U.S. Feds Charge Protester With Torching Police Cars After Following Unnerving Online Trail

Screenshot: CBS 3
Screenshot: CBS 3

FBI agents used online evidence including an Etsy shop and profiles on LinkedIn and fashion website Poshmark to identify and charge a woman they say set fire to two police cars during recent protests in Philly, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Federal prosecutors claim that 33-year-old massage therapist Lore Elisabeth Blumenthal burned both a police SUV and sedan during protests against the death of George Floyd and systemic police racism outside City Hall on May 30. The case is based on live footage streamed by news helicopters, as well as photos on Instagram and video on Vimeo, that captured the suspect wearing flame-retardant gloves and a distinctive t-shirt saying “Keep the Immigrants. Deport the Racists,” as well as bearing a peace sign tattoo on her right arm.

According to the Inquirer, the FBI says that the t-shirt was only sold by a single Etsy retailer in Delaware that markets “screen printed and hand-printed feminist wear.” The top review on that page was by a Philadelphia-based user named “Xx Mv” using the handle “alleycatlore,” a search for which led them to mobile fashion marketplace user “lore-elisabeth.” That also led them to a now-deleted LinkedIn page identifying her as Lore Elisabeth Blumenthal, police said.

Finally, court filings obtained by the Inquirer showed, U.S. agents said they watched videos on Blumenthal’s website, finding she had the same tattoo as the person captured on video. According to NBC Philadelphia, the FBI also said they matched a phone number on Etsy to Blumenthal’s Pennsylvania Department of Transport records and served a subpoena to the seller, turning up records with her Philadelphia address.

Paul Hetznecker, counsel for Blumenthal, told the Inquirer, “Social media has fuelled much of the protests, and has also become a fertile ground for government surveillance. I think people have lost awareness of that.”

“The question is whether [police have] undermined the privacy interests of everyone based on the search for one or two individuals,” Blumenthal told the paper, adding that the decision to charge Blumenthal in federal rather than state court was purely meant to send a signal. “That’s the same paradigm that was used to profile Muslims after 9/11, the same paradigm used for profiling African Americans.”

According to the Philly Voice, Blumenthal faces charges of up to a decade in prison and a $US250,000 ($362,125) fine if convicted. U.S. Attorney William M. Swain told the Voice in a statement that burning a police car is a “violent and despicable act that will be prosecuted in this District to the fullest extent of the law” and that perpetrators should be ready to “put your hands behind your back and head to federal prison.”

Philadelphia police, who on several occasions have been accused of brutal crackdowns on protests including viral videos of a staff inspector beating peaceful demonstrators, have left their own online trail of sorts. The Inquirer recently reported that activists with the Plain View Project had compiled a database showing bigoted or otherwise dehumanising Facebook posts by 330 active Philly police officers (“including an inspector, six captains, and nine lieutenants”) as well as similar online behaviour by former officers.