A federal judge on Friday ordered a Philadelphia protester jailed without bail pending her trial on charges that she torched two police cars during the May 30 protest in Center City of the death of George Floyd.
Acting on a recommendation from prosecutors, U.S. Magistrate Judge Marilyn Heffley ruled that Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal — the 33-year-old massage therapist the FBI identified through news footage and social media posts documenting the incident — was a danger to the community and a potential flight risk.
Blumenthal’s lawyer, Paul Hetznecker, vowed to appeal.
“Nothing in her background warrants detention,” he said. “The government’s purpose in seeking detention was to single her out and send a message to protest movements seeking racial justice. This is a property crime that would have resulted in bail if it were charged in state court.”
But prosecutors maintained that by setting two police cars ablaze during what had been a largely peaceful demonstration, Blumenthal put hundreds of protesters at risk. Then when agents showed up to arrest her, she fought them off and tried to evade arrest, prosecutors said.
In a tweet sent after Friday’s hearing, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain needled Blumenthal’s fellow demonstrators who rallied to support her.
“For any of you out there who might have contributed to her bail fund,” he wrote, “you can now ask for your money back.”
Since Blumenthal’s arrest Monday, her case and others like it in cities across the United States have emerged as a lightning rod in the ongoing national debate over police tactics and accountability, and the tenor of the demonstrations that have gripped U.S. cities over the last three weeks.
Prosecutions like hers around the country have alarmed civil rights advocates. They have questioned the FBI’s use of protesters’ social media and internet histories to track down and identify those accused in violent or destructive acts — especially given that peaceful demonstrators have heavily relied on those same modes of communication to organize and spread their message.
Meanwhile, others — including U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) — have cheered on law enforcement efforts to use all tactics available to identify and prosecute those who turned what started as a peaceful protest in Center City three weeks ago into three-days marked by looting and destruction.
In Blumenthal’s case, the FBI started only with TV news footage of a masked woman hurling a flaming piece of a police barricade into an SUV parked outside City Hall, as thousands gathered in outrage over Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
With little more to go on than a distinctive peace sign tattoo on her right forearm and a T-shirt agents say was only sold in one shop on the online marketplace Etsy, investigators followed a trail Blumenthal left over the internet for years to conclude that she was the woman depicted in the original video.
But in court Friday, Hetznecker argued that nothing in Blumenthal’s past would suggest she posed an ongoing threat to community safety. She has a negligible criminal history: a stint on probation tied to a 2008 retail theft arrest. And the court’s probation office recommended Friday that she be released to her mother’s house in Montgomery County pending trial on the federal charges.
A graduate of William Penn Charter School, Blumenthal trained for years as a yogi and massage therapist, eventually opening her own studio in Jenkintown. Roughly 20 supporters submitted letters to the court highlighting her past charity work on behalf of the elderly, homeless, and those suffering from addiction.
Blumenthal had been unemployed since the coronavirus pandemic forced her business to close and was living in a house in Germantown with several roommates at the time of her arrest.
Prosecutors said that when the FBI showed up Monday with a warrant to search the residence, she repeatedly refused to let them in and tried to flee into the house.
Agents eventually used a battering ram to break down the door, and it took two of them to restrain Blumenthal as she screamed and struggled, according to the government’s account. She remained uncooperative during booking, prosecutors said, contorting her body to keep agents from photographing her tattoos.
While searching her home, agents say, they found the same goggles, backpack, and flame-retardant gloves worn by the masked woman in the video who set the squad cars ablaze.
In court Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Reinitz argued that the fact that Blumenthal brought them with her to the May 30 protest suggests she set out with the intention to destroy property. She also noted that Blumenthal’s past international travel and the fact she has a boyfriend in Iceland could make her a flight risk.
“The defendant has repeatedly shown that she has no respect for either law enforcement or the criminal justice system,” Reinitz wrote in court briefs. “Any family ties, previous employment or other ties to the community have not been sufficient to prevent her from setting fire to two police cars.”
Federal authorities have not publicly suggested that Blumenthal was part of any organized group of agitators.
Since protests erupted nationwide after Floyd’s May 25 death when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, Justice Department lawyers have overwhelmingly sought to keep defendants charged with federal crimes for violence or property damage in detention without bail. In several notable cases — including one involving two New York lawyers accused of throwing Molotov cocktails at a police van in Brooklyn — judges have denied the requests. The government appealed the bail decision in that case and both lawyers were taken back into custody pending a hearing before the federal appellate court.