September 27, 2021

Room 9 AV

Genuine Travel

Men Charged for Ambushing Mesquite Elementary School Principal With Zip Ties Over COVID Rules

All three members of an Arizona trio who barged into an elementary school principal’s office with zip ties and threatened to place her under citizen’s arrest for following public health guidelines have instead been arrested themselves, the Tucson Police Department confirmed.

“58-year-old Frank Tainatongo was cited and released for misdemeanor trespassing yesterday,” Tucson PD spokesman Sgt. Richard Gradillas told The Daily Beast. “He would be the third person cited and released related to this incident.”

Last week, Tainatongo accompanied marketing strategist and coffee shop owner Kelly Walker, 51, and Rishi Rambaran, 40, as Rambaran accosted Principal Diane Vargo while she sat with another educator at Tucson’s Mesquite Elementary School. Rambaran’s son had been told by the school to mask up and quarantine after reportedly being exposed to someone with COVID-19. Walker live-streamed the confrontation on his shop’s Instagram. In the footage, Tainatongo, who remained unidentified until today, could be seen standing in the doorway holding multiple pairs of “law enforcement-grade” zip ties. The video has since been deleted.

“When this kind of coercion and bullying is perpetrated by school administrators, breaking the law, a citizen’s arrest is an option worth looking into,” Walker wrote on Facebook last Thursday.

On Monday, Tainatongo was booked on a charge of third-degree criminal trespass, the same charge leveled at Walker and Rambaran. If convicted, all three face up to 30 days in jail. Gradillas said citizen’s arrests are extremely rare, and that he has never seen one carried out in his 14 years on the job.

Tainatongo’s LinkedIn profile says he works as a production manager for the Rincon Research Corporation, a government contractor that develops software for the U.S. military, NASA, and the intelligence community.

“I am a confident decision maker and effective problem solver,” Tainatongo’s bio states.

No one answered the phone at Tainatongo’s home on Tuesday, and Tainatongo did not respond to a voicemail left on his cellphone seeking comment. He does not have a lawyer listed in court records. A phone extension under Tainatongo’s name is listed in the employee directory at Rincon Research, but he did not pick up when The Daily Beast tried him on Tuesday.

Rambaran had asked Walker to be there as “backup” and to film the incident, he and Walker explained in a video later posted to Walker’s Instagram. It is not clear how Tainatongo wound up at Mesquite Elementary, or what his relationship is with Rambaran or Walker. While Rambaran’s son attends Mesquite Elementary, Walker reportedly home-schools his own five children and has no obvious connection to Mesquite.

The bizarre conflagration started when Rambaran contacted Walker about the school’s quarantine order, Walker said in a video he streamed while driving over to meet Rambaran.

“I’m headed to Mesquite Elementary School right now, where a friend just notified me and some others that his son was indiscriminately taken to the office to be quarantined because supposedly someone had decided he but not other kids in this classroom were exposed to COVID,” said Walker. “And they shoved a mask on his face, wouldn’t let him call his parents, and now his dad is there… [T]he school is blatantly breaking the law, blatantly going against the will of the people. I think this community has expressed that they’re not going to have this kind of bullying of our kids, these kinds of scare tactics.”

But Mesquite Elementary had in fact reported a positive COVID-19 case to the Pima County Health Department, which requires schools to provide the names of anyone that has been exposed to someone testing positive for the virus. Rambaran’s son would be forced to miss a class trip, Rambaran complained.

After the three suddenly appeared in Vargo’s office, she listened to Rambaran’s concerns. In a video shot by Walker that was later deleted, Rambaran can be seen calling the police and asking them to arrest Vargo if she didn’t immediately allow Rambaran’s son back into class. Otherwise, Rambaran warned, he and his pals were ready to effect the arrest themselves. Vargo asked the three to leave the premises. When they stayed put, she walked out and called the cops.

The men took off before officers arrived. Rambaran was arrested a few hours later. Walker and Tainatongo were both arrested and released on Monday. Vargo later said she and her assistant would both seek restraining orders against all three, in addition to pressing charges.

Walker co-owns a coffee shop in Tucson that describes itself as “Tucson’s hub of Freedom and delicious coffee.” The shop recently hosted a meet-and-greet with far-right author and convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza, and will next month be welcoming Matthew Lohmeier, a former Space Force lieutenant colonel who was relieved of his post in May over his warnings of a “neo-Marxist agenda” within the military “designed to patiently and methodically overthrow the US government and replace it with a communist dictatorship.”

In an email last week to The Daily Beast, Walker denied that he and the others were planning to arrest Vargo, and insisted the group didn’t threaten anyone. He argued that school officials were hypocritical for not wearing masks themselves, and—contrary to his own livestream—portrayed the encounter as a peaceful one. Walker expressed dismay that reporters hadn’t spoken to Rambaran for his side of the story. When asked for Ramabaran’s contact info, since The Daily Beast hadn’t been able to reach him, Walker stopped responding. He did not reply to a request for comment on Tainatongo’s arrest.

Last September, Walker was arrested at a Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting for using foul language. The next month, Walker’s coffee house was shut down by county health inspectors for flouting COVID-19 guidelines. Upon reopening a few days later, Walker posted a picture to Facebook of white supremacist meme Pepe the Frog, deeming Pepe the shop’s “Sales Person [sic] of the Month.” Those who complained got doxxed.

Worryingly similar situations have occurred elsewhere in the U.S. In Pennsylvania, a dispute over masking requirements for elementary school students resulted in death threats. In California, a parent allegedly assaulted a teacher after seeing their daughter wearing a mask. In Florida, a 50-year-old man was arrested after allegedly attacking a female high school student during an argument over masks.

Walker and Rambaran are due in court on Sept. 15. Tainatongo’s next court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 20.


https://www.thedailybeast.com/men-charged-for-ambushing-mesquite-elementary-school-principal-with-zip-ties-over-covid-rules