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Was It Just a Fireworks Prank? Or Was a Possible Tragedy Averted?

Courts weigh public safety threat of July 4 explosives suspects

Fugate posted a photo of himself in his blue coyote "fursona," holding an M4 carbine // credit: furaffinity.net

By SALLY KESTIN AND SCOTT CARROLL, Asheville Watchdog 

One dressed in Nazi uniforms, posed with an array of firearms and knives, and posted videos of himself shooting automatic rifles. The other threatened to spread his COVID-19 infection throughout a courthouse in Washington state if court personnel did not drop a speeding ticket.

Chioke Fugate, 23, and Duncan Small, 30, both of Asheville, are charged with detonating a homemade explosive similar to a pipe bomb in Pack Square on July 4. Witnesses said Small threw the explosive, described in court as a “quarter stick” or M device, at the remnants of the Vance Monument, and Fugate “threw fireworks and other incendiary devices at people,” court records say.

No one was injured, but police said the explosion, heard throughout downtown, could have severely injured or even killed bystanders assembled for a July 4th celebration that ended about an hour earlier.

Buncombe’s criminal justice system now must decide whether Small and Fugate pose a risk of serious harm to the public, as the Asheville police say, or were merely setting off “fireworks,” as their attorneys contend.

Eight days before July 4, the pair attended an abortion-rights rally in downtown Asheville. Fugate was wearing body armor and Small was carrying a revolver in a shoulder sling, police say. 

In this age of mass shootings, all too often the police, prosecutors, and judges across the nation are left connecting the dots after a mass casualty, looking for warning signs that were missed or overlooked. But balancing concerning past behavior against the potential for future harm is imprecise — and it’s playing out in Buncombe with Small and Fugate.

Asheville Watchdog delved into their backgrounds and found both have criminal histories and alarming behavior, including carrying weapons at public gatherings and making threats. 

Troubled Childhood

Multiple people have reported concerns to authorities about Fugate, who was “suspended and sent home almost daily” from school, according to a 2010 online profile by Eliada Homes, an agency that works with troubled youths, that has since been removed from the Internet.  

At Eliada’s treatment program, Fugate “was physically aggressive, confrontational, and … was often removed from class for threatening other students,” according to the profile, written as a success story after Fugate had “improved noticeably.” “It was many months before Chioke was able to remain in class for a full day.” 

Fugate developed a fascination with guns and knives, collected German World War II memorabilia, and frequently went out in public armed, often wearing body armor.

Fugate’s social media accounts contain multiple posts of weapons, including this video of him earlier this year shooting a British World War II Sten submachine gun // Credit: Twitter 

Since turning 18, Fugate has been charged in Buncombe County twice for assault and once for carrying a concealed weapon, and two people sought no-contact orders against him for stalking and harassment. The assault charges were dismissed, and the no-contact orders denied.

In March, a woman who filed one of the no-contact complaints wrote that Fugate brought a gun and ammunition and wore a bulletproof vest to an event at an Asheville hotel after being asked to leave.

Fugate posted video of himself firing a German-made H&K automatic // Twitter

The other person who sought a no-contact order informed the court that Fugate’s Twitter account “shows him holding handguns, firing his handguns, a collection of over 25 switchblades and butterfly knives, all of which he … carries on him at all times.”

Fugate posted video of himself firing a Soviet-era AKM assault rifle // Twitter

A video from Fugate’s Twitter account, posted in June 2021, shows Fugate firing an assault rifle, and another, from January this year, a machine gun. Police have found “videos of him in Nazi regalia,” prosecutor Meredith Pressley said at a court hearing July 11.

An undated video of Fugate in a Nazi uniform resurfaced after his arrest  // Credit: Twitter

Fugate took a gun and Mace pepper spray to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Asheville, he posted on social media. He wore a bulletproof vest to the abortion demonstration in June, which is not a crime, his attorney, Michael Casterline, pointed out at a hearing July 11. 

But Buncombe District Court Judge Patricia K. Young said she “would be remiss to say that that’s typical, normal behavior.”

Casterline said he’d known Fugate for four years, and he “doesn’t have any desire in this world to hurt anyone.” He said police were attempting to characterize the July 4 explosive “as some kind of bomb…. It was a loud, percussive firework.”

Chioke Auden Fugate’s booking photo after his July 4 arrest  // Credit: Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office

In court, Asheville Police Capt. Joe Silberman described the explosive as a “quarter stick” or M device, defined by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as capable of “extremely severe injuries” or death. 

Police seized Fugate’s phone containing images of the detonation. “There was a photo of a large cloud of smoke around the Vance Monument,” Silberman said. “And he [Fugate] gave the excited utterance that that was the quarter stick.”

Young said that dismissing Fugate’s actions as innocuous would be a mistake. “There’s a lot of people, unfortunately, in custody for the rest of their lives because certain behaviors went too far,” the judge said.

Small threatens COVID exposure

Small, described by his attorney in court as “an aspiring, somewhat successful musician,” goes by the name “Slam Duncan” and has posted videos of himself busking in Asheville and performing at a bar in Seattle. His music on Spotify includes profanity-laced songs titled “Voices in My Head,” “Warnings,” and “Viva la Revolution.” 

Duncan sings and plays guitar as “Slam Duncan” // Credit: Spotify

Small, originally from Florida, appears to have been in Asheville about two years.

Before that, he was in Washington state, where in March 2020 he was cited for driving more than 90 miles per hour in a 70-mph zone in Lewis County, south of Seattle. Over the next two months, Small sent threatening emails and a letter to court personnel.

In one email, on March 14, Small wrote that he had COVID-19 and if the citation was not dropped in three business days he “would make sure that the whole court gets infected.”

An email sent April 6 “threatened to mail contaminated items to infect court workers,” and ended with the words: “You have been warned.” 

A May 1 email listed the sender as “FUCK YOU,” and said: “You ‘people’ extorted the wrong fucking citizen. There WILL be retribution. Do not EVER write me a ticket again.” 

In a letter received by the court May 1, Small wrote: “I have COVID-19. I have sent multiple messages warning that I would send tainted mail if my ticket wasn’t dropped. I have spat on this paper multiple times. This will now continue until ALL tickets are dropped…Do NOT make someone cause an incident.”

Duncan Andrew Small was booked into jail July 4 // Credit: Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office

In June 2020, Washington prosecutors charged Small with two felony counts of intimidating a public servant and one misdemeanor count of harassment. By that time, he’d come to Asheville, records indicate.

He was charged in Buncombe County that same month, during the Black Lives Matter protests, with failing to obey an officer’s command to disperse from a public disturbance. That case was dropped due to COVID-19, court records say.

In July 2021, Small pleaded guilty to the three counts in Washington and was sentenced to 30 days house arrest and agreed to mental health treatment. “Reasonable grounds exist to believe that (Small) is a mentally ill person … and that this condition is likely to have influenced the offense,” court documents show.

A Buncombe attorney for Small in the July 4 case, Lindsey Teal Mittelstadt, said in court Small had been diagnosed with bipolar II and anxiety disorders, and that his parents, who still live in Florida, had sent her “numerous medical and mental health records.” 

Small’s July 2021 plea agreement in Washington forbade him from owning or possessing a firearm and required him to “maintain law abiding behavior.” 

Both were charged with “Possessing a Weapon of Mass Destruction” and “Going Armed to the Terror of the Public.”

Fugate was released from jail within 36 hours.

Two days later he was arrested again on an additional charge.

He was released again, the same day.

Less than a year later, Small came armed to the abortion rally in Asheville with Fugate, police said. A charge against Small for carrying a weapon at a demonstration was still pending when, on July 4, police say, he parked his Kia Forte downtown and removed items resembling a bomb, to the alarm of witnesses who called 911.

Small lit an explosive, described in an arrest warrant as a device made of cardboard, black powder, and tape, and threw it at the Vance Monument, prosecutors allege.

“Multiple witnesses reported seeing the defendant throw the explosive device and the remains of the device were recovered by APD,” a court document said. Det. Jason Hunter said in court that “several devices had actually exploded” and that Small and Fugate intended to destroy the monument. 

Police reported finding zip-tie handcuffs and a two-way radio in Small’s bag, and a ballistic vest, pistol, flare gun, and ammunition in his car. Fugate had a gas mask and leather gloves. 

In a search of Fugate’s apartment, police found empty black powder containers and liquid sealant “which they used to seal both ends of all the devices,” Hunter said in court. 

Small “believed he was setting off fireworks on the 4th of July,” Mittelstadt, his attorney, said.

Buncombe District Court Judge Julie Kepple on July 8 set bond for Small, at $50,000, less than the $100,000 sought by prosecutors.

“There are escalating concerns about this individual,” the judge said. “And so my concern is that this isn’t just a one-off for him, that he has a tendency to be potentially violent.”

Parents Linked to Gun Dealership

Small posted bond July 11. He was required to wear an electronic monitoring device, stay at least 1,000 feet from downtown gathering places including Pack Square and Pritchard Park, and surrender his firearms. He was released to the custody of his parents, who appear to run a firearms business from their home in Florida.

Small is listed at an Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, address in a court document, and police reports said his nearest relative was Stephen Small. Practical Tactical LLC, a licensed firearms dealer, is listed at that address with Stephen and Jane Small as managers, Florida corporation records show. Stephen Small declined an Asheville Watchdog request for comment.

Hours after Small’s release from jail, according to prosecutors, he wrote a social media post that said police and the media were “attempting to paint typical Fourth of July shenanigans as terroristic acts. Disregard this official narrative, and start a riot if they continue this funny business.”

Based on the post, prosecutors returned to court July 13 and asked that Small’s bond be revoked and that he return to jail in Buncombe County. 

Doug Edwards, Small’s attorney, said the post had been made on a “fan page” for Small’s music, and that other people on “an admin team” had access to it. 

“My client maintains that he did not make this post,” Edwards said. He said Small was at his parents’ house in Florida under house arrest, able to leave only for mental health treatment.

Buncombe District Court Judge Edwin D. Clontz called the allegations against Small “very severe and extremely troubling given the circumstances in our society.”

“We’ve all seen the actions on January 6th, so it’s troubling when it comes to your hometown,” the judge said.

But without proof that Small authored the post, Clontz said, revoking bond would be “a harsh punishment.” He allowed Small to remain free on the same bond with the additional condition that he delete or suspend all social media accounts. 

Fugate, too, returns to court

Fugate turned over his weapons to his uncle and moved back with his parents in Clyde, near Waynesville, his attorney said in court. “He felt uncomfortable remaining in Asheville because of the public vilification,” Casterline said.

He said Fugate had been diagnosed with autism and Asperger syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulty with social interactions. 

Judge Young ordered a mental health evaluation. “Some of his conduct does look like there are some mental health issues that maybe have gone unaddressed,” the judge said.

Initially, Fugate’s most serious charge was a mid-level felony, and Judge Kepple, based on his criminal record of one misdemeanor conviction, reduced Fugate’s bond from $15,000 to $5,000. He was released July 6. 

Police added another charge on July 8 — attempted damage to the Vance Monument with an explosive — but Fugate was booked into jail and released the same day on $10,000 unsecured bond set by a magistrate.

A magistrate is an independent judicial official of the district court who determines bond amounts based on the severity of the offense. The magistrate has discretion to consider other factors, such as past criminal records and the likelihood the arrestee will appear in court.

On July 11, prosecutors returned to court, asking for a $100,000 secured bond after Fugate, who police say terrorized the public with a weapon of mass destruction, was released from jail twice in less than a week. 

Buncombe District Attorney Todd Williams said that in North Carolina the police make the initial charging decisions. Police Chief David Zack said he needed more time to respond to an email asking why police did not charge Fugate with more serious offenses if they believed he was a danger to the community.

An FBI spokeswoman confirmed that they had been in contact with Asheville police and were prepared to investigate if a federal crime was identified.

Fugate came to court on July 11 alone, dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, and wept during portions of the hearing. He told the judge he was afraid of returning to jail.

“I don’t blame you,” Young said. “But do you understand how some of these behaviors can also appear to be frightening to others?”

“Yes, your Honor,” Fugate replied.

“I think you need to realize how serious this looks,” Young said. 

The judge set his bond at $50,000 with conditions that included electronic monitoring, mental health evaluation, and staying away from downtown parks. Fugate was handcuffed and taken to jail, where he remained as of July 17.

“I think the state has some contention that they have responded to something and averted some greater catastrophe,” Casterline said. “It’s easy to make unconventional people look kind of sinister.”

‘You talking to me?’

According to an online profile, Fugate became interested as a teenager in the furry fandom subculture. “Furries” are enthusiasts of anthropomorphism, or animals with human qualities, who dress in full or partial animal costumes, attend conventions and communicate in online forums. The “FurAffinity” online forum states, “The furry community has always celebrated artistic and personal diversity, accepting of all forms of love, orientation, and gender identity within the LGBTQIA+ …” Some members, including Fugate, acknowledge they are on the autism spectrum and say that wearing animal costumes provides a safe space.

Fugate dresses as a blue coyote. In a video posted on his Twitter account in March, a shooter in the coyote costume fires a rifle in the woods and then jumps joyously. “Burning off some stress in the snow,” it said.

Another post shows the coyote holding an M4, a magazine-fed carbine widely used by the military and capable of firing bursts of bullets with a single trigger pull. “You talking to me?” it said. “What? I’m just a 5 foot 8 blue coyote with an M4. Nothing out of the ordinary here.”

“You talking to me?” the post read  // Credit: furaffinity.net

Fugate has collected antiques since childhood, a hobby that helped him make friends in school by bringing in old records and phonographs for show and tell, the Eliada Homes profile said.

Over the years, Fugate expanded his antique interests to include Nazi SS daggers, German Iron Cross military medals, German Mauser pistols and Nazi coins.

“Just because I collect ww2 artifacts does not mean I am a Nazi fur, skin head, neo nazzi or what ever you may think,” he wrote in the online profile.

But he’s also posted a variation of the “Fuhrer Oath,” requiring German soldiers to swear personal loyalty to Adolph Hitler.

About five years ago, the local furry group banned Fugate after he came to a house party with a knife and an airsoft gun, a type of pellet gun used in games like paintball, said the group’s administrator, Tiffany Harvey. The group also discovered that Fugate “was part of the Furry Raiders, which is essentially furry Nazis, an alt-right group,” Harvey said. 

Three charges, one conviction

Since he turned 18, Fugate has been the subject of no-contact order requests or criminal charges an average of once a year. 

In February 2018, at age 18, Fugate argued with his housemate, Joshua Norris. “Afterwards, he hit me with his fists multiple times in the head,” Norris said in a sworn complaint. Fugate was charged with simple assault, a misdemeanor.

He later wrote an apology letter to Norris, who reported no further trouble with Fugate and agreed to dismiss the case, court records say.

Fugate’s booking photo in November 2018  // Credit: Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office

In November 2018, while working at the bowling alley on Kenilworth Road, Fugate took a food order to a bowler, Tamara Mills Cooper, a supervisor on duty that day, said in an interview with Asheville Watchdog.

Fugate made an offensive comment, the bowler followed him, and the two began arguing, Cooper said. 

“Nobody was actually in each other’s space,” she said. “They had a decent distance. And the next thing you know, [Fugate] pulled out the pepper spray and started spraying it.”

Several bowlers, including Andrew Gelleny, stepped in and a fight broke out, Cooper said. The other bowlers restrained Fugate until police arrived, she said. “We had to evacuate. It was just a mess,” Cooper said.

Fugate was charged with simple assault, a misdemeanor, for using pepper spray and striking Gelleny with his fist, an arrest warrant said. Twice, Gelleny did not show up for court, and prosecutors dismissed the charge, court records show.

“Obviously, a criminal prosecution requires evidence offered by witnesses to sustain the burden of proof,” Williams said.

Cooper said Fugate was told by other supervisors at the bowling alley to stop using offensive language, including “Nazi,” and bringing a knife into the workplace.

The only criminal case against Fugate to hold up in court was a September 2020 charge of carrying a concealed gun, a black powder revolver. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of carrying a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor, and received 12 months unsupervised probation and paid $283 in fines and court costs. 

No-contact orders: Denied

In November 2019, Dakota Lathrop filed the first of two no-contact orders against Fugate, writing that Fugate had made unwanted sexual remarks and advances toward him and brought weapons to parties on at least two occasions. Fugate continued to attempt to contact Lathrop online after being blocked, according to the complaint, which also referenced the Eliada Homes profile and Fugate’s Twitter account showing numerous handguns and knives.

Judge Young denied the no-contact order, finding Lathrop failed to prove “that defendant committed unlawful conduct directed at plaintiff.” Lathrop had sent a message to Fugate “stating that they are good,” and sent a nude photo of himself to Fugate, “clearly demonstrating plaintiff did not reasonably fear defendant,” the judge wrote. 

Lathrop told Asheville Watchdog that the harassment intensified after the judge denied the order. Lathrop said he worked overnight security at the Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville, and Fugate would regularly show up, often wearing body armor and carrying a bag with pepper spray, knives, and sometimes guns. 

“He threatened to kill me and shoot up events that my friends would hold,” Lathrop said. “It became routine.”

In March 2022, Tiffany Harvey, head of the local furry group, sought a no-contact order against Fugate, citing years of “harassing/stalking.” 

“It escalated this weekend when Fugate showed up to an event held at the Crowne Plaza wearing a bulletproof vest and admitted to bringing a gun with ammo to the event,” Harvey wrote. “The hotel and event staff had all asked him to leave prior to the incident.” 

Harvey checked a box asking if law enforcement should consider him a potential threat, writing that he owned a bulletproof vest and had “made threats to others” with guns and knives. She asked that the protective order be extended to her family “as I fear for them as well.”

Harvey told Asheville Watchdog Fugate showed up at her workplace and the workplaces of her sister and partner. “He would start yelling that the whole reason we were banning him was for political reasons … when it was never like that,” she said.

She said he did not threaten violence but sent her images of himself with knives and guns. “When I went to get my restraining order, I had over 40 different accounts that he had created on Telegram to contact me just to try and get me to let him back in the group, to change my mind,” she said.

A temporary no-contact order was entered on March 16, 2022, requiring Fugate to stay at least 1,000 feet away from Harvey. But after a hearing eight days later, Judge Kepple found Harvey “did not present evidence to support her claims.”

“The whole reason they said I wasn’t able to get the official restraining order was because a lot of it was online and it wasn’t in person, which is stupid, because he lives here,” Harvey said. “He hangs out in downtown. I work in downtown. That’s terrifying.” 

The allegations of Fugate harassing her sister and partner were not considered “because they weren’t there to confirm it,” the judge said, according to Harvey.

Violence ‘isn’t going to stop’

Police have not speculated on Fugate and Small’s motive or intent on July 4 but did raise the possibility of a connection to an email the department received July 3 purportedly from Antifa, a loosely affiliated group of far-left anti-fascism activists. The email, signed “Sincerely, Antifa,” threatened “further action” against the police if they failed to protect protesters. 

Asheville Police released the email publicly but acknowledged they had not fully vetted its authenticity. Police also reported finding a flier titled “Life without Law, An Introduction to Anarchist Politics” among the items recovered at the scene.

Harvey, the head of the local furry group, said Fugate railed against Antifa and liberals in online chats and posts. She said he embraced the “Trump alt-right culture.”

Asheville Watchdog summarized Fugate’s court records and a profile of his troubled youth to Gregory M. Vecchi, the former chief of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit and a career hostage negotiator, who said they showed a clear pattern of escalation. 

“He’s definitely a problem … he has a grievance,” said Vecchi, who owns Vecchi International, a Kansas City-based company specializing in threat assessment and conflict resolution training. “If the grievance isn’t dealt with, then the violence isn’t going to stop … That is absolutely established as fact in research and practice.”

[Editor’s note: This article was updated to include an explanation of the role of the independent magistrate in initial charging, setting bonds, and setting terms of release.]


Kyle Perrotti of the Smoky Mountain News contributed to this report.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Watchdog reporter Scott Carroll is a Report for America corps member. 

Asheville Watchdog gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Lawyers for Reporters.

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6 Comments

  1. Hilary Chiz Hilary Chiz July 18, 2022

    “Unconventional” behavior but no threat? I am all for mandatory legal representation, but that representation must be fair and weigh dangers to the public against overzealously representing a client. This does not sound like a game, and this pairs’ lawyers cannot just be trying to win to feather their own caps.

  2. Rosalynd Storer Rosalynd Storer July 18, 2022

    Two guys with mental health owners of fire arms. What is the court and judges waiting to confiscate
    all these rifles, guns and knives. Put them in jail without bond. Both are to dangerous to be free.
    Are we waiting a mass shooting to take action? After a mass shooting is going to be to late for action.

  3. Margot Ammidown Margot Ammidown July 18, 2022

    Another important story from the Watchdog. Thank you.

  4. Anonymous Anonymous July 18, 2022

    This sounds like a catastrophe waiting to happen, right here in our home community. I am appalled the public isn’t being better protected.

  5. D.F.J D.F.J July 18, 2022

    Investigative reporting at it’s best! We citizens of Asheville as blessed to have the best there is in the field reporting on stories that truly matter to us. Of course both these young men need help. We citizens need to inform our Courts that they must do a much better job insuring the publics safety first and foremost.
    God forbid these troubled misguided possibly mentally ill youth commit a horrific crime (mass murder) against the citizenry of Asheville… How could the Judges who set them free live with themselves? They had an opportunity to order mental evaluation while remanded to jail but failed to take that course of action… why? God help us all.

  6. Nick Peters Nick Peters July 19, 2022

    Unfortunately, this kind of incident can happen anywhere these days. APD, the prosecutor’s office, and the courts need to have firm, set policies in place when arresting and charging anyone who poses an armed threat to the public. But there are too many loopholes and too much political posturing for that to happen.

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