Laura Kealiher just wants closure.
In the early hours of October 12, 2019, Laura’s son Sean Kealiher was fatally hit by someone driving an SUV in Northeast Portland, spurring a homicide investigation by the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). Now, nearly a year since Sean’s death, Laura has given up hope that local law enforcement will solve her son’s murder.
“Whatever trust I had in the judicial system is gone,” Laura told the Mercury in an interview Friday. “I have cooperated with the police investigation for months, I have followed their instruction to not talk with the press, I have kept quiet. But I think that has done more harm than good.”
After feeling misled by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office about Sean’s investigation, Laura said she’s done staying quiet.
“I’m ready to bring this to the streets,” she said.
Sean, who was 23 at the time of his death, was struck shortly after leaving the now-shuttered Cider Riot pub on NE Couch and 8th. The driver fled the scene on foot after hitting Sean, leaving behind a black SUV. PPB arrived after being alerted to the sound of gunshot in the area, and later found evidence of gunfire on the car. Sean was driven to the hospital by a friend, where he died. Portland police told the public that officers were investigating Sean’s death as a homicide.
Sean’s murder shook the local anti-fascist activist community, which knew him by the nickname “Armenio,” and sparked immediate suspicions about the perpetrator who fled the scene. At the time of his death, Cider Riot was known as a hub for anti-fascist organizing, a feature that occasionally made it a target for right-wing activists. In May 2019, Cider Riot became the backdrop of a street brawl between members of the far-right group Patriot Prayer and anti-fascist pub patrons. That clash ended with several members of Patriot Prayer receiving criminal and civil charges—both of which are still being ironed out in court. Sean was killed near Cider Riot just two months after the Patriot Prayer activists were arrested.
For Sean’s friends in the activist community, the circumstances surrounding his murder were hard to ignore. Yet many who knew him well refused to speak with police, reluctant to trust an agency known to have offered special protections to Patriot Prayer members in the past.
This wasn’t the case for Laura.
“I cooperated with the police from day one,” she said. But, she added, she wasn’t “naive” about working with police.
According to Laura, Sean had been on PPB’s radar since he was 15, when he was arrested during an Occupy Portland demonstration. Court records show two citations (failure to follow pedestrian laws and failure to pay transit fare) and one arrest (interfering with a police officer) on Kealiher’s record between 2014 and 2015. Laura said she believed police knew and disliked her son because of his involvement in demonstrations.
After his death, Laura said she was suspicious of officers pressing her for information about Sean’s associates and groups he was involved in at the time of his death.
“But I continued to talk with them and check in,” she said.
Meanwhile, Laura’s house had become a target of right-wing vandalism, purportedly because of Sean’s association with anti-fascist activism. She says her house, where she lives with her two other children, was egged after his death, and people would occasionally drive by her home and yell offensive things about Sean from their cars. When she asked PPB what to do about the harassment, Laura said she was told to “expect it to get worse,” and offered information about counseling.
PPB has not returned the Mercury's request to confirm or clarify this anecdote.
Frustrated with waiting for answers, Laura began attending counter-protests held during Patriot Prayer events in town where she confronted members about Sean’s death. At one event in late February, Laura got in a physical fight with a right-wing activist, a scuffle she admits to. No arrests were made.
“I was hurting and I was angry,” Laura said.
But she had some hope. It was around this time that, according to Laura, staff from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s (MCDA) office reached out to tell her they believed they had found a suspect. They were presumably going to connect her with MCDA’s media staff to prepare for press interviews, following an upcoming grand jury trial.
That’s when COVID-19 shuttered the court system, a decisions that's delayed countless in-person trials. There was no grand jury, there was no conviction, there were no media interviews. Laura didn’t hear from the MCDA until August, after a new district attorney, Mike Schmidt, took office. The staff Laura had been communicating with had left when former DA Rod Underhill retired in July, and the momentum she felt earlier in the year had all but evaporated.
“I haven’t spoken with anyone in the DA’s office who is familiar with Sean’s case,” Laura said. “It’s honestly flabbergasting. It’s like none of that talk about a suspect and an arrest ever happened.”
MCDA spokesperson Brent Weisberg said MCDA has “had several meetings with the family and their attorney.” Weisberg, who is MCDA’s sole media liaison, said he never spoke with Laura about preparing for media interviews. As for the current state of the case, Weisberg said his office cannot comment on any facts of an active investigation.
Laura isn’t sure if she will continue speaking with local law enforcement. “I have no faith left in the District Attorney’s office,” she said.
Invigorated by Portland’s recent protests against police brutality and racism, Laura said she’s now focused on working with Sean’s friends to spread awareness about her son’s death—through a rally or other event—in order to put pressure on the MCDA’s office to continue its investigation.
Her mission remains the same.
“I just want to know what happened," she said. "That's all."