The blurry video shows a woman holding a lighter to an indistinct object on a Brooklyn street. She vanishes off screen for a few seconds, then lurches back, lobbing what authorities say is a Molotov cocktail at a parked police van with four officers inside.
The officers weren't injured in the Saturday morning incident, and the suspect, later identified as Samantha Shader, 27, of the little Hudson Valley town of Catskill, tried to flee but was caught and arrested, authorities said. She now faces federal explosives charges. Her younger sister, Darian, was also booked on suspicion of resisting arrest.
Prosecutors in New York's Eastern District Court have described Shader an an out-of-control criminal determined to riot, someone who "demonstrated, at every turn, disregard and contempt for the judicial system and for the law abiding public."
But in interviews with NBC News, people who know Shader offered a different picture. One longtime friend said she didn’t believe the allegations. Another described her as a "regular girl" who wanted to help people and is being treated unfairly. And an online fundraiser seeking to raise money for legal fees for Shader and her sister says they "took a stand and bravely put their lives and freedom on the line to support the nationwide protest against police brutality."
The alleged firebombing attempt remains one of the more potentially violent actions carried out by protesters in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer last week. It also appeared to fit neatly into a narrative advanced by some officials — often without evidence — that “outside agitators” are responsible for the scenes of blazing buildings and police cruisers broadcast around the world in recent days.
Sociologists who study riots and uprisings say it isn’t clear yet who’s doing what in the bursts of rage that have gripped U.S. cities. But in past flareups, much of the immediate destruction and violence has proven to be homegrown, said Max Herman, an urban sociologist at New Jersey City University. "When stores are being targeted and police are being targeted, it’s mostly people from the neighborhood," he said. "The source of their anger is right there."
But as events progress, he said, so do protest demographics. “People coming in can sometimes hijack the later phases of what were peaceful protests,” he said. “They just use the situation to further their own agenda. I think we're seeing a lot of that now."
According to charging documents and a detention report, the bottle that Shader allegedly threw was filled with an incendiary chemical and shattered two windows, damaging the vehicle’s interior but leaving the officers uninjured. While being taken into custody, she bit an officer’s leg, prosecutors say, and once in custody, she waived her Miranda rights and admitted to hurling the incendiary device.
The documents say Shader spent the last decade traveling the country “committing various crimes.” She was arrested 11 times in 11 states and convicted in three of those incidents. One was a drug charge in Oklahoma, according to the documents. Another was interfering with an officer in Connecticut. In Texas, she was convicted of assault causing bodily injury, the documents say. Prosecutors said she posed such a “severe and ongoing” risk that if were she to be released before trial she would “return to rioting.”
The judge agreed, and on Monday Shader was ordered held without bail until a preliminary hearing next week.
One of Shader’s court-appointed lawyers, Amanda David, declined to comment on the charges or prosecutors’ characterizations of her client. David confirmed a report in the New York Daily News that Shader suffered serious injuries during her arrest and her lawyers requested an evaluation from staff at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. David didn't respond to a request Thursday seeking details about her injuries.
An old friend of Shader's, Kaelani Angelique, said she was stunned when her brother sent her an article about Shader's arrest. They met more than a decade ago as teenage neighbors living in the upstate town of Saugerties, and though Angelique had moved to Alabama, they talked often. Shader is her son's godmother.
"The way she’s being portrayed, it breaks my heart,” said Angelique, 28, adding, “I don’t see her doing something that she knows would ruin her life and the lives of her friends and family.”
Angelique said Shader, who goes by Sam, plays the ukulele and spent years on the road working as a busker. Angelique said she didn’t know about Shader’s criminal history, but she defended her friend, saying in a Facebook message, “When you're out there on the road, especially as a young female, you may come into trouble. But that does not make a young woman a criminal or that any alleged past criminal history is their ‘fault.’”
Angelique said Shader returned to her father’s large property, between Catskill and Saugerties, a couple of summers ago to care for her sick dog and ailing grandmother. She worked for her father to help maintain the property while putting down roots, Angelique said. Even during a rough year when she broke up with a fiancé, cut part of her finger off splitting wood and lost a beloved dog, Shader stuck around, she said.
“She was like, ‘I have to settle down and take care of my grandma,’” Angelique said.
Another friend, Mariana Mihova, knew Shader as a "beautiful, creative human being" who was committed to social justice causes. But she'd never talked about using extreme tactics like property destruction or violence, Mihova said.
"She's a regular girl," Mihova said in a Facebook message.
The New York Police Department has been criticized for its response to the protests. On Friday, a woman said she was hospitalized after being pushed by two officers in Brooklyn. On Saturday, video showed two SUV cruisers driving into a crowd, also in Brooklyn. And on Sunday, an officer in Manhattan appeared to point his gun at protesters.
NYPD Commissioner Dermott Shea has said that he's "troubled" by some of these incidents, but he added that the police have been "overwhelmed" by protesters, who he accused of goading officers.
Officers also may have been targeted. Though it's unclear if the incident is linked to the protests, on Wednesday night an officer assigned to an anti-looting post in Brooklyn was "casually" stabbed in the neck by a 20-year-old suspect identified as Dzenan Camovic, Shea said. In a confrontation with authorities that followed, two other officers were shot. All are expected to recover. Camovic, who was shot eight times, is in critical condition.
Shader faces a maximum of 20 years in prison, court documents say.