Police Thwart Heavily Armed Man Headed to Gay Pride Parade
By Joel Rubin, Hailey Branson-Potts and Zahira Torres and Frank Shyong
Authorities on Sunday were trying to determine the intentions of an Indiana man with a cache of weapons, ammunition and explosive-making materials in his car and apparent plans to attend the L.A. Pride festival in West Hollywood.
Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks initially said on Twitter that the 20-year-old man told one of her officers after he was arrested that he wanted "to harm Gay Pride event."
But Lt. Saul Rodriguez said later the tweet was a misstatement. He said the suspect told investigators that he was going to the Pride festival but said he did not make additional statements about his intentions.
"It was a misstatement," Rodriguez said. "Unfortunately, she was given incorrect information initially, which indicated that that statement was made; however, that statement never was made. He did indicate that he was planning on going to the Pride festival but beyond anything as far as motives or his intentions that statement was never made nor did any officer receive that statement."
Police identified the suspect as James Wesley Howell of Indiana. A Facebook page for someone with the same name in Indiana shows a young man posing next to a white Acura with the same license plate as the car searched in Santa Monica for the weapons and explosives.
At a news conference Sunday afternoon, police stressed they were still trying to figure out what Howell planned to do with the weapons.
Howell's friend and fellow car club member Joseph Greeson, 18, said Howell didn't harbor any ill will toward gays or lesbians.
Greeson said Howell's family in Jeffersonville hadn't seen him for days and that his parents had called Greeson's parents looking for him.
He added that Howell was known to have a gun collection.
According to Indiana court records, Howell was charged in October 2015 with intimidation and felony pointing a firearm at another person. On April 19, Howell pleaded guilty to misdemeanor intimidation, and prosecutors dropped the charge of pointing a firearm. Court records show he was sentenced to a year in state prison and placed on probation. Under the deal, He agreed to forfeit all weapons during his term of probation.
Howell allegedly pointed a gun at his neighbors in the October incident, according to a News and Tribune article. In the article, witnesses also described Howell as having pointed his gun at his boyfriend in an earlier incident.
"James is going to get someone hurt," one witness said, the article said. "He needs to stop pointing guns at people."
Greeson said that Howell harbored no ill will toward gays or lesbians and added that Howell was bisexual.
Federal and local law enforcement decided against canceling the annual parade, which went forward Sunday morning under tightened security. Investigators are now trying to piece together what happened but said they don't believe there is any connection between the incident and the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that killed at least 50 people overnight.
Early Sunday, Santa Monica police received a call about a suspected prowler who was knocking on a resident's door and window about 5 a.m. in the 1700 block of 11th Street, Santa Monica police said. Patrol officers responded and encountered Howell, who was sitting in a car registered in Indiana, police said. Officers inspected the car and found three assault rifles, high-capacity ammunition and a 5-gallon bucket containing "chemicals capable of forming an improvised explosive device," police said.
A law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity said the contents of the bucket included Tannerite, an ingredient that could be used to create a pipe bomb. The maker of the material said that was not the case and that it can only be detonated by high-velocity impact such as a bullet strike. But Tannerite is known as a material used in the construction of other types of explosive devices.
The source, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation, said authorities also found camouflage clothing in the car.
Los Angeles County sheriff's officials said the suspect told police he was going to the Pride parade to look for a friend. Authorities were looking for that individual.
Santa Monica police spokesman Saul Rodriguez said detectives are "not aware of what the suspect's intentions were at this point."
Santa Monica police continued to search the suspect's white Acura on Sunday morning. All four of the car's doors were open and a green blanket, red gasoline canister and several other smaller items were being piled on the sidewalk next to it. The car's license plate included a symbol of the National Rifle Assn. on the left side and the bottom said, "Teaching Freedom."
A Facebook page for Howell said he attended high school in Louisville, Ky., and lives in Jeffersonville, Ind., where he works for an air filtration company. A car enthusiast, Howell posted numerous photographs of the Acura along with a couple of videos taken from inside cars. Another 10-second video includes gunfire, with shots striking grass.
The site includes political posts, including one in which he compares Hillary Clinton to Adolf Hitler. In another, he repeats conspiracy theories that the government was behind notorious terrorist attacks, including Sept. 11, 2001. That post shares a video claiming that last year's terror attack on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was a hoax and attributable to the "New World Order."
"They found him with weapons that were very disconcerting," said one source, adding officials are "taking the appropriate safety precautions."
One source in West Hollywood said there was discussion of calling off the parade but that officials decided to go forward, with heavy security including undercover officers in the crowd.
The sources spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
The parade comes hours after the attack at the Orlando club. In addition to those killed, at least 53 were injured in the deadliest shooting in modern American history after a gunman took hostages. The gunman, who was killed in a shootout with police, has been identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, a U.S. law enforcement official said.
West Hollywood City Councilwoman Lindsey Horvath said in a statement that Los Angeles County sheriff's officials were stepping up security efforts around Sunday's parade and other festivities. But she said officials do not believe there is any threat around Sunday's activities.
The parade began about 10:45 a.m. Usually a joyful affair, this event was tempered by the Orlando violence and the Santa Monica arrest.
Emma Samuels, 16, stood at Crescent Heights and Santa Monica boulevards with a group of friends, wearing a rainbow tutu.
She had heard about what happened in Florida when her mother called her Sunday morning, as soon as she arrived at the parade. "She told me and said, 'I hope you're safe, sweetie, I love you and let me know that you're OK,'" she said. Her friend Nicki Genco-Kamin, 18, stood with her, a "No H8" temporary tattoo on her left cheek: "I feel like it's all the more reason to come out. That's trying to push us back. This is showing we're still here, we're still going to take a stand," she said.
The group said that a sense of worry was there, but stressed the importance of turning out.
"That's exactly why we're here, to be like, 'I'm proud of who I am. I don't care if you hate me, I'm going to love myself,'" Samuels said.
"Life is short anyways," Genco-Kamin said. "Spend it being authentic to yourself."
Times staff writers Richard Winton and Kate Mather contributed to this report.
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