GENESEO – Around the time officers with the Le Roy Police Department pulled Joshua Blessed over for speeding, nearly 1,000 miles away in Minneapolis, Minn., a second night of protests over the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police two days prior had already started turning violent.
Mark Concordia, a counterterrorism expert, thinks the killing may have served as a trigger for Blessed, the tractor-trailer driver from Harrisonburg, Va., and the culminating push in a long string of “stressors” that ended the night of May 27 in Blessed’s decision to flee from authorities and fire on those law enforcement officers who gave chase. The 46-mile pursuit across three counties ended in Geneseo with the shooting death of Blessed.
During a phone interview with The Livingston County News earlier this week, Concordia stressed he has no firsthand knowledge of authorities’ investigation into Blessed. Instead, he spoke from his 22 years of law enforcement experience, including 13 as a member of the Rochester Joint Terrorism Task Force, an FBI-led entity that’s assisting the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office in its investigation of Blessed.
“You take a guy who has stressors, lots of clustered risk factors, he hates the police to begin with and now you have this incident with Mr. Floyd which is clearly disturbing and for him, potentially, this is the trigger,” said Concordia, now a professor in the homeland security and applied intelligence department at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester. “He’s so angry, his grievance against the police turns into this moral outrage and then he gets pulled over, and he’s had enough, and he acts out in a violent manner.”
Blessed’s hatred of police is writ large on his numerous social media accounts and online profiles. On Facebook, where Blessed had been banned multiple times for violating the platform’s terms of service, he often shared memes critical of law enforcement.
One such meme shows an image of Roman soldiers holding scourges, the bloodied body of Jesus Christ at their feet. “Lay on the ground, stop resisting, comply,” one soldier says in a speech bubble. “I’m just doing my job,” says the other, as Christ’s chained hand extends upwards in a silent plea.
Words in the bottom, left-hand corner of the image show a sarcastic job listing: “Still hiring now! ‘Blue lives matter.’ Apply online: www.work4theBeast.gov.”
The meme is accompanied by a written post from Blessed, urging true followers of God to form militias to kill members of law enforcement, who he calls “domestic terrorists” and “blue devils.”
“He’s putting it into a law enforcement context and he’s calling law enforcement ‘The Beast,’ so he’s dehumanizing police officers and equating them with evil,” said Concordia of the meme. “When I see something like this, then you see the national outrage over the Floyd event, rightly so, you can see where someone who has a lot of risk factors, this could be a trigger.”
During a press briefing last week, Livingston County Sheriff Thomas J. Dougherty said in addition to collecting physical evidence from the route of pursuit and shootout in Geneseo, authorities are also looking through Blessed’s online activity to get a sense of him as a person and determine what his motivations may have been.
“Specifically, what were his last 24 hours (like), what led to this, what led to such an extreme encounter with police,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty declined to comment on the 58-year-old’s nationality, but did confirm he’d changed his name to Joshua Blessed from Sergei Jourev. In videos posted to his YouTube channel, Blessed speaks with what appears to be a heavy Russian accent.
The Sheriff’s Office is partnering with the FBI in its investigation. Rosa Ford, the FBI’s supervisory agent for the Rochester JTTF, stood behind Dougherty at the Sheriff’s press briefing last week.
“We commonly hook up with the FBI,” said Dougherty when asked why the federal agency had been brought in. “Especially if it’s an out of state investigation where it’s going to cross state lines - this man was not from our state – it’s common for us to hook up with our federal partners.”
Virginia State Police and FBI agents raided Blessed’s home in Virginia on May 29, local media reported. Around 2 p.m. that day, at least six law enforcement vehicles and a Virginia State Police mobile headquarters were parked near a home along Fadley Road in Weyers Cave, according to WHSV-TV in the city of Harrisonburg. The hamlet is about 15 miles southwest of the city.
It’s unclear what authorities seized from Blessed’s home. FBI Spokesperson Maureen Dempsey confirmed last week the FBI’s Rochester JTTF is supporting the Sheriff’s Office investigation into Blessed, but declined to elaborate on the nature of that support.
As part of their inquiries into his online activity, Concordia said authorities are almost certainly looking at whether Blessed conspired with others to engage in “targeted plans to attack.” Such a link, if it exists, could indicate Blessed engaged in an act of domestic terrorism.
Such a determination is based on whether criminal activity meets a certain definition.
“The Bureau defines domestic terrorism as violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences such as those of a political, religious, social, racial or environmental nature,” Concordia explained. “What that really means is you have to commit a violent act, it has to be in furtherance of one of those ideological goals and it has to be domestic, there’s no foreign influence like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah. That makes it international terrorism.”
Acts of domestic terrorism can be perpetrated by a group or an individual, Concordia said, as long as the criminal conduct meets the Bureau’s definition. The Rochester JTTF is likely looking for links between Blessed and international and domestic terrorist groups, if they exist, and evidence that his actions were motivated by an underlying ideology, likewise, if it exists.
“I’m not saying they’re there. I don’t know the investigation,” Concordia stressed. “I’m just saying, this is what they’re looking for. They’re looking to tie it to a larger organization, if it’s there. They’re looking to tie it to particular ideology that fits domestic terrorism, if it’s there. And they’re trying to make sure the public is safe.”
As The County News previously reported, Blessed at one time had an active profile on MyMilitia.com, a website that provides information and resources for people looking to establish or join a militia group in their area. He was banned in February 2019 by an administrator with the username “fixer” who considered him “destructive to himself and possibly others.”
According to The Guardian, a daily newspaper based in the U.K., My Militia had until recently been owned by an Ohio man named Chad Embrey. According to The Guardian, Embrey sold his site to Josh Ellis, leader of American Revolution 2.0, earlier this month.
American Revolution 2.0, or AR2, is described by The Guardian as a protest group that’s organized demonstrations against coronavirus-related shutdowns in the United States. Sale of the site followed The Guardian’s publication last month of an article about AR2’s links to far-right groups and individuals, some with extremist tendencies.
During a phone interview with The County News last week, Ellis said Embrey’s My Militia username was “fixer” – the same as the administrator who banned Blessed in 2019. Embrey did not respond to a request for comment last week about what led him to ban Blessed from My Militia.
Dempsey, the FBI spokesperson, declined to comment when asked if the Bureau was looking at the website.
“It’s against DOJ policy to confirm or deny any matter that we may be investigating,” she said.
To read The Guardian’s article about My Militia, click here.
Politico, a Washington D.C.-centric news website, reported Monday on a Department of Homeland Security memo stating the federal agency’s belief that “militia extremists could try to exploit the recent nationwide protests spurred by the death of George Floyd.”
According to Politico, the memo, citing the FBI, revealed that on May 27, the same day as Blessed’s chase and shootout with police, “a white supremacist extremist Telegram channel incited followers to engage in violence and start the ‘boogaloo’ – a term used by some violent extremists to refer to the start of a second Civil War – by shooting in a crowd.” Telegram is a social media and messaging app.
One Telegram message encouraged potential shooters to “frame the crowd around you” for the violence, the Homeland Security memo said, according to Politico.
Blessed spoke frequently in written posts and video clips of visions of a second U.S. civil war he purported to have experienced.
To read Politico’s coverage of the memo, click here.
While it remains unclear whether Blessed acted in coordination with others as part of a broader conspiracy to kill police or under his own volition as a sole offender, Concordia is inclined to believe the latter. The way his rampage started – with an unplanned traffic stop – suggests to Concordia the trucker’s actions were not premeditated. Because of this, he thinks it unlikely the FBI will ultimately designate Blessed’s actions an act of domestic terrorism.
“He gets pulled over and then he reacts that way,” Concordia said. “I can’t see how you’re linking that criminal act of shooting at the police to a larger domestic ideological movement.”
In cases such as Blessed’s, said Concordia, there’s a popular inclination to look for some single factor that caused the individual to “snap.” The problem, said Concordia, who’s also a certified threat manager through the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, is that “there is no psychological construct called ‘snapping.’ ”
“This type of violence is a process,” he said. “A psychological process and, sometimes, an actual physical process in terms of preparation and planning that people go through.”
Part of this process that can sometimes result in violence is the cumulative stacking of what Concordia called “stressors,” things in Blessed’s life that, taken together, could have contributed to his decisions the night of May 27.
Stressors can be anything from being fired from a job, to getting divorced. Mental illness can be a stressor, “especially when you’re in the throes of the symptoms of a mental illness.”
Continued Concordia: “If you add multiple stressors... all at one time, you start to create a perfect storm of risk.”
As The County News previously reported, Blessed was charged with assaulting a family member in 2015, though court records don’t specify which family member. Aaron Leveck, a lieutenant with the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia, declined last week to provide information or release records associated with the arrest because, he said, Dougherty had asked him not to.
The County News has been unable to contact any members of Blessed’s family.
A video posted to his YouTube channel in January purports to show clips of Blessed and his family during a family vacation in 2015. In the comments section of the video, Blessed refers to his family as “ungodly wicked people.”
While it’s hard to gauge what specific stressors may have contributed to Blessed’s actions, Concordia said social isolation and alienation from family and friends are common in those who commit acts of violence of the type Blessed carried out.
“What you see... is by the sheer nature of the behaviors of these individuals, they tend to push away or marginalize from supports,” he said. “That’s a problem because now you start to lose what we call protective factors.”
Authorities will ultimately make an assessment of Blessed’s motivations based on the evidence and facts at hand, said Concordia. With his apparent attraction to religious extremism, fixation on law enforcement and fondness for conspiracy theories in general, it’s possible the investigation won’t reveal a single driving motive, but several.
“These situations where someone does something like this are so complex,” said Concordia. “... You’ve got to go where the tracks take you.”