Obama murder plot story and the North Carolina connection

Nathan Johnson as seen on Channel 4.

"Local Obama Plot Case Lures N.C. Lawyer," in the September 3 Denver Post, revolves around Lawrence Hewitt, an attorney who represents Jerry Blanchard, a North Carolina man accused of threatening to kill Barack Obama; Blanchard reportedly called the Democratic presidential candidate "the Anti-Christ" in, of all places, a Waffle House restaurant, and made another threat against him at a hotel two weeks later. Why, Hewitt wonders, is his client facing such a serious charge when Tharin Robert Gartrell, busted in Colorado just prior to the beginning of the Democratic National Convention, has thus far evaded such charges even though an associate, Nathan Johnson, insists that he said pretty much the same things about Obama? After all, Gartrell was found in possession of two high-powered rifles...

The answer, according to the Post, is that U.S. Attorney Troy Eid doesn't consider Johnson, an admitted meth head who was under the influence at the time of his claims, to be a credible witness. And a Channel 4 video of a conversation between Johnson and investigative reporter Brian Maass tends to reenforce that viewpoint.

Channel 4 led the charge on the Gartrell story, even airing a crawl teasing a possible Obama assassination plot in the moments before Michelle Obama took the stage at the Pepsi Center to deliver her much-anticipated speech on August 25. Later that evening, after the outlet's late newscast had aired, Maass managed to arrange a sit-down with Johnson, and while the 38-minute interview that resulted provides a vivid argument against meth use, it hardly establishes the participation of Gartrell and an associate in a scheme to kill Obama.

When Maass asks Johnson if he thinks Gartrell really intended to shoot the candidate, he replies, "I don't want to say 'yes,' but I don't want to say 'no'... I don't ever remember a real definitive statement being made that way. But obviously, to be in the position that I'm in, and where I'm at, I'd have to say 'yes.' Why else would I have Secret Service knocking on my door?"

At this point, Maass tries to pin his subject down: "So you're saying what? Just so I understand..."

"That yeah, they were here to do that," Johnson says, adding, "I can't come up with any other reason why they have all this attention drawn on me."

How did Eid interpret that? Presumably, he feels that Johnson's finger-pointing was inspired more by his eagerness to disassociate himself from the other arrestees than by any concrete evidence he has of Gartrell's complicity in a murder scenario -- and after watching the video, it's tough to argue with such logic. That's not to say Maass, among the city's finest investigative reporters, or Channel 4 erred in covering the story -- they didn't. But Johnson's word alone doesn't seem nearly strong enough to get Gartrell in deeper trouble, or to get attorney Hewitt's client out of it. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts