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A year ago, Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin challenged the Kremlin with a mutiny

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A year ago, Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin challenged the Kremlin with a mutiny
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A year ago, Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin challenged the Kremlin with a mutiny

2024-06-22 12:03 Last Updated At:12:11

On a lazy summer weekend a year ago, Russia was jolted by the stunning news of an armed uprising. The swaggering chief of a Kremlin-sponsored mercenary army seized a military headquarters in the south and began marching toward Moscow to oust the Defense Ministry’s leaders, accusing them of starving his force of ammunition in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin and his soldiers-for-hire called off their “march of justice” only hours later, but the rebellion dealt a blow to President Vladimir Putin, the most serious challenge to his rule in nearly a quarter-century in power.

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FILE - A fighter of the Wagner private military force touches a sculpture of Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at his grave at the Porokhovskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Saturday, June 1, 2024. Prigozhin died in a suspicious air crash on Aug. 23, 2023, two months after launching a brief armed rebellion against the Russian military leadership. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)

On a lazy summer weekend a year ago, Russia was jolted by the stunning news of an armed uprising. The swaggering chief of a Kremlin-sponsored mercenary army seized a military headquarters in the south and began marching toward Moscow to oust the Defense Ministry’s leaders, accusing them of starving his force of ammunition in Ukraine.

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, talks with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, left, chief of the General Staff, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu after a meeting in Moscow, Russia, on Dec. 19, 2023. An armed uprising by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023, against the military leadership dealt a blow to Putin’s authority. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, talks with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, left, chief of the General Staff, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu after a meeting in Moscow, Russia, on Dec. 19, 2023. An armed uprising by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023, against the military leadership dealt a blow to Putin’s authority. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Pallbearers carry the coffin of Dmitry Utkin, who oversaw military operations of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, during his funeral at Federal Military Memorial Cemetery in Mytishchy, Russia, on Aug. 31, 2023. Utkin died in a suspicious plane crash along with Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had launched a brief rebellion in June 2023, seeking to oust Russia’s military leadership. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Pallbearers carry the coffin of Dmitry Utkin, who oversaw military operations of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, during his funeral at Federal Military Memorial Cemetery in Mytishchy, Russia, on Aug. 31, 2023. Utkin died in a suspicious plane crash along with Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had launched a brief rebellion in June 2023, seeking to oust Russia’s military leadership. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - A young woman lights a candle as others stand at a makeshift memorial near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 29, 2023, for members of the Wagner Group military contractor killed in a plane crash. Among the 10 people killed in the crash was Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier had launched a brief rebellion against Russia’s military leadership. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - A young woman lights a candle as others stand at a makeshift memorial near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 29, 2023, for members of the Wagner Group military contractor killed in a plane crash. Among the 10 people killed in the crash was Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier had launched a brief rebellion against Russia’s military leadership. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Lights Illuminate debris of a private jet that crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino, Russia, on Aug. 24, 2023. The jet, flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, was carrying Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier launched a brief armed rebellion. Prigozhin and nine others aboard the jet were killed. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Lights Illuminate debris of a private jet that crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino, Russia, on Aug. 24, 2023. The jet, flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, was carrying Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier launched a brief armed rebellion. Prigozhin and nine others aboard the jet were killed. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - In this image taken from video, smoke rises from the crash of a private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Russia, on Aug. 23, 2023. The jet, flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, was carrying Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier launched a brief armed rebellion. Prigozhin and nine others aboard the jet were killed. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - In this image taken from video, smoke rises from the crash of a private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Russia, on Aug. 23, 2023. The jet, flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, was carrying Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier launched a brief armed rebellion. Prigozhin and nine others aboard the jet were killed. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - In this photo released by Belarus' Defense Ministry on July 20, 2023, Belarusian soldiers and mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner private military company pose for a photo amid maneuvers at a firing range near the border city of Brest, Belarus. On June 24, 2023, the private military company ended a brief rebellion against the Russian Defense Ministry that Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin accused of failing to supply his forces in Ukraine. (Belarus' Defense Ministry via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo released by Belarus' Defense Ministry on July 20, 2023, Belarusian soldiers and mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner private military company pose for a photo amid maneuvers at a firing range near the border city of Brest, Belarus. On June 24, 2023, the private military company ended a brief rebellion against the Russian Defense Ministry that Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin accused of failing to supply his forces in Ukraine. (Belarus' Defense Ministry via AP, File)

FILE - Police guard an area near an office of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 24, 2023. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a brief armed revolt against Russia's military leadership that posed the greatest challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s authority in his more than two decades in power. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Police guard an area near an office of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 24, 2023. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a brief armed revolt against Russia's military leadership that posed the greatest challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s authority in his more than two decades in power. (AP Photo, File)

FILE – Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, sit on a tank in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as residents pose for a photo near the headquarters of the Southern Military District. The private military company ended a brief rebellion against some officials in the Russian Defense Ministry whom Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin accused of not supplying his forces in Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

FILE – Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, sit on a tank in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as residents pose for a photo near the headquarters of the Southern Military District. The private military company ended a brief rebellion against some officials in the Russian Defense Ministry whom Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin accused of not supplying his forces in Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Police officers stand next to their car in an empty Red Square with St. Basil's Cathedral in the background in Moscow, Russia, on June 28, 2023. Life has returned to normal in the capital after a brief armed rebellion by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Police officers stand next to their car in an empty Red Square with St. Basil's Cathedral in the background in Moscow, Russia, on June 28, 2023. Life has returned to normal in the capital after a brief armed rebellion by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Members of the Wagner Group private military contractor sit in vehicle in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as they prepare to leave an area at the headquarters of the Southern Military District. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a rebellion that sought the ouster of Defense Ministry officials that he accused of not supplying his forces fighting in Ukraine, but he later called it off. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Members of the Wagner Group private military contractor sit in vehicle in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as they prepare to leave an area at the headquarters of the Southern Military District. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a rebellion that sought the ouster of Defense Ministry officials that he accused of not supplying his forces fighting in Ukraine, but he later called it off. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - The top Russian military commander in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a meeting at an unknown location on Dec. 17, 2022, with President Vladimir Putin during his visit to troops fighting in Ukraine. Surovikin, who reportedly had close ties with Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, was stripped of his post as deputy commander of forces in Ukraine after the brief uprising by Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - The top Russian military commander in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a meeting at an unknown location on Dec. 17, 2022, with President Vladimir Putin during his visit to troops fighting in Ukraine. Surovikin, who reportedly had close ties with Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, was stripped of his post as deputy commander of forces in Ukraine after the brief uprising by Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on monitors in Moscow, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as he addresses the nation after a brief rebellion by mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. The mercenary group had taken over a military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. Putin denounced the rebellion by his onetime protege as a "betrayal" and "treason." (Pavel Bednyakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on monitors in Moscow, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as he addresses the nation after a brief rebellion by mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. The mercenary group had taken over a military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. Putin denounced the rebellion by his onetime protege as a "betrayal" and "treason." (Pavel Bednyakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

ILE - Mercenaries of Russia's Wagner Group load a tank onto a truck in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, following a brief rebellion led by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. He had accused Defense Ministry officials of denying support to his fighters in Ukraine. The troops had taken over Russia's southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and headed for Moscow but aborted the rebellion, which still undermined Putin's image of power. Prigozhin was killed two months later in a mysterious plane crash. (Vasily Deryugin/Kommersant Publishing House via AP, File)

ILE - Mercenaries of Russia's Wagner Group load a tank onto a truck in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, following a brief rebellion led by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. He had accused Defense Ministry officials of denying support to his fighters in Ukraine. The troops had taken over Russia's southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and headed for Moscow but aborted the rebellion, which still undermined Putin's image of power. Prigozhin was killed two months later in a mysterious plane crash. (Vasily Deryugin/Kommersant Publishing House via AP, File)

FILE - Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral at the Beloostrovskoye Cemetery outside St. Petersburg, Russia, on Dec. 24, 2022, of Dmitry Menshikov, one of his mercenaries who died fighting in Ukraine. Prigozhin made his name as the profane and brutal mercenary boss who in June 2023 mounted a brief armed rebellion that was the most serious challenge to the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral at the Beloostrovskoye Cemetery outside St. Petersburg, Russia, on Dec. 24, 2022, of Dmitry Menshikov, one of his mercenaries who died fighting in Ukraine. Prigozhin made his name as the profane and brutal mercenary boss who in June 2023 mounted a brief armed rebellion that was the most serious challenge to the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves a meal to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, at a restaurant outside Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 11, 2011. Prigozhin, an ex-convict, owned a restaurant in St. Petersburg where the Russian leader took foreign leaders, earning him the nickname of "Putin's chef." He won lucrative catering contracts and later started a private military company. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, Pool, File)

FILE - Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves a meal to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, at a restaurant outside Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 11, 2011. Prigozhin, an ex-convict, owned a restaurant in St. Petersburg where the Russian leader took foreign leaders, earning him the nickname of "Putin's chef." He won lucrative catering contracts and later started a private military company. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, Pool, File)

FILE - Yevgeny Prigozhin, right, head of the Wagner private military contractor, poses for a photo with a civilian in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023. Prigozhin’s mercenary army had briefly seized a military headquarters in the city and started marching toward Moscow to oust the Defense Ministry's leaders, but then called it off. He had accused the Defense Ministry of starving his forces of ammunition in Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Yevgeny Prigozhin, right, head of the Wagner private military contractor, poses for a photo with a civilian in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023. Prigozhin’s mercenary army had briefly seized a military headquarters in the city and started marching toward Moscow to oust the Defense Ministry's leaders, but then called it off. He had accused the Defense Ministry of starving his forces of ammunition in Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

Prigozhin’s motives are still hotly debated, and the suspicious crash of the private jet that killed him and his top lieutenants exactly two months after the rebellion remains mired in mystery.

A look at the mutiny and its impact:

Prigozhin, an ex-convict, owned a fancy restaurant in St. Petersburg where Putin took foreign leaders. That earned Prigozhin the nicknamed of “Putin’s chef.” Those ties won him lucrative government contracts, including catering for Kremlin events and providing meals and services to the military.

He founded the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, in 2014, using it to advance Russia's political interests and clout by deploying mercenaries to Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and elsewhere. Wagner fighters provided security for African leaders or warlords, often in exchange for a share of gold mines or other natural resources.

Prigozhin gained attention in the U.S., where he and a dozen other Russians were indicted by the Justice Department for creating the Internet Research Agency — a “troll farm” that focused on interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The case was later dropped.

After Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Wagner emerged as one of the most capable of Moscow’s fighting forces. It played a key role in capturing the eastern stronghold of Bakhmut in May 2023.

Prigozhin was allowed by the Kremlin to swell Wagner's ranks with convicts, who were offered amnesty after serving six months on the front line. He said 50,000 were recruited, and 10,000 of them died in the ferocious battle for Bakhmut.

The war added to Wagner's reputation for brutality. In a video that surfaced in November 2022, a former Wagner mercenary who allegedly defected to the Ukrainian side but later was captured by Russia, was shown being beaten to death with a sledgehammer, the mercenary group's symbol.

For months in 2023, Prigozhin complained bitterly about the military brass denying his forces the needed ammunition in Ukraine. In open political infighting, he blasted then-Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov in profane rants on social media, blaming them for military setbacks and accusing them of corruption.

The Defense Ministry's order for Wagner to sign contracts with the regular military appeared to be the final trigger for Prigozhin's extraordinary rebellion on June 23-24.

His mercenaries swiftly took over Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, reportedly hoping to capture Shoigu and Gerasimov. But they weren't there.

Prigozhin ordered his forces to roll toward Moscow, saying it wasn't a military coup but a "march of justice” to unseat his foes. The mercenaries downed several military aircraft en route, killing over a dozen pilots. Security forces in Moscow went on alert and checkpoints were set up on the southern outskirts.

At the height of the crisis, Putin went on TV and called the rebellion by his onetime protege a “betrayal” and “treason.” He vowed to punish those behind it.

But Prigozhin abruptly aborted the march hours later in an amnesty deal brokered by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The mercenary forces were offered a choice of moving to Belarus, retiring from service or signing contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.

Prigozhin later said he launched the uprising after he “lost his temper” in the infighting with his foes. Some commentators said he apparently hoped to persuade Putin to take his side against the military brass — a grave miscalculation.

On Aug. 23, two months to the day after the rebellion, a business jet carrying Prigozhin, 62, and his top associates crashed while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing all seven passengers and a crew of three.

State investigators have yet to say what caused the crash.

A preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment concluded there was an intentional explosion on board. Western officials pointed to a long list of Putin foes who have been assassinated.

The Kremlin has denied involvement and rejected Western allegations that Putin was behind it as an “absolute lie.”

Prigozhin was buried in his hometown of St. Petersburg in a private ceremony.

Several thousand Wagner mercenaries moved to a camp in Belarus after the mutiny. Soon after Prigozhin's death, most left that country to sign contracts with the Russian military to redeploy to Africa or return to fighting in Ukraine. Only a handful stayed in Belarus to train its military.

Russian authorities formed a Wagner successor, Africa Corps, using it to expand military cooperation with countries there. Moscow has emerged as the security partner of choice for a number of African governments, displacing traditional allies like France and the United States.

Elements of Wagner and other private security companies continue to operate in Ukraine under the control of the Defense Ministry and the Russian National Guard.

“Despite the spectacular demise of Prigozhin himself and the problems that Wagner got itself into as a result of that, the model — the idea of a private company profiting from this war — is one that is attractive to a lot of people in Russia,” said Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Prigozhin’s demise sent a chilling message to Russia's elites, helping Putin contain the damage to his authority inflicted by the rebellion.

A crackdown continued on his political foes, with many either fleeing the country or ending up in prison. His biggest opponent, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic penal colony in February.

In a stage-managed election in March, Putin won another six-year term. In a subsequent Cabinet shakeup, Putin dismissed Prigozhin’s archfoe, Shoigu, as defense minister, replacing him with Andrei Belousov, an economics expert. Shoigu, who had personal ties with Putin, was given the high-profile post of secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

“If Shoigu’s new job had been too junior, it would have been humiliating, and could have triggered such criticism of the outgoing minister as to highlight the army’s weaknesses: something to be avoided in wartime,” Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said in a commentary.

At the same time, Shoigu's entourage faced purges. A longtime associate and deputy, Timur Ivanov, and several other senior military officers were arrested on corruption charges, and other senior Defense Ministry officials lost their jobs.

Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff and another Prigozhin foe, has kept his job so far.

Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who reportedly had close ties with Prigozhin, was stripped of his post as deputy commander of forces in Ukraine and given a ceremonial position. Surovikin, credited with creating the multilayered defensive lines and fortifications that blunted Ukraine’s offensive a year ago, wasn’t dismissed altogether, and some observers suggest he could eventually be given a new military post.

FILE - A fighter of the Wagner private military force touches a sculpture of Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at his grave at the Porokhovskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Saturday, June 1, 2024. Prigozhin died in a suspicious air crash on Aug. 23, 2023, two months after launching a brief armed rebellion against the Russian military leadership. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)

FILE - A fighter of the Wagner private military force touches a sculpture of Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at his grave at the Porokhovskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Saturday, June 1, 2024. Prigozhin died in a suspicious air crash on Aug. 23, 2023, two months after launching a brief armed rebellion against the Russian military leadership. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, talks with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, left, chief of the General Staff, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu after a meeting in Moscow, Russia, on Dec. 19, 2023. An armed uprising by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023, against the military leadership dealt a blow to Putin’s authority. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, talks with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, left, chief of the General Staff, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu after a meeting in Moscow, Russia, on Dec. 19, 2023. An armed uprising by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023, against the military leadership dealt a blow to Putin’s authority. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Pallbearers carry the coffin of Dmitry Utkin, who oversaw military operations of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, during his funeral at Federal Military Memorial Cemetery in Mytishchy, Russia, on Aug. 31, 2023. Utkin died in a suspicious plane crash along with Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had launched a brief rebellion in June 2023, seeking to oust Russia’s military leadership. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Pallbearers carry the coffin of Dmitry Utkin, who oversaw military operations of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, during his funeral at Federal Military Memorial Cemetery in Mytishchy, Russia, on Aug. 31, 2023. Utkin died in a suspicious plane crash along with Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had launched a brief rebellion in June 2023, seeking to oust Russia’s military leadership. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - A young woman lights a candle as others stand at a makeshift memorial near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 29, 2023, for members of the Wagner Group military contractor killed in a plane crash. Among the 10 people killed in the crash was Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier had launched a brief rebellion against Russia’s military leadership. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - A young woman lights a candle as others stand at a makeshift memorial near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 29, 2023, for members of the Wagner Group military contractor killed in a plane crash. Among the 10 people killed in the crash was Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier had launched a brief rebellion against Russia’s military leadership. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Lights Illuminate debris of a private jet that crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino, Russia, on Aug. 24, 2023. The jet, flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, was carrying Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier launched a brief armed rebellion. Prigozhin and nine others aboard the jet were killed. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Lights Illuminate debris of a private jet that crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino, Russia, on Aug. 24, 2023. The jet, flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, was carrying Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier launched a brief armed rebellion. Prigozhin and nine others aboard the jet were killed. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - In this image taken from video, smoke rises from the crash of a private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Russia, on Aug. 23, 2023. The jet, flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, was carrying Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier launched a brief armed rebellion. Prigozhin and nine others aboard the jet were killed. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - In this image taken from video, smoke rises from the crash of a private jet near the village of Kuzhenkino, Russia, on Aug. 23, 2023. The jet, flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, was carrying Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, who two months earlier launched a brief armed rebellion. Prigozhin and nine others aboard the jet were killed. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - In this photo released by Belarus' Defense Ministry on July 20, 2023, Belarusian soldiers and mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner private military company pose for a photo amid maneuvers at a firing range near the border city of Brest, Belarus. On June 24, 2023, the private military company ended a brief rebellion against the Russian Defense Ministry that Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin accused of failing to supply his forces in Ukraine. (Belarus' Defense Ministry via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo released by Belarus' Defense Ministry on July 20, 2023, Belarusian soldiers and mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner private military company pose for a photo amid maneuvers at a firing range near the border city of Brest, Belarus. On June 24, 2023, the private military company ended a brief rebellion against the Russian Defense Ministry that Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin accused of failing to supply his forces in Ukraine. (Belarus' Defense Ministry via AP, File)

FILE - Police guard an area near an office of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 24, 2023. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a brief armed revolt against Russia's military leadership that posed the greatest challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s authority in his more than two decades in power. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Police guard an area near an office of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 24, 2023. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a brief armed revolt against Russia's military leadership that posed the greatest challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s authority in his more than two decades in power. (AP Photo, File)

FILE – Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, sit on a tank in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as residents pose for a photo near the headquarters of the Southern Military District. The private military company ended a brief rebellion against some officials in the Russian Defense Ministry whom Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin accused of not supplying his forces in Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

FILE – Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, sit on a tank in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as residents pose for a photo near the headquarters of the Southern Military District. The private military company ended a brief rebellion against some officials in the Russian Defense Ministry whom Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin accused of not supplying his forces in Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Police officers stand next to their car in an empty Red Square with St. Basil's Cathedral in the background in Moscow, Russia, on June 28, 2023. Life has returned to normal in the capital after a brief armed rebellion by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Police officers stand next to their car in an empty Red Square with St. Basil's Cathedral in the background in Moscow, Russia, on June 28, 2023. Life has returned to normal in the capital after a brief armed rebellion by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Members of the Wagner Group private military contractor sit in vehicle in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as they prepare to leave an area at the headquarters of the Southern Military District. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a rebellion that sought the ouster of Defense Ministry officials that he accused of not supplying his forces fighting in Ukraine, but he later called it off. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Members of the Wagner Group private military contractor sit in vehicle in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as they prepare to leave an area at the headquarters of the Southern Military District. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a rebellion that sought the ouster of Defense Ministry officials that he accused of not supplying his forces fighting in Ukraine, but he later called it off. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - The top Russian military commander in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a meeting at an unknown location on Dec. 17, 2022, with President Vladimir Putin during his visit to troops fighting in Ukraine. Surovikin, who reportedly had close ties with Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, was stripped of his post as deputy commander of forces in Ukraine after the brief uprising by Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - The top Russian military commander in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a meeting at an unknown location on Dec. 17, 2022, with President Vladimir Putin during his visit to troops fighting in Ukraine. Surovikin, who reportedly had close ties with Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, was stripped of his post as deputy commander of forces in Ukraine after the brief uprising by Prigozhin on June 23-24, 2023. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on monitors in Moscow, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as he addresses the nation after a brief rebellion by mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. The mercenary group had taken over a military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. Putin denounced the rebellion by his onetime protege as a "betrayal" and "treason." (Pavel Bednyakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on monitors in Moscow, Russia, on June 24, 2023, as he addresses the nation after a brief rebellion by mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. The mercenary group had taken over a military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. Putin denounced the rebellion by his onetime protege as a "betrayal" and "treason." (Pavel Bednyakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

ILE - Mercenaries of Russia's Wagner Group load a tank onto a truck in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, following a brief rebellion led by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. He had accused Defense Ministry officials of denying support to his fighters in Ukraine. The troops had taken over Russia's southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and headed for Moscow but aborted the rebellion, which still undermined Putin's image of power. Prigozhin was killed two months later in a mysterious plane crash. (Vasily Deryugin/Kommersant Publishing House via AP, File)

ILE - Mercenaries of Russia's Wagner Group load a tank onto a truck in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023, following a brief rebellion led by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. He had accused Defense Ministry officials of denying support to his fighters in Ukraine. The troops had taken over Russia's southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and headed for Moscow but aborted the rebellion, which still undermined Putin's image of power. Prigozhin was killed two months later in a mysterious plane crash. (Vasily Deryugin/Kommersant Publishing House via AP, File)

FILE - Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral at the Beloostrovskoye Cemetery outside St. Petersburg, Russia, on Dec. 24, 2022, of Dmitry Menshikov, one of his mercenaries who died fighting in Ukraine. Prigozhin made his name as the profane and brutal mercenary boss who in June 2023 mounted a brief armed rebellion that was the most serious challenge to the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral at the Beloostrovskoye Cemetery outside St. Petersburg, Russia, on Dec. 24, 2022, of Dmitry Menshikov, one of his mercenaries who died fighting in Ukraine. Prigozhin made his name as the profane and brutal mercenary boss who in June 2023 mounted a brief armed rebellion that was the most serious challenge to the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves a meal to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, at a restaurant outside Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 11, 2011. Prigozhin, an ex-convict, owned a restaurant in St. Petersburg where the Russian leader took foreign leaders, earning him the nickname of "Putin's chef." He won lucrative catering contracts and later started a private military company. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, Pool, File)

FILE - Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves a meal to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, at a restaurant outside Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 11, 2011. Prigozhin, an ex-convict, owned a restaurant in St. Petersburg where the Russian leader took foreign leaders, earning him the nickname of "Putin's chef." He won lucrative catering contracts and later started a private military company. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, Pool, File)

FILE - Yevgeny Prigozhin, right, head of the Wagner private military contractor, poses for a photo with a civilian in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023. Prigozhin’s mercenary army had briefly seized a military headquarters in the city and started marching toward Moscow to oust the Defense Ministry's leaders, but then called it off. He had accused the Defense Ministry of starving his forces of ammunition in Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Yevgeny Prigozhin, right, head of the Wagner private military contractor, poses for a photo with a civilian in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023. Prigozhin’s mercenary army had briefly seized a military headquarters in the city and started marching toward Moscow to oust the Defense Ministry's leaders, but then called it off. He had accused the Defense Ministry of starving his forces of ammunition in Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The 20-year-old man who tried to assassinate former President Donald Trump first came to law enforcement’s attention at Saturday's rally when spectators noticed him acting strangely outside the campaign event. The tip sparked a frantic search but officers were unable to find him before he managed to get on a roof, where he opened fire.

In the wake of the shooting that killed one spectator, investigators were hunting for any clues about what may have drove Thomas Matthew Crooks, of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, to carry out the shocking attack. The FBI said they were investigating it as a potential act of domestic terrorism, but the absence of a clear ideological motive by the man shot dead by Secret Service led conspiracy theories to flourish.

“I urge everyone — everyone, please, don’t make assumptions about his motives or his affiliations," President Joe Biden said in remarks Sunday from the White House. “Let the FBI do their job, and their partner agencies do their job. I’ve instructed that this investigation be thorough and swift.”

The FBI said it believes Crooks, who had bomb-making materials in the car he drove to the rally, acted alone. Investigators have found no threatening comments on social media accounts or ideological positions that could help explain what led him to target Trump before Secret Service rushed the presumptive Republican presidential nominee off the stage, his face smeared with blood.

Trump said on social media the upper part of his right ear was pierced in the shooting, but advisers said he was “great spirits" ahead of his arrival Sunday in Milwaukee for the Republican National Convention. Two spectators were critically injured, while a former fire chief from the area, Corey Comperatore was killed. Pennsylvania's governor said Comperatore, 50, died a hero by diving onto his family to protect them.

Relatives of Crooks didn’t respond to numerous messages from The Associated Press. His father, Matthew Crooks, told CNN late Saturday that he was trying to figure out “what the hell is going on” but wouldn’t speak about his son until after he talked to law enforcement. An FBI official told reporters that Crooks' family is cooperating with investigators.

Several rallygoers reported to local officers that Crooks was acting suspiciously and pacing near the magnetometers, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation. Officers were then told Crooks was climbing a ladder, the official said. Officers searched for him but were unable to find him before he made it to the roof, the official added.

Butler County Sheriff Michael Slupe told the AP that a local officer climbed to the roof and encountered Crooks, who saw the officer and turned toward him just before the officer dropped down to safety. Slupe said the officer couldn’t have wielded his own gun under the circumstances. The officer retreated down the ladder, and Crooks quickly took a shot toward Trump, and that’s when Secret Service snipers shot him, according to two officials who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

FBI officials said Sunday that they were combing Crooks' background and social media activities while working to get access to his phone. The chatting app Discord, a social media platform popular with people playing online games, said Crooks appears to have had an account but used it rarely and not in the last several months. There's no evidence he used his account to promote violence or discuss his political views, a Discord spokesperson said.

Crooks’ political leanings were not immediately clear. Records show Crooks was registered as a Republican voter in Pennsylvania, but federal campaign finance reports also show he gave $15 to a progressive political action committee on Jan. 20, 2021, the day Biden was sworn into office.

Crooks graduated from Bethel Park High School in 2022. In a video of the school’s graduation ceremony posted online, Crooks can be seen crossing the stage to receive his diploma, appearing slight of build and wearing glasses. The school district said it will cooperate fully with investigators. His senior year, Crooks was among several students given an award for math and science, according to a Tribune-Review story at the time.

Crooks tried out for the school's rifle team but was turned away because he was a bad shooter, said Frederick Mach, a current captain of the team who was a few years behind Crooks at the school.

Jason Kohler, who said he attended the same high school but did not share any classes with Crooks, said Crooks was bullied at school and sat alone at lunch time. Other students mocked him for the clothes he wore, which included hunting outfits, Kohler said.

“He was bullied almost every day,” Kohler told reporters. “He was just a outcast, and you know how kids are nowadays.”

Crooks worked at a nursing home as a dietary aide, a job that generally involves food preparation. Marcie Grimm, the administrator of Bethel Park Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation, said in a statement she was “shocked and saddened to learn of his involvement.” Grimm added that Crooks had a clean background check when he was hired.

A blockade had been set up Sunday preventing traffic near Crooks’ house, which is in an enclave of modest brick houses in the hills outside Pittsburgh and about an hour's drive from the site of the Trump rally. Police cars were stationed at an intersection near the house and officers were seen walking through the neighborhood.

Crooks used an AR-style rifle, which authorities said they believe was purchased by his father. Kevin Rojek, FBI special agent in charge in Pittsburgh, said that investigators do not yet know if he took the gun without his father's permission.

A video posted to social media and geolocated by AP shows Crooks wearing a gray t-shirt with a black American flag on the right arm lying motionless on the roof of a manufacturing plant just north of the Butler Farm Show grounds where Trump’s rally was held.

The roof where Crooks lay was less than 150 meters (164 yards) from where Trump was speaking, a distance from which a decent marksman could reasonably hit a human-sized target. That is a distance at which U.S. Army recruits must hit a scaled human-sized silhouette to qualify with the M-16 rifle.

Images of Crooks’ body reviewed by AP show he appears to have been wearing a T-shirt from Demolition Ranch, a popular YouTube channel that regularly posts videos of its creator firing off handguns and assault rifles at targets that include human mannequins.

Matt Carriker, the Texas-based creator of Demolition Ranch, did not respond to a phone message or email on Sunday, but posted a photo of Crooks' bloody corpse wearing his brand's T-shirt on social media with the comment “What the hell.”

Mustian reported from New York and Balsamo reported from Chicago. Associated Press writers Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Julie Smyth and Joshua Bickel in Bethel Park, Michael R. Sisak and Randy Herschaft in New York, Michael Kunzelman in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Colleen Long and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.

This 2021 photo provided by Bethel Park School District shows student Thomas Matthew Crooks who graduated from Bethel Park High School with the Class of 2022, in Bethel Park, Pa. Crooks was identified by the FBI as the shooter involved in an assassination attempt of former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa. (Bethel Park School District via AP)

This 2021 photo provided by Bethel Park School District shows student Thomas Matthew Crooks who graduated from Bethel Park High School with the Class of 2022, in Bethel Park, Pa. Crooks was identified by the FBI as the shooter involved in an assassination attempt of former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa. (Bethel Park School District via AP)

This June 3, 2022 still image taken from video provided by the Bethel Park School District shows student Thomas Matthew Crooks in the 2022 Bethel Park High School Commencement in Bethel Park, Pa. (The Bethel Park School District via AP)

This June 3, 2022 still image taken from video provided by the Bethel Park School District shows student Thomas Matthew Crooks in the 2022 Bethel Park High School Commencement in Bethel Park, Pa. (The Bethel Park School District via AP)

A campaign rally site for Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is empty and littered with debris Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A campaign rally site for Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is empty and littered with debris Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Law enforcement block a street in Bethel Park, Pa., that they say is near a residence of Thomas Matthew Crooks, the suspected shooter of former President Donald Trump, Sunday, July 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)

Law enforcement block a street in Bethel Park, Pa., that they say is near a residence of Thomas Matthew Crooks, the suspected shooter of former President Donald Trump, Sunday, July 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is helped off the stage by U.S. Secret Service agents at a campaign event in Butler, Pa., on Saturday, July 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is helped off the stage by U.S. Secret Service agents at a campaign event in Butler, Pa., on Saturday, July 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

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