CEO of Surveillance Firm Banjo Once Helped KKK Leader Shoot Up a Synagogue
Documents reveal Damien Patton, CEO of SoftBank-backed Banjo, admitted to being a neo-Nazi skinhead in his youth
In magazine profiles and on conference stages, Damien Patton, the 47-year-old co-founder and CEO of the surveillance startup Banjo, often recounts a colorful autobiography. He describes how he ran away from a broken home near Los Angeles around age 15 and joined the U.S. Navy before working as a NASCAR mechanic. He says he became a self-taught crime scene investigator and then learned to code. Eventually, Patton helped build the digital infrastructure of what would become Banjo, a company that, in the past decade, has raised nearly $223 million, according to the investment data-sharing platform SharesPost, from prominent venture capital firms such as SoftBank.
Patton has been the subject of profiles in dozens of publications; Inc. featured him in its April 2015 issue, and versions of his story have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Fortune, Fast Company, and the New York Times. He has told a version of his story to an online entrepreneurial program at Stanford.
With his long red beard, flat-brimmed baseball cap, and a penchant for motorcycles and off-road vehicles, Patton strikes a hardened, gritty profile among the hoodied techies of Silicon Valley.
Patton’s story and public persona are compelling. They are also incomplete.
Documents available to the public and reviewed by OneZero — including transcripts of courtroom testimony, sworn statements, and more than 1,000 pages of records produced from a federal hate crime prosecution — reveal that Patton actively participated in white supremacist groups in his youth and was involved in the shooting of a synagogue. In an interview with OneZero, one of the people involved in that shooting confirmed Patton’s participation. Patton has not previously acknowledged this chapter of his life in public.
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In grand jury testimony that ultimately led to the conviction of two of his associates, Patton revealed that, as a 17-year-old, he was involved with the Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. On the evening of June 9, 1990 — a month before Patton turned 18 — Patton and a Klan leader took a semi-automatic TEC-9 pistol and drove to a synagogue in a Nashville suburb. With Patton at the wheel, the Ku Klux Klan member fired onto the synagogue, destroying a street-facing window and spraying bullets and shattered glass near the building’s administrative offices, which were next to that of the congregation’s rabbi. No one was struck or killed in the shooting. Afterward, Patton hid on the grounds of a white supremacist paramilitary training camp under construction before fleeing the state with the help of a second Klan member.
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Patton was charged with — and pled guilty to—acts of juvenile delinquency in connection to the incident, while the two Klansmen were charged with conspiracy to “prevent or hinder” the free exercise of another person’s constitutional rights, which is a federal hate crime, and accessory after the fact. One of the Klansmen, Leonard William Armstrong, took a plea agreement. Another, Jonathan David Brown, went to trial and was convicted of accessory after the fact to a conspiracy to violate civil rights, as well as two counts of lying to the grand jury. During testimony prior to Brown’s trial, Patton admitted to having been a member of the Nashville-area Dixie Knights. He also admitted to being a skinhead, a group that acted as “the foot soldiers for groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations,” Patton said.
Patton also admitted to participating in white supremacist talks and meetings, where, according to his own testimony, speakers advocated for the elimination of Blacks and Jews, among other beliefs built around racism and religious discrimination.
“We believe that the Blacks and the Jews are taking over America, and it’s our job to take America back for the White race,” Patton testified at trial, describing his beliefs while carrying out the crime — beliefs he said he no longer held.
Patton’s association with racist groups extended into adulthood; in testimony he provided against Brown, Patton admitted to fraternizing with skinheads while serving in the U.S. Navy.
Typos on records connected to Brown and Armstrong’s case — first a misspelling of Patton’s first name, Damien, as “Damion” in an initial affidavit of probable cause; then, in subsequent filings, spelling Damien as “Damian” — have helped prevent the discovery of Patton’s full biography for the past 30 years.
When reached for comment, Patton wrote:
32 years ago I was a lost, scared, and vulnerable child. I won’t go into detail, but the reasons I left home at such a young age are unfortunately not unique; I suffered abuse in every form. I did terrible things and said despicable and hateful things, including to my own Jewish mother, that today I find indefensibly wrong, and feel extreme remorse for. I have spent most of my adult lifetime working to make amends for this shameful period in my life.
In my teens, I dropped out of school, lived on the streets, ate out of dumpsters and raised money panhandling. I was desperate and afraid. I was taken in by skinhead gangs and white supremacist organizations. Over the course of a few years, I did many things as part of those groups that I am profoundly ashamed of and sorry about.
Eventually, I was able to get myself away from this world while serving in the United States Navy. This turned my life around. While serving my country, I worked with law enforcement agencies in hate group prosecutions and left this world behind.
Since then, I have tried and failed to completely accept and come to terms with how I, a child of Jewish heritage, became part of such a hateful, racist group. One thing I have done, through therapy and outreach, I have learned to forgive that 15 year old boy who, despite the absence of ideological hate, was lured into a dark and evil world. For all of those I have hurt, and that this revelation will hurt, I’m sorry. No apology will undo what I have done.
I have worked every day to be a responsible member of society. I’ve built companies, employed hundreds and have worked to treat everyone around me equally. In recent years, I’ve sought to create technologies that stop human suffering and save lives without violating privacy. I know that I will never be able to erase my past but I work hard every day to make up for mistakes. This is something I will never stop doing.
Banjo emerged out of two Bay Area hackathons in 2010. Banjo’s software functions as an “event-detection engine,” which, according to company claims, aggregates more than 1 billion public social media accounts and organizes their posts by time and location. Initially envisioned as a public-facing “friend-finding” social media app that would connect people by interests and location, an early version of the company raised nearly $1 million in the weeks following its 2010 debut.
Patton told Entrepreneur that the 2013 Boston bombing inspired him to rethink Banjo, which then pivoted to serving law enforcement agencies. A recent patent assigned to Banjo explains how the app can use location-based search terms, such as a street or business name, to aggregate audio and video from nearby public social media posts as a way to detect “events” that include “fire, police response, mass shooting, traffic accident, natural disaster, storm, active shooter, concerts, protests, etc.” Banjo’s algorithm thus purports to allow law enforcement agents to watch and respond to these events in real time.
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In May 2015, SoftBank invested $100 million into Patton’s Utah-based company. Other investors include BlueRun Ventures and Balderton Capital. Banjo now employs nearly 200 workers and maintains offices in South Jordan and Park City, Utah; Washington, D.C.; and near Menlo Park, California.
“[We] essentially do what Palantir does,” the lobbyist said.
Banjo has come under increased scrutiny in recent months. In March, a Vice investigation highlighted a $20.7 million contract between the company and the state of Utah. The agreement gave Banjo real-time access to about 1,000 Utah Department of Transportation surveillance cameras, 911 emergency calls, and some location information for first-responder vehicles. Patton told Salt Lake City–area news station KUTV that Banjo’s data collection efforts would alert law enforcement agencies to crimes and accidents as they happened, and thus “save people’s lives.”
According to notes from a Salt Lake Valley Emergency Communication Center’s Operations Board meeting in the summer of 2019, a Banjo lobbyist once compared the company to the secretive surveillance company Palantir. “[We] essentially do what Palantir does,” the lobbyist said, according to the notes. “[We] do it live.”
According to Ric Cantrell, the current chief of staff for Utah’s attorney general (and the former boss of the Banjo lobbyist who made the Palantir comparison), the company’s activity is limited to the state. Banjo’s Utah contract explicitly details coverage for 29 counties, 13 cities with populations above 50,000, and campus security for the University of Utah. The company has at least one additional contract in place: a 12-month pilot program to test the software’s effectiveness with the Goshen Police Department in Indiana, funded by a grant from the Indiana Drug Enforcement Association.
Banjo has not publicly disclosed how many cities, counties, and states the company works with worldwide.
In court documents reviewed by OneZero from the early 1990s, Damien Patton describes a tumultuous upbringing. Much of the narrative that follows is sourced directly from testimony Patton gave in 1991 and 1992 in the federal criminal prosecution of two of his associates. (These testimonies are embedded below.)
Patton said he was kicked out of multiple high schools before finally dropping out around age 15 and running away from his mother’s home near Los Angeles. “That’s when I first shaved my head and became a Skinhead and became involved [in racist movements],” he told the grand jury.
That was also around the time when Patton said he became connected to an older member of the white supremacist movement. That individual convinced Patton to move to Nashville, Tennessee, to help possibly launch a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
When he arrived in Nashville, Patton met a celebrated record producer and audio engineer in the contemporary Christian music industry named Jonathan David Brown. Brown produced hit records for Christian, gospel, and country stars such as Glen Campbell and David Meece. But according to grand jury and trial testimony from Patton, Brown also proselytized a paramilitary, anti-Black, anti-Jew movement known as Christian Identity.
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The movement, a version of which dates back at least to the 1840s, claims that the Bible’s 10 “lost” tribes of Israel ultimately evolved into northern Europeans and British Anglo-Saxons. Anti-Semitic groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, embraced the philosophy in the mid-20th century to effectively strip Jews of their favored status in religious texts and instead link them to Satan; the movement’s leaders contended that Anglo-Saxon Celtics, not Jews, are the true chosen people.
Patton testified that Brown supported the work of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a chapter of the infamous hate group known for burning and bombing churches. The White Knights are best known for murdering three civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964.
“We talked about on numerous occasions the execution of Federal judges,” Patton testified, and “people who owned large newspapers, like the man who owns The Tennessean and the Nashville Banner,” the two daily newspapers operating in Nashville at the time.
In his testimony, Patton described the general philosophies and activities of the groups he associated with. “We were out there on the streets causing problems and making the headlines in the news where the older groups like the Klan wasn’t really ever heard of anymore,” he said. “And we were going out and causing the problems now.”
Eventually, Patton moved into an apartment that Brown helped pay for, and the two developed a friendship. At trial, Patton recalled, “He became more or less a father figure to me.” At one point, Brown revealed to Patton that he’d acquired a farm in Pleasantville, Tennessee, which Patton told the court Brown hoped to transform into a paramilitary training ground, equipped with an arsenal of firearms.
“A lot of Christian Identity speeches and a lot of speeches about how we’ve got to overcome the Jewish system that’s running our government and how we’ve got to take back our land.”
On the morning of Saturday, June 9, 1990, Brown and his family took Patton to an Aryan Nations meeting in Smyrna, Tennessee, where believers of the Christian Identity philosophy congregated. Hundreds of people gathered to hear racist leaders talk, Patton said. One of those speakers was Richard Butler, founder of the Aryan Nations’ compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho. At that time, Butler was the country’s most notorious white supremacist.
“There were basically just the same speeches I’d heard over and over again,” Patton said during the trial. “A lot of Christian Identity speeches and a lot of speeches about how we’ve got to overcome the Jewish system that’s running our government and how we’ve got to take back our land.”
Patton told the grand jury that the subject of conversation at the Aryan Nations meeting covered bigotry of all kinds: “Some of the organizations are more paramilitary inclined and they want to get together people to help rid the problem in our government — Blacks taking from the welfare; the niggers taking all the money from the white; working class people in the welfare system; the Kikes running our government; and some of them are extremists in the group.”
Anti-Semitism was a central focus. “Jews… were felt to be the evil of all problems,” Patton testified to the grand jury. “We refer to them as Kikes or ZOG, which stands for Zionist Occupied Government, which means our government was occupied by Jews and Jews only.”
The roughly five-hour meeting was followed by meetups with local and national white supremacist leaders throughout the day. Patton had an early dinner at a nearby diner with Butler and others. Around dusk, Brown and Patton relocated to Brown’s apartment. That’s where, according to testimony Patton gave in 1992, they met up with Leonard William Armstrong. Armstrong, then 33, was the Grand Dragon of the Tennessee White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
According to Patton, that night, he and Armstrong went outside to talk about guns he had purchased for Brown to stock the farm — MAC-10 and MAC-11 assault pistols. Then the two joined a group and rode into midtown Nashville.
“We all sat out on the Street [sic] for a while just showing a massive force of White Supremacists [when] a group of Black men in a black Suzuki Samurai drove up and I started to ridicule them,” Patton said. “I told them that I had a ticket for them to go back to Africa and I told them about having a can of grease for their hair and they got pretty upset and we thought they brandished a weapon and so all the men — all the boy Skinheads… chased the Suzuki Samurai but we lost it.”
“And that’s when [Armstrong] and myself got in my car… and went a different direction from the rest of the group,” Patton said at the trial.
About eight months earlier, a local KKK leader had spray-painted swastikas on the West End Synagogue, located in the Nashville neighborhood of Cherokee Park, along with two statements: “Get Out” and “Jews Suck.”
Rabbi Ronald Roth, who presided over Nashville’s West End Synagogue at the time, told OneZero that the graffiti was part of a racist tide rolling into the community in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In a story published in The Tennessean at the time, Roth suggested that the graffiti was either “a thoughtless teenage prank” or “related to an upsurge of activity throughout the country against Jews and other groups.” The congregation’s board members had worked to move past the incident, Roth said.
Patton testified that Armstrong said he wanted to send another message to the synagogue’s leaders. Patton drove his white 1986 Ford Crown Victoria past the synagogue, with Armstrong in the passenger seat.
Armstrong “took out a black case, which I knew he had in my car,” Patton said. “It contained a TEC-9 assault pistol. And he took it out and that’s when I proceeded down again in front of the West End Synagogue.” Patton said that Armstrong rolled down the window, “leaned over, kind of back into my lap” — so the shell casings from the pistol wouldn’t shoot out into the street and make the shooter’s fingerprints easily identifiable — “and let out a little bit less than, I’d say, ten rounds” into the building.
Following the shooting, Patton turned off the car’s headlights and drove away from the scene. By his own testimony, Patton and a group of fellow skinheads then ordered pizza “and drank a lot,” before heading to a nearby store to purchase hair clippers to shave their heads.
Around dawn, according to Patton’s testimony, an officer from the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department knocked on Patton’s apartment door for unrelated reasons: complaints about a car being broken into and an all-night party. Officers took Patton in that morning. He was subsequently released to Brown, who moved Patton out to the farm in Pleasantville.
The shooting immediately sent a shudder through the West End Synagogue community. The Anti-Defamation League and the synagogue put up a $5,000 reward for any information related to the shooting.
“Given the seriousness of the incident, we hope that anyone with information will come forward,” Roth told The Tennessean on June 16, 1990. “Apprehension and conviction of the criminals will be a clear signal that Nashville will not tolerate such hateful criminal acts.”
Days after the shooting, Brown received a visit from FBI agents and Metro police looking for Patton. They had an arrest warrant for Patton. “One of them had to do with a violation of civil rights, and a desecration of a holy place,” Patton testified.
Brown and Patton hatched a plan to get Patton out of the state. They purchased 10 cans of black spray paint from a local Walmart and placed Brown’s Tennessee license plates on Patton’s car. Brown gave Patton $500, and Patton wore a pair of overalls “to look more of a farmer or an Amish-type individual,” Patton said. “[The authorities] weren’t going to be looking for a black car. They weren’t going to be looking for that license, a Tennessee license plate and they certainly weren’t going to be looking for someone who looked like a respectable adult, or an Amish person, a farmer.”
Brown gave Patton $500, and Patton wore a pair of overalls “to look more of a farmer or an Amish-type individual,” Patton said.
Patton and his girlfriend at the time fled the area and headed west. They spent a few weeks in Las Vegas and then moved into the back of Patton’s mother’s house near Los Angeles.
But five months later, in the late fall of 1990, Patton returned to Tennessee. Undetected by federal authorities, he began working on Brown’s compound.
Patton and Brown had a dispute over wages, and Patton left the farm to live with Armstrong. That living situation didn’t work for Patton either, Patton testified, so, after Christmas 1990, he contacted his father, who was living in Hawaii at the time. His father invited Patton to join him there so Patton could get back on his feet.
In early 1991, an 18-year-old Patton left Tennessee for Hawaii and then enlisted in the Navy toward the end of the first Persian Gulf War. In magazine interviews, Patton often begins his narrative here.
But Patton does not mention that, by his own testimony, he continued to socialize with white supremacists while in the Navy. Patton told prosecutors that he gathered with skinheads while stationed in Virginia for training. “I had known some of the Skinheads there from prior rallies in Tennessee and because of not knowing anybody there, I ended up meeting with them and hung out with them for some time,” he said.
Patton received a subpoena to testify before a federal grand jury regarding the West End Synagogue shooting while he was still in the Navy, ultimately giving his first testimony in the case in September 1991.
In addition to the shooting, Patton was implicated in at least one other hate crime that occurred during his time in Tennessee. According to an affidavit of probable cause filed by a Nashville-area FBI agent in support of a search for Patton and his residences, Patton allegedly defaced the Greater Bethel AME Church in Nashville, an African American Methodist denomination. By his own grand jury testimony, Patton admitted to spray-painting buildings in the area with “KKK” and swastikas. The affidavit also alleges that Patton also impersonated an FBI agent to uncover spies among the skinheads he associated with.
Patton pled guilty to a charge connected with the synagogue shooting, and did so, he said in trial court testimony against Brown on August 12, 1992, in an effort to receive a “more lenient” sentence from the judge. Patton did not, as part of his conviction, receive any time behind bars.
After an eight-day trial, a jury convicted Brown of perjury and accessory after the fact to a conspiracy to violate civil rights. A judge sentenced him to 27 months behind bars and 36 months of supervised release, in addition to a $10,000 fine. According to Brown’s Facebook page, he died on September 27, 2016, of an apparent heart attack.
“[The shooting made] it clear that there were Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members who were really intent on their hatred of Jews that they wanted Jews dead.”
Leonard William Armstrong signed a plea deal admitting to two federal charges: a firearm charge and conspiracy to threaten the free exercise of another person’s constitutional rights. He served 42 months in a federal penitentiary.
In an interview with OneZero about the West End Synagogue shooting, Armstrong expressed remorse and took sole responsibility for the incident.
“I was the guy who was at the root of this whole thing,” he said.
Armstrong remembered Patton as “a pretty nice young man… He was educated, very intelligent, smart.” Armstrong said that he had not met Patton before the night of the incident. He also indicated that he has not been in touch with Patton since the incident, though he did express a desire to apologize to him for the events of that night.
“This was not something that had been plotted or planned out,” Armstrong said. “I was a drunken idiot acting spontaneously, and I got him into trouble. He didn’t know that I was going to do the thing that I did.”
Armstrong said he’s since renounced his white supremacist beliefs. “I can be remorseful, and I’ve done my time and my penance,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s still there, you know?”
“My way of life has changed 180 degrees,” he said. Armstrong said that he has, in recent years, joined Life After Hate, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps people leave hate groups and reconcile their past. He said he’s participated in fundraisers that help kids with cancer and autism and provide dogs for veterans.
Though Armstrong has expressed remorse, the incident still resonates among those connected to the West End Synagogue.
The synagogue’s Rabbi Roth remembers the event to this day. “[The shooting made] it clear that there were Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members who were really intent on their hatred of Jews that they wanted Jews dead,” he told OneZero.
When meeting with venture capitalists two decades later, Patton appeared to be able to leave his past behind, presumably thanks to an FBI agent’s typo. Because Patton’s name was misspelled in the initial affidavit of probable cause filed in Brown’s case — an FBI agent apparently spelled Damien with an “o” rather than an “e” — any search of a federal criminal court database for “Damien Patton” would not have surfaced the affidavit.
Paper documents reviewed by OneZero inside the U.S. District Courthouse in the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville corroborated Patton’s birthdate, middle name, personal history, family connections, and the correct spelling of Patton’s name.
During interviews and speeches, Patton has been vague about the details of his youth. In a 2012 interview, when pressed about whether he felt comfortable discussing his background prior to Banjo, Patton said, “I don’t not not talk about it.”
During interviews and speeches, Patton has been vague about the details of his youth.
A CEO’s unreported history of associating with racist groups could be concerning for any company. But it is especially so for a company that markets its product to law enforcement.
Privacy experts have highlighted concerns about hidden racial biases in the types of A.I. systems that Banjo employs. Deeply held beliefs can be intentionally or unintentionally baked into algorithms with real-world consequences.
In a New York Times op-ed that broadly addressed bias in A.I., Kate Crawford, senior principal researcher at Microsoft and co-chair of a White House symposium on A.I. under the Obama administration, wrote, “Like all technologies before it, artificial intelligence will reflect the values of its creators. So inclusivity matters — from who designs it to who sits on the company boards and which ethical perspectives are included. Otherwise, we risk constructing machine intelligence that mirrors a narrow and privileged vision of society, with its old, familiar biases and stereotypes.”
In addition to highlighting the potential ethical concerns around Banjo’s product — biased A.I. training that can potentially result in a biased application — Patton’s previously undisclosed past with white supremacist organizations calls into question how much vetting startup founders face from investors.
Sergio Marrero, who operates the Rebel One Angel and Venture Capital Training Program in New York City, said that venture capital companies typically don’t perform criminal background checks when considering investments.
“I mean, you may Google the person,” he said. “You may look at the educational institutions they’re from.”
Anything further is unusual, Marrero said. And one major firm’s failure to perform a serious background check can have a domino effect. If a major venture capital firm invests in one company, smaller VC firms may “assume that they looked under every rock and they called and they did the full check… whether it’s true or not,” Marrero said.
Though Patton has never explicitly addressed this chapter of his life in public, he has alluded to it in veiled terms.
“We all have a personal story,” Patton told an audience at the Domopalooza tech conference in Salt Lake City in March 2019. “It’s probably what drives you every day to do what you do. Drives your family life, your work life. It’s no different from me.”
“I came out of an abusive household,” he told the crowd. “When I was a young kid. And I left. And I was a homeless kid living on the streets, under the underpass of the freeway in Los Angeles, eating out of the dumpster. Never finished high school, belonged to street gangs,” he said. “Was up to no good.”
His stint in the Navy, Patton said, helped him turn his life around.
“In this country,” he went on, “thankfully, we get second chances.”
Embedded below are a 1991 federal grand jury testimony and a 1992 trial testimony from Damien Patton.