Charging decision delayed in case of St. Louis couple; governor says Trump, Barr “getting involved”

An attorney for the McCloskeys, who brandished guns at protesters, told Salon they expected charges before Thursday

Published July 16, 2020 11:57PM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr speak in the Oval Office before signing an executive order related to regulating social media (Doug MIlls-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr speak in the Oval Office before signing an executive order related to regulating social media (Doug MIlls-Pool/Getty Images)

Gov. Mike Parson, R-Mo., said Tuesday that President Donald Trump would be "getting involved" in the case of the St. Louis couple seen brandishing guns at protesters who passed by their mansion in a viral photo last month.

Parson, who claimed that he had spoken Wednesday with Trump, said the couple, local defense attorneys Mark and Patricia McCloskey, had "every right to protect their property." The president made it clear that he was "focused" on the case" and "doesn't like what he sees and the way these people are being treated," according to the governor. 

"The president said that he would do everything he could within his powers to help with this situation and he would be taking action to do that," Parson said, adding that Attorney General Bill Barr "was represented on the call." He believes that the pair "are going to take a look" at the case.

The McCloskeys are currently under investigation. The circuit attorney's office told the St. Louis American that it was keeping any indictments in the nationally-watched case under seal out of safety concerns. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, the city's top prosecutor, received "serious threats" after authorities exercised a search warrant to seize Mark McCloskey's semi-automatic rifle from the couple's home.

The McCloskeys' attorney, Joel Schwartz, told Salon that his clients were not aware of any charges. Mark McCloskey told Fox News on Wednesday that the couple expected to be indicted. However, Schwartz told Salon that the charging decision now appears to have been delayed for reasons unknown.

"We expected to hear about charges from [the attorney's office] — either for or against — by prior to today," Schwartz told Salon in a Thursday call.

Schwartz said he did not know the reason for the apparent delay, and was not aware of any federal interposition in the case beyond news reports. He declined to comment further.

When Salon inquired with the circuit attorney's office about whether Schwartz's claim was accurate, a spokeswoman said she could not comment about an ongoing investigation. She also declined to comment when asked whether Gardner's office had been informed of any federal action or pending federal action.

Gardner accused Parson and Trump of "spreading misinformation" in a Tuesday statement.

"Today, both the governor and Donald Trump came after me for doing my job and investigating a case," she said. "While they continue to play politics with the handling of this matter, spreading misinformation and distorting the truth, I refuse to do so."

"It is unbelievable the governor of the state of Missouri would seek advice from one of the most divisive leaders in our generation to overpower the discretion of a locally elected prosecutor," she added.

Parson has long been at odds with Gardner, a former Democratic state representative elected to the office in 2016, for dropping charges against his predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Eric Greitens, in exchange for his 2018 resignation. Greitens had been charged with felony invasion of privacy for allegedly blackmailed a mistress with racy photos.

On Thursday, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., also stepped into the fray by calling for an investigation into Gardner's investigation of the McCloskeys.

"Targeting law-abiding citizens who exercise constitutionally protected rights for investigation & prosecution is an abuse of power," the senator tweeted.

The McCloskeys, for their part, were prepared for charges. According to the St. Louis American, Albert Watkins, the couple's previous counsel said his former clients had given him the handgun wielded by Patricia McCloskey "in the event that criminal charges were filed."

Watkins also said the couple had not similarly prepared to turn over Mark McCloskey's long gun, because they judged its use not to be possibly incriminating. Mark McCloskey allegedly swept the weapon across the crowd with the safety engaged and did not put his finger on the trigger, whereas video shows his wife pointing her pistol directly at protesters, at times with her finger on the trigger.

The McCloskeys onboarded Schwartz July 10, shortly before authorities executed the search warrant and seized the rifle. He was not present at the next day's press conference when Watkins gave investigators the handgun.

Schwartz declined to comment on conditions surrounding Watkins' departure, and Watkins did not respond to Salon's request for comment.

During that press conference, Watkins said the handgun was harmless and had been on display at the McCloskeys' law offices. The gun had been an exhibit in a lawsuit the McCloskeys brought against the manufacturer for being defective. (It was not clear when the McCloskeys had relocated the gun to their home.)

As reports of the rifle's seizure spread, the McCloskeys received more than 50 offers to replace it, Insider reported. Alien Armory Tactical, a gun store in St. Charles, Mo., posted on Facebook a message to the couple hours after the news broke, which offered to "gladly rearm" them free of charge and provide firearms training to "show you how to be better prepared" should "anything happen."

"This couple did what they needed to do to protect private property as the property was being ambushed," the post read.

Gardner said in a statement following the June 28 incident that the McCloskeys' behavior had "alarmed" her, and "any attempt to chill (the right to peacefully protest) through intimidation or threat of deadly force will not be tolerated."

Trump's reported gusto to insert himself in the state-level case with national visibility — a viral video of a white couple wagging guns at protesters against police brutality — is an extension of his ongoing opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has included violent threats and use of force.

Trump said in a Tuesday interview with Townhall, a conservative news website, that any attempt to prosecute the couple for a crime would be a "disgrace."

Earlier in the day, Trump also scoffed at a question about Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement — an urgent focus of the protests — by pointing out police also kill white people. He recently described the Black Lives Matter movement as a "symbol of hate" and has called for protecting Confederate monuments, painting those seeking to topple statues with racist histories as violent mobs.

Parson did not explain exactly how the president would be "involved" in a state-level case, which appears to be beyond federal jurisdiction. Intervention by the Justice Department could cross legal lines, and it would likely be met with stiff resistance from the circuit attorney.

An in-depth St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation revealed that the McCloskeys — both St. Louis-area defense attorneys — have a rich litigious history, bringing suits against neighbors, family members, employers and others for a range of disputes, most typically over private property.

They filed a lawsuit to get their house, a castle built in the early 20th Century for the daughter of Adolphus Busch. They sued a man who sold them a Maserati for failing to include a bag of tools. Mark McCloskey once filed two lawsuits in a single courthouse trip: one against a dog breeder and another against the Central West End Association for putting a photo of their home in a brochure after the McCloskeys instructed them against doing so.

"I guess we were saving gas," Mark McCloskey later remarked in another suit.

Mark McCloskey destroyed bee hives that the local Jewish Central Reform Congregation set up near his mansion's northern wall. He left a note saying that he did it, and if they did not clean the mess up, he would file for a restraining order and seek attorneys fees.

The congregation told The Post-Dispatch that the hives were part of a school project to harvest honey and pick apples for Rosh Hashanah.

"The children were crying in school," said Rabbi Susan Talve. "It was part of our curriculum."

The McCloskeys said they feared for their lives when more than 100 protesters crossed through their private neighborhood en route to a social justice demonstration outside St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson's house. The McCloskeys alleged that protesters had broken their gate; protesters, while admitting to trespassing, deny any damages. 

In cable news interviews, the McCloskeys have claimed without evidence that the protesters appeared to be "terrorists" bent on murdering them, as well as pillaging and burning down their home.

The message seems to have struck a chord in the Oval Office.

"When you look at St. Louis, where two people — they came out. They were going to be beat up badly — if they were lucky. If they were lucky," the president told Townhall's Katie Pavlich in a Tuesday interview. "They were going to be beat up badly, and the house was going to be totally ransacked and probably burned down like they tried to burn down churches."

"And these people were standing there. Never used it, and they were legal — the weapons. And now, I understand somebody local — they want to prosecute these people," the president said. "It's a disgrace."

The White House, the Department of Justice, Parson's office and Alien Armory Tactical did not respond to Salon's requests for comment.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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