This article is part of a three part series focusing on the 2016 arrest of Ryan Allyn Sanders. The 18 year old was arrested by police after being linked to an alleged plan to violently break someone out of jail. Police characterized Sanders as a gang leader commanding a group called HFS, or Hell’s Fire Squadron. However, several details of the group and the plot uncovered by police weren’t quite as reported. Catch up on these in Part 1, How To Get Arrested For A Plan That Never Happened.
The Gang That Never Quite Existed
Milwaukee, Wisconsin (PT) – One of the biggest grievances 18 year old Ryan Sanders has about his case was the way his group–HFS– was portrayed by Wauwatosa (Tosa) PD and media. Investigators stated it was a well armed street gang involved in robberies and dangerous plots. Some media reports were vague as to what HFS actually was, referring to it as a “group” whereas others and police called it a gang. Ryan Allyn Sanders, however, asserts that its purpose and even the name were grossly misrepresented.
This was also expressed in a mental competency test document obtained by Pontiac Tribune, conducted on Sanders during incarceration. It states he “had some disagreements with some of the characterization within the complaint.” “He agrees he was picked as the leader of an organization called HFS”, the Wisconsin Forensic Unit document reads, “he denies it stood for Hell’s Fire Squadron”. “He believes police officers omitted information” the examination read. The couple media outlets which originally covered the case largely went off that criminal complaint.
Sanders is further described as “a young man with some very strong opinions regarding legal issues.” The examiner, however, “did not find evidence to indicate that these opinions were a consequence of symptoms” of mental conditions he’d been diagnosed with prior.
Notes from a psychological competency evaluation on Sanders mentioning his strong political opinions.
Sanders condemns one particular WPD detective, Joseph Roy, who he told Pontiac “blatantly lied.” Roy testified both during Sanders’ preliminary hearing and on October 26th, 2016. He was also present during Sander’s April 19th interview, alongside School Resource Officer James Morrill. During the preliminary hearing Roy made two dubious claims, one of which he later walked back on.
Examples from the same court transcript where Detective Roy first says Sanders was in favor of the plan, and then backs off.
When asked by District Attorney Randy Sitzberger if Sanders approved of JV’s plan, Roy assured “he was absolutely in favor of it.” However, when grilled by the public defender Roy backed off. After pausing momentarily, Roy states “at the time we spoke at the Wauwatosa Police Department, he indicated he was not in favor of the plan.” Rephrasing, Detective Roy claimed; “he also stated that he didn’t have any problem with shooting at the police should they shoot first.” The defender then asked what HFS “does as a group”, to which Roy had an interesting reply.
“He stated they were militant without being militant. They were involved in robberies to gain funds to help the people. They were trying to unite all the street gangs. Mr. Sanders named the name–what I believe to be the name of a prominent street gang who is incarcerated; and he said he was trying to take over that individual’s role, trying to unite the streets. He had a lot of lofty plans like that, sir.”– Detective Joseph Roy of the Wauwatosa Police Department
When asked by the defender “was that to be done criminally or to be done peacefully”, Roy gave another interesting answer. “Well, he indicated both”. At this point, it became worth asking whether HFS was similar to an activist group. TFC Network Contributors affiliated with Pontiac Tribune again reached out to Sanders, who confirmed that HFS–standing for Healing Fortitude and Solidarity–was activist focused. In incident reports and his WPD interview, Sanders asserted the same. He then provided Pontiac a word document created a month before his arrest confirming his claims.
According to Sanders, “Hells Fire Squadron” was scrapped as a name idea early on. He wanted HFS to represent something positive, telling this to both Tosa PD and Pontiac. Despite that, the department went public with the scrapped name.
“HFS wants to help the community like the Black Panthers”, reads a WPD incident report obtained by Pontiac. “They are militant but not militant at the same time. HFS is not currently selling any drugs.” The report, prepared by Officer James Morrill and not Detective Roy, states “they don’t want to take over the streets but want to unite street gangs for one cause, all races and all genders.” Similar to the Black Panthers, Ryan Sanders understood that minority communities are divided by poverty and violence.
Notes from police documents stating “HFS wants to help the community like the black panthers”. And that HFS “is not currently selling any drugs.”
During his police interview, Sanders discussed how he views modern gangs. He pointed out that many are leaderless, with original founders incarcerated or dead. With no one to really take orders from, the various groups fragmented and began fighting among each other. For minority communities to progress, the fighting and fear must stop. To achieve that, a person or group of people must stand in and call a truce. Thus, the gangs are united, though not in the way Detective Roy portrayed in court. This was a similar philosophy used by the Black Panthers in explaining their community’s woes and routes towards progress.
How HFS would achieve its goals, including ending street wars and poverty, was outlined by Sanders as follows:
“We will host book drives, food drives, community meals, block parties, rallies and other community events that will be free to the public and will allow them to receive necessary resources and allow for fun positive social interaction within the communities. We will pay unemployed people in low income areas in addition to H.F.S. members to help with these events, giving them an opportunity to earn legal money, learn job skills and gain job experience thereby increases the employment opportunity in low income areas. Once we have gained the necessary resources we will create housing programs to help get homeless people off the street and working or gaining the skills to work while supporting them until they can support themselves and education programs to help youth who are struggling academically because of a flawed education system.”– HFS Word Document created a month before Ryan Sanders’ arrest.
Like the Black Panthers, Sanders wanted his group to educate people on civil rights. In his police interview, he admits to studying the outcomes of various supreme court cases. This includes the right to bare arms, the licensed ownership of which HFS encouraged and sought. Sanders also attempted to explain to officers his philosophy for conflicts with police.
He stressed that HFS isn’t to instigate things, and instead seek conflict resolution. In the event a member would be held at gunpoint by officers–such as at ND’s court hearing had JV followed through–HFS would deescalate the situation. They’d ask officers to put down their guns, while also calming and disarming their peer. However, if police were to shoot first, Sanders stated they’d act in self-defense.
Notes from police documents stating “if he could speak with any member of HFS prior to their arrest, he’d order them to turn themselves in. He has no intention of starting a war with police.”
The Black Panthers had a nearly identical philosophy for both police and those physically attacking their events. Although the Panthers were largely peaceful, they stood by self defense. This largely stemmed from the victimization black activists endured throughout American history. The Panthers sought to not be ran over, but also didn’t want to strike first. Officers, particularly Joseph Roy, tried to use this as evidence that HFS intended harm.
Joining HFS involved attending “the political education classes that HFS will hold as a ‘warrior in training”, Sanders’ document reads. As Detective Roy suggested, Ryan Sanders and his group had many goals.
In terms of robberies, although JV had a history of breaking and entering, no evidence exists supporting that he was ordered to do these by Sanders. Rather, it appears JV conducted these criminal activities independent of HFS. JV also told police that he’d do “anything he was ordered to do except shoot someone.”
During his interview, Officer Morrill told Sanders he saw a lot of good in him. That he and his group had many good intentions, but it’s members brought HFS a bad name. Some of them, like JV, appeared to be portraying the group as something it wasn’t to others.
In message chains obtained by WPD’s warrants, unidentified individuals asked with confusion whether Sanders was a gang lord. It appears JV was bringing people into the fold by misrepresenting HFS as a gang rather than an activist collective. However radical it may have been to police, particularly for Milwaukee’s suburbs.
Ryan Sanders didn’t order JV to commit robberies, spray paint, or any other illegal activities listed in JV’s police contact list. One of these encounters, oddly enough, is entirely blacked out. Ryan did see JV as his “right hand man”, which was reported by local outlets. However, in this interview, Ryan stated he wanted to steer JV away from the path he was going.
In an interview with officers, ND also expressed how much he felt JV was unstable. Several other documents suggest JV may have been manic, or experiencing some other form of mental illness. During one arrest, he remarked out loud how he “got a high” from being arrested. In the same incident, he excitingly wondered if he’d get expelled or do time, and hoped he would. More than once, JV displayed grandiose and erratic behavior, even inventing stories involving his gang he initially called “The Wolf Pack.” One story involved him hiding from police in a hole him and friends made in the woods with heat and supplies. Being that this evening was below freezing, and officers were looking for JV, they concluded he’d gone to his grandparents. It was also determined that JV’s claims of hiding guns around the city were also fabrications.
ND stated when approached with JV’s plan, he went along with it out of fear. He no longer wanted to be part of HFS, and didn’t think JV would actually follow through. Of course, JV was arrested the morning the plot would’ve occurred for another offense.
Tosa officers discovered HFS only after analyzing private messages through JV’s surrendered tablet. From there, a picture of a gang 25 members strong and possibly operating within Milwaukee’s suburbs was painted. However, some of their findings didn’t fully support that portrayal. Whereas some officers gave more accurate outlines of HFS in incident reports, others seemed to be stringing together loose ends. The result was a reasonably simple story to digest.
Raising the provocative question of why Tosa PD went this far to paint a budding activist group as a gang? Granted, at least one member was involved in illegal activity. The illegal activity like break ins weren’t organized by the 18 year old pinned as the Kingpin. Certain evident details seem arbitrary, like the use of Hell’s Fire Squadron rather than the correct name. It all also makes the original timing of JV’s February 11th arrest, especially if HFS felt they were being watched, that much more interesting.
While still attending Wauwatosa East High School, Ryan Sanders was stopped by police. He told us that officers once attempted to link him to robberies, the context of which they wouldn’t share. To Sanders, these were simply routine traffic stops experienced by many minorities nationwide. Whether this was connected to JV, HFS, or covert surveillance by the department is unknown.
Since Ryan Sanders was arrested, Joseph Roy and another detective in the case–former Tosa school resource officer Martin Keck–were both reassigned to the departments Special Operations Group (SOG). The unit specializes in drug and vice related crimes, and regularly conducts “covert” surveillance. It also regularly works with neighboring drug units including Milwaukee PD, the DEA, and other agencies. Since 2012, SOG also “provides technical support with cell phone data recovery and analysis”. Detective Keck, a warrant reads, was assigned to the Sanders case due to his extensive experience in analyzing “electronic communication records”, a warrant reads.
Clearly, the arrest of Ryan Sanders did more than put the 18 year old in a solitary cell. Beyond the reassignments to a tight knit covert police unit, the case sets a precedent for the future. It raises the question of whether investigations are not only thorough, but accurately presented to residents. The case casts doubt on the level of transparency and accountability, not only in Tosa but elsewhere. And with the Wauwatosa Police Department now regularly spearheading investigations into police shootings by Milwaukee PD, these questions are imperative.
According to Ryan Sanders, upon being released and cleared of the charges WPD’s investigation landed him, he spoke with DA Randy Sitzberger. The district attorney presided over the case and, according to Sanders, apologized for his experience. District Attorney Randy Sitzberger’s office didn’t reply to a request for comment on the case. Neither did Tosa PD.
The link below is to the document produced by Ryan Sanders describing his group HFS. Created a month before his arrest, it confirms his claims regarding what the group was.