SUPERIOR, Mont. — An attorney for the Montana man accused of slamming a 13-year-old boy's head into the ground for not removing his hat during the national anthem says President Donald Trump's "rhetoric" is partially to blame for his client's actions.
Earlier this week, Mineral County Sheriff Mike Boone identified 39-year-old Curt James Brockway as a suspect in the alleged Saturday night, Aug. 3, assault. According to court documents filed in Mineral County, Brockway reportedly told investigators that he asked the boy to take off his hat as the anthem began to play at a local rodeo. When the youth cursed back at him instead, Brockway claimed, he "lifted him into the air, and slammed the boy into the ground."
The attack reportedly fractured the boy's skull and left him with a concussion.
Brockway was apprehended Saturday at the fairgrounds, located in the western Montana town of Superior, and charged with assault on a minor — a felony charge that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
The man's attorney, Lance Jasper, told the Missoulian on Wednesday that his client is a U.S. Army veteran who was honorably discharged for disability after sustaining a traumatic brain injury in 2000 while on active duty in Fort Lewis, Washington. As a result, Jasper said, Brockway believed he was following orders from "his commander in chief" while attacking the teenager.
"[President Trump] is telling people that if they kneel, they should be fired, or if they burn a flag, they should be punished," Jasper told the Missoulian. "He certainly didn't understand it was a crime"
Jasper did not return several phone calls from The Washington Post requesting comment on the case Thursday. Army Human Resources Command did not immediately return a request to verify Brockway's service record.
A witness mostly corroborated Brockway's description of the incident, according to the affidavit, though she did not hear him ask the boy to remove his hat. Taylor Hennick, who attended the event, told local news outlets that she overheard the incident, which took place near the Mineral County Fair and Rodeo's entrance, just as the national anthem began to play.
The woman said she heard a "pop," and turned to see the boy writhing on the ground. She did not return messages from The Post requesting comment.
"He was bleeding out of his ears, seizing on the ground, just not coherent," Hennick told the Missoulian. As startled spectators closed in on Brockway, she said, he told them "[the boy] was disrespecting the national anthem, so he had every right to do that."
According to the affidavit, Brockway told investigators that when he asked the child to remove his hat "because it was disrespectful," the child replied, "F--- you."
Police said the boy was flown to Sacred Heart Children's Hospital in Spokane, Washington, for emergency treatment. The 13-year-old suffered a concussion and fractured skull, according to the affidavit. In a hospital interview with local media, he said he can't "remember anything" from the rodeo. The boy's mother, Megan Keeler, told KPAX that her son's ears bled for six hours after the alleged attack.
"All of the witnesses I have talked to said this was completely random," Keeler told KPAX, a CBS-affiliated news station. "He targeted [my son], grabbed him and took him down."
Keller declined a request for comment from The Post, citing an ongoing investigation into the case. The boy was reportedly released from the hospital Tuesday and is recovering at home, his mother said.
Controversy surrounding the national anthem dates back to 2016, when then-National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick called attention to police brutality and racial injustice by kneeling as the song was performed before games. The silent protests were largely condemned by many on the right, including Trump - who in September 2017 encouraged team owners to fire NFL players, like Kaepernick, who knelt and otherwise protested the anthem.
During a 2017 rally in Alabama, Trump said: "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b---- off the field right now, out. He's fired. He's fired!'" Speaking with Fox News later, Trump suggested NFL players who don't stand for "The Star-Spangled Banner" shouldn't be in the United States at all.
"You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. You shouldn't be playing; you shouldn't be there. Maybe they shouldn't be in the country," he said.
Jasper told the Missoulian he will seek a mental health evaluation for Brockway, whose brain injury affects his frontal lobe and impairs his cognitive function. Jasper likened Trump's words surrounding the anthem and those who protest it to a presidential order. The White House did not immediately return a request for comment on Jasper's claim that his client was motivated by the president.
"Obviously, [Brockway] owes a big portion of accountability for what took place, but it's certain that there was other things at work here that definitely contributed," he told the newspaper. "Trump never necessarily says, 'Go hurt somebody,' but the message is absolutely clear. . . . I am certain of the fact that [Brockway] was doing what he believed he was told to do, essentially, by the president."
The accusation from Jasper's attorney comes as the nation reels from two weekend mass shootings that have renewed conversation surrounding Trump's rhetoric. Authorities have looked closely at an anti-immigrant screed allegedly written by the suspect named in Saturday's attack on a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which warned of a "Hispanic invasion of Texas."
Trump has used the word "invasion" repeatedly to describe immigrants who enter the United States through the southern border, and some El Pasoans believe the president's rhetoric has heartened anti-immigrant groups.
The Missoulian previously reported that Brockway was charged with assault with a weapon in 2010, resulting in a 10-year probation sentence. Jasper told the outlet Brockway's brain injury was considered during his sentencing in that case. He was granted early release from the probation after seven years for good behavior.
"Obviously it's a tragedy whenever someone is injured, especially a young kid, but with my client being a veteran with a traumatic brain injury, it is absolutely fair to say he got caught up in a heightened animosity and a heightened rhetoric that too many people are engaged in," Jasper said, according to the Missoulian.
Brockway's arraignment in the latest charge is scheduled for Aug. 14.
This article was written by Michael Brice-Saddler, a reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Alex Horton and Eugene Scott contributed to this report.