Last week a well-known Democratic tracker was discharged from Harborview Medical Center with bruising and "likely" a concussion, medical records show, after organizers booted him from a 4th of July celebration in Oak Harbor featuring several Washington GOP candidates, including Tim Eyman, State Senator Ron Muzzall, Bill Bruch, Brett Rogers, and Dan Evans.
According to the "WHIDBEY ISLAND INDEPENDENCE DAY!!! 2020" Facebook group, the event was planned following the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce's decision to cancel its "popular annual 4th of July Parade, Carnival, and Fireworks display" in accordance with Washington's restrictions on large public gatherings during the pandemic: "Whidbey has celebrated Independence day for 105 Years! The City canceled the event this year. But the People will carry it on!!!"
Promotional materials for the event invited all-comers to enjoy fireworks, musical performances from Highway 20 and Collusion, "a Russian and American musical project," and guest speakers. "COME ONE COME ALL TO THE HILL ABOVE SAFEWAY 6 TO 8PM," reads one Facebook card. An invitation from Skagit County Republicans reads, "All are welcome!"
Scott Thompson, who owns the property—a field across the street from a giant parking lot shared by a Wal-Mart and a Safeway—said the space is used every year to celebrate Independence Day.
Zach Wurtz, who has been tracking Republican politicians for a decade, said he attended the event to enjoy his "favorite holiday" with his girlfriend and his dog, and to make a little money by filming the candidates. Republicans and Democrats employ "trackers" to dig up dirt on their political opponents. They'll follow politicians wherever they speak publicly, film them, and then sell the footage to campaigns to use in ads and television commercials. Sometimes trackers work for particular parties or campaigns, and sometimes they work as freelancers. Wurtz is a freelancer, though he used to work for the Democrats.
When Wurtz arrived, he introduced himself to the event's emcee, Erik Rohde, a member of the Washington Three Percent movement. Both Wurtz and Rohde described the interaction as "cordial." Wurtz then laid out a blanket, some outdoor seating, a cooler, and started doing what he's known for doing: filming Republican candidates for office.
But this time, a series of events unfolded that left Wurtz in a position he'd never been in before in all his years of tracking: separated from his camera, bruised, concussed, and tagged with Tim Eyman stickers.
Video and audio of the event that Wurtz posted to Facebook shows his filming was interrupted after members of the crowd accused him of being "Antifa," a message Rohde later amplified onstage. In the video, a man is seen standing on Wurtz's chair, blocking his view of Republican Attorney General candidate Brett Rogers.
At that point, Wurtz said people began to "surround" him. The video shows someone apparently hanging an American flag over the camera and saying, "How do you like that, Antifa?" Wurtz said he blocked the person's flag "after the third time she hit me with it," at which point, he said, someone grabbed his arm so hard it eventually left bruises, and told him he was being "rude."
Wurtz told me he is not part of any autonomous group dedicated to fighting fascism at protests. A photo posted to social media shows he voted for Elizabeth Warren.
After being "surrounded," Wurtz then appealed to Sen. Muzzall, who had taken the stage at that point, to de-escalate the situation. As Wurtz had recently spent "all day" with Muzzall "at a couple of his town halls," he was hoping the candidate would recognize him. Video shows Rohde taking the mic from Muzzall, instructing the crowd to "ignore" Wurtz and "wait for OHPD to arrest him for trespassing," and then returning the mic to Muzzall, who praises the people of Whidbey Island for being "inclusive."
Wurtz's video then switches to audio-only because the video portion of the following events was deleted. Thompson can be heard telling Wurtz to get off his property, and Wurtz can be heard asking if it is Thompson's property. Later, Wurtz told me he believed he was allowed to ask for verification, but he could see then "in [Thompson's] eyes" he didn't need any, and so he aimed for the shortest distance to the edge of the property and started walking backward toward it, with his camera pointed in the direction of the stage.
Thompson, Rohde, and at least six other men from the event, one of whom appeared to be armed, walked with Wurtz toward a sidewalk on top of a steep little hill. As they were walking, Wurtz said Thompson took his camera away from him. Wurtz can be heard saying, "Don't take my property!" several times in the audio. Shortly after Thompson takes the camera, Wurtz said Rohde "tackled" him to the ground, pinning his arms to his side. When he was on the ground, Wurtz said he suffered "blows" to his back. Thompson can be heard saying, "Stop! Stop! Erik! Stop!," as Wurtz says, "Ho! I'm being assaulted! What's going on?"
Wurtz's camera and iPhone voice recorder ran throughout the incident, but Thompson demanded he delete the video footage. Thompson can be heard on the audio saying, "No, you're going to delete the data," after Wurtz asks for his camera back.
When he reached the sidewalk, Wurtz said Thompson started to "pull [the camera] apart from the wrong area" while demanding to delete the data. As Wurtz was telling him he'd show him how to delete the data, Wurtz said Thompson figured it out on his own. "I watched him find himself, take himself out, take out the memory card, and give me back my camera," Wurtz said.
"It was the first time in 10 years that I have ever been separated from my camera," Wurtz said. "That thing is my livelihood, it had everything I came up for that day that I could make money on. It had my grandfather’s funeral on it, which I had not yet transferred to a computer. That wasn’t my sole thought, but man it was one of my first ones."
"I touched nobody during this," Wurtz added. "I laid my hands on nobody, not one time, didn’t block anybody’s way, didn’t impede anybody."
Shortly after Thompson gave him back his camera, Wurtz said he called the police, who responded and interviewed people at the scene.
Fearing that people at the party might harass his girlfriend, Wurtz arranged via text to meet her in the Oak Harbor Police Department's parking lot, where cops took photos of his bruises and discovered Tim Eyman stickers on his back, Wurtz said.
Wurtz said officers suggested he take the highway home instead of the ferry. He said he took their advice, but he doesn't remember much of the drive. When he got home, he said he tried to type up a memo of the event but could not focus on the typing. "I would know in my head what the next word was, but it was hard to get it to type out," he said.
He woke up the next day with "a really bad headache" and pains in his neck and back, so he went to the hospital. Wurtz said doctors told him he had a concussion, and instructed him to stay home and watch television. According to a medical record, imaging and lab work on Wurtz's neck and back came back "normal," and a doctor wrote, "you likely have a concussion" and "you likely have soft tissue injury."
The Oak Harbor Police Department declined to release their report of the incident, saying they're still investigating.
Thompson, Rohde, and Sen. Muzzall all offer different versions of Wurtz getting kicked out of the event.
Sen. Muzzall, who said he saw the whole thing "through a crowd," dismissed Wurtz's story as a "strange narrative."
"I don’t want to call the guy a liar, but I didn’t see any of this narrative transpire," Muzzall said, though he admitted "something could have happened when I wasn’t looking."
Muzzall said he was talking to people in the crowd when he heard someone yelling. He then "looked over his shoulder" and saw "three or four people" who were carrying Wurtz by his arms: "Someone had his camera, there was a person on each side, and I think there was a third person maybe had him by the belt, and they picked him up and set him on his feet on the street," Muzzall said.
"I never saw him go down. Never saw anyone throw a blow," Muzzall added. "It would be like if a couple of your buddies picked you up off the barstool and carried you up to the street."
Muzzall also said he was "a good-sized guy" who "would not have stood by if someone was beating him."
"If it did happen," Muzzall said, "I have no idea why he had gone all the way to Harborview when he had to pass by a couple hospitals between here and there."
Muzzall's comments about Wurtz driving by hospitals on his way to Seattle echo several Facebook comments about the incident posted to the Whidbey Island Community page.
Thompson said he initially approached Wurtz at the event to kick him out because someone told him Wurtz had "pushed a girl around," he said over the phone. Wurtz denies this and maintains he touched no one.
Thompson took Wurtz's camera because it was "in my face," he said. "I asked him to stop filming me. He had a camera in my face within a foot. I asked him three times," he added.
When asked if he saw anyone tackle Wurtz, Thompson said Wurtz "slipped" toward him as they were walking up the hill, and that "there was somebody behind [Wurtz] that grabbed him. I thought they were trying to get him back up."
When asked what he told Erik to "stop" doing, Thompson said, "I told him to stop because they were freaking out...I think they thought he was attacking me. I just said stop, meaning that—whatever he did was not the intent, pick him up and let him go."
"[Wurtz] was a total emotional weirdo through the whole thing. He was not sound," Thompson added.
In a Facebook chat, Rohde said he "never tackled anyone," and claims, "[Wurtz] either went for Scott [Thompson] or tripped, and we arrested his momentum and gingerly all went to the ground with him."
Rohde insisted "the police report is clear" that "there was no violence," though he also said he "had no police report."
Thompson said he demanded Wurtz delete the section of the video that included the tussle because he hadn't given him permission to take video or audio of him, he said, citing a state law requiring the consent of all parties when conducting a recording.
Thompson insisted that Wurtz had actually deleted the footage. "I said we can do this one way or another, either delete the video and the audio, or I could call the police and press charges and have you arrested in order for you to get your camera back," Thompson added.
Wurtz said the video was deleted when he got it back from Thompson, and that Thompson was the only one who touched the camera. He said the 4th of July party complete with political speakers "functionally turned [Thompson's] land into a public park," which gave him every right to film. He also said he didn't slip, and that he "got nowhere close to that guy," referring to Thompson, when he went down.
Wurtz said he learned a couple things after enduring this incident. "I will always face the chair towards me," so people can't stand on it in front of him, he said, "And when things start getting hairy I'll fold in the viewfinder."
He added that he hopes "those guys understand they can't do this to people, they can't put their hands on someone just because they don't agree with their political views."
"The next time someone comes to Oak Harbor to record political candidates speaking, I want them to be able to do their job and go home," Wurtz said.