested in Idaho, Patriot Front marched in Boston, where they allegedly kicked, punched and beat with their metal shields a Black musician who confronted them. Today, he’s suing them. 

While Patriot Front may gloat about its victory in Idaho, Tischauser, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that the white nationalist group appears weaker these days. Even in Texas, Rousseau’s home base, he said, the amount of Patriot Front fliers being distributed has fallen by 30 percent. 

He believes the culmination of all the litigation is taking its toll. 

Even a failed prosecution can be valuable in the long term, Goldsmith said.  

“The evidence that comes out in discovery is enough to establish what will be criminal and civil liability in other jurisdictions,” Goldsmith said. “Tom Rousseau will fade into irrelevance and will spend the rest of his life in debt… And those around him, the top lieutenants in Patriot Front, will be tied to him like an anchor.”

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. A Report for America corps member, Daniel Walters covers democracy and extremism across the region. He can be reached at [email protected].