PROVO, Utah (AP) — An armed Utah man killed by FBI agents after making violent threats against President Joe Biden was described by family and neighbors as a gun enthusiast and devoted churchgoer who became distraught over what he saw as “a corrupt and overreaching government.”
The family insisted in a statement on Thursday that Air Force veteran Craig Deleeuw Robertson would not have acted on the threats and committed violence over political disagreements, despite court records in which prosecutors depicted him as radicalized.
Robertson, who public records say was 74 years old, was killed Wednesday by agents trying to serve a warrant at his Provo home hours before the president landed in Utah to visit a Veterans Affairs hospital in Salt Lake City, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) away.
Prosecutors had filed three felony charges against Robertson under seal for alleged threats, including one this week that he was “cleaning the dust off the M24 sniper rifle” in anticipation of Biden’s Utah visit.
The self-employed woodworker was largely homebound and had limited mobility, his family said. Robertson referred to himself as a “MAGA Trumper,” a reference to former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, and posted threats including against Biden, the FBI and numerous law enforcement officials overseeing court cases against Trump, according to an FBI affidavit.
“There was very little he could do but exercise his First Amendment right to free speech,” Robertson’s family said in a statement posted to social media. The statement added that he was a decent man who voiced his “sometimes intemperate” grievances “in what has become the public square of our age — the internet.”
The family added that it had no animosity against law enforcement agents who took part in the events leading up to his death.
“The salient point is that he was never actually going to hurt anyone,” family member Julie Robertson said in a text message. “He didn’t even leave his house on the day of the presidential visit.”
The FBI investigation began following a March tip about a threat Robertson made on Trump’s social media platform, Truth Social. Robertson also referenced a “presidential assassination” and posted threats against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and New York Attorney General Letitia James, authorities said.
He called for assassinating the president and vice president, called an assault rifle a “Democrat eradicator” and regularly posted photos of firearms accompanied by threatening messages, they said.
In Provo, a growing area south of Salt Lake City known for outdoor recreation and Brigham Young University, several of Robertson’s neighbors said they witnessed and filmed parts of the FBI raid. They echoed the family’s account, questioning whether the elderly veteran they knew was a credible threat to the president in light of his social media posts.
Multiple neighbors said they could hear law enforcement agents identifying themselves as FBI broadcasting on a vehicle loud speaker to demand Robertson exit his home. Roughly 20 law enforcement agents came to Robertson’s house, on a cul-de-sac, at about 6 a.m. Wednesday, according to neighbor Jon Michael Ossola.
Ossola said he heard them tell Robertson to come outside and Robertson yelling back, saying he hadn’t committed any federal crimes.
The shouting escalated until a window was broken, Ossola said, then he heard a cacophony of bangs and eventually saw agents bring Robertson’s body outside. “It was clear he was gone,” Ossola said.
“I understand that, like, he had guns, and he had mentioned that he would use them, and so there’s definitely a concern there,” Ossola said. “But it still felt, like, a bit unsettling about how many people were there and just kind of how forceful it felt.”
Katie Monson, Robertson’s next door neighbor, said she saw agents attempt to breach his front door with a battering ram before driving a tactical vehicle onto his lawn, close enough to pierce his front window.
She couldn’t hear Robertson exchange words with law enforcement but heard six quick shots, a pause and then an exchange of bullets from what sounded like multiple firearms. Tactical officers dragged his shirtless body onto the sidewalk to wait for emergency medical personnel, who checked if he was still alive, she said.
Local firefighters on Thursday laid flowers in front of Robertson’s home after cleaning blood off the area.
Robertson was armed at the time of the shooting, according to two law enforcement sources who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of an ongoing investigation.
Robertson’s body remained there for several hours until forensic investigators while police began to remove what Monson described as “an arsenal” of firearms from his home and the sheds behind it.
She and other neighbors said Robertson’s violent, threat-laced social media posts were markedly different from how he interacted with the community. He would ask about neighbors’ children and offer to drive people home from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ meeting house near his home.
Monson said Robertson was a kind and played with kids in neighbors’ yards. She likened the contrast between his in-person demeanor and online persona to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
“After living next to this guy for six years, he’s just like this super sweet grandpa for the most part. Yes, he has rants and opinions,” Monson said. “I can’t speak to his online life, but he had a peaceful, religious, community-centered side to him. That was how he presented himself in everyday life.”
In addition to growing concerns about online radicalization, the fatal confrontation came as Trump and other Republicans, who have traditionally touted themselves as the party of law and order, have escalated their verbal attacks on law enforcement and especially the FBI.
That animosity was on stark display Thursday after a right-wing activist published Ossola’s footage online, casting suspicion on federal law enforcement’s actions and raising questions about how credible a threat was posed by an overweight, elderly man.
FBI representatives did not immediately respond to the family’s statement.
Agency spokesperson Sandra Barker declined to say if agents were wearing body cameras. Biden last year signed an executive order requiring all federal law enforcement agencies to mandate that body cameras be used during operations such as arrests and searches. However, a 2022 FBI policy says agents executing arrest and search warrants do not have to wear them if it is considered unsafe.
Military records show Robertson is a U.S. Air Force veteran who entered active duty in 1970 and served four or fewer years, according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.
He was an airman first class and his service included work as a metalworker helper, she said. He was last stationed at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois, which has since been decommissioned. Further details on his service were not immediately available.
A White House official who requested anonymity to discuss the matter said Biden was briefed after the raid. He made no mention of it during his Thursday appearance in Salt Lake.
Slevin and Bedayn reported from Denver and Brown reported from Billings. Associated Press writers Tara Copp in Washington, Thomas Peipert in Denver, Chris Megerian in Salt Lake, and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.
Jesse Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.