USA TODAY (RENO) - Life was fairly normal for Austyn Crites until Saturday night.
The 33-year-old, Eagle Scout and high-altitude balloon inventor was by his own account a fairly average guy. He wasn’t famous — or infamous — and his face certainly wasn’t plastered all over international media.
That is, until the Donald Trump rally on Saturday in Reno.
“For someone like me, this particular event will in fact change the rest of my life,” Crites said in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal. “To what extent, that’s still yet to be seen, but I’m very cognizant that there is going to be a portion of the U.S. population that is going to doubt my true intentions no matter what I say. No matter what background I have, there will always be people who feel that I’m a sellout or something like this.”
Crites, who identifies as a Republican, went to the rally with a “Republicans Against Trump” sign with the intention of protesting the presidential candidate. He never expected what would transpire.
As Trump called him out from the podium, accusing him of being a Democratic plant, Crites made his way to the front. Confusion ensued and Crites ended up on the ground. Someone yelled he had a gun.
Trump was whisked off stage by Secret Service as the crowd scattered. Crites was hauled away and just like that, everything was different.
“It’s interesting how a life can change so quickly over exercising freedom of speech with one sign,” he said. “There are people who carry signs all over the place and probably make thousands of Facebook posts and make dozens of speeches and such and they get almost no media attention and it doesn’t affect their lives.”
Trump staffers, supporters and alt-right websites wasted no time in attacking Crites. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway made the rounds on Sunday television calling him a Democratic plant.
Dan Scavino Jr., Trump’s social media director, and Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a man who called it an assassination attempt.
Conservative-leaning websites denounced the reporting on Crites as a hoax and part of the mainstream media’s attempt to elect Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Other sites published theories about him and his brother committing voter fraud.
The Gateway Pundit offered all this plus his appearance on WikiLeaks — which has published thousands of emails related to the Clinton campaign — as proof positive that Crites was nothing more than a shill.
“Austyn Crites is likely a filthy ‘birddogger’ for Hillary,” wrote Joe Hoft in a post on the site. Hoft did not respond to an email request for comment.
Crites said his only real issue with the negative coverage is people accusing him of attempting to kill Trump, a patently false allegation that could be dangerous.
“That is an extremely reckless title to put on somebody who loves the nation and would never do anything like that, would never even think of doing anything like this,” he said.
The rest he’s tried to take in stride. Anyone can be labeled an agitator or plant, Crites said, but he’s been a Republican for about six years now, previously voting as a registered nonpartisan. He registered as a Republican in 2011, according to Washoe County public records.
He’s already voted this year for Clinton based on his distaste for Trump, but also for several Republicans including U.S. Rep. Joe Heck for Senate and U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei for House, he said. Crites said part of the reason he respects Heck so much is because of Heck’s denouncement of Trump after recordings surfaced of Trump describing sexually assaulting women. Heck declined to comment on Crites while Amodei’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
During the caucus, Crites said he supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. He also donated to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign and to Evan McMullin, the independent anti-Trump candidate from Utah.
He said he’s never even been to a Clinton rally, though did attend Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine’s rally on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno in September.
The Nevada Republican Party declined to comment.
His name does appear on WikiLeaks as part of a breach into Stratfor — a global intelligence company whose servers were hacked in 2012. Crites got on the list by subscribing to the Mauldin Economics newsletter. One of the contributors to Mauldin Economics is George Friedman, the former chairman of Stratfor, and Crites purchased his book The Next Decade.
However, the ugliness didn’t stop at simple accusations. Crites’ personal information was posted to websites, including the Facebook group “The Deplorables” — a pro-Trump group where a user posted Crites’ address.
He said he can’t keep a Facebook account right now because every time he starts one, it is reported and deleted — not to mention all the fake accounts purporting to be him.
His family was also caught in the fray as his parent’s information was leaked online. His brother and sister-in-law were also targeted.
“My husband caught it worse because he shares a last name, but we’ve been getting a lot of direct messages with threats saying they’re going to come get us and our family and when Trump becomes president he’s going to have us killed. Threats like that,” said Jolene Hayes, Crites’ 33-year-old sister-in-law who lives in Alameda, Calif.
“It’s always really scary to see your personal contact information spread out against trolling groups,” Hayes continued. “Especially when I have a one-year-old at home. My daughter is here and there’s threats against me and my family.”
The Reno Police Department is aware of the threats against Crites and provided area checks for the neighborhood where he and his family live. So far, nothing has happened. Hayes also said her family requested police watch their neighborhood in Alameda.
What’s next for Crites is uncertain with the election two days away. He feels like he made the right move and said he doesn’t regret it or hold any hostility toward the people at the Trump rally.
“I respect their supporting Donald Trump or whatever candidate they support,” he said. “That’s OK. And in fact the people who are at that rally, many of them are some of our nation’s greatest patriots because they care enough to show up to these rallies when other people couldn’t find the time to do that.”
All he wanted to do was show his sign.
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Follow Seth A. Richardson on Twitter: @SethARichardson
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