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Man accused of killing Portland activist in 2019 claimed he 'blacked out' before deadly crash

Christopher Knipe is accused of murdering left-wing activist Sean Kealiher by hitting him with an SUV in October of 2019.

PORTLAND, Ore. — On Friday, the man accused of killing a local left-wing activist made his first appearance in court — nearly three years after the alleged murder occurred on the streets of Portland's Kerns neighborhood.

Christopher Knipe, 47, appeared before a judge only briefly for an arraignment. Perhaps more significant than his appearance on Friday was the release of a probable cause affidavit related to his arrest. The narrative there marks the first somewhat-detailed account of what Portland police discovered about the circumstances surrounding the death of Sean Kealiher, who was 23 when he died.

On the night of October 12, 2019, police responded to Northeast 9th and Northeast Davis for a report of "shots fired, people screaming, a car wreck and report of people dragging a body," according to the affidavit filed by the Multnomah County District Attorney's office.

Police arrived at the scene to find a silver Ford Explorer with Washington plates crashed into a building on Northeast 9th, but officers said that there was no one around who appeared to be involved. Investigators later determined that the Ford was registered to a Douglas Knipe.

RELATED: Portland police make arrest in connection with activist's 2019 killing

A man who was staying in a tent near the scene told police that he'd heard an argument between at least four different men, and the argument escalated to where it seemed it might come to blows. He reported hearing an engine revving, the sound of a car crashing, then a small burst of gunshots. He looked out of his tent to see two men loading a lifeless body into the back seat of a car before driving away.

That body was Kealiher. His friends took him to a hospital, but he died shortly after arriving. An autopsy soon confirmed that his death was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma, the result of being hit by the SUV.

Credit: Portland police
Sean D. Kealiher

According to the affidavit, police were able to speak to at least one of Kealiher's friends. The friend told investigators that the three of them had been drinking at Cider Riot, a bar popular with Portland antifascists, but later left with the intention of walking to their car. On the walk, they ran into another group of three men who "verbally accosted them." They all seemed to be heading in the same direction, Kealiher's friend said.

The other men reached a silver Ford, according to an affidavit, and Kealiher's friend recalled that they mentioned coming from the Bossanova Ballroom, a venue on East Burnside, and "seemed drunk." At some point, the driver of the Ford began going northbound as Kealiher and his two friends continued walking southbound.

Kealiher's friend told police that he then noticed the silver Ford abruptly spin around before driving back in their direction. The driver, according to the affidavit, kept coming until he was up and over the sidewalk, running Kealiher down.

Kealiher was lying on the ground behind the Ford after it crashed into a building, and the friend told investigators that he heard the SUV's engine revving, the affidavit says. Fearing that the driver would throw it into reverse and run over Kealiher again, the friend told investigators that he drew a handgun and fired "downward and into the rear of the vehicle."

The two friends grabbed Kealiher and pulled him across the street to their car, bound for the hospital.

RELATED: Activist dies after crash, shooting in NE Portland; homicide detectives investigating

Detectives began gathering video from businesses in the area, including the Bossanova Ballroom. Knipe could be seen with two other men standing in line for a ticket to the venue that night, according to the affidavit. Video showed the two groups walking in a similar direction before the deadly encounter.

Video also captured the silver SUV stopping at the intersection of Northeast 9th and Northeast Everett "to let someone quickly hop into the rear passenger seat," the affidavit says. The SUV drove away from the intersection, heading northbound, leaving three pedestrians behind. It's then seen stopping in the middle of the road, quickly turning around, then driving directly at the three people on the sidewalk.

The crash and Kealiher's two friends carrying his body away was also caught on video, according to the affidavit. The video then appears to show Knipe walking "nonchalantly" away from the scene of the crash with one of his companions.

A detective was "unable to locate any objective evidence" to justify the silver Ford's sudden U-turn, or why the driver headed straight for Kealiher, the affidavit says.

Though the affidavit covers the apparent timeline and some of the evidence from that night, it does not illuminate some outstanding questions in the case — like why it took nearly three years for police to arrest Knipe.

A passage in the affidavit indicates that a detective contacted Knipe on June 28 of this year, asking to speak with him "again," but the details of a first interview are not mentioned.

RELATED: Police: Crowd causes $500K in damage to downtown Portland during memorial for activist killed in 2019

According to the affidavit, Knipe agreed to the interview, but promptly lied to the detective — claiming that someone had stolen his car that day in October of 2019 and he was home all evening. Detectives told Knipe that they had evidence contradicting his story, to which Knipe replied, "Okay, I guess I better come clean then," the affidavit says.

Knipe then admitted to detectives that he was behind the wheel of the SUV that night, the affidavit says. He then lied again, saying that he was alone in the car, did not know the men he was seen with that night and that he didn't know "that he had struck anyone with the car."

"He said he must have accidentally stomped on the gas," the affidavit reads.

Knipe was arrested on Thursday. According to the affidavit, Knipe admitted after being read his Miranda rights that he was the driver, then admitted that he hadn't been alone.

"[Knipe] still had no explanation for why he executed a U-turn prior to returning to the intersection and driving over Kealiher," the affidavit says. "He said that he blacked out shortly after pulling away from the curb and had no recollection of what occurred up until the crash."

Despite Kealiher's involvement in left-wing activism up until his death, Portland police have said that there is no reason to believe that his killing was politically motivated.

Knipe has been charged with second-degree murder. He did not enter a plea during his appearance in court on Friday, but he is scheduled to return to the courtroom on August 15.

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