After the Capital Gazette shooting: the suspect, victims, rumors and fake flag accusations

June 28, 2018

Late Thursday, Annapolis police identified all five victims who died in a mass shooting at the office of the Capital Gazette were employees of the paper. The victims are:

Wendi Winters, who "covers all sorts of local news as the community news reporter and the columnist for Home of the Week, Teen of the Week, and Around Broadneck columns – and more."

Rebecca Smith, who was a recent hire at the paper. 

Robert Hiaasen, an assistant editor.  His bio says, "A native of Ft. Lauderdale and a graduate of the University of Florida, Rob was hired as the assistant editor of The Capital in 2010. Previously, he was a staff reporter for The Baltimore Sun for 15 years. He was also a staff reporter for The Palm Beach Post in Florida and was a news anchor and reporter at news-talk radio stations throughout the South. His feature column appears Sunday in the Life section of The Capital."  The University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism said Hiaason was,  "an adjunct lecturer, taught an advanced news writing course to Merrill College undergraduate students for the first time this spring. One student described him as 'patient, smart, kind, and passionate.'"

Gerald Fischman, who, the paper said, "..writes The Capital's editorials, edits the editorial page and handles editing on Saturday for The Sunday Capital."  A Baltimore Sun story called him "clever and quirky."

John McNamara, who's bio page said, "is the editor of the Bowie Blade-News and the Crofton-West County Gazette. He has worked in various capacities for Capital Gazette for more than 20 years."

"We need more than prayers"

"We need more than prayers. I appreciate your prayers but we need something else," Capital Gazette reporter Selene San Felice told CNN late Thursday night.

"This will be a story for how many days, less than a week," she told Anderson Cooper, adding that while she was hiding under her desk in the newspaper office she was praying for her life.

Fellow reporter Phil Davis said he was praying, too.

"I started praying while he was reloading his shotgun," he said. "I was praying that there were not going to be more bodies." 

San Felice ended the interview with Cooper saying she remembered hearing stories about Florida high school students who were on their phones, hiding from a shooter. "And there I was texting my parents, telling them I loved them. Thanks for your prayers, but I couldn't give a fuck about them if there is nothing else." 

Related: Today's an unwelcome reminder that journalism is difficult and dangerous work

CNN reported that the suspect in the shooting is Jarrod Warren Ramos. CNN said that in 2012, Ramos filed an unsuccessful defamation lawsuit against the paper. 

Jarrod Ramos of Laurel made the defamation claim in Prince George's County Circuit Court in 2012 after a 2011 column by then-Capital staff writer Eric Hartley about Ramos' guilty plea to criminal harassment. Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Maureen M. Lamasney dismissed Ramos' claim in 2013, saying the article was based on public records and Ramos presented no evidence it was inaccurate.

The lawsuit followed the paper's reporting about how Ramos stalked a high school classmate on her social media pages.  The story described how the woman endured "months of emails in which Ramos alternately asked for help, called her vulgar names and told her to kill herself. He emailed her company and tried to get her fired.”  In 2013, Prince George’s Circuit Court Judge Maureen M. Lamasney dismissed the lawsuit and told Ramos, “There is nothing in those complaints that prove that anything that was published about you is, in fact, false.”  (Read the entire ruling from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals here. The ruling includes the origional article that so infuriated Ramos. It was uploaded by Heavy.com.)

The Los Angeles Times quotes Tom Marquardt, the Capital Gazette editor and publisher until 2012, "I said during that time, ‘This guy is crazy enough to come in and blow us all away."  Marquardt said the paper worried about what Ramos might do and kept a file on him.  “The theory back then was, ‘Let’s not infuriate him more than I have to.… The more you agitate this guy, the worse it’s gonna get,'" Marquardt told the Times.  So even while people at the paper were concerned about Ramos for years, he didn't cause enough trouble to get arrested.   But, Marquardt told the Los Angeles Times, "If it’s him, I’m gonna feel … responsible for this.” “I pray it’s not him,” he said.

Fake posts, conspiracies and questionable information

Within an hour after what police call a "targeted attack" on the offices of the Capital Gazette, fake news generators did what has become routine for them. 

One Twitter account posted a fake headline that had been made to appear to be from The New York Times saying the "mass shooter listened to Milo Yiannopolis's call to 'shoot journalists."' The Times confirmed the headline was not real.

By 8 p.m. police were denying widespread reports quoting multiple "unnamed police sources" that the suspect had removed his fingerprints from his hands and police denied that they had used facial recognition to identify the suspect. Detectives working the case said they had "no idea" where that information came from. 

Related: Capital Gazette journalist on Twitter: 'Please understand, we do all this to serve our community.'

One of the predictable backdrafts from any mass killing is a wave of accusations, often started on dark websites like 4Chan, that the killings are part of a "false flag" event. False flags imply some sort of covert action meant to imply that one group was responsible for an attack as a cover for the real attacker. Often "the media" and "the government" are mentioned by conspiracy theorists as being the creators of such "false flag" attacks.

The phrase "false flag" goes back to pirate ship days when robbers would fly friendly flags as a cover to keep their intended victims from scattering.

Journalists took heat from the public for attempting to contact workers inside the Capital Gazette. Editor Jimmy DeButts pleaded for other journalists to stop asking for interviews.

Capital Gazette editor's tweet

Gazette reporter Chase Cook posted this stark message which tried to tamp down a GoFundMe account that was set up in the name of the shooting victims.

Tweet from reporter Chase Cook

That account, set up by a data journalist at Bloomberg Government, has been verified by GoFundMe.

The public reacts angrily to journalists

I am not naming names here because I still do not know for certain which tweets attributed to journalists were real and which may have been created to make journalists trying to cover the shooting appear to be vultures.

But social media readers angrily reacted to reporters who were attempting to contact journalists who were inside the office during the shooting. As in other recent mass shootings, we have seen journalists take to social media and try to talk with eyewitnesses to the shooting even as the witnesses are hiding. 

In the Parkland, Florida school shooting, reporters came under attack for asking students questions minutes after the shooting happened and before anybody had been arrested. In at least one case, a journalist was falsely accused of asking for images of dead bodies. That accusation came after somebody created a fake tweet using the reporter's twitter image and account name.

Capital Gazette reporter Phil Davis posted these messages right after the shooting:

Tweet from reporter Phil Davis

Tweet from reporter Phil Davis

Tweet from reporter Phil Davis

Tweet from reporter Phil Davis

Tweet from reporter Phil Davis

Davis told CNN that his newsroom has not undergone any threat training but there has been an occasional newsroom conversation about a heightened awareness of threats against news organizations.  The Annapolis Police Department said it practiced a live-shooter drill only last week, which may have contributed to the police responding within minutes.

Maryland Gun Laws

Every mass shooting ignites a new call for some sort of gun-control legislation.  Maryland is a state that protects gun ownership but the 2018 legislature was awash in bills to regulate guns.  A handful became law. The new Maryland laws ban assault weapons, outlaw “bump-stocks” and make it easier to take guns away from “dangerous people.” 

Initial reports said the shooter in this case fired a shotgun, which is deadly at close range. It is also one kind of weapon usually not mentioned in tighter gun regulation since they are seldom used in mass killings.

Given Ramos' guilty plea in the harassment case, it is unclear if he could have legally owned a gun. In that case, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail, but the jail time was suspended in lieu of 18 months of supervised probation. The woman who was the subject of his harassment said she moved three times to get away from him and always slept with a gun. WBAL-TV talked with the woman, whose name they did not release.  WBAL said "She had told police she warned former police officials years ago..'he will be your next mass shooter.'"