Police in Portland, Oregon, have arrested a suspect for murder in the 2019 fatal hit-and-run of a local anti-fascist activist whose death led to widespread speculation about a possible political motivation.
Detectives “do not believe the crime was politically motivated,” according to a press release, which offered few details about an investigation that led to lawsuits from journalists seeking public records.
Christopher E. Knipe, 47, was first publicly identified by the Portland Police Bureau on Thursday after he was arrested for second-degree murder in the Oct. 12, 2019, death of 23-year-old Sean “Armeanio” Kealiher.
But Kealiher’s mother, Laura Kealiher, has long publicly accused Knipe and another man of murdering her son while criticizing police for not arresting anyone. Ruled a homicide by the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office, Kealiher’s death and the police reaction sparked protests in Portland and national news articles such as a March 3, 2021, article in The Intercept headlined, “The Life and Death of an Anti-Fascist: Sean Kealiher was a defining presence on Portland’s protest scene. Why was his murder never solved?”
It opened: “Few anti-fascists were as influential on Portland’s recent protest scene as Sean Kealiher” and said he’d been killed in front of the Oregon Democratic Party’s office in Portland. A nine-part investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting “Dying for a Fight” also includes an interview with a longtime Portland activist who mentored Kealiher when he joined the Occupy Wall Street movement when he was 15.
But as OPB also reported, the location where Kealiher was run over also is near a popular bar for Portland’s anti-fascist scene, the Cedar Riot. Lawyers for his friend who saw what happened told the Oregonian in the weeks afterward that the deadly clash started as a verbal confrontation that escalated as Kealiher and two friends were walking from the now-closed bar.
Police found the SUV that struck Kealiher abandoned and crashed into the side of a commercial building. Dispatchers had heard reports of gunfire, and officers found “evidence of gunfire into the vehicle,” according to the initial police press release. Kealiher was taken to a hospital by friends in a private vehicle.
As time passed, police insisted he investigation was active. But some questioned whether they were motivated to solve the death of such an outspoken activist, with The Intercept saying he “rarely missed a protest” and “would have been front and center last summer when the insurrectionary activism he had long advocated for became a staple on Portland streets.”
Police addressed the secrecy early on, saying on Oct. 15, 2019, that detectives “take these investigations seriously and cannot risk compromising an investigation by divulging information too soon in the process.”
“We are committed to sharing what information we can when it will not hinder the investigation,” according to the release. “We understand there is a high degree of public interest in this case and hope that interest helps us to gather information that can help us solve this tragic crime and other unsolved homicide investigations.”
But as the secrecy continued, Oregon Public Broadcasting sued, as did The Intercept. The city released the case file “with all but 39 out of 685 pages completely or largely redacted,” which OPB is appealing.
Laura Kealiher told OPB late Thursday that the arrest hadn’t restored her confidence in the police.
“There’s gonna be a trial and they’re gonna make Sean look like shit,” Kealiher told the station. “At least they did something. It’s better than nothing, I guess.”