Videos show crash that killed Portland anti-fascist activist, prosecutors say; judge denies bail for suspect

A judge denied bail for a man accused of killing Sean Kealiher three years ago as prosecutors showed videos in court Friday that appear to capture an SUV plowing into the prominent anti-fascist activist and played a recording of the driver’s apparent confession.

Christopher E. Knipe, now 47, is charged with second-degree murder for allegedly piloting the SUV into Kealiher. He has pleaded not guilty.

The high-profile case has spurred speculation that Kealiher was killed because of his left-wing politics, as well as accusations that the Portland Police Bureau delayed the investigation because of Kealiher’s avowed anti-authority stance.

But Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Brad Kalbaugh painted a different narrative during the three-hour hearing — suggesting that two groups of men encountered each other by chance and became embroiled in a drunken argument, spurring the fatal crash.

Deputy District Attorney Brad Kalbaugh sought to hold Knipe without bail, a motion that was granted by Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Adrian Brown after hearing the evidence.

“We believe that today’s outcome serves the interests of justice and public safety,” Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Elisabeth Shepard said in a statement.

While the surveillance footage played in court doesn’t detail exactly what led up to the deadly crash, the videos show at least one person get into the rear door of a moving silver Ford SUV as three others — identified by prosecutors as Kealiher and his friends — stand nearby.

Prosecutors say Kealiher’s friends had been out drinking at the now defunct bar Cider Riot, a well-known lefty hang-out, before the encounter.

The videos show the SUV executing a jerky three-point turn before speeding back toward the three men, who dive for cover as the SUV jumps the sidewalk and slams into the brick wall of the Democratic Party of Oregon headquarters on Northeast Davis Street near Ninth Avenue.

Hyatt Eshelman, one of Kealiher’s friends, then pulled out a legally concealed revolver and fired three shots into the SUV, telling authorities he feared the driver was attempting to reverse, according to a memo filed as part of the bail hearing.

Eshelman and Christopher Aulerich then dragged their friend Kealiher into a different car and drove to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, where Kealiher was pronounced dead from blunt force trauma to the head. Photographs shown in the courtroom showed blood near the crime scene and a man sitting on a curb outside the hospital, his hands stained crimson.

Knipe reported the SUV stolen the next day, according to court records.

Knipe repeated the same story during an interview in early August inside the Central Precinct, telling Detective Scott Broughton he had no idea what had happened to his SUV after it was stolen but that he had received threatening social media messages leading him to believe it was involved in the fatal crash, according to eight minutes of audio played in court.

Broughton then showed Knipe photos of himself and his friends, Scott Wayne Duncan and Noah Alexander Caudle, entering the Bossanova Ballroom in Northeast Portland on the night of Kealiher’s death, according to the tape. Knipe’s cellphone had also pinged in the area, the detective added.

“I guess I’d better come clean,” Knipe replies with a sigh.

For the next 90 seconds, Knipe recounts what occurred: He said he was out with his friends at a show and later bumped into three men on a sidewalk who “stopped” Knipe and demanded to know their names.

Knipe said he tried to defuse the situation but one of the strangers punched one of his friends. Knipe said he then ran to his car and someone outside began banging on the window.

“I freaked out and I kind of ducked down, I must have stomped on the gas,” he said. “Everything got really loud and I crashed into a building.”

Knipe said he crouched behind the steering wheel, waiting for “someone to come kill me” When nothing happened, he said he fled into the night.

“Nobody’s really asked me about it, and I’ve been scared for a long time,” he told Broughton.

The long delay between the fatal crash and Knipe’s interview with police drew comment from the judge and bitter laughter from a half-dozen of Kealiher’s friends and family members, who each wore a button with the name Sean with an A circled in red, an anarchy symbol.

Police have said the delay was for valid investigatory reasons but have declined to elaborate.

In his interview with Broughton, Knipe said he was alone at the time of the crash, but prosecutors said the video evidence shows otherwise. Prosecutors said other surveillance footage shown in court shows Knipe and Caudle casually walking away from the crash scene, not running in terror.

Dressed in jail scrubs, Knipe did not speak during the bail hearing, and his defense attorney, Russell Barnett, declined to cross-examine the state’s only witness, Broughton.

In an interview, Barnett said such tactics would be fruitless given the low bar of proof required to hold a murder suspect without bail.

“It is a threshold less than beyond a reasonable doubt, and the result is not surprising,” he said. “We certainly don’t believe it’s predictive of the final result.”

— Zane Sparling;; 503-319-7083; @pdxzane

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