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



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Shot in 2013, Olajuwon Davis’ role in Palacios earned him an award for “Breakout Performance.” - COURTESY GRAY PICTURE
  • Shot in 2013, Olajuwon Davis’ role in Palacios earned him an award for “Breakout Performance.”

In 2017, three years into Davis' prison term, Bobby Herrera's film Palacios finally premiered at the Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival. The attendees took note of Davis, who co-stars in the film as "Eugene."

In the film's opening scene, "Eugene" is introduced fleeing from a gas station. It is the ambiguity of this moment — is it a crime he just committed, or perhaps witnessed? — that drives the tension of the film. Shot in black and white, it follows Eugene as he hides on the rooftop of an apartment complex. There he meets a widowed alcoholic, Holly, who is friendly, but also curious and fearful of whatever Eugene is running from.

For his role, Davis won the festival's award for "Breakout Performance." The framed certificate currently sits on a bookshelf in Herrera's living room, awaiting Davis' release next year.

When they started filming in 2013, "what we shot originally implied that Olajuwon's character was actually kind of innocent," Herrera says now. "That, somehow, he had been mistakenly implicated in something, or that to get out of a situation he had to be violent."

But after Davis' arrest, Herrera couldn't reconcile the innocence of the film's version of Eugene with what the filmmaker felt about its star. So he changed the ending, removing the uplifting reunion between Eugene and Holly — and replacing it with an ending that finds Eugene being led away in handcuffs. It bleakly resembles the path Davis' life actually took.

"The film bizarrely mirrors his situation," Herrera acknowledges. "I changed the film in the edit, to be more vague about the crime that had taken place: Whether he was guilty or not guilty, whether there was a reasonable explanation or not, to almost mirror how I felt about his real-life situation."

For Herrera, the contradiction of Davis never found a satisfying answer. In the prosecutors' version, Davis acted as a profit-motivated gun salesmen turned bomb buyer. Was that really the same talented actor Herrera had known in 2013?

"Maybe," Herrera suggests now, "he did something rooted out of a misunderstanding, with no intention of being harmful or violent. But he still chose to do something wrong."

Indeed, no matter the explanation, Davis chose to buy that pipe bomb. But it's worthwhile to ask: What role did Davis think he was playing? His quotes recorded in the plea deal are damning, but they don't explain how the informants earned and bought Davis' loyalty. They don't explain that when Davis watched the video of the pipe bomb detonating, he did so in an apartment gifted to him by a confidential informant actively working to put him in prison.

And it wasn't like Davis and Baldwin were without options. Baldwin had access to firearms, yet they didn't plan a shooting spree. Davis had access to the internet and survival handbooks, but he never tried to buy "black powder" or make make a single Molotov cocktail. They appeared to have no initiative for violence. And then they met CS1 and CS2.

From within the bomb plot, Davis says he felt like he was representing "what it meant to be a Panther." The pride made him vulnerable and suggestible. Years later, he now acknowledges it was a delusion.

"I handicapped myself in relying on [the informants]," he says. "It required this new identity that I had taken on. Part of it was, I felt like I couldn't go back."

But this contradiction that so bothered friends and family never seemed to vex former U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan, whose office prosecuted the cases against Davis and Baldwin.

In an interview with the RFT in April 2015, Callahan insisted that the sting operation averted a true, bloody disaster for both protesters and law enforcement. Still, moments later, he freely admitted that the duo's alleged terrorist plot strained credulity.

Asked about allegations that the two had targeted the Arch, Callahan answered that he would "not even discuss the many different targets that these individuals considered or voiced at one time or another, and it's for a simple reason: A lot of their ideas were totally unrealistic."

He added, "besides being impractical, it would almost inaccurately sensationalize these charges."

Two months later, though, the U.S. Attorney's Office became more willing to sensationalize the charges. In June 2015, after Davis and Baldwin pleaded guilty, Callahan put out a press release that praised law enforcement for "preventing what potentially could have been a major disaster."

"The disruption of this plot, coming as it did on the eve of the expected Grand Jury announcement, undoubtedly saved lives," Callahan said in the release. "Luckily for all of us, we'll never know just how many."

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