By Dylan Deprey
It was only four days after Vaun Mayes, Program the Park youth program founder, was pulled from his residence by federal agents. He was back in federal court for the third time that week, for the second day in a row and was one day away from being released from Federal detention in Kenosha County.
Mayes has been a well-known community advocate in the Sherman Park area for years, which includes Program the Parks youth program, ComForce Community taskforce, the MKE Single Parents Club and ITAV Resource Center. He is also known Nationwide as an advocate for police accountability and police involved shootings, especially in the Black community.
After a two-year Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) investigation, Mayes was federally charged with felony attempted arsons, felony possession of a firearm by a prohibited person and felony possession of a destructive device in relation to a crime of violence.
Criminal Complaint and multiple unnamed sources
The charges stem back to an ATF investigation into widespread arson, rioting and looting in the Sherman Park community following the former Milwaukee Police officer Dominique Heaggan Brown shooting of Sylville Smith, on Aug. 13th, 2016.
As a community advocate in Sherman Park, Mayes was on the frontlines documenting the chaos on Facebook Live, while also saving bystanders and community members.
During the arson investigation, ATF was contacted about a cardboard box filled with ten Molotov cocktails outside a Sherman Blvd. dumpster.
After investigation, Mayes became a person of interest, and ATF searched his residence. Law enforcement found the same glass drink bottles in his apartment that were used to make the firebombs.
On Aug. 30, ATF agents searched a Sherman Park Blvd. apartment. They found ripped dark colored fabric that matched the wicks on the homemade firebombs. Two partially empty gas cans were removed from inside the apartment, and another with a gas can nozzle was in the yard. There were also several bottle brands that matched what was found in the dumpster.
According to the complaint, a source stated that Mayes met with several others at the burned down BP gas station in Sherman Park to discuss firebombing Milwaukee Police Department District 7 on or around Aug. 15.
According to the complaint, the group decided to meet at the Sherman Park Blvd. apartment. The source stated that later in the week, Mayes had brought gas cans and bottles to the apartment to make the Molotov cocktails. The source also stated that the plan was for youth in Mayes’ Program the Parks youth program to distract police with rocks while others firebombed MPD District 7.
In Sept. 20, 2016, ATF agents informed Mayes that the bottles from his residence might have been used to manufacture the Molotov cocktails. Mayes said that if the bottles came from his residence his DNA would be on them.
In Feb. 2017, a second source stated that on Aug. 15, they met with nearly 20 people at the apartment, including adults and teenagers, to manufacture the Molotov cocktails and discuss firebombing District 7. The source stated they were asked to throw rocks at police.
According to another source from Nov. 2016, they witnessed Mayes making the Molotov cocktails with a group of adults and teens on Aug. 15. They stated that after hearing of the firebomb plot, they drove past District 7 and saw police on the roof. The plan eventually didn’t follow through as too many people were aware and there was heavy police presence.
In Feb. 2017, a source had stated they met with Mayes’ associates to discuss the plot but was told later that police discovered the firebombs and gas cans. The source stated, they were told the gas cans were “covered up” by saying they were used for a generator.
The complaint included several video and text messages that were obtained from Mayes’ residence during the initial search.
In a video on Mayes’ cellphone recorded during the civil unrest, showed a large group in front of a line of MPD officers. “Where the rocks at? Who got the rocks?” Mayes said in the video. “F*** you all! Punk a** cops. Getting they a** rocked!”
According to the complaint, in a second video, Mayes had his face covered with a mask and could be heard talking about police being berated with rocks. A third video showed a group of people damaging a police squad car during the unrest.
According to the complaint, ATF viewed several Facebook Live videos Mayes recorded during the unrest on Aug. 14. He posted video near Fond du Lac and Burleigh comparing the scene to that of Ferguson or Baltimore. He also described MPD, in the video, as the one of the worst police departments.
On Aug. 15, Mayes posted a photo collage of Milwaukee Police Officer Dominique Heaggan Brown with the statement: “Officer Dominique Heaggan Brown killed #SylvilleSmith. Y’all know what to do…let’s get this out!!! #F***em. #FTP”
Later, Aug. 15, the complaint stated that Mayes had Facebook messaged a person believed to be his sister, “Fa Sho…Shit bout to get real tonight. Just so u know.” He later posted a video telling people walking around Sherman Park that it was, “about to get real.”
Mayes was charged with felony possession of a firearm by a prohibited person due to a 2005 felony charge of Drive or operate vehicle without consent. The Molotov cocktails are considered a firearm in this case.
Mayes goes Live from Jail on Fourth of July
In true Mayes fashion, he updated the community via Facebook Live. While sitting down in Kenosha county jail, Mayes was able to call in and speak on his own behalf.
He first apologized for not filling the community in on his legal issues that had been going on behind the scenes for the past two years.
The Milwaukee Courier covered Mayes and his issues after police social media groups continuously harassed him online and in person following the first ATF search.
At the time and to this day, he considered the search an attempt on his life.
“Even knowing what was going on, we were being approached by people saying that ATF and law enforcement were pressuring people into making statements against us,” Mayes said.
During the Live, Mayes said he was skeptical of the timing of his detention.
“Not even a month or two after we gained our non-profit status, not even a month or two after we were scheduled and had already been receiving city and federal funding, not even after efforts of working on getting a charge expunged off my record since I was 18, and there being talks of running for office in 2020 started to circulate that this is coming out after two years,” Mayes said.
“If you’ve heard the information in the criminal complaints and reports, a lot of that information was false Mayes said. “It’s very inconsistent with different people saying different things, and it’s not adding up.”
He said he planned on fighting this all the way.
“Our kindness is our weakness,” Mayes said. “This has been going on for a long time, and I’ve been more than diplomatic.”
A sigh of relief, but only for a moment
As Mayes was ushered into Federal court for the first detention hearing on July 5th, 2018, his friends, family and community packed the house. Quiet cries and sniffles could be heard over the relatively quiet, yet crowded room. This was Mayes second appearance since US Marshalls took him into custody on July 2.
Atty. Christopher Ladwig represented the Government. He stated that along with the sources in the complaint, there was a vulnerable government witness that had been harassed by Mayes and two associates in April and June 2018.
According to the Government, back in April, Mayes’ associate spoke with the witness and told them to stop cooperating with police. In June, the witness stated another associate took their phone, smashed it and then slapped them across the head and face. According to the Government, there was video evidence to prove this.
A week later, the witness stated that he had seen Mayes for the first time in a year. He stated that Mayes told them that they needed to talk and asked for the witness’s address and cellphone number. The witness took this as a “veiled threat” and “odd coincidence.”
The defense said Mayes was a threat to society because of the violent nature of the crime, his vast network in the community, which he pointed to the crowded room as an example, and that there was history of witness intimidation. He also noted that after attempting to use children from the Program the Parks initiative in the plot, it would not be safe to go back to work.
Atty. Robert LeBell, stated on behalf of Mayes, that the witness knew Mayes, and that it was no problem to ask for someone to call. He added that Mayes did not assault the witness, and the Government had not given the person’s name of who did the intimidation, as they could be questioned.
LeBell said that Mayes had a stable home environment, including a significant other and two children. He also noted that Mayes had incredible support from the community and that with him gone the neighborhood children would suffer.
Rev. Ellen Rasmussen, a Sherman Park resident and collaborator, made a statement in favor of Mayes. There were also four letters written in his support as well.
The Judge stated that although the nature of the crime was violent, the offense took place two years ago and between that time he has not had a criminal record. He also noted Mayes’ deep roots in the community.
The Judge said Mayes could release following a pretrial home assessment, which would be completed in one day.
The Government appealed the detention to a Federal judge.
Federal Appeals Court Reaffirms, Mayes is Free
Almost like déjà vu, Mayes appeared in Federal Appeals court the following day July 6th, 2018. Just like the day prior, neighbors filled the court room in silent support.
Judge Pamela Pepper stated that Mayes’ detention would be based on the same stipulations as the previous hearing.
Both sides spoke their arguments.
The Government reiterated their concerns that Mayes was a danger to the community. He noted the potential abuse he could have with his influence on local youth with his Program the Parks initiative. He also cited the witness intimidation that occurred in April and June as a red flag for possible violent behavior.
The Judge had the Government define what an “associate” was because Mayes had a large network of people that could be considered associates. They stated that it was people that worked with Mayes directly through program the parks.
Although, there was no quantitative evidence whether Mayes had directed his associates to speak with and intimidate the witness, the government noted Mayes and the associates had the same nickname for the witness in their phones.
Atty. LeBell described Mayes as the gel that held the community together, and that his absence would have been a huge disservice to the children. He noted that Program the Parks had already received City grant money and were working with the County. He also noted that Mayes and the witness had known each other, and besides the fact the other two incidents did not involve him, asking for a person’s number and address was not intimidating.
Rev. Rasmussen also spoke for a second day on Mayes behalf. She spoke about how she had witnessed Mayes de-escalate situations in the park, and it was unlikely these children would be used as pawns.
The Judge stated that just like the previous Judge, although Mayes had been charged with a very violent crime, there was no clear evidence to detain him. She noted that Mayes was aware he was under investigation for two years and maintained a civil record. She also added that his last major crime occurred when he was 18 and didn’t have drug or alcohol issues.
The Judge released Mayes from Federal custody, but she warned that the community that came to support should allow Mayes and his legal team to deal with the issues in court.
The Fight Continues
Maye walked out of the Federal Courthouse around 4:30 p.m., July 6. He had an enormous smile as he was surrounded by friends, family and supporters.
He spoke to the press for the first time since his arrest.
“The support was beautiful, but now it is time to fight,” Mayes said exchanging a black Kenosha Co. jumpsuit for his traditional colors: red, black and green.
“I needed to be out to adequately fight this. It was totally untrue, totally unfounded, and a lot of things come out. Unfortunately for me, I’ve been keeping this under the wraps trying to fight it myself for the past almost two years. But, now that it has been made public and now that it’s done, which is very strategic why it was done, we’ll be ready to fight,” Mayes said.
The trial is pending.