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In election year, a federal focus on sovereign citizen movement

Jill Burke
Aaron Jansen illustration

In an era when Barack Obama, a president viewed as radically liberal by the extreme right, prepares to seek a second term, an anti-government movement poses an increasing threat to law enforcement and government workers, according to the FBI.

These self-described sovereign citizen extremists believe they live outside the law -- that they are purer souls caught in a corrupt governmental and societal scheme that they equate with tyranny. Resisting this evil is a duty to God, justifying any actions -- even violent ones -- they believe they must take.

In Alaska, it's unknown how many sovereign citizens belong to the Fairbanks-based Alaska Peacemakers Militia. Its jailed leader, Schaeffer Cox, once bragged he had a force of 3,500 people at the ready. He warned local law enforcement and the courts that his militia had them outmanned and outgunned.

But after his indictment on federal weapons and conspiracy charges stemming from an alleged plot to kill judges and law enforcement officers, conversations recorded by a militia infiltrator show Cox and his handful of known followers readily admit his boasted ranks were a bluff.

Cox and others arrested with him deny any wrongdoing. But they don't shy away from expressing what they believe. And because of that, lawyers for some of the defendants claim the Feds are conducting what amounts to a witch hunt against the Peacemakers because they are known sovereign citizens.

There is no doubt law enforcement has grown more vigilant in recent years, but "we are not investigating an ideology," says Kathleen Wright, a special agent at the FBI's Washington, D.C., headquarters. "We are not interested in people who believe in the ideology. It's only when they step over the line, commit a crime, that we have the potential to get involved."

The Anti-Defamation League describes the sovereign citizen movement as a sister to the militia movement, yet notes both are growing and there is often cross-over between the two. And while the sovereign movement has origins in white supremacy, many younger followers have broken away from racism, as had Cox and his group, according to a trusted member of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia. Instead, they're angry about a host of perceived sociopolitical corruptions: a court system gone awry, stolen wealth, oppressive debt, abortion rights, impending societal collapse.

It is against this backdrop that America's first black president will ask voters to send him back to the White House in November. But his skin color may have much less to do with the disdain "sovereign nations" have for him than his political views, if history is any indication.

"My personal gut tells me it is less about race and more about the economy and a liberal president, and all the big government that comes along with having a Democrat in office," says Steven Chermak, an associate professor of criminology at Michigan State University and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terror.

'Germinating in the mainstream'

The uptick in today's sovereign extremism parallels a similar surge experienced when another Democrat was elected to the presidency, in 1992.

Both Obama and former President Bill Clinton have been seen as antitheses of Republican presidents who preceded them, viewed by detractors as symbols of a big and evil government, contributors to America's social ills. While political candidates have the potential to agitate unhappy citizens, candidates from any end of the spectrum can inspire ire, as long as they belong to the system that extremists loathe.

"To the extent that sovereign citizens don't believe the government is legitimate, (elections) keep complaints about the government on the front pages," says Brian Levin, a criminologist, civil rights attorney and professor who studies extremism and hate crime and serves as director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

"The militia movement had its genesis with Ruby Ridge, which happened under the Bush administration. Certainly they don't like leftwing folks, but anyone that is participating in the political mainstream can be in their crosshairs," Levin adds.

Sovereign citizens rely on their historic and religious beliefs to align themselves with the philosophies and ethics of the founding fathers, men fueled by spiritual passion who sought a society free from the oppressive grip of an entitled royalty. In this fledgling new society, people would be free to define themselves and pursue their own relationship with God.

In modern America, however, sovereigns believe government has warped into a malicious form of tyranny, enslaving Americans who are duped in believing they are free. Reclaiming or asserting freedom is viewed nothing less than righteous, holy war. Many sovereign citizens will fight peacefully. But some seek gun battles, bombings and other lethal means to further the war, and religious zealots are the most difficult to deter.

"The whole basis of the sovereign citizen movement is that you do not need to be validated by the present government to have your rights. You have them on your own, you operate on your own authority," Levin says. "This is something that has been going on for a long time."

While the conspiracy theories on which many sovereign beliefs are centered have withstood decades of iterations, there are differences between groups active now and those seen in the Clinton era.

For starters, more Americans rely on the Internet.

Indeed, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was barely a preteen when Clinton took office in the early 1990s, and the social network wouldn't be invented until a few years after Clinton left the White House. YouTube came of age about the same time. Social networking has allowed outsiders to connect and spread their message, as well as help them readily infuse the political process with new ideas, new voices and agendas.

"We are seeing fragments that come out of the extremist movement actually germinating in the mainstream," says Levin, citing the tea party as an example.

Ironically, although the newest generation of sovereign citizens is connected through social networking, the movement is actually more splintered than in past decades, he says. Gone are the two main "glues" that helped sovereigns coalesce in the 1990s: major violent events and major players.

"You have fewer charismatic leaders in today's movement. But you don't really have a catalyst of a violent event to really galvanize people, like Waco or Ruby Ridge," he says.

In 2009, Schaeffer Cox was on a speaker's junket, and the self-made militia leader from Fairbanks, Alaska, was a rising star among people fed up with the Feds. From Chicago to Missoula, Mont., he spoke at liberty rallies, protests and seminars. He was both forthright and brazen. Part showman, part preacher, he was a man with a message: "This is war!"

But even Cox doesn't make the cut as a "major player," according to Levin.

"There are plenty of charismatic people who can fill a garage. I'm talking about the old clan leaders who could actually foment a national movement. We don't have that," Levin says.

The Anti-Defamation League estimates there may be hundreds of thousands of sovereign citizens within the U.S. Of those, Levin believes only a tiny fraction has the potential to be radicalized. Instead, most in the extremist movement are all talk, using their shared views as ways to bond.

Still, the Anti-Defamation League, FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center have all reported a rising trend in deadly violence embraced by sovereign citizens.

'A buffet of conspiracies'

Crime trends among sovereign citizens include mortgage scams, fraudulent liens, tax evasion and failing to obtain official licenses and permits. They also will reject or deny birth certificates and Social Security cards, driver's licenses and license plates, believing them to be documents the U.S. uses to control and monitor them.

Regional groups of sovereign citizens reject government authority and may instead attempt to engage local, state and federal governments as foreign dignitaries, self-appointed commanders and ambassadors of other republics or assemblies. They are preparing for government collapse, ready to install their own government to fill the void, keep order and defend their families and neighborhoods, principles Schaeffer Cox espouses.

The rhetoric of sovereign citizens is often long-winded and enmeshed in elaborate conspiracy theories. Many reject tax collection, and will use a bizarre style of complex legal language to file liens, reject court proceedings and warn of their own impending criminal actions -- arrests of judges, sheriffs, etc. -- if local government authorities don't get off their back. To the FBI and groups that monitor violence, these voluminous filings amount to "paper terrorism" that can clog court systems and ruin people's credit reports.

Many sovereigns boast big about their firepower, government takeovers, and train like soldiers for some looming threat. Much of the rhetoric is protected as free speech. But talking about takeovers and making direct threats accompanied by taking steps to carry them out are not the same thing.

The challenge for law enforcement is to foretell who will take the leap. Extremists who act spontaneously and on their own may be the most troublesome of all.

What worries law enforcement is how much more strain it takes to provoke an already-lawless sovereign to violent action. Because this "tipping point" is difficult to ascertain, the FBI is taking a broad, closer look at criminals who also subscribe to sovereign citizen ideology, says Wright, the FBI special agent.

It may be a tall order.

Among the nation's major social and political institutions, there is a great disenfranchisement, Levin says, causing sovereigns to undertake an "idiosyncratic heaping" from the "buffet of conspiracies about what's gone wrong and the illegitimacy of government."

"There are a lot of unhappy people out there. The hard thing is, you have the atmospherics, the anger pointing that direction. The question is, is there someone out there -- a lone wolf or a small cell -- that has the capability of doing something," Levin says.

With access to weaponry and know-how, the threat is possibly greater today than in the past. But Levin says the question remains: "Are those who are most unstable able to operationally take advantage of it?"

Why do sovereign citizens turn violent?

It was a deadly confrontation in June 2010 with a father and son who had declared themselves to be sovereign citizens that signaled to the FBI that the ante had just been upped. Jerry Kane and his 16-year-old son fired upon officers during a traffic stop, killing two of them. The Kanes were later killed in a gun fight with police as they tried to flee.

"We were already taking a look at criminal activity committed by those who espouse sovereign citizen ideology. When the Kane shooting happened, it was sort of the crux for us that said 'Yes, we need to take a closer look,'" Wright said.

Earlier in 2010, a pair of sovereign citizens were charged with financial crimes after an FBI sting found they laundered more than $1.3 million dollars in Nevada. One of the men, Shawn Rice, had remained a fugitive until just before Christmas 2011, when he was arrested after a 10-hour standoff at his Arizona home. Also in December, a family of sovereign citizens from North Dakota was taken into custody after chasing a sheriff off their property at gunpoint. A predator drone was flown during the arrest to help officers pinpoint where the Brossart family was located on a 3,000-acre farm and whether its members were armed.

In the 49th state, the FBI was secretly investigating the Alaska Peacemakers Militia at least dating back to mid-2010. Was Schaeffer Cox -- the boyish-looking, spiritually inspired orator from the group -- on his way to bringing about a violent event before he was arrested in March last year?

Cox had been part of the movement for several years. In 2009, he attended a convention called Continental Congress 2009, which appears to be a modern incarnation of a previous 3rd Continental Congress, identified by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism as a "right-wing reactionary" terrorist organization. Cox went to CC2009 as an Alaska delegate and was a featured speaker. He also appeared at events in Illinois, Idaho and Montana in support of militias, presenting his lengthy speech "The Solution."

He became active with several groups, including the Interior Alaska Conservative Coalition, the pro-gun rights 2nd Amendment Task Force, the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, the Liberty Bell Network, the "Several States of the USA," and local and national chapters of the Assembly Post.

When he was charged with possession of a concealed weapon at a crime scene -- Cox had gone to the site to be a watchful eye as police served a search warrant on a Liberty Bell member -- he disputed the charges and the proceedings. Things eventually got so out of hand that Cox had convened a "common law court" at a local Denny's, where a jury of like-minded sovereigns acquitted him of all charges. When he later missed a state court date in the case, an arrest warrant was issued for him and Cox went into hiding.

Convinced the government was after him, prosecutors say Cox had convinced his cohorts to commit to a plan of resistance. He pledged he wouldn't go down gently. The group stockpiled weapons while Cox made an out-of-state escape plan. He clothed himself and his wife in bulletproof vests, and readied his men to take on anyone who might come their way. A defense plan known as "2-4-1" was developed -- for every militia member captured or killed, the militia would do the same to twice as many members of law enforcement. The group had researched home addresses on officers, and openly threatened state and federal judges.  

Cox also claimed the state was using another tactic to get at him -- the Office of Children's Services.

He feared the state would try to take his child, and he feared arrest. He was and remains convinced the government was out to stop him at any cost to silence his outspoken anti-government views.

According to analysts of the sovereign movement, these are among the stressors that have in recent years provoked otherwise peaceful sovereigns to commit acts of violence. Threats to one's family or of incarceration, along with tax problems or financial woes, can become clarion calls to resist government.

Government agents are on the lookout, something sovereign citizens seem keenly aware of. And cases like Cox's -- where a member is jailed and charged -- fuels their "government is corrupt" beliefs. But while Cox's case is among the more recent involving sovereigns accused of deadly plots around the nation, it remains to be seen whether more will surface during the 2012 presidential election.

"I do think an election year brings out people and brings out the worst in people. But there also has to be some kind of defining, significant event, like a Waco," says terror expert Steven Chermak. "In this particular case, if (Cox) was going to go down shooting, it could have been one of those events. But law enforcement has pretty much wised up about how to bring these guys in."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com