“I’ve gone back and forth on this,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Tricia Harris said Friday after hearing arguments from a prosecutor and a defense attorney on whether Mujera Benjamin Lungaho, 30, posed a danger to the community if released on home detention with monitoring until his case is adjudicated.
Lungaho was arrested several days ago on a federal criminal complaint charging him with conspiracy and use of explosive materials for malicious damage to federal property.
An affidavit detailing the probable cause used to support the charges hasn’t been publicly released because it identifies other people who may not know they are under investigation. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office said Friday that a redacted version of the affidavit may be released next week.
A hearing that began Thursday resumed Friday with defense attorney Michael Kiel Kaiser reading into the record the testimony of a former girlfriend of Lungaho’s, who was working and unable to attend in person. The woman said Lungaho has helped feed impoverished children, maintains a community garden, and teaches poetry and critical thinking to students at Cloverdale Middle School. She said his general philosophy is to “uplift the community.”
A day earlier, a Little Rock police officer and a federal agent testified that Lungaho is suspected of various acts of vandalism in Little Rock and North Little Rock, including defacing property and throwing Molotov cocktails — gas-filled glass jars with ignited wicks — to start fires.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacy Williams argued that Lungaho has gone beyond harmless acts of civil disobedience to engage in rapidly escalating shows of force to get across his messages, making him a danger to the public. She said he has also previously failed to appear in court six times on minor issues, and has twice fled from officers while he was being taken into custody, indicating that he is a flight risk.
Citing messages found on Lungaho’s cellphone in which he alerted followers on the night of Sept. 1 that he was “doing some recon on some spots to hit tonight” and his use of apps to access police dispatch calls, Williams told the judge, “he might be locked up at home but he would still be a soldier in this war. … His friends said they were going to war after his arrest.”
An Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent testified Thursday that Lungaho is suspected of firebombing the police cruiser early Sept. 2 outside a substation in the city’s Rose City neighborhood, where Lungaho lives.
Williams said that while it’s true that no one has been injured in incidents in which Lungaho is accused of throwing Molotov cocktails, including outside a Little Rock police substation on 12th Street, “the United States is trying to prevent a ‘next time.'”
Lungaho is also suspected of vandalizing Confederate grave sites at Oakland Cemetery at 2101 Barber St. in Little Rock early July 9. He was arrested in the cemetery vandalism on Sept. 3, the same day that the North Little Rock cruiser was set on fire and a fallen officers memorial outside the Little Rock police headquarters was spray-painted with the words “defund the police.”
Kaiser replied, “this is not a war. … This is one individual charged with one offense.”
He also said the case “involved a threat to nothing other than stone and plastic,” in apparent reference to a stone monument at the cemetery spray-painted with profanity and the words “Black Lives Matter.”
“The idea that he is an outside operative is preposterous,” Kaiser added.
Harris said she had to weigh the violence of the Molotov cocktails and Lungaho’s purported threats to others — namely, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott — with the fact that he has no previous felony convictions or reports of violence, no history of mental illness or drug abuse, and has some commendable characteristics, as well as the fact that he has lived in North Little Rock his entire life except while attending college out of state.
She said she decided to allow his release but with a number of conditions that include avoiding contact with anyone who could be a victim or a witness in his case, not possessing any weapons and being monitored by U.S. probation officers. She ordered probation officers to “make sure he doesn’t have apps enabling him to send undetected messages” and to review his social media activity to ensure “he’s not trying to instigate anything.”
On Friday, the number of protesters outside the federal courthouse in downtown Little Rock had dwindled significantly from earlier in the week when there were about a dozen people carrying signs saying “Free MJ” and “Arrest killer cops!” The number of armed men in camouflage who were present Thursday and identified themselves as Arkansas Patriots standing by to protect people and property also dwindled significantly Friday.
U.S. Marshal Jay Tuck issued a statement saying the U.S. Marshals Service for the Eastern District of Arkansas “fully supports all persons’ right to protest and counter-protest, as well as any other constitutionally guaranteed freedom.”
However, he noted “the presence of armed individuals on both sides caused alarm to citizens and employees at the [courthouse] Thursday and Friday.”
He said the Marshals Service was “informed in advance by one of the groups of their intention to open-carry near federal property and their desire to adhere to federal law. However, neither group is in any way affiliated, supported or associated with the U.S. Marshals Service. The presence of firearms did create a strain on federal personnel and an increase in [marshals], as well as other agencies.”