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How a surveillance plane was sent to one wealthy suburb

National Guard troops were called in after group of young Black entrepreneurs toured a town.
Image: The shadow of a spy plane over a suburban neighborhood.
After a group of Black entrepreneurs visited the affluent California suburb of El Dorado Hills, the National Guard brought in surveillance aircraft.Anuj Shrestha / for NBC News

On June 1, in El Dorado Hills, California, an affluent Sacramento suburb of 45,000 residents, a local woman posted on social media that “Car loads of rioters are hitting the neighborhoods and businesses NOW!!!” Five people then called the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, according to the Sacramento Bee.

There was no evidence that the group was doing anything close to rioting.

By nightfall, dozens of National Guard troops, along with military vehicles, parked themselves in front of the Holiday Inn Express, according to the Mountain Democrat.

“We decided to take a proactive measure,” Sgt. Anthony Prencipe, a spokesman for the EDSO, told NBC News in September. Prencipe declined to answer NBC News’ further questions, until a request for public records was completed. The agency did not fulfill the request until early November and then only provided some of the requested records.

But back on that first day the National Guard troops arrived, Prencipe even emailed a local reporter: “While we have some people out in the county, there is no looting, riots, or crime occurring that we have been aware of.”

In fact, these alleged “rioters” were a group of young, Black entrepreneurs led by 22-year-old Malachi J. Turner, who grew up in nearby Rocklin. He was leading a group of people on a walking tour of El Dorado Hills, showing people how to “envision” a life for themselves in such a wealthy area.

“I’m the person that wants to empower people,” Turner told NBC News, underscoring that he believes in “dream-building.”

Two days later, on June 3, an RC-26B surveillance aircraft — the only one of its kind in the state, and just one of 11 that exist nationwide — was dispatched from the 144th Fighter Wing from the Fresno Air National Guard Base, approximately 200 miles south.

The El Dorado case is part of a broader trend NBC News has discovered where state governors called on the National Guard to control growing civil unrest. It’s a tactic that has not been employed this frequently since the civil rights movement in the 1960s, according to a review of such flight records by numerous military experts.

But in this case, Nathan Click, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom, later said the governor was unaware of this deployment at the time and disapproved of the deployment of aerial support during this incident.

In fact, enlisting a flight was so unusual that it was specifically called out in a 75-page report released in August by the Air Force’s Office of the Inspector General, the internal watchdog agency. The report examined seven RC-26B flights during the first week of June over Minneapolis, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. The National Guard flight over El Dorado County, California, was the only one above a nonurban area.

The inspector general’s office was tasked with determining whether the multiple RC-26B flights that took place improperly collected information on individuals and whether the flights followed proper military procedure.

The report ultimately concluded that the “missions were not used to track individuals, but there was a risk that they could have been.”

Prencipe noted that the agency was monitoring news around the country in the wake of the protests following George Floyd's death but added that “there was no specific threat” to the largely rural county.

There remains some confusion as to what this particular California plane — call sign Bear 26 — was supposed to be doing and what the guardsmen on board were told. One guardsman pilot aboard the flight, whose name was redacted, testified to the inspector general’s office that a law enforcement officer aboard the flight told the pilot that “Hell’s Angels may incite some violence.”

However, the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office appears to have been unaware of the existence of the Air Force report until NBC News brought it to the agency’s attention in September. The sheriff’s office also did not have an explanation as to why Hells Angels specifically were mentioned in the report.

The Air Force report does not specifically state what agency this “law enforcement officer” was from. The EDSO did not respond to NBC News’ request as to whether it was a member of its agency that was aboard the flight.

“We had nothing on Hells Angels doing anything in our county,” Prencipe said of the early June period.

Similarly, when asked detailed questions about the June deployments, California National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma declined to answer NBC News’ questions.

In response, he emailed a statement acknowledging that National Guard personnel and equipment were deployed “proactively” in an effort to “safeguard public safety and protect the wellbeing of the community and protestors alike.”