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Five charged with domestic terrorism in public safety training center site raid

The public safety training center's master plan as of November 2022. (Image by Atlanta Police Foundation.)

By John Ruch

Five people are charged with domestic terrorism and other offenses after a police raid targeting protesters at the site of Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) says the arrests came as part of a Dec. 13 raid of the DeKalb County site during which some trespassing protesters threw rocks at police cars and “attacked EMTs outside the neighboring fire stations with rocks and bottles.” Incident reports with details of the arrests were not yet available and the GBI was unable to immediately identify which agencies conducted all of the arrests.

Protesters with the “Stop Cop City” movement against the training center said in a press release that the raid involved “extreme and unjustified measures” and that at least two people removed at gunpoint were simply walking on trails in the forest.

For more than a year, protesters have targeted the training center, located on part of the former Atlanta Prison Farm on Key and Constitution roads in unincorporated DeKalb, and nearby 40 acres of parkland given to developer Ryan Millsap – former owner of a movie studio once called Blackhall, now Shadowbox – in a County land swap that is under challenge by a community lawsuit. The protesters call the area the Weelaunee Forest, which they identify as the original, Native American name.

The $90 million training center, which would train police officers and firefighters from Atlanta and outside departments, is planned for 85 acres of the former Atlanta Prison Farm. APD has used the site for decades for a shooting range and explosives disposal. But its selection for the massive training center in a secret City and APF process revealed last year surprised neighbors and DeKalb officials, generating huge controversy.

The facility drew both support and protest due to its timing as well, following 2020’s nationwide debate over systemic police brutality after George Floyd’s murder and about the need to respond to a crime spike. APF, which has discussed such a facility for years, seized the political moment to get the facility approved, calling it crucial for crime response and police morale. Opponents have decried the loss of forest and potential parkland and the facility’s size, cost and training programs as a move backward from policing reform.

Protests – often held under the umbrella term “Defend the Atlanta Forest” – have often been peaceful and legal, such as rallies and marches. Others have been involved in occupation, vandalism and assault by throwing rocks in the forest and at the offices of the training center’s contractors and its lead planner, the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation. Recent incidents reported by police and firefighting agencies included Molotov cocktails thrown in the direction of AT&T line workers and a road into the forest blocked by felled trees and metal spikes.

The FBI has joined a “joint task force” investigating the protests, along with the GBI and other state and local police agencies. The GBI said that items found during the raid in unspecified areas included “explosive devices,” gasoline and road flares.

Georgia’s domestic terrorism law makes it a felony to commit various actions — including seriously injuring people or disabling or destroying “critical infrastructure” with a “major economic loss” — with the intent to intimidate or coerce the government into changing a policy or intimidate civilians. Prison time upon conviction for incidents that injure people ranges from 15 to 35 years, and for infrastructure damage, from five to 35 years. “This article shall not be construed to infringe upon constitutionally protected speech or assembly,” the law adds.

Of the five charged on Dec. 13 with domestic terrorism, three are identified by the GBI as out-of-state residents and the others’ residencies were not identified. In a previous raid in May, six of the seven people arrested were identified as out-of-staters. The national level of interest in the training center protests has been presented by police and political leaders as minimizing opposition as the work of “outside agitators,” while protesters say it shows the context of the systemic policing and climate issues involved. Earlier this year, 64 organizations and businesses – both local and non-local – signed onto a “Decree of Nonsupport” intended to be filed by Atlanta City Council members as a peaceful protest, though that has not emerged. Many other local groups also opposed the training center’s site and process before the City Council vote.

The Atlanta Police Department has monitored the site with drones equipped with heat sensors, according to Assistant Chief Carven Tyus. Police previously swept the site about three weeks ago and found no one living there in encampments, Tyus reported at a Nov. 29 meeting of a training center advisory committee. However, both police and protesters say there were still encamped protesters, including some in tree houses, during the Dec. 13 raid.

The GBI said that the task force “used various tactics” to remove protesters from tree houses. Stop Cop City says those tactics included tear gas and pepper balls, which are a chemical weapon contained within a gun-fired plastic shell.

“The kind of police brutality that we witnessed during yesterday’s raid demonstrates the kind of violence that we are resisting,” the Stop Cop City press release quoted an anonymous resident and protest supporter as saying. “The police are regularly brutalizing and harassing citizens, and the last thing that they need is a military training base like Cop City so they can further practice their tactics of policing and repression.”

The protesters’ press release did not address the GBI reports of attacks on police officers and EMTs. And the GBI did not address the protesters’ reports of detention of people who were just walking through the forest. The long-vacant area is technically not open to the public, but it has long been used by residents for walking and hiking to the point that it contains footpaths that training center planners intend to retain in their facility.

Arrestees info

The following are the Dec. 13 arrestees and the charges against them as stated by the GBI in a press release. The release did not include police reports or other primary information and provided incomplete identifying information of the arrestees. The GBI indicated it arrested one of the people, Francis Carroll, but would not immediately release that report, and could not say which agency or agencies on the task force arrested the others. The press release was based on information passed on from GBI officers on the task force. Details and charges may change as the investigation and court processes continue. Anyone accused of a crime is considered innocent unless proven guilty in court. The GBI says all of the arrestees were sent to the DeKalb County Jail and that their cases will be provided to the Georgia Attorney General’s office for consideration of prosecution.

  • Francis Carroll, 22, of Maine: criminal trespass, domestic terrorism, aggravated assault, felony obstruction, interference with government property, possession of tools for commission of a crime
  • Serena Hertel, 25, of California: criminal trespass, domestic terrorism, aggravated assault, obstruction, inciting a riot
  • Nicholas Olsen, 25: domestic terrorism, aggravated assault, interference with government property, obstruction
  • Arieon Robinson of Wisconsin: criminal trespass, obstruction, domestic terrorism
  • Leonard Vioselle, 20: criminal trespass, domestic terrorism, possession of tools for commission of a crime


Update: This story has been updated with information about GBI arrest reports.


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