FBI: Minnesota man was making arsenal, revered mass shooters

Published 6:13 pm Friday, December 16, 2022

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MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota man who said he idolized the shooter who killed five people at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs and was building an arsenal of automatic weapons to use against police was arrested this week as he tried to buy grenades from an FBI informant, according to charges filed this week.

River William Smith, who also expressed interest in joining neo-Nazi paramilitary groups and fired an assault-style rifle in a 2019, leaving his grandmother with a hand injury, faces federal weapons charges, The U.S. Attorney General’s office announced in a news release. FBI agents arrested the 20-year-old man on Wednesday after he purchased three hand grenades and four auto sears from an FBI informant, the AG’s office said. An auto sear is a device that turns a firearm into an automatic weapon.

Smith, who lives in the Minneapolis suburb of Savage, had told the informant that the shooter who killed five people at an LGBTQ nightclub last month was a “hero,” called Black people “agents of satan,” and said he was ready to engage the police “with armor and full autos,” an FBI agent said in an affidavit.

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Smith is in custody and is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday. Online court records show he is being represented by the Office of the Federal Defender. Phone and email messages seeking comment on his behalf were not immediately returned Friday.

Authorities say Smith came to the attention of the FBI after he frequented a firearm range and gun club this fall wearing tactical gear, body armor and a “Punisher” mask, which the FBI said has been used by right-wing extremist groups to reference “the last thing a victim sees.”

A retired police officer who worked at the gun range contacted the FBI’s National Threat Operations Center on Sept. 27 after he saw Smith wearing body armor, shooting from behind a plywood barricade he had assembled and practicing rapid reloads of his handgun, according to the affidavit.

As the FBI surveilled Smith in November, agents saw Smith’s grandmother drive him to the gun range and wait in the car while he shot. She had also purchased pistol ammunition for him, according to the federal affidavit.

It wasn’t the first time Smith came to the attention of law enforcement.

In 2019, when he was 17, Smith was put on probation after he fired an AK-47-style assault rifle in a house he shared with his grandparents, according to court documents. His grandmother, who received a minor injury to her hand, told police officers at the time that she had taken two pistols from Smith and hidden them in her closet. The grandparents told police they were concerned for their safety if Smith was released from custody.

The grandmother added that Smith seemed “possessed” that night, according to legal documents, and she described him as “big and scary and strong.”

During follow-up searches, police found tactical equipment, 15 fully loaded magazines, full ammunition cans and a go-bag of water and canned goods that suggested to them he could have been preparing for a prolonged standoff. An affidavit also says police reviewing his electronic devices found searches about Adolf Hitler and videos of homosexuals being killed, as well as files about bomb-building on an external hard drive.

In a post-arrest interview, Smith told investigators he was not a “super terrorist,” according to the federal affidavit.

As part of the February 2020 probation agreement, Smith was barred from using or possessing any firearms until he turned 19. Within two years, he was stockpiling an arsenal of firearms, authorities said.

Smith told an FBI informant that he was “pro mass shooting in general,” and that he wanted to add the hand grenades to his tactical vest, the Attorney General’s Office said. He said it was part of a personal arsenal that included a note cursing police officers in a pouch attached to his gear, authorities said.

“They can find that once they get me,” he told the informant in a recorded conversation, according to authorities. “When they’re scooping their boys up.”