When a man with a pistol shows up outside a congresswoman’s house

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, commenting on commondreams.org, Sept. 10, 2022. Photo: Twitter @RepJayapal

Seattle, 10:38 p.m.

Everyone could hear the men on the street. The car, a black Dodge Challenger with gold rims, sped down the block, just past the congresswoman’s house. Two voices shot through the dark. “HEY, PRAMILA,” the first man shouted. “F— YOUUUUU.” Then came the second: “F— you, c—!”

The neighbors knew the car. It was the same Dodge Challenger they had seen several times that summer. But Pramila Jayapal didn’t know this yet.

She was on the couch, watching the psychological thriller “Mindhunter” with her husband, Steve Williamson. It was July 9 in Arbor Heights, a West Seattle neighborhood laid out in neat sweeps of grass and pavement. They paused the show. Williamson got up and went outside. The items on the porch sat undisturbed: sneakers, turquoise Crocs, a dog leash, two hanging plants swaying in the night air. Then they heard the men again. Security footage picked up what the men said and the sound of heavy-metal music coming from the car. One shouted something about “India,” the country where Jayapal was born. The voices were hard and clear. “F—ing c—,” one of them said.

“Tell Pramila to kill herself – then we’ll stop, motherf—er.” Then came a honk. Then another long “F— YOUUUUU.” On the porch, Williamson waved an index finger and went back inside. The men drove off.

Inside, Jayapal picked up her phone and dialed 911. But when she saw the car leave, she hung up before it could connect. Maybe she should contact the Capitol Police, the D.C. agency that protects members of Congress. She wasn’t sure. Maybe she had been doxed. There had been instances of obscene yelling at the house that summer, this she knew. She had reported those to Capitol Police. But she didn’t know then what dozens of pages of police reports and court filings would later reveal – that one of her visitors that night had been there before, in the same Dodge Challenger. She didn’t know that he had driven by her house between three and seven times since late June, or that the other male voice that night belonged to his adult son, as he would later tell investigators. She didn’t know that from the house across the street, her neighbor had seen the Dodge earlier that same evening, or that down the block, another neighbor had seen it, too, just a week before. She didn’t know that the man in the Dodge had emailed her congressional office back in January, to express his distaste for her political party, and for her, the 56-year-old three-term Democrat from Seattle, the chair of the House Progressive Caucus and a high-profile antagonist to Donald Trump.

“I am a freedom loving nonregistered libertarian who votes in every election no matter how big or small,” the man wrote in his email.

“You, Pramila, are an anti-American s—pit creating Marxist.”

“We are incompatible.”

Jayapal didn’t know that his distaste would mutate into action. When she heard the yelling stop, when the men drove off into the night, she had no idea that one of them would be back a half-hour later to yell some more, and that he’d have a loaded .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol on his hip, later seized by police.

On paper, at least, the whole thing was over in 47 minutes. But the anatomy of political violence is more tangled than the events of a single case. Threats against members of Congress have risen year after year, according to data from the Capitol Police: 9,625 in 2021, up from 3,939 in 2017. Officers logged nearly 2,000 cases in the first three months of this year alone. Among the statistics, there are thousands of stories like Jayapal’s, each one unraveling with its own special complexity in the lives and homes of elected officials.

“We sign up for a lot of things,” Jayapal said, sitting in her backyard. “It should not be that you get this kind of abuse and racism and sexism directed at you. But you have to accept it if you want to do this job.”

Talking about that night now, five weeks later, in the house where Jayapal and Williamson have lived for almost six years, those 47 minutes take on new life. They have shown Jayapal just how many gaps exist in congressional security. The system is like a “black box,” she said, and she is lobbying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to fix it. They have changed the way she goes about her work as a public official, physically and psychologically – the routes she drives, the tracking device she keeps on her phone, the alarm it sounds when she unwittingly comes within 1,000 feet of the man with the Dodge. It already happened once, on her way to an appointment on a Sunday in August. They have changed the way she thinks about her home, too. The house looks different now – she and Williamson see all the ways it needs to be “hardened.” So did the neighborhood. The block “had been such a safe space,” Jayapal said. Now it was “tainted.”

“We felt threatened,” she said. “We still do.”

The man, identified by police as 49-year-old Brett Forsell, is out on bail. He lives seven blocks away.

– – –

11:03 p.m.

Even while it happened, as she ducked out of view from the front door on a couch in her den, Jayapal could feel how ill-prepared she was to deal with the questions that came next: how to protect her home, who would pay for it, what to keep private, what to share with the public.

Around 11 p.m., Jayapal’s phone rang.

A woman’s voice came on the line. “Hi, this is Seattle 911. We got a hang-up call from you. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, thanks for calling back. This is Congresswoman Jayapal,” she said, according to a recording of the call. There was a tremor in her voice. “I am okay.”

Jayapal handed the phone to her husband. Williamson told the 911 operator that he’d heard one of the men in the Dodge say he was going to come back “every day.” The operator said she could have the Seattle Police Department get in touch. “It’s totally up to you,” she said.

The congresswoman was back on the line. She wasn’t sure.

“Umm, what do you think is best?”

Jayapal decided to contact the Capitol Police. She woke up Rachel Berkson, her deputy chief of staff and district director, at home in Seattle. Berkson emailed and texted her contacts at the Capitol Police but couldn’t get through to anyone that night. It was after 2 a.m. on the East Coast.

The house was quiet again. On her phone, Jayapal opened the encrypted app Signal and scrolled to a chat named “Gallery Group.” Last year, on Jan. 6, she had been one of several dozen members of Congress trapped on the balcony of the House gallery, the last to evacuate the chamber as rioters stormed the Capitol. While their colleagues on the main floor below were able to leave, rioters pounded on the balcony doors. There was no sense of how or when they would get out. Afterward, Jayapal organized a text chain for the Democrats in the group. They did therapy sessions together, at least three of them. The Signal chain has become a space to vent. “It’s, ‘I’m dealing with this today. I need some support,'” Jayapal said, “which is really unusual in Congress. We all operate like individual fiefdoms.” Republicans had been on the balcony that day, too, but she didn’t invite them to the Signal group. “I don’t know that it would have felt like it was a safe space,” she said. “Honestly, we never tried.”

At 11:03 p.m., Jayapal tapped out a text: “For the second time in a week, I’ve had people outside my house screaming f—ing c— commie b—-, we’re coming back every night, go kill yourself pramila. Reporting it to cap police of course as we did the last two times with nothing done.”

A few of the members on the chain were awake. I’m so sorry this is happening, they said. What can we do to help you? Others wouldn’t wake up on the East Coast until hours later.

“It’s triggering,” Jayapal wrote to the group.

That night, the thoughts of Jan. 6 returned “immediately,” she later recalled, tears in her eyes. The same noises that have stayed with her came back again – the yelling, the pounding on the doors outside in the hallway, the anger. “I could just feel myself, like, ‘OK, I’m back. I’m back there.'”

Elected in 2016, the same year as Trump, Jayapal became the first Indian American woman to serve in the House. She was “the anti-Trump,” her husband said, a “bright light in an otherwise dark night.” And she made the job as big as she could. She became a cable news regular. She stepped in as a mentor to the most liberal women in the House, the members of “the Squad.” She assailed Trump’s policies as “cruel” and “xenophobic,” and branded him the leader of a “cult.” In 2019, Jayapal helped lead the public case for Trump’s first impeachment, and it was around that time that Williamson started installing security cameras outside their home. Now she is the sole chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, corralling its 101 members as she balances the demands of the left with real influence in President Biden’s White House.

Before entering politics, Jayapal spent 20 years in the advocacy world. After the World Trade Center fell on Sept. 11, 2001, she organized against anti-Muslim bias. She got threats then, too. “I’ve had people forever telling me to go back to India,” she said after the July incident outside her home. “But I will say that this was different. This was really different.”

By the time the Dodge Challenger came, Jayapal had read about other incidents of political violence across America. There was the man in New Hampshire, sentenced to 33 months in prison after threatening to hang members of Congress who didn’t support Trump. There was the man in Alaska, sentenced to 32 months after sending threatening voice mails to his Republican U.S. senators. Two weeks after the incident at Jayapal’s home, a man in New York charged the stage at a campaign event, lunging for Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin. On Capitol Hill, two of Jayapal’s male colleagues, Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), publicly released audio from voice mails they’d received. “Gonna get your wife, gonna get your kids,” a man told Kinzinger. “Cut his wife’s head off, cut his kids’ heads off,” another told Swalwell.

Jayapal got voice mails, too, and these felt different. She’d talked often with other women of color in the House about the threats they’d received, and the racism and sexism laced through the audio files. But she didn’t feel like she could, or should, release them. There was a tension there: “I don’t really want people to know it affects me,” she said. “And at the same time, so much of my work as an activist, and as a member of Congress, is to share vulnerability.”

After the Dodge left on the night of July 9, Jayapal poured herself a glass of Scotch.

Otis, her 70-pound labradoodle, had been too scared to bark when the noise started. In the front den, he lay down on the floor at the foot of the couch, and put his head between his two long paws.

Williamson said his first instinct had been to go on the porch, to face the men and wave them off: “Like, ‘Hey, go home,’ you know.” He figured they’d had too much to drink. “I think I surprised them,” he told the 911 operator. But Jayapal felt palpable alarm. Once they’d been able to discuss the incident in the days that followed, the couple attributed the difference to Williamson’s view as a White man, and Jayapal’s as a woman of color. “I’ve been in the mainstream in many ways,” Williamson said. “It’s very different for her.”

There was a moment like this on Jan. 6, in the House gallery. Jayapal remembered a colleague, a White man, telling the group to remove their congressional pins, the little lapel amulets reserved for the 435 members of the House of Representatives. It would help them blend in, the colleague said to the others on the balcony. Jayapal said she and other members of color glanced around. If they took the pins off, Capitol Police might not know they were people to protect. “Enough of us have had the situation where Capitol Police doesn’t recognize us as members,” she said. “And if we keep them on, we’re gonna get tagged by the insurrectionists.”

“Which one do we want to do?”

Jayapal kept her pin on.

– – –

11:13 p.m.

The Dodge Challenger came back, revving once, then twice. The sound of heavy metal music sounded in the street again, before the car came screeching to a stop in front of Jayapal’s house, just a few steps north of the property line.

Again, Williamson came out to the porch. He lifted his phone and started filming.

“Hey, guess what, a–hole,” the driver, Forsell, said.

This time he was here alone.

Again, security cameras picked up the sound.

“I’m your new f—in’ neighbor,” he said.

Williamson was still filming as he turned backward toward the door. “Call 911,” he told his wife.

“Call the f—ing police if you want,” Forsell said.

Then Williamson heard the sound of metal hitting metal. He’s owned handguns before, and the noise made his body react. He wondered if someone was chambering a round. It was dark outside, and hard to see. The unwelcome visitor was in front of the house. Police did not identify the source of the sounds, but later found the remains of a large gray tent, half assembled across the street, a pole sticking out from the tarp, along with a sleeping bag in the front of the Dodge.

Back in the house, Jayapal again dialed 911.

Williamson walked upstairs to try to see what he could from the window. He advised his wife to come upstairs, too. They worried the man was on their property.

This time, the call connected. Another woman came on the line: “911 – what’s your emergency?”

“We have people at the front door who are looking for me. This is Congresswoman Jayapal.”

“I’m sorry?” the operator said.

Again, Jayapal’s voice was shaking.

Upstairs with his wife, Williamson thought this visit felt different from the one less than an hour earlier. “It was like he was owning the space, demonstrating power over the situation, and real determination, combined with that same anger,” he recalled. They were both scared.

Jayapal explained again: “We have people at the front door who have been harassing us. This is Congresswoman Jayapal.”

There was a muffled sound in the background as Williamson tried to say something.

“Yes. I’m, I’m – I’m telling them, babe,” Jayapal said, according to a recording of the call. “They were yelling ‘c—,’ ‘b—-,’ ‘go kill yourself.'”

“Oh, God. Okay, okay,” said the operator. “I’m gonna stay on the phone with you, one second.”

“Are they still there?” Jayapal asked her husband.

“They have not left. They have not left,” he said.

“They have not left,” Jayapal repeated into the phone.

The operator asked for a description of the car.

“Steve, can you see what color it is?”

“I’m not going outside,” he said.

“No, no, no, it’s okay,” said the operator.

“I think he’s on the front porch,” Williamson said.

“We think he’s on the front porch,” Jayapal said. “I don’t know if these are the same people as came a half an hour ago when I first called.”

“Oh, you had called earlier?” the operator asked.

There was the sound of typing in the background.

“Oh,” Jayapal said, “he’s yelling again.”

“The guy’s yelling again?”

“He’s yelling again.”

“Okay, hold on. All right, hold on.”

Nine minutes after the call began, Jayapal and Williamson saw flashing lights. They watched through the window.

Police were yelling. “Walk backward! Walk backward!”

At 11:23 p.m., just before Forsell was detained, a security camera captured him saying, “I’m setting up camp. It’s my right as an American.” He informed police he had a gun on his right hip. It was a registered .40-caliber Glock with a round in the chamber, according to the police report. Forsell was taken into custody. In the back of the car, he told police he had been “peacefully protesting.”

Jayapal dialed a 1-800 number for the Capitol Police. She spoke to the officer on call. “I literally didn’t know what to do,” the congresswoman said. Weeks later, Jayapal would assemble a four-page letter to Pelosi with recommendations to improve member security. One thing she wants is a basic flowchart – a real-time, step-by-step guide to dealing with a threat. “There have been a lot of us who have been feeling very frustrated, frankly, that there’s not a more coordinated response to the things that happened,” she said. “A lot of members feel like these things go into a black box.” If you are a high-profile person of color in politics, a person “who does get targeted more,” Jayapal said, “there’s real inequities around this. It means we don’t have as much money for staff and office as other members do.”

At 11:59 p.m., Jayapal pulled up Signal again.

“Well either he or others came back,” she wrote to the Gallery Group. “This one has a gun, a loaded Glock. We called the cops.”

“It’s actually helping me just to be able to text you all,” she added.

– – –

11:25 p.m.

Inside the house, Jayapal retrieved her Scotch. Then, “for some bizarre reason,” she recalled, she started blasting Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” And then she started to cry.

She didn’t go to sleep for a long time. After 2 a.m., she sent a final message to the Gallery Group. “Update: we should definitely have a discussion about security,” Jayapal wrote.

“Local police arrested this guy. I spoke with Capitol police and their threat assessment person. It feels like they are on it. Taking seriously that someone with a gun is out in front of a members house. Let’s see what happens.”

For more than an hour, Forsell sat in the back of a police car, his conversation captured on video. He said he’d made a point of driving by Jayapal’s house regularly, just to roll down his window and call out “the hypocrisy” of the Democratic Party. “I pulled up in front of the house. I got out. I pulled out my tent. The guy opened the door, and I said, ‘Hey, a–hole, I’m your new neighbor.’ That was it,” he said. In the video, Forsell appeared calm, making small talk with the officers on the scene. There were bursts of frustration as dispatch radio chatter came through from the front seat. There were “real” crimes being committed elsewhere, he said. “I have broken no law.” He said he struggled with “mental issues,” and argued he was exercising his First Amendment rights when he came to Jayapal’s block.

Inside the police car, Forsell said he had respect for the police on the scene, but none for the political process. “You should have that b—- in handcuffs, ’cause she’s a f—in’ traitor to this country,” he told authorities. “I just don’t see what law I’ve broken, and I’m very well-versed in the law.”

Police documents describe Forsell as a longshoreman and lifelong resident of West Seattle. In his original email to Jayapal, dated Jan. 5, he said he had watched his hometown morph from a “relatively beautiful and safe city into the filthy and violent s—pit that it is now.” Sitting cuffed in the back of the car, he said he’d pitched his tent on Jayapal’s block just as scores of homeless people did across downtown Seattle. He said he carried his pistol for protection and would not use it unless his life was at risk. “The socialists come into power? I want a gun,” he said. He told the officers he wanted to buy an AR-15, in case Democrats banned them.

Forsell said he would come back to Jayapal’s house. “I’ll keep doin’ it. And you can let her know that I will in no way physically harm her,” he said, unless she harmed him. “But I will continue to drive by here and voice my opinion, until she goes back to India – or something else.”

The remarks, picked up by the police video recording, were cited by the King County prosecutor on the case, Gary Ernsdorff, in his request for bail in the amount of $500,000. “The defendant, a White male, targeted a woman of color who is a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives,” Ernsdorff wrote. A judge later reduced bail to $150,000 over the objection of the state.

Forsell was charged with felony stalking and has pleaded not guilty.

Forsell’s lawyer, Robert Flennaugh, did not respond to multiple calls and emails. Forsell did not respond to a request for comment.

Ernsdorff said: “Our First Amendment is very strong, but at some point, you can’t yell fire in a movie theater. We take these kinds of cases very seriously and very cautiously.”

Ernsdorff said his office did consider a possible hate crime charge. The investigating detective said she did not believe a hate crime had been committed, according to a copy of her report, describing the case instead as a crime of stalking and harassment. During an interview with Seattle FBI agents on July 10, according to police records, Forsell denied stepping onto Jayapal’s property and said he did not make comments about her race or ethnicity, or say anything “regarding statements of Jayapal killing herself.” In security footage from Forsell’s 10:38 p.m. visit, the one with his son, the men are not visible, but one of the two male voices on the tape can clearly be heard saying “Tell Pramila to kill herself.” The detective was not able to definitively match who said what, she wrote in a summary of the investigation. Forsell also told the FBI agents that his actions toward Jayapal were a symptom of his struggles with mental illness, and that he is “biased against Jayapal for no other reason than her political beliefs and status as a Democrat,” the detective wrote.

The case is now in its preliminary stages. At a hearing scheduled for Oct. 4, the two parties will have the chance to move toward a plea or a trial. Until then, as part of the conditions of his release, Forsell is prohibited from possessing a firearm and required to wear a GPS tracking device. He isn’t allowed to go within 1,000 feet of Jayapal, her house or her office – a restriction that the congresswoman, too, has to monitor with the police-provided tracking app on her phone. She was told she is one of the first people in Seattle to use it, and the notification system has been buggy. The app has just two buttons: a red circle labeled “Panic,” and a gray one labeled “Dispatch.”

Since July 9, she’s changed how she drives to the airport, to the grocery store, to events downtown – how she takes walks around the neighborhood. The main roads in Arbor Heights, the ones she used to take, would potentially put her within 1,000 feet of Forsell. It slows her down a bit, but what bothers her more is the state of vigilance she now assumes mentally – the “constant reminder of an outstanding threat.”

In the days that followed the police cars and the arrest, colleagues came up to her on Capitol Hill to ask questions about the security measures available to them. At one point, a committee chairman told her he didn’t even have a security system at home. “And it just made me realize there were all these people who either hadn’t thought about it, didn’t know what was possible, or didn’t know what was necessary,” she said. About a month before Forsell came to her home, Jayapal was one of 27 Democrats to vote against expanded security for Supreme Court justices and their families. A spokesperson for the congresswoman said Jayapal voted no because she wanted the bill to go further, covering employees and federal judges.

In August, Jayapal asked Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, to convene a call. Pelosi was on. So was Chief J. Thomas Manger from the Capitol Police and the House sergeant-at-arms, Maj. Gen. William J. Walker. More than 100 members of Congress joined. On Aug. 15, Jayapal laid out her recommendations in a letter to Pelosi: basic requirements for home security; clear security protocols for members and their spouses, including “Run, Hide, Fight” training, developed by the Department of Homeland Security; centralized points of contact for the many agencies involved.

“Currently, it is left to the Member to coordinate amongst all these agencies and figure out who is doing what,” Jayapal wrote to Pelosi. “This is a full-time job in the case of a serious threat assessment.”

Later that day, the congresswoman was driving from her house to an event in Seattle, celebrating the introduction of a trans bill of rights. Berkson, her district director, was behind the wheel. In the passenger seat, Jayapal pulled out her phone and played some of the voice mails she’d received.

A man’s voice filled up the car.

” . . . Your f—in’ day is coming. God damn, as soon as the president’s installed, like on Nov. 4 or 5, we’re f—in’ coming after all you motherf—ers. You’re gonna be scrubbing f—in’ floors for the rest of your life, you f—in’ wh—.”

Another man, a trace of a smile in his voice.

” . . . Get ready for the worst year of your life. It’s gonna be turmoil every day. This is gonna be fun. This is gonna be fun. Your life is gonna be miserable. And we’re gonna get rid of that corrupt Biden, and that socialist Kamala, and the rest of the group, and you’re going right along with them.”

His voice deepened.

“You stupid f—in’ b—-. Get ready for turmoil. You’re gettin’ it. You’re gonna get exactly what you deserve, b—-. Have a nice day, b—-.”

Then another man.

” . . . I’m gonna send you some knee pads, you f—in’ b—-. You worthless f—in’ c—.

” . . . We’re coming. And we’re really pissed off.

” . . . You are an evil b—- and you need to die and I hate you and I will never vote for you again.”

Jayapal stopped the recordings. Berkson, in the front seat, was one of the staffers who screened the messages. She decides what to forward to Capitol Police, and what to bring to Jayapal’s attention. As she drove, she started to cry. “Sorry,” Berkson said. “I honestly don’t think about it that much.”

At home later that night, Jayapal listened again to the threatening voice mails that Kinzinger and Swalwell released this summer. She thought about how violence begins with the ability to dehumanize the subject of that violence. And she spent that evening replaying the voice mails that had been left for her. There was one calling her an animal. “The unleashing of it everywhere creates this space for other people to be unleashed as well,” she said.

She thought about her decision to talk about what happened. What would she and Williamson be saying, to themselves, to each other, to their loved ones, if they did? “I don’t really want to admit that we’re in danger,” Williamson said, “because that’s not a place I want to occupy.”

“But at the same time,” said Jayapal, “it’s important people understand how ubiquitous this is, and how much a part of our psyche it is taking up.”

She thought about why she had never shared the voice mails before.

“Why didn’t I?”

“Is it like, ‘Oh you’re supposed to take it?'”

“Or you’re not tough enough if you release it?”

These were questions the congresswoman couldn’t answer.

Instead, she asked, “Have we somehow conditioned ourselves to think this is what we should expect?”



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