Report: Claims of assault at political event may be untrue, exaggerated

A report by detectives with the Bellingham police about a Fourth of July incident in Oak Harbor casts doubts on a videographer’s allegations that he was assaulted at the political event and suggests that he exaggerated or left out other important points in his story.

Zach Wurtz, a Seattle resident, accused South Whidbey resident Eric Rohde of tackling him to the ground and hitting him on the back, causing a concussion and bruises. The police report, however, concluded that a group of men, including Rohde, had restrained Wurtz and he fell to the ground; an independent video did not show that he was beaten while on the ground.

The report states that Oak Harbor developer Scott Thompson did take a videocamera from Wurtz, but the investigators question how forceful he was and whether he erased any of the video.

Wurtz, who does “tracking” for Democratic candidates, said he stands by his accusations and claims the investigation was biased, inaccurate and lazy.

The completed report was sent to the city prosecutor’s office this week. The case is being referred to an outside agency for a charging decision. Several city staff members said they didn’t know which agency has been — or will be — asked to take the case.

Oak Harbor Police Chief Kevin Dresker had asked the Bellingham police to investigate the allegations. Dresker said he wanted to avoid the appearance of bias because he’s dealt with Thompson several times. Thompson is also in the midst of discussions over development plans with the city and supported a councilman’s candidacy.

A low-budget online “news” show, reported last week that “no charges will be filed” in the case, yet city officials said this week that no such decision has been made. The host of that show, Steve Schorr, and Thompson were friends in Las Vegas, Coupeville resident and former Whidbey News-Times staffer David Svien reported on his blog, coupevillesports.com.

Online records show that the Thompsons own a dog from the Schorrs’ dog breeding business.

In his freelance job, Wurtz travels to public events where Republican candidates are speaking and records them. He tries to sell the videos to their political rivals.

The Bellingham police report, obtained through a public records request, is based on an interview with Wurtz, video and audio recordings provided by Wurtz, Oak Harbor police reports, witness interviews and, perhaps most importantly, a separate video of the incident taken by an attendee.

The News-Times has made a public records request for attendees’ video and the Bellingham police taped interview with Wurtz.

The police report states that, while Wurtz was videotaping politicians speaking at the Oak Harbor event on July 4, other people “somehow discovered” that he was working for Democrats and started to taunt him. The report states that Rohde called him out as “Antifa” from the stage; Wurtz later said he is not associated with Antifa.

A woman started waving an American flag in front of Wurtz’s camera, and he was witnessed grabbing it from her, the report states. A man started yelling at him and that escalated into a verbal confrontation between Wurtz, Rohde and several other attendees, according to the report.

Wurtz, on the other hand, said the woman had started hitting him on the hands with the flag pole and he “blocked it,” but did not grab it. Wurtz’s video of the incident isn’t clear about what occurred.

Also, he said the confrontation was more than verbal as he was surrounded and being “touched” by people from all sides. Video online shows an event attendee putting stickers on Wurtz’s back.

Wurtz was filming Dan Evans, a candidate for Island County commissioner, when Thompson, the owner of the property, asked him to leave because he heard Wurtz had assaulted a woman.

The police report states that Thompson walked with Wurtz up the hill to leave the property when Thompson became upset because he thought Wurtz was still videotaping him.

Thompson took the camera from Wurtz by slipping the strap off his hand; both men agreed that there was no physical struggle, the report states.

In addition, the report indicates that Thompson said he did not know how to erase the video footage and that Wurtz did it at his direction.

Wurtz said this characterization was inaccurate. He said he told the Bellingham police that Thompson violently and aggressively grabbed the camera from him, and he only let go when he felt that it would be destroyed if he didn’t.

Wurtz maintains Thompson erased part of the video. He said he agreed to erase the portion with Thompson in it, but only to get the camera back.

Rohde and “some other men” had followed Wurtz and Thompson up the hill, the police report states. Wurtz got upset and reached for Thompson, demanding his camera back.

The group of men grabbed Wurtz and held him back from Thompson.

“It appears the group physically restrains Zachary Wurtz from trying to get his camera back from Scott Thompson,” the report states, “and that is what results in Zachary Wurtz falling to the ground.”

No footage from the video shows Wurtz receiving blows to his back or his head, the report states.

Wurtz disputes that he wasn’t pushed to the ground and that nobody hit him on the back, although he now admits the strikes could have been inadvertent. The report indicates that the group of men also fell to the ground “as they struggled against each other.”

Wurtz said he made a point of not struggling.

Wurtz also questioned why the report was so vague about the “group of men” and why they were not named. He questioned if it might be a political decision aimed at protecting certain people who were involved in the incident, or if it was lazy police work.

The report states that Wurtz was able to quickly get back up and walked up the hill.

Wurtz called 911 and the Oak Harbor police responded. An officer drove him to the police station and took a photo of a bruise on his arm.

“He poses for a full body photo by smiling and giving the thumbs up sign,” the report states.

According to the investigator, Wurtz can be heard on a recording of his conversation with the Oak Harbor police saying he planned to stay the night at the Swinomish Casino. The report concludes that this conflicts with Wurtz’s claim that an Oak Harbor police officer had told him to take the bridge because he “couldn’t guarantee his safety” on the ferry.

According to the recording, the officer did advise Wurtz not to take the ferry because of what might happen during a long wait.

“The only reason I’m saying this, just thinking out loud,” he said, “is if you go to the ferry and you are sitting there for an hour and a half and there’s other of these people sitting there … at least this way you’re just driving.”

The report states that Wurtz and his girlfriend, who came with him on the trip, stopped at the Swinomish Casino and went inside on the way home, a detail that he didn’t mention in his interview with the News-Times.

The report states that security cameras show him giving the thumb-up gesture at the cameras twice and that he did not look injured.

Wurtz said he was only inside the casino for about five minutes. He questions how a concussion would show up on a casino thermal camera.

The next morning, Wurtz went to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle because he was not feeling well. The report states that his X-rays and CAT scan were normal.

“The medical records indicate,” the report states, “he was told he ‘likely’ has a concussion and soft tissue bruising — but this was based on his self-report of an assault the night before, not based on any evidence supported by imaging records or other medical tests.”

Wurtz said it doesn’t make sense for police to dismiss a medical assessment.

“I was given numerous physiological and neurological tests by several different doctors,” he said.

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