Gunman at Seattle protest claims he feared for his life. Others paint a different picture
A Seattle man who shot a protester in the arm as he sped into a crowd on Capitol Hill said he had panicked after a crowd circled his car.
"I just had to shoot someone; they tried to jack my car," he yelled as he ran toward police and surrendered. He held a gun as he ran.
Nikolas Fernandez, 31, of Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood, made his first court appearance Monday. Cell phone footage from all angles captured him driving his car toward a crowd of protesters on Capitol Hill Sunday night.
Fernandez was arrested after surrendering himself to police shortly after shooting a man in the upper right arm. He has not yet been charged, but is being held on $150,000 bond.
Kyle, a protester who asked that KUOW not use his last name, said he recognized Fernandez. When Kyle heard a loud bang ring out near 11th and Pine at about 8:20 p.m., he figured Seattle police had deployed yet another flashbang against demonstrators.
But then he noticed a man, brandishing a gun, exit the driver’s seat of a black Honda Civic. He said he recognized Fernandez's gait.
“He just kind of has this loose saunter, and I could see his face too,” Kyle said.
The two men are acquaintances who attended Ballard High School together 13 years ago. Fernandez, Kyle said, was popular and well-liked. Kyle said he was taken aback by Fernandez’s actions Sunday night.
READ: Car drives into Seattle protest; driver shoots 27-year-old male protester
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, he must have made a mistake; he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone,’” Kyle said. “So I started yelling out his name, and he looked scared honestly. He got out of the car with the gun in his hand, and people started to close in on him. So he ran through the crowd to escape and ran towards the police.”
Within three hours of the shooting, Twitter users identified Fernandez. They sussed out that Fernandez was a part of the Iron Workers Local Union 86, based on the black hoodie he was wearing. They took screenshots of his Instagram page. The account was deleted shortly after.
Along with footage of the incident, rumors regarding Fernandez’s affiliation and intent have circulated online. Activist Shaun King, who is based in New York, shared video footage on Twitter, writing that Fernandez is “a known white supremacist” and “was clearly planning to run protesters in Seattle over.”
A video from Sunday shows Fernandez approaching police with his hands up before being apprehended by officers without any apparent incident. Hours later, however, protesters were met with flashbangs, pepper spray, and tear gas.
The near daily deployment of tear gas, rubber bullets, and other crowd control measures by Seattle Police prompted an outcry by Seattle residents and city council members who attended the protest.
Officers took a more aggressive approach when arresting protesters on Capitol Hill last week. A video captured on June 4 shows multiple officers dog-pile a single protester. People are heard screaming, "Get off her!"
In court on Monday, Fernandez’s defense argued that he was on his way to work at a Nike store and got caught in the crowd after making a wrong turn. In the “chaos” he panicked, said attorney Jesse Dubow.
“I don't have any indication based on his statement that he did intentionally have a purpose other than what he told the officer — ‘that they tried to jack my car,’” Dubow said.
Nikolas Alexander Fernandez superform.pdf
Fernandez told an investigating officer on Sunday night that he panicked when a protester, Daniel Gregory, dove through his driver's side window as he drove down the block. Gregory grabbed his steering wheel, Fernandez told the officer, and so Fernandez picked up his gun from the passenger seat and shot him.
Fernandez said he got out of the car and ran past barricades to the police line and surrendered. He told the officer that his brother works at East Precinct and that he did not want to shame him.
Gregory, 27, told police a slightly different version of events: That Fernandez’s car was barreling toward the protesters at increasing speed, 40 to 50 miles per hour.
Ferndandez’s driving was “insane,” Gregory told investigators. Gregory said he was aiming to stop the vehicle from slamming into the crowd.
“I catch him, I punch him in the face,” Gregory recounted in a video shared by photojournalist Alex Garland on Twitter. “I moved right in time when he reached for something.”
That something was a Glock 26 with an extended magazine.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best told MSNBC Monday morning that the shooting did not appear to be “random or accidental," but that a motive has yet to be determined.
A King County prosecutor agreed in court later that afternoon.
"In this case, the defendant did drive his vehicle at an excessive speed into a crowd of protesters," said attorney Karissa Taylor. “As he realized he was driving the wrong way, he sped up placing the crowd in danger. As people in the crowd yelled at him to stop, someone placed a flimsy barrier in an effort to slow him down.”
The prosecution maintains there is probable cause to charge Fernandez with assault in the first degree with a firearm enhancement. Fernandez's next court appearance is scheduled for Wednesday at 2:30 p.m., and any charges are expected to be announced then.
But Kalie Sandstrom, a Seattle woman who attended high school with Fernandez, said the speculation that he must have been a violent white supremacist was premature.
“That was mostly [people] jumping to conclusions right away,” Sandstrom said. She, with others, identified Fernandez online.
It was hard to imagine the “Niko” she knew, the one who would cut her hair, who she said had an infectious laugh and got along with everyone, would intentionally drive his car into protesters. But she also struggles with the narrative that what Fernandez did amounted to an accident.
“I don’t understand how you could drive toward hundreds of people, and it be a mistake and not a threat,” she said. “This does not seem within character for him, but I also haven't seen him for 10 years.”
At the King County Courthouse on Monday, a group of 10 gathered outside in the courtroom to support Fernandez. Those who showed up to testify for Fernandez did not speak during the hearing.
After the hearing, Fernandez’s family and friends formed a circle in the hall. “Look at this diverse group of people standing here,” said a man who identified himself as a family member of Fernandez’s. He declined to speak with KUOW.
Kalie Sandstrom, Fernandez’s friend from high school, was still putting the pieces together Monday afternoon. She was doing her best to decipher what might have been Fernandez’s intent.
“Was he on his way to work?” she asked. “Was he working with a group?”
Before Fernandez’s Instagram account was deleted, the most recent post showed the words “black, white, brown” crossed out. Below them is the word “human.”
The caption said, “... Don’t talk about it, be about it.”