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On the lam: Santa Rosa native and Capitol rioter now seeking political asylum in Belarus

Debbie Neumann is a proud mother and, these days, a defensive one.

That explains her Dec. 14 email to a Press Democrat reporter, admonishing him to “get your story right.”

A longtime Santa Rosa resident and widow of renowned hotelier Claus Neumann, she was displeased by an article the previous day on their 49-year-old son Evan Neumann, whose face now appears on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

On Dec. 10, Evan Neumann was indicted on charges of assaulting law enforcement and other crimes during the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol. He is the only person from Sonoma County believed to have a participated in the insurrection, which unfolded when a mob stormed the Capitol building trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election in favor of former president Donald Trump. Five people died in the riot or in its immediate aftermath, and more than 100 police officers were injured.

“During these altercations, Neumann used not only his hands and fists to strike the officers,” according to the FBI, “he also allegedly used a metal barricade as a battering ram” against police.

Despite being indicted on 14 counts, including engaging in physical violence in a restricted building and “assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers,” Neumann has yet to appear in court.

He fled the country Feb. 16, flew to Italy and made his way to western Ukraine, where he rented an apartment for several months. Fearing extradition, he then trekked on foot through forests and swampland, braving quicksand, vipers and wild boar, he later recounted. Then he crossed into Belarus, a Russian client state ruled by Alexander Lukashenko, often described as Europe’s last dictator.

A different drummer’

Neumann’s willingness to appear on state television casting doubt on the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s election, denouncing America as a country that no longer respects the rule of law — and a place where he is sure to be tortured if he returns — has made him a useful propaganda tool for both the Belarus and Russian governments.

In her email scolding a Press Democrat reporter, Debbie Neumann insisted that her son “is not the person you make him out to be.”

“He is a loving member of our family,” said Debbie, who later declined an interview request, “and I believe his father would be proud of him standing up for his rights.”

Others, close to the Neumann family, disagree. Claus Neumann, they point out, grew up in East Prussia under the Hitler regime. In the final months of World War II, Claus and his family became refugees, fleeing Russian soldiers. As a 19-year-old, he was accused of slander and treason against the East German state and spent three weeks in solitary confinement in a Magdeburg prison, according to his 2007 memoir, Farewell Marienburg. After his release, he escaped to West Germany, eventually immigrating to the United States, where he founded the Los Robles Lodge on Cleveland Avenue in 1962.

Evan Neumann’s actions since Jan. 6, 2021, can be viewed as a reversal and repudiation of his father’s journey. After joining a mob intent on subverting the results of a free and fair election, the son of the man who fled dictatorship in East Germany now seeks refuge from one of the most repressive, autocratic regimes in the world.

Where Claus risked much to escape the Eastern Bloc, “here’s his kid, going exactly the other way,” said Gaye LeBaron, local historian, longtime Press Democrat columnist and friend of the Neumann family.

Evan Neumann did not respond to emailed requests for an interview. Nor did his two siblings respond to emails, texts and voicemails left for them.

While “extremely intelligent,” Evan Neumann “always walked to a different drummer,” recalled John Burton, who worked for nearly three decades in various roles at the Los Robles Lodge, which closed in 2006.

“But I do wish he would come home, accept responsibility for his actions, take his punishment and use the rest of his life in a productive fashion,” he said. “I know that Claus would not be happy with him at this point. And I think Claus would be afraid for him, too.”

Volatile teenager’

Debbie Neumann is right. There is much, much more to her eldest son than the profane protester captured on Capitol Police bodycam footage from Jan. 6. He is a talented designer whose creations include internally lit handbags, robotic avalanche control devices and “chemical self-assembling space stations,” he shared in a 2020 interview with Design-legends.com, a website that features interviews with internationally acclaimed designers and architects.

From 1996 to 2000, Neumann was general manager of Santa Rosa’s Hotel La Rose, then owned by his parents. “He raised the level of the hotel,” his mother said in her email.

He also created a software system that helped hotels more efficiently handle their reservations data. That company, AMANSI, was purchased in 2004 by InnPoints Worldwide, according to Neumann’s most recent LinkedIn profile.

Evan Neumann “was one of the most kind and generous people I've ever known,” said one longtime acquaintance of the family. That person, who preferred their name not be used, to preserve their relationship with the Neumanns, had drifted from Evan years ago, “pushed away” by his “increasingly polarized views.”

Even as the acquaintance condemned Neumann’s behavior on Jan. 6, they expressed admiration for his “inventive” nature, his “adventurous” spirit and tendency to “push boundaries” — a trait that surfaced long before Neumann grabbed hold of a police barricade a year ago.

As Neumann himself put it in that Design-legends.com interview, “I was a volatile teenager and did not graduate high school. In lieu of college, I lived around central and Eastern Europe, learning the languages and culture, always living with and among locals” — in cities including Dresden, Munich, Prague, Moscow and Kyiv.

According to one of his LinkedIn profiles, Neumann participated in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. An orange scarf, a memento from those massive, pro-Democracy protests in 2004 and 2005, was draped around his neck at the U.S. Capitol riot, clashing both aesthetically and ideologically with his red MAGA ball cap.

While not particularly surprised that Neumann ended up at a protest, “I would have expected his politics to be purely anti-establishment, rather than MAGA,” said the acquaintance. “I think Evan feels a pull to fight for ‘something,’ and this happened to be the fight he ended up at.”

“The Evan I knew could have just as well ended up at an antifa rally in Portland so that he could rage against the machine.”

Facing prison time

Neumann attended Cardinal Newman High School but did not graduate. The Press Democrat contacted six people who were enrolled there while he was. He failed to make a deep impression on any of them.

“Typical private school rich kid. Fairly arrogant,” texted one.

“I remember him, but didn’t know him,” said Mike Buscemi, now an attorney in San Diego. “We were into different things. Sounds like we still are.”

Neumann’s contacts with law enforcement date to the early 1990s, when he was charged with scaling the Golden Gate Bridge (the charge was dropped). In 2007, Santa Rosa police seized 179 marijuana plants and 1 pound of processed marijuana at Neumann’s Railroad Square-area home. After explaining that the weed was for medicinal use to treat his bipolar condition, Neumann was eventually convicted of one count of illegal marijuana possession. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years probation.

In October 2017, about a week after the Tubbs fire destroyed his parents’ Fountaingrove home, Neumann and a relative were arrested when they crossed a National Guard barricade restricting access to damaged or destroyed properties.

Neumann told The Press Democrat that he’d hoped to go to his family’s Lyon Court house to look for valuables. He ended up pleading no contest to illegally entering a disaster zone, a misdemeanor, as part of a plea bargain. He served two years probation and performed 40 hours of community service.

Neumann faces far stiffer penalties, should he return to the United States. Robert Palmer, a Florida man who pleaded guilty to assaulting law enforcement during the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol, was sentenced on Dec. 17 to 63 months in prison. Palmer had thrown a crude, wooden spear at police, sprayed them with a fire extinguisher, then hurled the empty canister at them.

In November, ex-MMA fighter Scott Fairlamb of New Jersey was sentenced to 41 months in prison after pleading guilty to assaulting a police officer at the Capitol. Jacob Chansley, also known as the QAnon Shaman, was also sentenced to 41 months in prison after pleading guilty to a single count of obstructing an official proceeding before Congress that day.

The 16-page criminal complaint and arrest warrant filed in March describes a man later identified as Neumann telling one officer that the officer is “defending the people who are gonna kill your f------ children, they are gonna rape them, they are gonna imprison them.”

Neumann refused orders to move away from barricade, saying “you can’t tell me what to do, you piece of s---.” He said the officers “kneel to Antifa because they’re little b-----s,” before threatening one by telling him he will be “overrun” by the crowd. “I’m willing to die,” he told the officer. “Are you?”

Moments later, according to the complaint, Neumann grabbed a metal barricade and shoved it into a line of officers.

“After striking officers with the barricade and also with his fist, Neumann, now joined by others, broke down the barricades. He then used the barricade as a battering ram, rushing toward the officers,” the indictment alleges.

Throughout the afternoon of Jan. 6, according to the indictment, Neumann allegedly assaulted three officers from the Metropolitan Police Department and one from the Capitol Police. In the original complaint, he’d been charged with attacking just one officer. The Dec. 10 indictment added new charges.

Facing prison time, Neumann made plans to get out of the country. After leaving his Mill Valley home — which has since been sold for $1.3 million — he was followed to San Francisco International Airport on Feb. 16 by FBI agents, who questioned him, then let him go.

Snakes, spiders, quicksand

After visiting Italy, Neumann later told the Russian television network RT, he went to Ukraine to pursue “a business opportunity.”

While there, he noticed that he was being followed — presumably, he said, by members of Ukraine’s secret police, whom he suspected would turn him over to the United States.

With only “a few” countries that would “protect me from the United States of America,” he told RT, he decided to walk across the border to Belarus, an adventure that included passing through a swamp “with snakes and wild boars and more spiders than you could imagine.” At one point, he said, “I fell in quicksand.”

After requesting asylum, Neumann spent several days in a detention center before being moved to his current residence in Minsk, he said.

Describing the events of Jan. 6 to his Russian interviewer, Neumann recalled that police “were very aggressive where I was.” He spoke of seeing a man break a Capitol building window with a hammer, “then he gestured for us to enter.”

Based on the man’s action’s, Neumann continued, “he probably was not with the protests.”

“I can’t say who he was, or what organization he was with, whether he was with antifa, or BLM, or some other group.”

In addition to that 15-minute segment, Neumann was featured in the Belarus state television special, “Goodbye America,” in which he recalls that the doors of the Capitol “were opened from inside. We were invited to come in.”

Discussing his future with the reporter, Neumann said, “I’m an American, and I would like to go back to America, if I’m allowed.

“I also like Belarus. The country is very clean and orderly.”

The country had “done him a big favor” by taking him in. “And I want to return this favor by being a productive, good citizen.”

The orderliness Neumann so admires is a result, in part, of the Lukashenko government’s practice of imprisoning, and torturing, those it views as a threat. Following the presidential election of August 2020 — widely understood to have been rigged — Belarusian security forces detained and tortured thousands of people.

So there’s “more than a little irony,” noted Stephen Bittner, a Russia expert and history professor at Sonoma State University, “that this man has fled to Belarus in order to escape supposed torture in American prisons.”

Neumann’s slanted characterizations of the events of Jan. 6, along with his willingness to demean his native country, will prove useful to Lukashenko and Russian president Vladimir Putin, who enjoys “poking the West,” said Bittner, “pointing out that the West is guilty of many of the same things it accuses Russia of” — including human rights violations, crony capitalism and the erosion of democratic norms.

Neumann’s usefulness as a propaganda tool is limited, Bittner believes, by widespread skepticism of the media.

Younger, urban, educated Belarusians, in particular, “know that everything they get from state-sanctioned media — all of that is false.”

Should Neumann end up staying in Belarus, he’ll be some 750 miles due east of his father’s old home in Marienburg, now part of Poland.

Even if he can’t get permission to visit Marienburg, Evan might peruse the pages of Claus’s memoir. Near the end of that book, Claus writes of lessons he’d learned from life as a boy in Nazi Germany, this among them:

“If we had not blindly followed our leaders, we could have avoided this.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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