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Man accused of setting fire to Chicago police car while wearing Joker mask will be held in custody

A defense attorney for Timothy O’Donnell says the evidence isn’t as strong as it seems, argues someone else set the car on fire.

At left, a Chicago police photograph of Timothy O’Donnell. At right, the man alleged to be Timothy O’Donnell reaches toward a Chicago police car.
Federal court records

Pointing to a lengthy history of dodging the courts, a federal judge ordered authorities to continue to hold a man in custody Monday after prosecutors accused him of setting fire to a Chicago police vehicle while wearing a Joker mask during the May 30 riot downtown.

The judge did so after Timothy O’Donnell’s defense attorney argued the evidence against O’Donnell is not as strong as it seems. Michael Leonard insisted that someone else lit the car on fire, and he described his client as a pacifist and artist who respects police and once roamed the country in “10 years of Jack Kerouac.”

“There’s no history of this individual having some crazed bias toward law enforcement,” Leonard said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Fuentes found O’Donnell’s presence in court couldn’t be assured without detention, citing nine incidents in five states — including Washington, Texas and Michigan — in which O’Donnell previously failed to appear in court. He did not rule on whether O’Donnell is a danger to the community.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Durkin told Fuentes that a video shows O’Donnell “clearly” igniting the police car at its gas tank before hanging around for another 15 minutes, reveling and sitting down to roll a cigarette. He also said O’Donnell’s history of traveling the country in an “off-the-grid manner” means he would be hard to find if he decided to flee.

Leonard said someone else set the vehicle on fire, though. And he said federal agents ignored O’Donnell during a lengthy interview when he said he wanted a lawyer. O’Donnell allegedly admitted being the person wearing the Joker mask when questioned by agents.

“We believe that statement is going to be thrown out,” Leonard said.

Leonard also raised questions about whether O’Donnell would get proper mental health treatment in jail. In his ruling, Fuentes made a request to the Bureau of Prisons to make sure O’Donnell gets the medical care he needs.

O’Donnell, 31, was charged last week in an eight-page, photo-filled criminal complaint tying him to the incident in the 200 block of North State Street through a “PRETTY” tattoo seen on the neck of the person wearing the Joker mask.

A video of the May 30 incident — which occurred amid protests in the wake of the police-involved killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — was given to law enforcement by a witness, according to the complaint. It allegedly shows O’Donnell wearing the Joker mask, holding a lit object and placing it in the gas tank of the CPD vehicle. Prosecutors said the vehicle burst into flames and burned down to its shell.

A photograph taken by a witness also shows O’Donnell handling the gas tank, the feds say. In another photo, the person alleged to be O’Donnell appears to be sitting on the ground, against a lamp post, wearing the Joker mask while the vehicle burns.

A third photograph allegedly shows O’Donnell posing in the Joker mask in front of the burning car. This time, a tattoo that says “PRETTY” can be seen on the neck of the person wearing the mask. Prosecutors say a CPD photo of O’Donnell reveals the same tattoo.

A family member of O’Donnell’s told law enforcement he lives in a room in an apartment in the 700 block of 19th Place. Authorities obtained a search warrant June 2 and searched the apartment. The feds say they recovered from a bedroom a Joker mask similar to the one in the photographs, and O’Donnell was arrested.

O'DonnellComplaint.pdf