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‘Did he deserve to die?’ Polarization and conspiracy led to the FBI’s fatal Provo raid

The complaint in United States District Court against Craig Deleeuw Robertson, featuring threatening online postings by Robertson, is photographed in San Francisco, Aug. 9, 2023. Robertson, an armed Utah man accused of making violent threats against President Joe Biden, was shot and killed by FBI agents hours before the president was expected to land in the state, authorities say. The shooting happened as special agents tried to serve a warrant on the home of Robertson in Provo, south of Salt Lake City.
Eric Risberg
/
AP
The complaint in United States District Court against Craig Deleeuw Robertson, featuring threatening online postings by Robertson, is photographed in San Francisco, Aug. 9, 2023.

Before President Joe Biden visited Salt Lake City last August, one man in Provo posted to Facebook about getting his camouflage and sniper rifle ready. The FBI took Craig Robertson's threats to Biden seriously — a SWAT team later raided his home and fatally shot him.

Now we have a fuller picture of Robertson’s life and what happened that day.

In a story for Politico, “He Threatened to Kill the President. Did He Deserve to Die?”, journalist Rowan Moore Gerety answered his own question emphatically.

“Absolutely not,” Gerety said.

Family, friends and neighbors described Robertson to Gerety as a 75-year-old, 300-pound man who was diabetic and had difficulty walking unaided. He would drive the block to church services on Sundays. Gerety was told Robertson was “very limited in his mobility” and “moved quite slowly.”

An FBI investigation into Robertson’s death is ongoing and may not conclude for several months, according to Gerety. Even so, in some ways, Gerety said, his death is understandable from the perspective of those in charge of keeping the president safe.

“If you speak to federal law enforcement, when the president is on his way to Utah and you believe there is a credible threat somewhere in that area, you move quickly.”

Reports at the time painted a picture of a man who served in the Air Force, regularly carried firearms and had a past brush with the police. But with his social media posts about the president and other political figures, and an earlier visit from the FBI, Gerety said Robertson should have understood that he was “courting disaster.”

“I think this is somebody who really did live a little bit in two worlds where he did not seem to regard what he said online as having any real place in informing the way that he interacted with the world or vice versa,” Gerety said.

“But if you are in a decision-making position in the federal government and your job is to prevent a presidential assassination, it's kind of an impossible choice to say, ‘Oh, well, that guy only says stuff like that on the internet.’”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ciara Hulet: Who was Craig Robertson? What was he like?

Rowan Moore Gerety: Craig Robertson was a retired welding inspector who lived for most of the last 20 years alone. And he had a pretty contained life. He lived about a block away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he was active in his congregation.

He spent a lot of time with at least one family who lives south of Provo. But other than that, he did not seem to have a lot of people in his life. One other really important thing to note about Craig Robertson is that he was a passionate gunsmith all his life.

CH: Describing his physical state, Robertson’s daughter didn't think there was any way he could get within shooting distance of the president. Why do you think the government saw things differently? 

RMG: On some level, I think the choice we ask federal law enforcement to make in a scenario like this is an impossible one.

There’s a challenge when you're dealing with someone who has weapons like an AR-15. Their physical limitations should be taken into account, but you don't necessarily need to be a real athlete in order to pose a real threat. These are weapons that can pierce body armor, that you can fire accurately from hundreds of yards away. And he had already had some interactions with the FBI. They went and saw him in April, and he essentially told them, you know, don't come back without a warrant and continued to taunt those FBI agents online, making threats to shoot them.

CH: Do you think all of this would have happened even just a few years ago?

RMG: I've been stewing over that question the entire time I've been working on this story. It was quite revelatory to me when I was speaking to Craig Robertson's best friends about the history of his posts online. One of them said to me, "You know, I don't remember him saying much of anything like this before the Biden administration." It dawned on me in that moment what a huge role conspiracy theories around the 2020 election have played in the radicalization of people like Craig Robertson, or appear to have played.

This is someone who, by all appearances, thought in the core of his being that the 2020 election was stolen. And I think that belief justifies a way of thinking about public figures, a way of speaking about public figures that is quite different from what we might have heard from Craig Robertson 10 years ago.

Ciara is a native of Utah and KUER's Morning Edition host
Emily Pohlsander is the Morning Edition Producer and graduated with a journalism degree from Missouri State University. She has worked for newspapers in Missouri and North Carolina.
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