ANTIOCH, Ill. (AP) — A white 17-year-old who says he went to protests in Wisconsin to protect businesses and people has become a flashpoint in a debate over anti-racism demonstrations that have gripped many American cities and the vigilantism that has sometimes met them.
On Tuesday, Kyle Rittenhouse grabbed an AR-15 style rifle and joined several other armed people in the streets of Kenosha, where businesses had been vandalized and buildings burned following a police shooting that left Jacob Blake, a Black man, paralyzed. By the end of the night, prosecutors say, Rittenhouse had killed two people and severely wounded a third.
At a hearing Friday, a judge postponed a decision on whether Rittenhouse, who is in custody in Illinois, should be returned to Wisconsin to face charges, including first-degree intentional homicide that could land him in prison for the rest of his life.
To some, Rittenhouse is a domestic terrorist whose very presence with a rifle incited the protesters. But to others — who have become frustrated with demonstrations and unrest across the country — he’s seen as a hero who took up arms to protect people who were left unprotected.
“Kyle is an innocent boy who justifiably exercised his fundamental right of self-defense. In doing so, he likely saved his own life and possibly the lives of others,” said Lin Wood, a prominent Atlanta attorney who is now part of a team representing Rittenhouse.
The protests in Kenosha are just the latest to erupt during a reckoning over policing and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. As they have in other cities, rallies devolved into violence and vandalism at some points, and the National Guard was called in. The commander of the force said Friday over 1,000 guard members had been deployed, and more were on the way.
Rittenhouse, once part of a youth cadet program for aspiring police officers, can be seen on his Facebook page posing in a blue police uniform with a silver badge and broad-brimmed hat. In other online photos and videos, he takes target practice and brandishes a rifle above the caption, “Blue Lives Matter.”
On Tuesday night, as Rittenhouse stood in front of a boarded-up building, he spoke to a reporter from the Daily Caller news site.
“People are getting injured and our job is to protect this business,” Rittenhouse said. “And part of my job is to also help people. If there is somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle.”
Rittenhouse and a friend armed themselves on Tuesday and made their way to a mechanic shop whose owner had put out a call for protection, according to a statement from John Pierce, an attorney representing Rittenhouse. In the attorney’s description of events, Rittenhouse had tried to offer medical help to injured people before he was “accosted by multiple rioters,” leading him to open fire.
The hashtag #FreeKyleRittenhouse has trended on Twitter, a self-described Christian fundraising site, GiveSendGo, says it has raised more than $100,000 for Rittenhouse’s defense, and a post including photos of Rittenhouse cleaning up graffiti in Kenosha before the shooting was shared and liked thousands of times.
The night of the shootings, Rittenhouse is seen on video as a green-shirted figure running across a parking lot with a rifle followed by a man later identified as Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, according to a criminal complaint. Rosenbaum throws a plastic bag at Rittenhouse, misses, then five shots ring out, and Rosenbaum falls to the ground. He later was declared dead.
“I just killed somebody,” Rittenhouse says into his cellphone, according to the complaint, and he starts running and several people give chase. “Beat him up!” one person in the crowd says. Another yells, “Get him! Get that dude!”
Rittenhouse trips and falls. One man holding a skateboard appears to try to grab the gun from Rittenhouse. A shot rings out, and the man, Anthony Huber, 26, staggers away. He also died.
In the scuffle, lasting just seconds, Rittenhouse shoots a third person armed with a handgun, according to the complaint. That man, Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, has a deep wound to his arm but has survived.
After the shootings, Rittenhouse can be seen walking toward police with his gun slung over his shoulder and his hands in the air. Police riding in tactical vehicles roll right past him. He later turned himself in in his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, according to Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis.
The police have faced questions about that response.
On Friday, Miskinis described a chaotic scene to reporters and said that “there was nothing to suggest that this person (Rittenhouse) was involved in any criminal behavior.”
Miskinis said it was not a lapse in judgment to not stop Rittenhouse and ask for identification to see if he was old enough to carry a weapon, given the number of people on the street, many wearing masks that obscured their faces.
Wisconsin allows gun owners to openly carry in public, but a person under 18 can’t legally possess or carry a firearm unless that person is hunting or target practicing with an adult or in the military.
Before the shooting, some officers were seen on video thanking the group Rittenhouse was with for their help and tossing them bottles of water.
Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth told reporters Friday those officers were not his deputies. He added that he was not asking armed citizens to help law enforcement respond to unrest.
Before the shooting, Rittenhouse lived in a quiet apartment complex a half-hour’s drive away from Kenosha, with his single mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, a 45-year-old nursing assistant who filed for bankruptcy two years ago.
Jeanie Quillin, who lived in an apartment building next door, did not know the Rittenhouses but said area residents were on edge over the teen’s arrest and their fears that the demonstrations could come to their doorsteps.
“I want to know how a 17-year-old could get ahold of an AR-15,” she added.
Rittenhouse’s mother did not return calls Thursday, and the nursing home listed in court papers as her employer, Libertyville Manor, would not confirm she still worked there.
Rittenhouse dropped out of high school during the 2017-18 school year, according to a statement from a school district official sent to The Washington Post. A year earlier, court records show, his mother had asked for an order of protection from police for Rittenhouse and his now 19-year-old sister, McKenzie, saying that a 13-year-old bully was calling her son “dumb” and “stupid” and threatening him. She eventually dropped the matter.
On his social media posts, Rittenhouse appeared to be an enthusiastic participant in the Public Safety Cadet program run by local police departments that trains 14- to 21-year-olds in the basics of law enforcement. Beyond confirming he was involved, the Grayslake Police Department would not comment further.
On his 16th birthday, he appealed to Facebook friends to help him celebrate by donating to a nonprofit supporting police called Humanizing the Badge.
Rittenhouse also did a stint as a part-time lifeguard at the YMCA in Lindenhurst, Illinois, according to Man-Yan Lee, a representative for the organization’s metro Chicago branch. He was furloughed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In videos on his TikTok account, which has just 25 followers, he is seen assembling and disassembling a rifle and what appears to be a shotgun.
“Bruh, I’m just tryna be famous,” he says on his TikTok bio page.
Condon reported from New York. Associated Press writers Scott Bauer and Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin; Jake Bleiberg in Dallas; Don Babwin and Sophia Tareen in Chicago; Tammy Webber in Fenton, Michigan; and David Klepper in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed, as did news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York.