Federal agents are being dispatched to Laramie to investigate an incident of apparent arson at a Republican hub in the city’s downtown. It came on the same day a campaign sign for U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, was the target of vandalism.
The Laramie Fire Department and Laramie Police Department arrived at the Albany County Republican Party headquarters 3:25 a.m. Thursday at 214 Ivinson Ave. in downtown Laramie where the first responders found a fire on the first floor of the building in the front office area.
Damage to the structure included moderate smoke and heat damage to the first floor office. An occupant in an apartment on the second floor of the building was evacuated by LFD crews without incident. No injuries were reported.
Steve Morgan of the LPD said any fire left unchecked could be a serious threat to public safety, particularly considering the density of businesses and residences.
“The fact it was a downtown building with adjoining businesses and apartments upstairs falls into that category,” Morgan said.
The event is being investigated as arson, Morgan said. And because of “the nature of the occupants” of the office space, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, is being called in to investigate.
Morgan said ATF agents were on scene Thursday and “actively working with local investigators.”
The ATF is the primary, federal law enforcement agency to investigate the crime of arson. Arson investigation has been an integral part of ATF’s mission since the passage of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. Mary Markos, public information officer for the ATF Denver Field Division, will investigate the incident in conjunction with Laramie’s fire and police departments.
Morgan said investigators “can’t rule out” a political motivation as a focus of the actors. There were no suspects as of Thursday afternoon.
A window on the west side of the Laramie GOP building was broken out with fire damage apparent on the floor and ceiling of the office. Albany County GOP Chairman Ben McKay said a “Make America Great Sign” from the campaign of President Donald Trump was hanging in the now broken window.
It comes just two days after Republicans finished decorating the office, making it an obvious hub of the GOP. McKay called the incident an “attack” and a “real crime.” In his mind, he said it seems obvious whoever was behind the incident was motivated by their objection to Republicans’ policy positions.
“This wasn’t defacing public or private property,” he said. “This was intentionally breaking in and setting fire to an organization that somebody disagreed with. … The fact it happened about 48 hours after moving into the office can’t be a coincidence.”
McKay said he hopes the landlord will allow the GOP to continue occupying the space so the party can continue its work going into a busy 2018 general election in November. While he said he’s “heartbroken” by the incident, McKay said he doesn’t want it to become the focal point of Albany County Republicans’ message in the coming months.
Whatever happens going forward, he said the incident won’t be an impediment for local conservatives trying to see their candidates elected and legislative goals met.
“We’re not going to stop campaigning, we’re not going to stop knocking on doors,” McKay said. “We’re not going to shut down an office because people want to use force and intimidate and use scare tactics to get someone who doesn’t agree with them to be silent.”
The Albany County Democratic Party condemned the attack in a statement saying the party “stand(s) with all who strongly oppose intimidation and violence being used to silence those with whom we disagree.”
Mary Throne, Democratic candidate for governor, said on Twitter “actions like these have no place in Wyoming politics.”
Matt Herdman, Throne’s campaign manager, said civil discourse is what’s allowed Democrats like Throne to be effective legislators.
“One of the great things about the Wyoming Legislature is the collegiality it used to have when they have the ability to work across party lines,” he said.
The headquarters were not the only Republican target of vandalism during the night. A “Cheney for Wyoming” sign on the corner of Grand Avenue and 10th Street was spray-painted to read “Cheney for fascism.”
Bruce Hooper, who owns the house where the sign was located, said “it’s ridiculous for people to express themselves in that fashion.”
“If they have something important to say, they should say it in the right manner,” he said.
McKay said he was “abhorred” anyone would characterize Cheney’s politics in that fashion.
“I’m blown away that this is happening in Laramie — that our little peaceful community would be put through this,” he said. “Considering the time-frame, I cannot imagine that it’s a coincidence, but it could be.”
Morgan said he’s “not sure there’s a solid link” between the two incidences and it’s still undetermined the attack on the GOP office was politically motivated.
“It could just be a random act. That’s what the investigation hopes to ferret out,” he said.
Joe Barbuto, chairman of the Wyoming State Democratic Party, said “the people engaged in these activities are criminals and cowards and they certainly don’t reflect our Wyoming values.”
“This makes me sick,” he said. “I hope that they’re able to catch the people responsible for this and they face the consequences prescribed in our laws.”
Congresswoman Liz Cheney said in a statement that “as an investigation proceeds into the circumstances surrounding the fire, we should all pause to remember that the future of our nation depends upon our ability to exchange ideas and viewpoints, to argue and debate, free from violence and intimidation.”
“Citizens across our state, and across the spectrum of political viewpoints, work hard every day to fight for our communities, our values and the causes we hold dear,” she said. “There is never any excuse for resorting to violent attacks to thwart these efforts or silence speech.”