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UC Berkeley firebomb suspect was star pitcher, family threw huge July 4 parties

How did a promising young athlete become a suspected campus arsonist?

The image features a man's face in the center surrounded by a damaged police car, newspaper clippings, an image of a sports player, fireworks, and a cityscape.
Casey Goonan was arrested in June on suspicion of a string of arson attacks at UC Berkeley. | Source: Illustration by Clark Miller for The Standard; Photos courtesy Ariel Nava; Alameda County Sheriff's Office; Oakland Tribune; Adobe stock; Unsplash

Way before Casey Goonan was accused of firebombing a cop car in a pro-Palestinian protest—and years before he described America as a “fascist hellhole” in online posts—he was a star high school pitcher and wide receiver.

His family also threw huge July 4 block parties that got so popular they had to stop hosting them.

So when 34-year-old Goonan was arrested last month on suspicion of torching two lawns, a construction site and a police vehicle at UC Berkeley, former friends and neighbors said they were shocked. This was not the man they knew. 

To them, Goonan was a standout athlete who used to rock out in battle of the bands competitions. He was, for all intents and purposes, a “normal” kid from a loving family.

Long removed from his high school days, Goonan now faces criminal charges for his alleged act of protest. The Alameda County District Attorney said Wednesday the feds are taking over the case. A spokesperson for the U.S. Office of the Attorney General declined to provide further details.

“Mr. Goonan intends to enter a not guilty plea to the federal charges and fight these allegations,” said Jeff Wozniak, Goonan’s lawyer.

Goonan also faces separate felony charges for wielding a hammer outside a San Francisco women’s conference that critics deemed anti-transgender. He has pleaded not guilty in that case.

Goonan’s family declined to comment for this story.

‘He was the man’

Goonan’s neighbors in Pleasant Hill, where he lives with his parents, said they were baffled by his arrest and online writings. After all, his family once hosted famous July 4 barbecues.

“People came from all over,” said a longtime neighbor who did not want to be named because he was close with the family. “They’re good people.” 

The image shows a street scene under a large metal arch reading "PLEASANT HILL," with trees, parked cars, buildings, and a clear blue sky in the background.
Goonan’s neighbors in Pleasant Hill, where he lives with his parents, say they were baffled by his arrest and online writings. | Source: Courtesy Google Street View

The parties in the quiet neighborhood became so well-known that strangers from other streets would wander over. None of the neighbors would give their names to The Standard for privacy reasons.

One neighbor said she went to the parties years ago, and spoke fondly of the fireworks and food.

“They’ve all been outstanding people,” another neighbor said of the Goonans. “The arrest was a shock.”

Goonan’s mother has posted photos cheering on the 49ers, including an “I wanna Brock ‘n’ roll all night and Purdy every day” T-shirt. Goonan’s father works for a construction company that has built buildings at UC Berkeley.

“Nowadays, you just don’t know,” a neighbor said. “You see kids go off to college and you wonder where they picked this stuff up.”

Wozniak noted that the Goonans have not hosted a July 4 party since 2004.

One of Goonan’s high school football teammates said he couldn’t believe the news reports were about the Goonan he knew until he saw the mugshot.

“It’s a shock,” said the teammate, who didn’t want to give his name for privacy reasons. “I’m just baffled why he would get himself involved in something like that.”

He described Goonan as outgoing, friendly and said he couldn’t recall his former teammate being involved in any kind of activism.

“He was the man,” he added. “I guess you could consider him a stud.”

The image shows a black-and-white photograph of a football game from a local sports section. A player, number 11, runs toward the end zone after catching a pass.
Casey Goonan scores a touchdown for the College Park High School football team in 2007. | Source: Courtesy Oakland Tribune/

Online records show Goonan made the varsity football roster as a wideout in his sophomore year, posting seven receptions for 98 yards in the 2005 season. Two years later, the 6’3” and 185 lbs senior helped lead his team to a 9-3 season as one of the squad’s top receivers, according to his former teammate and online records.

He was even better at baseball. In 2008, local newspapers described Goonan as a dominant pitcher who led his school to its first-ever sectional championship. The East Bay Times quoted an opposing coach remarking that Goonan had a “good curveball” and “pounded us inside.”

Another story in the Times detailed a high school battle of the bands competition that Goonan entered with his thrash metal band “Killit.”

‘God-awful fascist hellhole’

After high school, Goonan briefly studied political science and communications at a local community college, where a 2010 media guide lists him as a freshman on the baseball team.

But by 2011, he had transferred to UC Riverside and was pursuing a degree in ethnic studies—and began his first recorded work as an activist. 

In 2012, a newspaper wrote that Goonan, now 22, was a spokesperson for an activist organization called the UC Riverside Prison Industrial Complex Action Group. Goonan was protesting outside Pelican Bay State Prison, calling for the abolition of prisons.

A man in a beige shirt stands in front of a wooden bookshelf filled with various books. The caption reads: "Dylan Rodriguez, Professor, UC Riverside; Founding Member, Critical Resistance."
UC Riverside Professor Dylan Rodriguez studies the “collective genius of rebellion, survival, and insurgent futurity that radically challenge dominant forms of authority," according to his university bio. He described Goonan as a "dear friend" in a recent webinar after his arrest. | Source: Courtesy YouTube

Goonan dedicated the majority of his later academic and activist life to railing against the American prison system.

At UC Riverside, Goonan studied at least in part under Professor Dylan Rodriguez, who led the ethnic studies department at the time.

In a June 18 webinar this year, Rodriguez described Goonan as a “former student” and “dear friend” and expressed his “strongest, deepest, unqualified solidarity” with Goonan after his arrest.

“We all believe that he will be liberated and released in due time,” Rodriguez said. “The repression that Casey is facing represents a primary counterinsurgency strategy.”

The image is a side-by-side comparison of two photos of the same man. The left shows him with disheveled hair in a serious expression, and the right shows him smiling in academic regalia.
Casey Goonan, left, following his arrest last month on suspicion of torching two lawns, a construction site and a police vehicle at UC Berkeley, Goonan after his graduation from Northwestern in 2022, right. | Source: Courtesy Alameda County Sheriff's Office

Rodriguez, who did not reply to multiple requests for comment, studies the “collective genius of rebellion, survival, and insurgent futurity that radically challenge dominant forms of authority,” according to a university bio.

He has written extensively about the U.S. prison system, and he and Goonan have collaborated on academic works since Goonan graduated UC Riverside in 2013 and began pursuing his master’s and PhD at Northwestern University. A UC Riverside spokesperson declined to comment.

While at Northwestern, Goonan co-founded a self-described “radical publishing collective” that mailed literature to imprisoned people for free and organized student groups that mailed letters to inmates. 

Online bios from the time note that he was an aspiring college professor and “a white abolitionist/anti-imperialist scholar activist.” His master’s and doctoral theses, both in African American studies, examine the American prison system. 

A sign on a metal fence reads, "You are now entering Northwestern Liberated zone," with a Palestinian flag drawn below it. A red bike is also secured to the fence.
Goonan attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. | Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In one journal article, Goonan called for large protests outside American prisons to “make a spectacle of this atrocity prison crisis since everything else in this god-awful fascist hell hole seems to be concealed under the blinders of white supremacist American reason.”

“Casey got his PhD! Onto job apps,” Goonan’s mother posted to Instagram in 2022.

‘This is so brave of Casey’

News of Goonan’s arrest has garnered him considerable support—and admiration—from pro-Palestinian activist groups.

The student protesters who occupied a building at Columbia University wore “Free Casey Goonan” T-shirts at a recent press conference.

“This is direct repression and counter insurgency against the movement to liberate Gaza,” one group wrote on Instagram.


Another group on X described the UC Berkeley arson as “logical” and “righteous,” writing that “even if the person arrested is innocent, the entire Palestine solidarity movement should be supporting them as if they truly did take bold and heroic actions.”

A group of people, some wearing masks and headscarves, stand in front of a tall building holding up peace signs and wearing "Free Casey Conan" shirts.
An Instagram post by National Students for Justice in Palestine shows protesters calling for Goonan to be freed.

An organization called Palestine Action US—which previously lauded protestors who released a thousand crickets and clogged toilets in a Puma store because they said the company sells products in Israel—said that Goonan has opted not to post bail in a June 15 statement.

“This is so brave of Casey,” one commenter on the post wrote. “The bail money will simply go towards funding the criminal justice system/prison-industrial complex further.”

Tomoki Chien can be reached at