Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old accused of fatally shooting two people and injuring a third during protests over police brutality in Kenosha, Wis., is a fan of law enforcement and a gun lover who sat in the front row at a rally for U.S. President Donald Trump, according to reports and his own social media posts.
Rittenhouse was charged with first-degree intentional homicide on Wednesday after allegedly shooting protesters with an AR-15-style assault rifle on Tuesday night. He is expected to be extradited from his hometown of Antioch, Ill., to Wisconsin to be tried as an adult.
A 26-year-old from Silver Lake, Wis., and a 36-year-old from Kenosha were killed, while a 36-year-old from West Allis, Wis., is expected to survive his injuries.
Rittenhouse was a high school dropout-turned-lifeguard whose mom once sought a court order to protect him from bullies at school, according to the Chicago Sun-Times and documents obtained by the Chicago Tribune. He was also fixated on police, his social media accounts show. He frequently posted “Blue Lives Matter” images and captions, used his 16th birthday to raise money for a police non-profit and enrolled in police and fire cadet programs in his community, the Washington Post reports.
Rittenhouse appeared to be part of an armed militia group standing guard outside a gas station in Kenosha on the night of the shootings, videos show.
In Wisconsin, it is legal for people 18 and over to openly carry a gun without a licence.
Footage from Tuesday night shows the suspect running after the first incident, which left one victim with a fatal head wound outside the gas station. “I just killed somebody,” a voice says in the video.
Other videos show the suspect running down the street after shots are heard in the distance. Several protesters chase him and one hits him over the head, knocking him to the ground. He appears to fire off a few shots with his rifle, then directed a few more at some of the protesters. One protester stumbles away and falls to the ground.
Another video shows the suspect walking toward police after the shooting and briefly raising his hands. The rifle is still strapped across his chest and a bystander can be heard shouting: “Hey, he just shot them! Dude right here just shot all of them down there!”
Several police vehicles drove past him. One officer told him not to walk down a particular street. He was not apprehended at the scene and seemingly went home to Antioch.
The protests were sparked by the case of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot in the back several times by police while he tried to get into his SUV. His kids were in the back seat at the time of the shooting, which left Blake in serious condition. As of this writing, he remains in hospital, and according to his father is paralyzed from the waist down.
Rittenhouse was arrested on a fugitive warrant in Antioch one day after the shooting. Police imposed a curfew amid talk of protests in the town, which is about 30 kilometres away from Kenosha across a state line.
Social media posts obtained by Storyful and other outlets show that Rittenhouse was an enthusiastic supporter of police. He often shared Blue Lives Matter posters and slogans on Facebook, and appeared on his mother’s Facebook page in a police uniform.
Another post shows Rittenhouse standing with an AR-15 on May 4. The image, which also shows him wearing star-spangled Crocs, appears to have been used as his cover photo on Facebook and TikTok before those accounts were removed on Wednesday.
Rittenhouse also posted videos on TikTok and Instagram of himself firing the weapon, Storyful reports.
“Bruh I’m just tryna be famous,” The description on his Instagram account said, according to Storyful screenshots. “Trump 2020 us. BLUE LIVES MATTER.”
Footage on his now-deleted TikTok shows he was in the front row for a Trump rally in Des Moines, Iowa, in late January, Storyful reports. A person matching Rittenhouse’s description and posts can be seen in C-SPAN footage from the event, as Buzzfeed News first reported.
Trump on Wednesday denounced “looting, arson, violence, and lawlessness in American streets,” but did not mention the fatal shootings on Twitter. He added that he was sending the National Guard to Kenosha “to restore LAW and ORDER!”
Videos from Tuesday night show a person matching Rittenhouse’s appearance at the gas station in Kenosha, where militia were standing guard. The individual identifies himself as “Kyle” in one video and explains why he is there in another.
“People are getting injured and our job is to protect this business, and part of my job is to also help people,” he told the Daily Caller, a conservative news opinion site, in video posted on Twitter. “If there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my weapon, because I need to protect myself, obviously. But I also have my med kit.”
One livestreamed video appears to show police thanking the militia members, including the suspect, for being there.
An officer inside an armoured vehicle can be heard telling a protester to disperse because of the city’s curfew. He then tells the militia members over a loudspeaker: “We appreciate you guys. We really do.”
An officer can be seen throwing bottled water to the group from the hatch of the vehicle.
Wisconsin Lt.-Gov. Mandela Barnes said on MSNBC that the suspect was a militia member who “decided to be a vigilante and take the law into his own hands and mow down innocent protesters.”
Several Facebook pages and Reddit groups had put out calls for armed vigilantes to travel to Kenosha for the protests, the Atlantic Council think tank’s Digital Forensics Lab said in a blog post. An administrator on the Kenosha Guard page urged members to “take up arms and defend out (sic) City tonight from the evil thugs,” the Atlantic Council reports. “Nodoubt (sic) they are currently planning on the next part of the City to burn tonight!”
Atlantic Council researchers say some of the vigilante groups encouraged violence. InfoWars, the far-right conspiracy website run by Alex Jones, also picked up the calls and urged “patriots” to take up arms and defend Kenosha.
“We are unaware if the armed citizen was answering the Kenosha Guard Militia’s call to arms,” the group wrote in a statement before its Facebook page was removed. “Just like with the shooting of Jacob Blake, we need all the facts and evidence to come out before we make a judgement.”
Facebook told The Associated Press that it took down the Kenosha Guard page on Wednesday for violating its policy against militia organizations. It added that it has found no evidence that Rittenhouse followed that particular page.
Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said Wednesday that militia members or armed vigilantes had been patrolling the city’s streets in recent nights and asked about being deputized.
“Yesterday, I had a person call me and say, ’Why don’t you deputize citizens who have guns to come out and patrol the city of Kenosha,’ and I am like, ‘Oh, hell no.’”
Rittenhouse is due to appear in court on Friday.
—With files from The Associated Press and Reuters