News » Feature

How a Black Panther in Ferguson Became the Star of an FBI Sting



Page 3 of 4

In Ferguson, Davis and other New Black Panthers joined protesters just hours after Michael Brown’s death. In this image from August 14, 2014, Davis helps direct traffic during a demonstration. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • In Ferguson, Davis and other New Black Panthers joined protesters just hours after Michael Brown’s death. In this image from August 14, 2014, Davis helps direct traffic during a demonstration.

In October 2014, the Ferguson protests continued at a near-daily pace. The tension of expectation that surrounded the impending grand jury decision seemed to be creeping closer and closer to a breaking point.

Davis, though, was still struggling. Because of his beliefs about paying taxes, he was essentially unemployable, and he was about to be homeless. His young family lived in his mother's cramped apartment in downtown Ferguson, but she had decided to leave the troubled city by the end of the month. Davis had no income and no place to move his family.

It was at about that time that help arrived from an unlikely source. Davis had just met a potential Panther recruit at a protest event, and when Davis confided his troubles, he says, the protester offered an incredible deal: a south St. Louis apartment with free rent for the first month and no fees.

In retrospect, there was something suspicious about the offer.

"My wife didn't feel right about the situation," Davis says now. "But he basically gave me an apartment. It was great, I didn't have to be in my mom's house. I was adamant about trying to get a place to our own, so I pushed the situation anyway."

There was one other small detail about the living arrangement: Davis' new protester friend, who apparently managed the building, would be living on the same floor. Coincidentally, he lived right across the hall from Davis.

The protester was actually a confidential informant working with the FBI. In court records, prosecutors refer to the man as Confidential Source 1, or CS1.

Soon, Davis says, CS1 became a member of the New Black Panther Party.

"He infiltrated in, he signed up, and provided me with resources, housing, companionship," he says, adding that "these things built up" until a protest event where Davis introduced CS1 to Brandon Baldwin.

The Panthers' "field marshal" in St. Louis, Baldwin worked at outdoor supply store Cabela's.

A fourth Black Panther, another recent recruit, also met with Davis, Baldwin and the informant. He is described in court records as CS2. Unlike the other informant, Davis had known CS2 since childhood. He was a "friend of the family" whom Davis considered like a cousin — but for some reason, the quasi-cousin only seemed to talk about one thing: guns.

"I met him out there [in the protests]. It was good to see him," Davis recalls. "From the moment we met, he was adamant about getting weapons and firearms specifically."

At first, Davis says he tried to just ignore the requests, partly because this particular family friend had been a vital source of support for Davis and his wife, including giving them rides to doctor's appointments.

"So I looked past it," Davis says now. Still, he confided in his mother, Charlie Partee, about the requests. Like Davis, Partee describes CS2 as a "close friend" who had watched her kids grow up, visited her house and had even worked for her beauty salon. But she says he was also involved in "scandalous" activities she didn't want for her son.

Still, she didn't suspect that he was setting her son up to be arrested.

"It took me by surprise to find out this person was an informant," Partee says of her former friend and employee. "He knew our story, he knew the page that Olajuwon was on, that he had so much going for him."

In 2014, though, Davis could see little going right for him. After Baldwin made the first gun purchase as a "straw buyer," CS1 offered Davis $200 as a finder's fee for making the introduction. Davis took the money.

"I just really needed the funds," he explains. "I was preparing for my youngest daughter's birth, feeling happy about having something to contribute to the household."

It was more than just the money. Davis' Moorish beliefs and behavior isolated him from his friends and family, whom he says "really didn't accept or tolerate the direction I was headed." He says he briefly landed a job but was fired after a dispute over his rights under Moorish legal philosophy.

The informants, Davis says, "were the only people who would put up with my bullshit."

It made him loyal. And in Davis' telling, the companionship of these two enthusiastic new members became the focus of his activism. Instead of being suspicious of these two deep-pocketed Panthers obsessed with firearms, Davis saw them as true believers, just like him.

"I kind of felt indebted to them. They were all who I had. Even my wife was sick of my crap, but they were amping me up, and then they came with these requests," Davis says. "So I made myself available to them. I put my family, children and wife on the back burner. I made this my priority."

“People really think my son was going to blow up the Arch,” says Davis’ father, Henry. “That wasn’t his intention.” - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • “People really think my son was going to blow up the Arch,” says Davis’ father, Henry. “That wasn’t his intention.”

The U.S. Attorney's case against Olajuwon Davis and co-conspirator Brandon Baldwin played out as a story told in two acts. First, Davis connected Baldwin with the two confidential sources, both of whom made sure Baldwin knew they were felons.

On October 22, 2014, Baldwin and Davis made their first "straw buy" at Cabela's. Baldwin used his employee discount to purchase a .45-caliber handgun priced at $500. Neither Davis nor Baldwin had that kind of money, so it was generously supplied by Davis' "family friend" CS2.

At that point, the FBI had enough to arrest Davis and Baldwin. Agents could have apprehended the two Panthers in the Cabela's parking lot and charged them with federal firearms offenses. These would be the very same charges filed after the FBI concluded the sting operation. What is apparent is that the FBI didn't want firearms charges. It wanted to foil a bomb plot.

And so the FBI waited. And listened. And recorded. That's when the second act began.

On the way back from Cabela's, a confidential informant recorded Davis and Baldwin as they "discussed purchasing 'black powder' from the outdoors retailer to use in making bombs," according to court records.

Federal prosecutors would later describe in a plea agreement similarly damning details and incriminating statements, culled from weeks of notes on the surveillance of the two Panthers.

Many of the notes read like sparse diary entries, like one from November 1, 2014: "Davis and CS1 discussed selling firearms to generate more profits."

But then there are entries like November 5, 2014: "Baldwin spoke to CS2 and stated that he (Baldwin) wanted to build bombs and blow things up. Baldwin also stated that he would distribute bombs to 'hit them in places where it hurt, hit someone important.'"

Or this one from Baldwin's plea agreement, dated to October 31, 2014: "Davis again expressed an interest in bombs and stated that he had 'put it out there that he was a terrorist.'"

The surprising quote is omitted from the plea that Davis signed. Regardless, it takes more than putting it out there to be a functional terrorist. In pages of statements, Davis and Baldwin never mention possible sources for the weapons, because, of course, their only "access" to explosives comes from the confidential informants.

In reality, the two were broke twenty-somethings with no known connections to anyone close to a bomb seller or a terror network. Aside from Davis' trespassing citation, neither even has a criminal record. But they perfectly fit the profile of the sort of suspected "lone wolf" terrorist that the FBI targeted in the decade of the War on Terror, cases that involved predominately Muslim targets identified in mosques or found in radical Islamic chat rooms.

Journalist Trevor Aaronson researched a decade of data on those terrorism prosecutions and found more than 150 convictions obtained through sting operations. In a third of those cases, he found, an FBI informant "provided all necessary weapons, money and transportation."

In Aaronson's 2013 book The Terror Factory, the researcher broadly contends that the FBI's campaign of anti-terrorism sting operations between 2001 and 2011 did little to stop actual attacks. Instead, he argues in his book that the FBI created fictional attacks the bureau could thwart and point to as a sign of its robust anti-terrorist victories.

And like the case against Davis and Baldwin, many of the cases of Muslim extremists featured young men on the fringes of their communities, isolated and angry. But they weren't active terrorists.

"Few defendants had any connection to terrorists, evidence showed," Aaronson writes in his book. "Those who did have further connection, however tangential, never had the capacity to launch attacks on their own."

It's like a play, with the FBI providing the set, the dialogue, the characters and equipment. The production just needs willing actors who believe in the role so deeply that they never realize they're trapped in a thriller whose ending is already written.

Like Davis, Brandon Baldwin found himself implicated in the FBI sting operation - IMAGES VIA FACEBOOK
  • Like Davis, Brandon Baldwin found himself implicated in the FBI sting operation

Baldwin comes off in the plea agreement as a particularly ambitious would-be bomber. When it came to targets, he named the St. Louis County prosecutor, telling CS2 that he "wanted to get McCulloch."

Baldwin continued: "I say we knock one of these cops ... there it is ... knock a cop ... an important cop ... we gotta hit the chief ... chief of Ferguson Police Department ... Thomas Jackson, Thomas Jackson."

In a November 8 meeting, Baldwin was recorded telling CS2 that he wanted "at least about ten of them motherfuckers" — that is, bombs. Baldwin wanted the explosives for use on "people," "ATMs" and "tanks." Baldwin told the informant, "We at war, you understand, bro."

In contrast, Davis is never quoted in the plea naming specific targets. Apparently, after he "put it out there that he was a terrorist," he spent the next couple of weeks advising the confidential sources about profiting from their illegal gun sales.

In Davis' telling, the opportunity to buy a pipe bomb was introduced by Baldwin and one of the confidential informant's during a visit to his apartment. They showed him a video of a pipe bomb detonating.

However, Davis claims he only agreed to pay $250 for a pipe bomb as "a middleman for the stuff." In return, he would take a $1,500 commission — which he understood to be the proceeds of subsequent sales of pipe bombs to a third party. He acknowledges that he agreed to buy the bombs but denies that he ever intended to use them.

That's not how Davis appears in the plea deal, which notes that after he watched the video of the pipe bomb detonation, he remarked to the informant, "[it's] a start."

A week later, on November 17, 2014, Davis met with CS2 to hammer out the final details of the pipe bomb sale, which according to prosecutors was scheduled for that Friday. Davis was recorded stating that he wanted to be able to detonate the explosive from a distance. After providing the $100 deposit, Davis told the confidential informant, "I need it ASAP, brother, I need them motherfuckers ASAP."

Four days later, the FBI was ready to spring its trap. Davis says he got a text after midnight on November 21, 2014. The message was from his quasi-cousin and fellow Black Panther, CS2, confirming plans to buy three pipe bombs. Not long after the texts, CS2 picked up Davis and Baldwin and drove them to a location in Hazelwood.

Davis remembers trying to push away his unease about the situation.

"Everything felt kind of weird," he says now. "But my whole vision was, I was just thinking about the money and about the obligation, not wanting to disappoint them, not wanting to let them down."

Across a parking lot in Hazelwood, Davis remembers spotting the "bomb maker," who appeared to be a "white guy in a car." The bomb maker got out of the vehicle and popped the hood.

Davis walked over, reached into the car and picked up the bag of fake pipe bombs. He started moving back toward Baldwin and CS2, the family friend who had betrayed him.

For a few steps, Davis was allowed to believe that everything was going to be fine.

"Then it was, 'Boom!'" he says. "Homeland Security come running out."

Later, when investigators executed a search warrant on Davis' apartment, they found a Taser, a "large knife," a mask, gas mask and notebook "containing a shopping list of weapons and cellphones." They also found digital versions of guidebooks on survival and combat. The titles included: Internet Hitman, Mantrapping, Targeting of Officers and Silent Death.

A logo of St. Louis chapter of the New Black On Panther Party, which Davis posted to Facebook on October 16, one month before his arrest. - VIA FACEBOOK
  • A logo of St. Louis chapter of the New Black On Panther Party, which Davis posted to Facebook on October 16, one month before his arrest.

In June 2015, Davis and Baldwin each pleaded guilty to four counts of federal firearms and explosives charges. At the hearing, Davis' mother recalls feeling like someone had played a prank on her.

"It was like stuff you see on TV," she says. "I have my baby standing here, in cuffs, the one I never thought I'd see in that suit. Why did y'all pick him?"

Davis' father, Henry, doesn't offer much sentiment about his son's case. The morality of the FBI sting operation doesn't bother him. Ultimately, he says, his son was "stupid enough to do it and get caught."

"This is why I say he's so smart, he's stupid," explains the elder Davis. "I'm not upset [at the FBI], their job is to find stupid-ass black people, like my son, and catch 'em up, make big news and deter other people from doing the same thing."

Baldwin, who is incarcerated in the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, has the same release date as Davis: December 26, 2020. Reached by phone, he declined to comment on the record for this story. But Baldwin's father, Berlin Baldwin Jr., tells RFT that he wants people to know his son is not a terrorist: "He's not the person they say he is. He's a young person just like any other young person in America, dealing with the wrong people."

From the FBI's perspective, however, Davis and Baldwin were textbook examples of a successful counterterrorism operation. It simply didn't matter that the targets were incapable of pulling off a bomb plot on their own.

That is the curious logic of a sting operation, which functions as a kind of moral theater, a test of the character targeting those the FBI believed to be potential terrorists. After their audition, Davis and Baldwin played their roles to perfection. They chose to go on with the show.

And even if the choice was false, and the bomb was fake, they still did wrong in the eyes of the court.

In Aaronson's book, retired FBI counter-terrorism agent Peter Ahearn summarized the ethics of a proper sting operation, from the FBI's perspective:

"If you're doing it right," he says, "you're offering the target multiple chances to back out ... Real people don't say, 'Yeah, let's go bomb that place.' Real people call the cops."

Riverfront Times works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of St. Louis and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep St. Louis' true free press free.