You’re reading this. That means we probably don’t know each other anymore, and I owe everyone an explanation. — Ryan Chamberlain
A door creaks open in the rear of the 15th-floor courtroom and a tall, handsome man trundles into view. Ryan Chamberlain, 42, wears a sweatshirt, shorts, and sneakers and looks as if he sprinted here directly from the Marina. He nearly did: Following a three-day run (of sorts) during a “national manhunt,” San Francisco police officers the prior evening apprehended the political operative turned accused bombmaker and FBI fugitive at Crissy Field.
He is not a man lacking friends. The coterie of Chamberlain’s supporters who visibly wince when he’s marched into his June 3 court appearance also seem to have been delivered here directly from the Marina. Their sundresses, trucker caps, oversize eyeglasses, and tattoos stand out at Federal Criminal Court.
”Ryan,” says a fellow city politico, “is one of those people that just everyone knows.” Yet, according to what was widely described as a “suicide note” posted on Chamberlain’s Facebook page during his time on the run, he is a man no one knows. And that’s the case regardless of whether or not he purchased deadly toxins on clandestine, black-market internet sites or assembled a homemade bomb within his Polk Street apartment.
”I’m so sorry about this. I’m sure this will completely blindside you all,” Chamberlain wrote in the online message posted hours after friends and loved ones were jolted by news of HazMat-suited feds raiding his apartment — and then left to wonder if they ever really knew him at all. “Whenever you saw me I was on the top of the world, because you pulled me up there.
”You never knew what hit me the minute I left to go home alone.”
Today was going to be a good day.
The building manager offered the FBI agents the key, but they wanted no part of it. “They said, ‘Lady, you get back inside your apartment,’” says Jim Hirsch, Chamberlain’s former landlord. “Then they proceeded to knock the door down.”
The lengthy affidavit supporting the search warrant authorizing the excitement of May 31 recounts a convoluted web of shadowy men on shadowy websites exchanging Bitcoins for deadly toxins. It doesn’t, however, mention explosives. But, within Chamberlain’s home, federal agents claim they discovered an alleged improvised explosive device loaded with shrapnel and ready to be triggered via remote control.
”Oh, Ryan,” his landlord laments. “He could’ve blown up the building!”
San Francisco cops arrested him at Crissy Field three days later, only three miles from his busted front door.
In the wake of his high-profile pursuit, capture, and subsequent processions in and out of court, former colleagues and employers attempted to recast Chamberlain’s San Francisco legacy, and not for the better. The man “everyone knows” was, at one time, an elected member of San Francisco’s Republican County Central Committee. As a political operative, he was enabled — and directed — by powerful business and political players to assail this city’s left.
He penned vitriolic campaign material, wrote impassioned articles, seeded nasty quotes, and, at one point, authored an acidic, novella-length broadside against then-Supervisor Chris Daly — whom, witnesses recall, he was not above heckling during public appearances. In a politically bruising era, Chamberlain had some of the sharpest elbows in town. “He did what his bosses told him to do, and then they hung him out to dry as the fall guy,” bemoans a former colleague.
Perhaps. But what struck enemies and allies alike was how willingly Chamberlain played the role. “Ryan was part of a destructive political conversation San Francisco engaged in for a number of years,” recalls a longtime opponent. “He ran out there with a bayonet, and he did it with relish.”
That was then. Now, Chamberlain’s former proximity to this city’s pro-business, development-friendly power structure and San Francisco’s entrenched political class is an embarrassing liability.
So Chamberlain was depicted in recent news stories as a small fish, a hanger-on, a low-level political afterthought, a mindless conduit of other men’s spite.
But this isn’t true.
Chamberlain was, in fact, a skilled field organizer, effectively serving as an on-the-ground representative and evangelist for a handful of citywide and district candidates over the course of half a dozen years. He was a pioneer of political practices that are, for good or ill, now ubiquitous in this city. He grasped the power of the internet before his contemporaries: “Ryan was on the tip of the spear in seeing how you could broadcast to a huge number of people at a time in politics when others were still trying to figure out what the hell CompuServe was,” says a colleague. (Chamberlain was a divisive force in San Francisco politics — but his foes and supporters are now united in not wanting their names anywhere near his in a newspaper article).
Politics wasn’t just a job for Chamberlain. He saw political activism not as a vocation but a calling. He entertained visions of how things ought to be in this city and grand plans of how he could lead it there.
But Chamberlain’s employers had starker tasks in mind for him and his particular set of talents. A number of erstwhile political allies and enemies alike independently hit upon the identical analogy when asked to describe Chamberlain’s role in this city: There is, on every hockey team, one player assigned the primal tasks his daintier associates can’t or won’t undertake — to deliver that bone-shattering blow. To force the opponent into an ugly place. To pound him where it hurts, again and again. To execute the coach’s strategy at the expense of one’s own ego, reputation, and longevity.
Ryan Chamberlain was the enforcer.
”I have no doubt,” says a longtime political adversary, “that Ryan sacrificed himself a great deal churning out the stuff those campaigns wanted to have out there.”
Chamberlain’s sacrifices helped render this city politically toxic, while rendering him politically radioactive. But, in doing so, he helped usher in our current, business- and development-enthralled era. His former taskmasters are thrilled with the ultimate results.
Politically, this city now looks a lot like what the man in the tangerine jail attire might have wanted it to. But its political structure has no place for him.
He was cast down and set on a dark path. Its course is unwinding still.
Nothing they’re reporting is true. No “stashes.” Not “armed and dangerous.” No car “rigged to explode.” I explored some ugly websites … I let Walter White get to me.
In 2006, residents of SoMa and the Tenderloin discovered something unpleasant dangling from their doorknobs. It was a campaign mailer belittling their incumbent supervisor; it featured photos of a bottle of urine and a pile of human excrement. In goofy Comic Sans font, it read: “the number 1 reason to dump chris daly … IS number one (and number two).”
There was never a pristine political era in San Francisco, a city spawned by lust for gold and sustained by lust for everything else. But this transcended the bounds of good taste and fair play to an almost comical degree.
People were angry. They wanted to know who put shit on their doors.
Fingers pointed at Ryan Chamberlain. Four years later, he swore to SF Weekly that the attack ad produced by the political outfit for which he served as field director was not of his design and did not feature his photos. But he purportedly boasted to other journalists that it was his design. They were his photos.
As is the case with so much regarding Chamberlain, the truth is difficult to know. But, among San Francisco’s political class — the people who worked alongside Chamberlain and could’ve seen fit to employ him in recent years — it’s viewed as a certainty that he was the guilty party behind the urine-and-feces ad.
To Chamberlain’s chagrin, this episode encapsulates his political existence in this city: Years of hard work, much of it behind the scenes, was obscured by bizarre, attention-grabbing spectacles serving to reinforce his reputation as “a zealot,” “a hatchet man,” “a bomb-thrower.”
”Ryan had the stomach and the appetite for this,” says a political adversary. “But he would not have been allowed to get away with it but for higher-ups giving him the green light.”
But whether he was acting independently or delivering an ordered hit, the residue of Chamberlain’s actions stuck to him and him alone.
Getting left out of the Newsom win was hard. But I was always able to override it by forcing some common sense onto my brain, knowing I had lots of years ahead of me, and toughing it out. And every time I would crawl out of it. But every time it would somehow come back. It’s happening again?!? Again?!? What did I do to deserve this!?!
Chamberlain got his political start in this city like so many others: He showed up. After volunteering at Gavin Newsom’s mayoral headquarters every day in 2003, he was hired to be field organizer in District 1 — Newsom’s man in the Richmond.
This is not a trifling assignment. The Richmond is perceived as San Francisco’s swing district — and, to Chamberlain’s credit, Newsom thumped Green Party opponent Matt Gonzalez there. “All good field organizers — and Ryan was a good one — have a following,” says Newsom campaign manager Jim Ross, who hired Chamberlain. “They’re almost surrogate candidates in and of themselves. And Ryan had a following. He was very good at bringing people into the campaign and managing them once they were in the campaign. He’s charismatic. Likeable. A good guy, right?”
But that’s not what insiders remember now. They remember the email.
The ‘03 mayoral race “was a particularly vicious campaign,” recalls former Newsom apparatchik Frank Gallagher. It’s hard to overstate how much was at stake in the showdown between Gonzalez and Newsom, who was the choice of the city’s Democratic establishment. It’s hard to overstate how much a Gonzalez win would have eviscerated the political equilibrium of this city — and state. Newsom’s people knew this. They outspent Gonzalez by a factor of 10. “Everyone was terrified Gonzalez was gonna win.”
And, late in the race, a communique magically surfaced: Purportedly penned by a Green Party stalwart, it claimed busloads of out-of-town Greens would be flooding the city to push Gonzalez to victory. Chamberlain pounced. He fired off the “news” to the lengthy email list he dutifully amassed that “1000-plus Greenies are bussing [sic] in to work full-time for the last two weeks of the campaign.” Moderates would need to man the barricades against this onslaught of interlopers from “Santa Cruz to Humboldt County to Portland, from anywhere the patchouli is ripe and showers are broken.”
As a motivational tool to rally the moderate base while simultaneously demonizing Gonzalez — whom, for good measure, Chamberlain likened to the Rev. Jim Jones — this intercepted email was manna from internet heaven. There was just one problem: It was bogus. There was no organized push for Greens to swarm San Francisco.
Techies volunteering for Gonzalez traced this and other provocative emails to within Newsom campaign headquarters.
Ross denies that the fabrication of this email was dictated from up on high within the Newsom campaign. But, he concedes, “it’s very possible it did come from within the Newsom system.”
He recalls the episode as “the biggest pain in my ass. If I found the person who wrote it, I would’ve fired him with prejudice. I would’ve tarred and feathered him in Union Square. I couldn’t walk down the street without someone asking me about it.”
In other words, the bogus email Chamberlain cavalierly flogged may have had its intended effect. Ross didn’t want himself or his campaign overtly associated with dirty tricks. But the specter of unwashed outsiders invading town got people’s attention.
Delivering that political hit is the job of an enforcer.
Chamberlain did this by being on the vanguard of what we’d now call “social media.” He was “an online warrior before that was a thing,” says a longtime colleague. A decade ago, there was no Facebook or Twitter or heaps of influential blogs. Instead, Chamberlain and other campaign operatives battled it out on message boards such as SF Polifix; this platoon of paid trolls attempted to induce professional reporters to cover their stories and adopt their angles.
In the years since, the mainstream media here and everywhere have been eviscerated. Stories don’t need to be deftly seeded as they were even a decade ago; paid operatives can lob them into the open via social media or the blogosphere — and force the mainstream media to follow.
To an extent, rather than influencing the coverage, Chamberlain’s successors are the coverage.
A Ryan Chamberlain ought to be more valuable than ever now — but, in the current era, no one would give him a political job. Ross says Chamberlain denied any wrongdoing, and nobody has ever determined the origin of that bogus email. But, once again, among the politicos who matriculated out of that era and, now, could see fit to throw a job Chamberlain’s way — there’s little doubt he’s the guilty party.
There’s no doubt he was willing to break rules and cross boundaries others wouldn’t.
And so, Newsom was elected. A number of the players in his orbit went on to successful campaign and government careers. Chamberlain, the fall guy, never did.
But he still managed to make his mark.
All I needed was a great reason to get up everyday. Some great work to do. That’s pretty easy. Everyone wants that. Lots of people get that. But it always eluded me.
Following his tenure as a Newsom campaign staffer, Chamberlain’s bare-knuckled talents were deployed by SFSOS. This free-spending moderate outfit was funded by Gap founder Don Fisher, financier Warren Hellman, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein and led by once and future Democratic mega-fundraiser Wade Randlett. Its agenda: Cleanse this city of the scourge of progressive politics. Those scatological attack ads were an SFSOS production.
Whether targeting progressives on the school board, board of supervisors, or merely countering progressive ideals, it’s hard to recall any lasting victories for SFSOS. What turned out to be important, however, isn’t what SFSOS and Chamberlain did, but how they did it.
On one substantive matter after another in the last decade, progressives triumphed: citywide healthcare, inclusionary housing, chain-store limitations, and so much more. But the shrill, bruising tactics employed by entities like SFSOS and its enforcer, Chamberlain, ate away like a slow-acting poison. SFSOS lost the battle — lost every battle, in fact.
But it won the war.
The anti-Daly ad Chamberlain later distanced himself from was part of a concerted effort to bring San Francisco politics down into the gutter. And progressives took that bait.
After being pilloried in 2006, Daly confirms “I was ready to strike back.” Prodded by Chamberlain and others, Daly, former Board President Aaron Peskin, and other targets were, constantly, goaded into countering ugliness with their own prodigiously ugly sides. “Yes, their campaign to marginalize the progressive Board of Supervisors through shit-filled vitriol was a success,” Peskin admits. “That is not an unfair theory.”
Having helped foster a noxious mess, the well-heeled forces that poured money into gutter politics can now join ascendent tech moguls in propping up bland politicians whose inoffensiveness is, arguably, their only attribute. Wary of a toxic onslaught, today’s politicos are incentivized to shy away from contact — and avoid standing for much at all.
Chamberlain helped to ensure the unsubtle nastiness of the prior era, which led to the unsubtle civility of the present era. It also ensured there was little use for an unsubtle bruiser like Chamberlain.
He enforced himself out of a job and into a dark place. With an internet connection.
Everything in life is defined by the other things around it. Up helps define down. Left defines right. And that’s the case here.
On June 16, Chamberlain’s casually attired rooting section and a smattering of reporters were on hand to witness a harrowing, 10-minute soliloquy from federal prosecutor Philip Kearney. In an argument against granting bail to the erstwhile fugitive, Kearney adopted a cadence more commonly associated with late-night TV pitchmen: Chamberlain was accused of amassing “not one, not two, but three deadly toxins.”
Within Chamberlain’s flat were, per the prosecutor, a pistol with its serial number scraped off, a clothespin wired to complete an electrical circuit when closed — a purported trigger for a jury-rigged booby-trap — and the “fully formed” explosive device within a satchel, ready to be detonated via remote-control. Search terms gleaned from his seized electronic devices include WMD, ricin, homicide, killing, untraceable, blasting cap, and Uncle Fester — the alias of an online scribe offering tutorials on how to concoct explosives and poisons.
Chamberlain was not granted bail.
On top of all that, Kearney painted the defendant as a likely flight risk who’d been arrested half a dozen times in three separate states.
SF Weekly has obtained portions of Chamberlain’s voluminous record of legal transgressions. There’s an open-container incident in Florida during his grad school years. There’s a litany of auto-related cases in Chamberlain’s native Iowa. But these are hardly the sorts of offenses portending shrapnel-stuffed bombs and federal charges carrying potential 15-year prison terms.
Chamberlain was popped for driving on a suspended Iowa license and/or without insurance so frequently in the 1990s that he was labeled “a habitual offender.” At one point — perhaps to disguise his true identity — he stole a license plate (he was “caught in the act” per Polk County Court records, convicted of theft in the fifth degree, and made to pay $50). In another instance, a police officer claimed Chamberlain (who allegedly knew he would be arrested for his outstanding warrants) gave the fake name “Randy Kelly Jones.”
In 2003, he was accused of assault with a deadly weapon and child cruelty; in 2009 he was arrested for battery and injury of a child. Both cases were dismissed for lack of evidence. The San Francisco Police Department would only confirm that, yes, Chamberlain has an arrest record in this city. Several longtime friends said these allegations blindsided them as much as the ones he’s facing now.
But “habitual offender”? That wasn’t so surprising at all.
”Ryan would make things up,” says a former employer. During campaigns, “he’d make up facts or a situation so as to be more impactful.”
I got dark. I got real dark.
Of Chamberlain’s accused misconduct, the bit that may most amaze San Franciscans is that he was renting two San Francisco apartments; the landlord of his flat on Vallejo Street claims he was illegally subletting the place out and took steps to evict him. This, too, didn’t surprise Chamberlain’s friends and workmates. “Ryan always impressed me as someone who really didn’t mind breaking the rules,” says a friend and former colleague.
Which certainly seemed to be the case when a prisoner described within an affidavit as “Witness 2” — later revealed as James Malcolm of Carmichael — ratted out Chamberlain, his alleged customer on an illegal online clearinghouse for drugs and firearms called Black Market Reloaded.
After being busted in May on guns and explosives charges, Malcolm told feds he shipped toxins to a “Ryan Kelly” residing at Ryan Kelly Chamberlain’s Polk Street residence.
The feds claim Chamberlain was attempting to “disguise his true identity” by using only his first and middle names when arranging to have illegal poisons delivered to his doorstep.
”Kelly” purportedly told Malcolm he’d hoped to score liquid ricin — a lethal derivative of the castor oil plant — in order to “ease the suffering of cancer patients.” Ricin now enjoys some cachet as the preferred untraceable poison of Breaking Bad antihero Walter White, Chamberlain’s admitted influence. But “Kelly” bemoaned that ricin was too expensive.
So “Kelly” and Malcolm hashed out a deal for the more economical organic toxin, abrin. The customer then peppered Malcolm with provocative queries, including if “an autopsy could detect whether abrin had been used to kill an individual.”
Malcolm was, apparently, rattled. So he did not ship his customer $250 worth of abrin but, instead, “rosary peas,” the unprocessed source of the poison. Malcolm soon received a cryptic response from “Kelly”: a complaint that the abrin “did not work.”
Just what the hell this is supposed to mean cannot be known at this time. In order to procure an interview with Chamberlain, one must receive blessings from the Department of Justice, Chamberlain’s federal public defender, the judge handling the case, and the county sheriff. After all that, U.S. Marshals then weigh in on whether or not to grant final permission. As of press time, only Judge Vince Chhabria has approved SF Weekly’s requests. Supervisory Deputy Marshal Frank Conroy says that only around half a dozen such interviews are granted each year, nationwide.
Federal prosecutors declined to be interviewed and FBI spokespeople failed to return numerous messages. It’s impossible to know what either Chamberlain, or his adversaries, are thinking.
I binged-watched dark TV, sometimes didn’t get off the couch for days, and scoured the Internet absorbing fuel for morbid fantasies. Some of that activity seemed to attract the attention of some visitors today…who have made it rather evident that this is the end of the line for me.
Chamberlain isn’t the only one who played fast and loose with rules: The machinations of the federal agents running this case, like those of its target, have been difficult to comprehend.
To start with, per the federal affidavit, FBI agents “invited” Chamberlain to chat in a coffee shop on May 31 prior to donning moon suits and breaking down his door. During this discussion, Chamberlain purportedly admitted knowledge of covert, black-market websites where he “sometimes played poker.” Then Chamberlain asked if he could leave. And they let him.
He did so theatrically; feds claim he hopped into a Nissan Altima and drove “in an apparently intentionally reckless manner at a high rate of speed, failing to stop at posted lights and signs.” Out of “concern for public safety,” he was not pursued.
The feds subsequently initiated a “nationwide manhunt” for the guy they permitted to wander away from coffee talk. Far from absconding to Bolivia, Chamberlain apparently spent his time as a fugitive downing beers at local bars before being taken down by cops in the Marina — stumbling distance from his home.
Neither Chamberlain’s behavior nor that of his pursuers makes sense to veteran police sources with decades of experience tracking suspects and executing search warrants. “The only reason to let him go is if he leads to something bigger,” says one. “But, if they went so far as to get a warrant to search the guy’s house — why not get a GPS for the car?”
Whatever the reason, the feds declined to follow that car. FBI agents, per a veteran SFPD officer with years of experience coordinating with them, “are just not very good at following cars.”
So, why not take his keys away?
”Ninety times out of 100, you take the keys,” says a longtime San Francisco police officer. “That’s the smart way to get into a building. That’s the way to get into a building — if you’re not trying to make the front page.”
In fact, the feds’ dissemination of sensitive information to journalists has been peculiar. In the wake of the FBI search of Chamberlain’s apartment, stories hit the web claiming ricin had been found. In off-the-record chats with reporters, an FBI spokesman later claimed this was a media fabrication. And yet, federal prosecutors would go on to allege that a sack of castor beans — the source of ricin — was indeed discovered in Chamberlain’s flat.
The source of that ricin rumor seems evident.
Off-the-record FBI conversations were undertaken with more than a dozen journalists prior to the June 3 hearing — and, jarringly, covered matters Department of Justice lawyers would later that morning argue should be officially kept under wraps. This clumsy contradiction drew a stern rebuke from Judge Nathanael Cousins: “I am very concerned that law enforcement agents this morning commented on things you’re seeking to shield at a public press conference,” he said from the bench. “You can’t have it both ways.”
You can, however, blow up the evidence. In mid-June, prosecutors mentioned that the bomb Chamberlain is accused of crafting had long since been detonated. While understandable, assistant federal public defender Jodi Linker complains this has left her with something of an evidentiary black hole.
Chamberlain stood, stoically, during his court appearances. His answers to the judge’s queries were polite and monosyllabic. Perhaps it occurred to him that, after years of engaging in hard-hitting tactics in an attempt to push his chosen narratives, he was now at the mercy of hard-hitting folks pushing their chosen narrative about him.
Thank you. I’m sorry. I love you.
”Ryan was the enforcer and he took it for the team,” sums up a colleague. But the team wouldn’t be there to give anything back. “I tried to get him onto campaigns. I tried. But it just kept falling through.”
Chamberlain’s opportunities as an itinerant political operative grew ever sparser and more facile and, eventually, evaporated altogether. He rechristened himself a social media expert, worked promotional campaigns for tech companies, and at one point, live-tweeted San Francisco 49ers games for the San Francisco Chronicle. His website claims he was the man who helped transform Lombard Street into an oversize Candyland game in 2009.
Last year, Chamberlain parted ways with a sports marketing company called Project Sport; friends say this triggered a downward spiral. In his June 2 Facebook lament, he described his doomed tenure: “[I] agreed to play the loyal chump and keep giving to it … I believed the ‘Family’ rhetoric, that my team would be fighting for me and for the project.”
Playing the loyal chump and getting nothing in return appears to be a recurring theme for Chamberlain. And he knows it.
At lunch last year with a longtime colleague, he predicted things would go poorly for him at Project Sport — and in general. But then he said something that shocked his companion more: Even after all the abuse he doled out and received back in spades, after all the betrayals, “He said that if he could get a good political gig, he’d drop everything. Everything.”
The post-career picture for a hockey enforcer is not pretty. Men, perhaps possessing many talents, are made to hone just the basest one: the ability to hurt other men. It defines them. And diminishes them. In retirement, enforcers often slip into despondency.
They often die young.
Linker argues her client, Chamberlain, shouldn’t be in jail. He ought to be in a mental facility where care will consist of more than what he’s getting now: a regular visit from a guard who asks him if he plans to kill himself that day.
She has, thus far, been denied.
”The lesson of Ryan is that people are used up by this system and then discarded,” says a longtime city political player. “They damage the system by the way they allow themselves to be used.
”And, in the end, they end up badly damaged themselves.”