Rio Arriba shooter supported 2020 Oñate shooting, online posts show radical rabbit hole

Experts say the spread of far-right content on social media poses risk of more violence

By: - October 11, 2023 4:15 am
On top of a concrete slab with signs taped on like "We resist through prayer" and "Create a future of peace" lay squashes and flowers.

The concrete slab where Rio Arriba County officials planned to reinstall a statue of statue of conquistador and war criminal Juan de Oñate. (Photo by Anna Padilla for Source NM)

Ryan Martinez, the Donald Trump supporter who shot activist Jacob Johns (Hopi, Akimel O’odham) last month at a prayer vigil where a statue of war criminal Juan de Oñate was set to be installed, had an extensive history of posting and engaging with extremist content on social media, a review of archived posts by Source NM found.

In hundreds of posts spanning a two-year timeframe, he repeatedly expressed belief in the QAnon conspiracy theory, advocated violence against Democrat officials and frequently used racist and antisemitic language and homophobic and sexist slurs.

He also reacted with enthusiastic support to news of a separate shooting by another Trump supporter at a statue of Oñate outside Albuquerque in 2020.

Martinez is charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault for the shooting, and was denied release pending trial after the FBI reported he had a history of violent threats on social media. He will face a state district court judge in Tierra Amarilla on Friday morning.

John Day, an attorney representing Johns, said as of Tuesday that Johns was still at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque and his condition was unstable. The hospital has scheduled and then delayed multiple surgeries because they’re worried he couldn’t make it through them, Day said.

Day also wants Martinez to be charged with a federal hate crime.

‘I wrote a Q on my hand and I’m sure the president saw it’

In a series of posts following a Trump rally in Rio Rancho in 2019, Martinez wrote that rally security took away a sign he made expressing belief in the QAnon conspiracy theory.

He then wrote a letter “Q” on his hand in black marker, and became convinced Trump saw it and was sending him coded messages during the rally.

“I wrote a Q on my hand and I’m sure the president saw it,” he wrote in a post that contained a picture of himself with the Q on his palm.

In a series of follow-up posts, Martinez and other QAnon believers became convinced that Trump tapping the podium during his speech was a coded message, one that Martinez believed was meant for him personally.

“Did you count how many times he was tapping the podium?? … I think he was doing that directed at me,” he wrote.

QAnon adherents falsely believe that Democrats traffic children, sexually abuse them and harvest their brains to stay preternaturally young, and a key demand of the movement is the public execution of Trump’s political enemies.

WHAT TO DO IF A FRIEND OR FAMILY MEMBER IS SUCKED INTO CONSPIRACY THEORIES

Rachel Carroll Rivas of the Southern Poverty Law Center told Source NM that intervention from trusted friends and family can make a difference when someone is drawn into conspiracy theories.

“We know that personal conversations from people that they know, who see the conspiracy ideas that folks are having, or are expressing bigotries, are number one. So let’s not ignore the person in your life who is visiting conspiracy websites,” she said.

Showing understanding and compassion rather than anger at a person’s false beliefs can help, Carroll Rivas said.

“It’s actually worth the conversation and it doesn’t have to be confrontational,” she said.

The SPLC and the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) provide a series of guides for parents and educators to intervene in youth radicalization.

The guides are available for free here.

The conspiracy theory played a major role in the attempted insurrection on Jan. 6, 2020, and believers in the theory carried out a string of murders, terror attacks and kidnappings in the U.S. and abroad during Trump’s presidency.

The FBI has repeatedly warned that followers of the conspiracy theory pose a violent risk to the country’s security.

Martinez frequently interacted with Q-themed content and posted Q slogans dozens of times on a now-deleted social media account, though hundreds of posts are preserved on the Internet Archive. His archived posts cover mid-2018 to late 2020.

Source NM asked his attorney Nicole Moss for comment via email, but did not receive a response. Martinez was initially represented by a public defender before hiring Moss. 

Shooter repeatedly advocated political violence

In 2020, Martinez received a visit from FBI agents over a 2018 tweet that seemingly threatened violence against members of the Federal Reserve.

That post and two others highlighted by the FBI were absent from the archived posts reviewed by Source NM. But other posts by Martinez indicated support for politically-motivated violence.

“@BarackObama ready to be hung?” Martinez posted in 2019.

In response to a Washington Post article about police killing an antifascist activist wanted for the shooting death of a far-right activist without warning or attempting to arrest him–a police shooting that Trump claimed credit for ordering as an act of “retribution”–Martinez wrote “Good.”

Following a 2020 shooting by a Trump supporter at a statue of Oñate near Albuquerque, Martinez blamed Albuquerque mayor Tim Keller for the shooting, and trolled online commentators expressing sadness at the violence.

That shooting was carried out by failed city council candidate Steven Ray Baca after Baca committed a series of physical attacks on anti-Oñate protesters.

Video of the incident showed Baca push a woman from to the ground, injuring her legs; mace a man in the face; push a second woman to the ground, injuring her head; and finally shoot a demonstrator Scott Williams four times in the back at close range with a .40-caliber handgun.

Prosecutors initially charged Baca with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for the shooting, but later dropped that charge. Baca pleaded guilty to battery and aggravated battery for other assaults on protesters and unlawful carrying of a deadly weapon. His sentencing is set for November.

In response to a video of Baca assaulting one of the women, Martinez wrote “I would’ve pushed that (expletive) out of the way too,” using a gendered slur to refer to the woman.

Many other posts on his account were deeply bigoted, with frequent use of anti-gay slurs and gendered insults.

Martinez also posted numerous racist and antisemitic messages, telling an American of foreign descent to leave the country and advocating for other nonwhite Americans accused of crimes to lose their citizenship.

He asserted then-candidate Kamala Harris was “Indian” instead of American.

And he frequently posted antisemitic conspiracy theories about liberal philanthropist George Soros and wondered if right-wing commentator Matt Drudge was an Israeli spy.

Experts say online spread of conspiracy theories increase risk of violence

Three experts interviewed by Source NM said that while they couldn’t comment on Martinez’s specific motivations, in general QAnon and related conspiracy theories have a high risk of motivating adherents to violence.

A belief in conspiracies like QAnon or false claims that the election was stolen from Trump, which he also expressed belief in, can cause people to “feel like they have to act on their own to fix it,” according to Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director of research, analysis and reporting at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “That’s really concerning, because then there is a propensity towards violence and other forms of harm,” she said.

Stolen election conspiracy theories allegedly motivated a string of shootings in the Albuquerque area following the election last year, with failed New Mexico House candidate Solomon Peña charged with organizing shootings at the residences of Democratic officials and thereby interfering with the elections.

Jessica Feezell, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico who studies the relationship between social media and political behavior, said most people who believe in conspiracy theories don’t turn to violence, and it’s unclear exactly what factors cause someone to take violent actions based on false beliefs.

“Probably it is an intersectional result of a lot of different variables. It could be their mental health, it could be socioeconomic status, it could be their age,” she said.

One factor increasing the risk of political violence is that Republican politicians have become increasingly unwilling to denounce violence by their supporters, Feezell said.

“I don’t remember hearing any instances of Republican leadership taking a position that actively discourages acts of violence,” she said. “People like Donald Trump will regularly go on the media to say that the election is rigged (and) to actually say that shoplifters should be shot and generals should be tried for treason. Those statements have consequences for people that follow him.”

Threats against Democrats, some encouraged by Republican officials, proliferated on social media in recent weeks following governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s emergency public health order that included a gun ban in Bernalillo County before it was stopped by a federal judge.

Jared Holt, a senior research analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said that conspiracy theories like QAnon “tend to attract people that may be disposed in one way or another to these kinds of (violent) actions.”

And the equation works the other way around, with people attracted to QAnon encouraged to commit violence by the belief system itself, he said.

People hug after a shooting in Española during a prayer event to oppose the reinstallation of a statue of conquistador and war criminal Juan de Oñate. (Photo by Anna Padilla for Source NM)

“For people to take dramatic actions based on a very dramatic belief system isn’t a complete surprise,” Holt said. “These kind of conspiracy theories are still quite powerful and motivating (the) kind of hyperactive fringe to behave badly and make people feel that they’re in danger even if they aren’t actually in danger.”

Like other experts interviewed, Holt said that it’s too early to determine Martinez’s motivations for the shooting or whether it was directly inspired by QAnon but added “I think it would be a mistake to discount it from the equation.”

Belief that the 2020 election was stolen can also be a powerful motivator to violence, Holt said, and Republican officials and media figures have fanned the flames by endorsing or refusing to condemn false claims of election fraud.

“Nobody cries tears when dictatorships fall. So if you adopt that frame of mind, you can see how somebody might consider priorly unthinkable options might seem viable,” he said. “These kinds of false beliefs, unfortunately they’ve become so commonplace in America today that it’s easy to kind of feel numb to them or forget how extreme the claims that underlie them are.”

Asked whether more politically motivated violence was likely in New Mexico’s future, Carroll Rivas of the SPLC has a dire outlook.

“There are a lot of guns, and there are a lot of people trying to sew division in our communities, and there are a lot of people trying to sew division in New Mexico, so it’s way too likely,” she said.

Senior Reporter Austin Fisher contributed reporting.

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Andrew Beale
Andrew Beale

Andrew Beale has 15 years of reporting experience, starting with the UNM Daily Lobo. He's reported for national and international publications including the New York Times, Vice and al-Jazeera from locations as far-flung as Portland and Palestine. He has a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and he resides in Southern California.

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