In a federal courtroom in Minneapolis this month, the public transformation of Brandon Darby will become complete.
In the span of four years, he has gone from firebrand, never-trust-the-government activist in New Orleans to the confidential informant who helped the FBI arrest two Texas men on suspicion of building firebombs during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul last September.
"I feel like, as an activist, I played a direct role in stopping violence," Darby, 32, said in his first interview on his role in the investigation.
Darby was the government's chief informant in the investigation into David Guy McKay and Bradley Neal Crowder. The two Austin men are scheduled to go on trial in U.S. District Court on Jan. 26 for allegedly building Molotov cocktails during the convention. They are being held without bail.
Prosecutors claim the two men built the firebombs because they were angry that police had seized a trailer filled with riot shields they'd built and hauled to Minnesota.
In a conversation recorded by the FBI, McKay allegedly told Darby he planned to use the explosives on law-enforcement cars parked in a lot near the Xcel Energy Center.
"What if there's a cop sleeping in the car?" Darby asked McKay, according to an affidavit by Christopher Langert, a special agent in the FBI's Minneapolis office.
"He'll wake up," McKay allegedly replied.
McKay also is accused of telling Darby, "it's worth it if an officer gets burned or
ACT OF CONSCIENCE
Darby had been working as an informant since November 2007, and in an e-mail sent to friends Monday, he conceded he was comfortable with that.
"Like many of you, I do my best to act in good conscience and to do what I believe to be most helpful to the world," he wrote. "Though my views on how to give of myself have changed substantially over the years, ultimately the motivations behind my choices remain the same."
Darby's admission shocked Austin's activist community, which includes people who have known Darby for years and worked with him on a variety of grass-roots organizing efforts.
"Everyone that knew Brandon has gone through a whole range of emotions. Clearly, he's betrayed the trust of the community, and all the communities he's worked with," said Lisa Fithian, a social-justice activist who worked with Darby in Austin.
A spokesman for Frank Magill, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, whose office is prosecuting the case, declined to comment.
E.K. Wilson, an FBI special agent and spokesman for the bureau's Minneapolis office, did not immediately return a call for comment, but in the past has said the agency does not publicly discuss the work of informants.
McKay, Crowder and nine other people riding in a van with Darby had little reason to suspect he was a government informant, and Darby long had been known as having a strong mistrust of authority, particularly police.
"He and I faced the cops with arms, 'law enforcement' (and some within our communities) view him as very antagonistic toward the cops and all their flavors," friend Scott Crow wrote of Darby on an online independent news site in November.
"He often tried to inflame situations," Crow said in an interview. "He also spoke with a rhetoric that was pretty inflammatory, which could seem inciting to people. It was always put off as 'revolutionary fervor.' "
HELPING NEW ORLEANS
Darby was raised in Houston, had a little schooling after high school, became an emergency medical technician and had plans to work abroad helping civilian victims in war-torn areas.
But it was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that Darby made a name for himself as an activist, organizer and, as he calls it, proponent of "service-oriented direct action."
After Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Darby, Crow and others started the Common Ground Collective, which describes itself as a "decentralized network of nonprofit organizations offering support to the residents of New Orleans."
Common Ground began by delivering food, water and other supplies to people in the flood-ravaged city, and also set up an emergency clinic. Since then, it has attracted more than 22,000 volunteers and has expanded to provide various types of assistance to residents.
Darby said he saw firsthand what happens when government fails to protect its citizens.
"When I showed up in New Orleans, I was very angry at my government," he said. "I felt that rather than just protest what happened in New Orleans in your own city, it was important to protest by going to New Orleans and doing something about it."
But Darby said that while working on the Gulf Coast, he concluded that some activist organizations seemed more intent on promoting radical agendas than actually helping people.
"Common Ground had over 22,000 volunteers, and the vast majority of those were average working-class Americans who just wanted to help," he said. "But what happens is, different political groups or people with ideologies show up and their focus is on their agenda. ... There was a lot of that going on."
'I SAID NO'
After working in New Orleans, Darby returned to Texas. He declined to speak in detail about when and how he became involved with the FBI, but court documents reveal he began working as an informant for an agent in the FBI's San Antonio office in November 2007.
As for why he got involved with the FBI, Darby said it was because he discovered that people he knew were planning violence.
"Some of them had really bad intentions," he said, adding that at first, he didn't consider becoming an informant.
"I didn't want to go to the Bureau about it," he said. "But somebody had asked me to do something that would've resulted in hurting people, and I said no. So they started asking other people. At that point, that's when I went forward and contacted somebody in law enforcement."
By February 2008, Darby was involved with a group of activists in Austin, some of whom were making plans to travel to St. Paul to demonstrate during the Republican National Convention.
The FBI labeled the loose-knit organization "the Austin Area Affinity Group," and Darby said he "intentionally" got involved with its members.
"There were ... people in the group who were openly saying they were going to stop the constitutional rights of other people and they were going to do things that could possibly break the law," Darby claimed. "I'm pretty far from a Republican, but the people attending the convention had a right to speak."
Crowder, 22, worked at a sandwich shop in Austin, and the FBI claimed he was one of the group's leaders. McKay, 23, did graphic design work at an ad agency and was a member of the group, the government claims.
According to FBI affidavits, Darby provided agents with information about meetings the group had as well as meetings with activists in other parts of the country, including a planning meeting in Minneapolis in May.
He also purportedly provided information about riot shields McKay and Crowder had made from highway safety barrels they had stolen. A rented U-Haul trailer held 35 of the shields as well as helmets and batons.
Affidavits and testimony in pretrial hearings show that Darby was providing FBI agents with updates on the location of the trailer.
St. Paul police eventually found the trailer, broke the lock and seized its contents, but a federal magistrate has recommended that the shields and other items be excluded from evidence at the upcoming trial because police never sought a warrant to search the trailer.
Darby told agents that McKay and Crowder decided to retaliate by building Molotov cocktails. They bought the materials at Wal-Mart on University Avenue in St. Paul, then built the devices and stored them at the Dayton Avenue apartment building where they were staying.
Police later raided the building and seized eight firebombs in the basement.
PROUD OF HIS ROLE
Although the FBI zealously protects the names of its confidential informants, Darby's name leaked out during a pretrial hearing.
Darby initially declined to comment, but colleagues were quick to come to his defense and dismiss the published reports. Crow had called the claim that Darby was an informant "an absolute ... lie."
After getting Darby's e-mail this week, Crow said he was shocked.
"I can only say it's heartbreaking and it's shocking. This is somebody who has been known to me for six years, and it's shaken me to my core that somebody this close to me had been informing on me and others," he said.
Darby said he's proud of the role he played, and he believes it helped make life more "stable."
"I decided that the way I was going about things was not the right way to do it," he said. "While it may have satisfied part of me, it really wasn't changing anything."
David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.