Detectives with the Bellingham Police Department are investigating a Fourth of July incident in Oak Harbor in which a political videographer was allegedly assaulted by a well-known Whidbey developer and a political activist.
Seattle resident Zach Wurtz said he suffered a concussion that landed him in the hospital and that one of the men, whom he identified as Oak Harbor developer Scott Thompson, grabbed his video camera from him and erased part of the video.
Oak Harbor Police Chief Kevin Dresker said he asked the Bellingham police to take over the investigation because at least one of the people involved in the incident has current dealings with the city and that he’s talked to this person several times.
Also, the chief said Wurtz has made accusations about the police being biased.
“We want to make sure we are being very transparent,” Dresker said, “and that there’s no appearance of favoritism.”
Lt. Chad Cristelli with the Bellingham police said two detectives are assigned to the case.
They’ve interviewed four or five people and have several other people they are trying to reach. He said the investigation may be completed in a week or so and then it goes to the prosecutor for any possible charging decision.
In an interview, Wurtz explained that his job is to record political candidates speaking at events, which is called “tracking” and is standard practice in politics. He works as a freelancer and sells video to Democratic candidates.
Wurtz said he saw that Tim Eyman, Republican candidate for governor, Republican state attorney general candidate Brett Rogers, state Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, and state representative candidate Bill Bruch, R-La Conner, were scheduled to speak at a political event in Oak Harbor on the property on the hill above Walmart.
He described it as a “target rich environment.”
Wurtz said it was the only political event in all of Washington state in which candidates were speaking because of the surge in COVID-19 cases. Also, he added he really enjoys North Whidbey, so he decided to go to the event and have a picnic with his girlfriend.
Wurtz said the first thing he did when arriving at the event on the Fourth of July was to track down organizer Eric Rohde to explain who he is and why he was there. Rohde, a South Whidbey resident, told him he was welcome. Wurtz said Rohde described himself as a “three percenter”; Rohde later clarified that he’s involved with the Washington state Three Percenters, not the national group.
While Wurtz was videotaping outside of a roped-off area, a man stood in front of his video cameras and Wurtz asked him to move. The man recognized Wurtz from other events and announced that “Antifa” was at the event, referring to Wurtz. A video that Wurtz posted on Facebook shows that several people at the event started yelling that he was “Antifa” and a “commie,” adding a vulgar term.
Antifa stands for “anti-fascist” and is a loosely-affiliated group that tracks the activities of neo-Nazis and other racist and fascist groups and protests against them, sometimes violently.
Wurtz said he is not a member and has never met anyone in Antifa.
Wurtz said people seated in front of him turned around to see Antifa.
“The guys look so disappointed,” he said. “They were looking past me to see Antifa and were discouraged to see they were pointing to this chubby guy in a Hawaiian shirt.”
At that point, Worth said, nothing was out of the ordinary. People around him started being “grabby” and touching him without permission, but it was something that happens “at a lot of these events,” he said. He said most of the people at the event had been drinking, noting that cans of Coors Light were on tables all over the event.
Wurtz emphasized that organizers and candidates can be heard on the video repeatedly saying that he was welcome to stay.
As Muzzall took the stage, however, things started getting more heated, Wurtz claimed. He loudly asked Muzzall to say something to stop people at the event from harassing and assaulting him.
Wurtz said Rohde, who was the emcee for the event, jumped in and told attendees to leave Wurtz alone.
Wurtz said he was about to leave after Muzzall spoke when the emcee referred to Dan Evans, a candidate for Island County commissioner. For a moment he thought it might be the former governor running for office, so he kept on videotaping the event.
But, at that point, Thompson, who is Evans’ biggest financial supporter, approached Wurtz, identified himself as the landowner and told him to leave. Wurtz said he immediately agreed to leave and walked in the most straightforward route off the property.
Then, for an unclear reason, Rohde allegedly tackled him from behind, causing him to strike his head on the ground, and pinned his arms to his side, according to Wurtz. Rohde then started hitting him on the back and shoulder. Wurtz said he purposely didn’t fight back because he had learned that the “Proud Boys” would use it as an excuse to assault him further.
Thompson told Rohde to “knock it off,” Wurtz said, and he was released.
But Thompson grabbed Wurtz’ camera and said he needed to delete himself from the memory card, Wurtz said.
After fumbling with the camera, Thompson erased everything from the video camera following the introduction of Evans, according to Wurtz.
After getting away from the men, Wurtz called 911 and a police officer responded. Wurtz said the officer appeared to take the case very seriously and took his statement, but then advised Wurtz to immediately leave the island over the bridge because of the possibility of being followed and attacked by conservative extremists.
“It was the first time I was advised by law enforcement to adjust my travel on a state highway for my own safety,” he said.
Wurtz said he doesn’t remember much of the drive home and was groggy and nauseous when he arrived. He woke up with a “really bad” headache and neck pain, so he went to the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
After a CAT scan, an X-ray and blood tests, the doctors diagnosed him with a concussion, deep tissue bruising and neck pain, he said.
Wurtz claims he called the Oak Harbor police to check on the investigation and was told by a “rude” records clerk — who allegedly hung up on him — that the investigation was closed. He said the clerk, who he thought was a public information officer, told him that a police officer characterized him as “a well-known member of Antifa” in his report.
Dresker, however, said the investigation was not closed. He said it is always the policy for officers’ report to be passed on to detectives for follow-up investigations, which occurred as usual in this case.
In addition, Dresker said the officer’s report did not conclude that Wurtz was a “well-known member of Antifa,” but that the officer accurately quoted a witness from the event who claimed this.
In an interview, Muzzall said he remembers Wurtz yelling while he was on stage and he announced that, essentially, Wurtz was welcome and that “we are very accepting here.” He said he saw Wurtz being escorted off the property but that he didn’t witness what happened, although he heard yelling.
According to Wurtz, about 50 people were at the event at a time, which is legal limit under the rules for the Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan for the COVID-10 pandemic.
Wurtz said almost nobody was wearing masks at the event on private property, which is clear in the video he posted on his Facebook page.
Muzzall, however, said people were wearing masks; he said he wore a mask and that he was speaking with people in masks when the incident occurred.
According to Wurtz, he’s contacting a tech company to try to recover the video that was erased and that the Bellingham detectives, who came to his Seattle home and interviewed him for a couple of hours, have a copy of the memory disk to analyze.
Thompson and Rohde did not return calls for comment.