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A Peace Activist or a Sheriff's Spy?

The state attorney general is looking into a Fresno antiwar group's contention that an undercover deputy was tracking its activities.

June 23, 2004|William Wan | Times Staff Writer

Thumbing through the Fresno Bee last year, Camille Russell came across a story about a traffic fatality accompanied by a photo of a familiar face.

She knew the dead man as Aaron Stokes, a new member in her antiwar organization, Peace Fresno. But the newspaper story listed him as Aaron Kilner, a 27-year-old Fresno County sheriff's detective who died in a motorcycle accident while off duty.

She copied the photo and showed it to other members of Peace Fresno. "Don't say anything, just look at the picture and see if you recognize this man," she said.

They did.

Now, the activists are accusing the Sheriff's Department of infiltrating their group with an undercover detective. After months of lobbying by the group, California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer's office said this week that it was investigating their claim.

Fresno County Sheriff Richard Pierce won't confirm or deny that Kilner was spying on Peace Fresno. But he said in a prepared statement that his department reserved the right to conduct surveillance as part of its anti-terrorism efforts.

Russell and other members say their group has nothing to do with terrorism and spends most of its time organizing a monthly antiwar protest at Shaw and Blackstone avenues, one of Fresno's busiest intersections.

"It just creeps us out thinking about it," said Nicholas DeGraff, vice president of Peace Fresno. "Looking back, he did seem suspicious. He just sat in the corner and was very quiet, which stuck out because we're an activist group. We're all pretty vocal."

Peace Fresno's leaders said the man they knew as Stokes joined their group in January 2003. He paid the $12 membership fee, went to street rallies and even handed out fliers -- all the while quietly observing, with a notebook in hand.

One time, when the group's secretary missed a meeting, they noticed the man taking notes and asked him to record the minutes of the meeting.

"He wrote things down, but we never got those notes," Russell said.

The man often wore corduroy pants with a tucked-in polo shirt, members said. At first, he sported a goatee. Then, he started growing his hair long. When Russell asked him what he did for a living, the soft-spoken man replied that he was unemployed, having recently come into a small inheritance.

The man stopped attending meetings last June. Det. Aaron Kilner died in August when his motorcycle crashed into a car.

The organization, formed shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is a mix of retirees, teachers, college students and social workers. The group claims about 200 members, but the weekly meetings draw about 25 people.

Ever since Russell saw Kilner's obituary, Peace Fresno has been trying to figure out what he was doing in the group.

A lawyer for the group demanded an explanation from the Sheriff's Department. Pierce refused but told the group it was not currently under investigation.

In a statement released to the news media, the sheriff said, "The department will continue to utilize legal methods for collecting, evaluating, collating, analyzing and disseminating criminal intelligence of terrorist and organized crime organizations to accomplish its mission, while respecting the constitutional rights of all persons."

The Fresno County Sheriff's Department is hardly the first police agency to be accused of improper surveillance. Through the early 1980s, a special squad of the Los Angeles Police Department kept tabs on liberal political groups as well as some elected officials, keeping top police brass informed of subjects' movements. Last year, San Francisco police apologized for videotaping antiwar protesters without permission from superiors in the department.

A few months ago, the American Civil Liberties Union joined with Peace Fresno to request documents from the Sheriff's Department related to the alleged spying. The agency responded by saying it had no notes on Peace Fresno and no policy requiring officers to retain their notes.

In a last-ditch effort, the ACLU and Peace Fresno filed a complaint in April with Lockyer.

No state or federal laws exist specifically dealing with the issue, but California's Constitution includes the right to privacy. Lockyer's office wrote back to the activists, promising that it would conduct an investigation.

"There is a concern about surveillance when there is no criminal predicate -- that law enforcement agents are simply harassing the free speech activities of citizens," said Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for Lockyer. "That's not what we want."

The Sheriff's Department did not return calls seeking comment.

Peace Fresno has also filed a civil claim against Fresno County, seeking damages for emotional distress. The group has offered to settle for no money if certain conditions are met, including a written apology from the sheriff.

Meanwhile, group members are combing old images of events, looking for clues they missed about the man they knew as Aaron Stokes.

"We found video footage of one protest. Every time we look at it, it's kind of eerie. In the video, everyone is cheering and being noisy. And there he is scanning the crowd," DeGraff said. "Now, you can't help thinking, 'What did I say? What did I do in front of him?' "

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