On the Hunt: Scottsdale rioters ran, but can’t hide

On the Hunt: Scottsdale rioters ran, but can’t hide

By Wayne Schutsky

Nearly a year after hundreds of rioters ransacked Scottsdale Fashion Square and surrounding properties, Scottsdale police are still tracking down participants and recovering stolen goods.

On May 31, 2020, hundreds of people descended on the mall area, breaking windows, stealing from shops, and even firing weapons inside the mall.

The crowds only grew as the night went on, with some officers estimating upward of 1,000 people were involved at the riot’s peak.

The riot continued into the early morning hours as participants broke into the mall and nearby stores, causing over $1 million in damage.

The incident — which took place at the height of nationwide protests against police violence against Black people following the murder of George Floyd — was organized via social media under the guise of a protest.

However, the gathering quickly devolved into chaos and had little in common with other protests — such as a 1,000-person social justice march that took place in Downtown Scottsdale weeks later.

The social media post that triggered the riot seemed to express a desire to impact a largely white, affluent area like Scottsdale.

“I don’t care whether you rioting or peacefully protest,” the post read. “The time for action is NOW.”

But, around 15 minutes after participants began peacefully marching around the mall, someone started breaking windows near the Camelback underpass.

Within minutes, people were seen running in all directions, breaking windows and running out of stores with merchandise.

“This whole bag is full … and I broke into the cash register,” one man said after emerging from a broken window at Urban Outfitters.

Police acknowledged that not all in attendance participated in the stealing.

“While some may have indeed come to join what they believed would be a peaceful protest, what occurred was neither peaceful, nor a protest,” a department statement says. “It was a riot that saw several dozens of individuals collectively damaging property at and near the mall, breaking into businesses and stealing the interiors.”

Scottsdale police say 58 arrests have been made, including 12 the night of the riot.

The defendants faced a variety of charges depending on their alleged involvement, ranging from misdemeamors for unlawful assembly to felonies for theft and firing guns inside the mall.

The department has also recovered around $241,000 worth of stolen merchandise.

Most recently, the department announced on April 20 it had arrested a 20-year-old man and 41-year-old woman on felony charges. The woman allegedly attempted to sell over $6,000 worth of items stolen from the Montblanc store.

Detective J.T. O’Meara of the Scottsdale Police Department’s property crimes unit is the primary detective on the case, but he says officers throughout the department were involved in responding to and investigating the riot.

He says after the incident, the department’s burglary unit spearheaded the investigation. With store managers’ help and security camera footage, they began identifying suspects.

O’Meara says that task was complicated by the pandemic.

“Some of the challenges with that was obviously a lot of people were wearing masks … so it was quite difficult with that aspect,” he says.

The night of the riot, The Scottsdale Progress reported that a large portion of the participants in the riot were young people. The Progress is the Scottsdale Airpark News’ sister publication.

Eight of the 58 arrests involved minors.

A week after the riot, Scottsdale Police Lt. Chris DiPiazza told a group of nearby property owners, “I know for a fact Desert Mountain kids were rioting in our mall; our high school kids were rioting in our mall.”

Of the two dozen cases that have gone to trial, 18 were under 25.

With that demographic in mind, social media has also played a huge role in the investigation.

O’Meara says officers found images and videos on sites and apps like Snapchat, YouTube and Facebook showing participants documenting their activities that night or posing with stolen items.

“We track these websites, and if someone posted there and they show themselves either holding property or just even trespassing in the mall, then we went back to try to figure out what exactly their role was,” he says.

A Scottsdale Progress analysis of city and county court records shows 24 of 58 arrests have gone to trial so far.

Three of those individuals have since had the charges dropped, and another three agreed to plea deals with city prosecutors. Trials are ongoing in city or county Superior Court in the remaining 18 cases.

Scottsdale City Court deals with misdemeanors and petty offenses while individuals facing felony charges are tried in Superior Court.

Scottsdale police spokesman Officer Kevin Watts says most of the cases that have yet to reach trial are dealing with felony charges and have yet to reach the courtroom due to COVID-19-related delays in the court system.

“Those are taking forever to get through,” he says. “COVID has a lot to do with it, so like a year before we even see it moving forward is completely ordinary right now.”

Watts says charges have not been dismissed in any of the pending county cases.

The city dismissed charges last year against YouTube star Jake Paul, the most high-profile individual cited for participating in the riot.

Paul initially faced misdemeanor criminal trespass and unlawful assembly charges, but the city attorney dismissed those charges last summer. 

According to the department’s statement, the city dropped the charges against Paul and his friends Arman Izadi and Andrew Leon to facilitate a federal criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI.

“The FBI is investigating allegations of criminal acts surrounding the incident at Scottsdale Fashion Square in May 2020,” spokeswoman Jill McCabe said last year.

Paul confirmed in since-deleted videos that an FBI raid on his California mansion last summer was connected to the riot.

Since that time, no federal charges have been filed against Paul. McCabe did not respond to a request to comment on the status of the investigation.

The Scottsdale Police Department faced significant blowback from some local residents and shop owners in the wake of the riot for a perceived failure to get the situation under control, especially after rumors swirled that city officials ordered police to stand down during the riot.

In July, the department issued a report that denied the rumor, though it acknowledged it was not prepared to deal with the sheer size of the riot.

“I was on the scene on May 30, 2020, and was the highest-ranking officer present, and I never gave a stand down order during the entire night/morning,” former Scottsdale Police Chief Alan Rodbell wrote.

The report states police were aware of social media posts calling for a riot at Fashion Square as early as 3 p.m. May 30, and the department coordinated with Fashion Square to close the mall early.

The department mobilized 84 officers to patrol the mall grounds — which covers 2.8 million square feet — with additional units on standby.

That is over three times the number of officers on duty on a typical night in District 2, which includes the mall.

The department’s intelligence unit had expected 45 to 55 people.

The department blamed the false intelligence on the way the post calling for the riot was shared online — using screenshots that made it difficult to track impressions using traditional metrics like retweets on Twitter or shares on Facebook.

“The posts then appear to be totally independent and must be discovered on an individual basis. It is also important to mention that while we can perform keyword searches, these search functions do not work when dealing with images,” the report says.

According to the department, it made a strategic decision to keep the rioters isolated in the mall area to avoid spillover into nearby neighborhoods.

“Moving the rioters would have been a huge mistake,” he says. “To the east, you had the entertainment district, where armed citizens sat on rooftops to defend their property.”

Officers also scrambled to protect occupied residential properties near the mall, including Optima and Scottsdale Waterfront, that were targeted by rioters.

The report showed Scottsdale police put out a call for help to the state Department of Public Safety as the gathering began at 10 p.m. but that request was denied because DPS was already aiding Phoenix police with protests.

Scottsdale police received help from other East Valley police departments after a call at 10:13 p.m.

In response to Scottsdale’s call for assistance, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Chandler, Mesa and Tempe sent 126 officers throughout the night. DPS ultimately sent 10 troopers as well.

The report determined that “mass arrest plans were not prudent as they would render a large number of our officers unable to respond to priority and emergency situations,” but the department committed to continue efforts to track down suspects afterward.

In the months since the incident, the department has made good on that, and officers and detectives are still attempting to track down more rioters.

O’Meara says the statute of limitations on most felony crimes in Arizona is seven years, and the burglary unit is using the stolen merchandise to track down participants.

Much of the high-end stolen goods, like watches, jewelry and luxury handbags, include serial numbers that the department can track.

If the department gets a hit on a stolen item being sold at a pawn shop, it can then attempt to track down the seller.

“For example, if somebody pawns a Montblanc watch and we get a hit on a serial number, one of the first things we do is we research that particular person and then we go back and we look at the Montblanc video to see if we can recognize that person in the store,” he says.

However, even when the department tracks down a stolen item, the case is not a slam dunk, because many of those items may have changed hands multiple times.

“Some of the things we’re running into is that it is a year old, so when we’re following some of the stolen property that may have been sold … it might not be the person that actually stole it,” O’Meara says.

“It might’ve been handed down or given away. … It might be somebody that had no idea it came from the mall.” ν

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