How Facebook Helped Turn a Santa Cruz County Veteran Into a Cop Killer

Confessed slayer of sheriff’s sergeant and federal officer was radicalized by the online extremist movement known as ‘boogaloo.’

PUBLISHED JUL 29, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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Steven Carrillo, who has pled guilty to the murders of two law enforcement officers.

Steven Carrillo, who has pled guilty to the murders of two law enforcement officers.

Steven Carrillo, a decorated United States Air Force veteran and resident of Ben Lomond, pleaded guilty on June 27 to killing Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sergeant Damon Gutzwiller two years ago. Just three weeks before that plea, Carrillo had been sentenced to 41 years in prison for the murder of a another law enforcement officer in Oakland.

Carrillo shot Gutzwiller, killing him, in June of 2020 after bomb-making materials were discovered in a white van parked at Carrillo’s Ben Lomond home and law enforcement was called in. When officers arrived, Carrillo opened fire. He wounded several other officers then fled on foot. He carjacked a vehicle and ran over another sheriff’s deputy—after he shot that same deputy who was also wounded by bomb shrapnel. That deputy survived his injuries.

Just a few weeks earlier, Carrillo—at the time an active duty Air Force member who had trained for an elite military security force known as the Phoenix Ravens—gunned down 53-year-old Dave Underwood, a security contractor for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in a drive-by shooting in front of the federal courthouse in Oakland. Carrillo pled guilty to that murder in February. He has since been discharged from the military.

How did a 12-year military veteran of multiple deployments in the Middle East turn into a multiple cop-killer? The answer, according to an investigative report by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Sharpe, can be summed up in one word: Facebook.

Facebook and the ‘Boogaloo’

Following his final military deployment in Kuwait, according to Sharpe’s reporting, Carrillo’s life took a downward turn. His wife committed suicide in 2018, and he unsuccessfully attempted to take his own life on multiple occasions. 

Then, while still stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, Carrillo discovered a Facebook group called “K/alifornia Kommando,” part of an online extremist movement that calls itself “boogaloo.” The group takes its name from the 1984 movie Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, which has come to be synonymous with quintessentially bad sequels. The online “boogaloo,” in the twisted logic of right-wing extremism, refers to a sequel to the United States Civil War. The Facebook “boogaloo” movement was dedicated to starting a new civil war.

The movement originated on fringe internet platforms such as 4Chan, but it was Facebook where boogaloo really took hold. On Jan. 20 of 2020, just four months before Carrillo murdered Dave Underwood and five months before he killed Damon Gutzwiller, the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute published a research paper warning that the online boogaloo movement, “a recently formed apocalyptic militia ideology,” posed a threat of violence against law enforcement.

“Boogaloo followers generally see law enforcement as agents of a corrupt government that should be overthrown,” Sharpe wrote. “They attend various protests, often clad in Hawaiian shirts and body armor and carrying big guns.”

A ‘Powerful Vector’ for Violent Extremism

Even earlier, in November 2019, the Anti-Defamation League—which tracks anti-Semitic, racist and other violent hate movements—also issued a warning that the sudden emergence and use of the term “boogaloo” online “may even signify an increased willingness to engage in violence.”

Underwood’s sister in January 2022 sued Facebook’s parent company Meta to hold the multibillion-dollar social media corporation responsible for his death. Meta says it banned the boogaloo movement from Facebook and its other platforms in June 2020. But 18 months later, the nonpartisan Tech Transparency Project (TTP) reported that “Facebook—now under parent company Meta—remains a powerful vector for domestic extremism.”

The TTP report noted that Facebook “was a prime tool for organizing” the Jan. 6, 2021, attack of the U.S. Capitol. And according to a Brookings Institute report, the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying social restrictions acted as an accelerant for the online boogaloo movement’s descent into violent, anti-government fanaticism.

“As a captive, stuck-at-home audience grew increasingly isolated and unemployed during this period, the Boogaloo movement’s popularity sharply grew across both fringe web communities, such as 4chan, and more mainstream ones,” the Brookings report said. “Increasingly, Boogaloo enthusiasts began appearing at real-world anti-lockdown protests carrying guns.”

Boogaloo Moves Into the Real World

Carrillo’s fascination with the Facebook boogaloo group began transitioning into the offline world when he joined the Grizzly Scouts, a ragtag militia-style group founded by Jesse Rush of Turlock, whom Sharpe, relying on court flings, described as “a ‘severely damaged’ Army veteran overwhelmed by the pandemic, social unrest, the loss of his job and misinformation on social media.”

The Grizzly Scouts met in Turlock, where they practiced with firearms and paramilitary tactics. Rush made clear to his “Scouts” that the group was not engaging in a fantasy role-playing game. They planned real violence.

It was in the Grizzly Scouts that Carrillo met Robert Justus Jr., who on May 29 would drive the Ford Econoline van from which Carrillo would open fire on Underwood and another security officer. Justus has pleaded not guilty to aiding and abetting murder and attempted murder, claiming that Carrillo essentially coerced him into acting as driver for the shooting, according to Sharpe.

The plan was to use the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, which that night converged on the federal building in Oakland, as cover for the murder, perhaps in hopes of provoking a violent law enforcement reaction against the protesters that would lead to all-out combat. That didn’t happen. 

A week later, a passer-by saw Carrillo’s white van parked at his home in Ben Lomond, and spotted the veritable arsenal inside. Carrillo quickly learned that deputies were on their way to his property, so he sent a text message to his fellow Grizzly Scouts telling them to “kit up” and come to his aid ready for battle. 

“Dude, I offed a fed,” Carrillo wrote.

But the would-be warriors proved less bloodthirsty than they must have seemed to Carrillo in their Turlock training sessions. Rush messaged Carrillo telling him to wipe his phone clean, while other Grizzly Scouts hastily deleted text messages from Carrillo, according to Sharpe’s reporting.

Left on his own, Carrillo waited for the deputies to arrive. When they did, he opened fire.

Read more of Joshua Sharpe’s Chronicle report here. (Note: paywall.)

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