In the years since he founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, Stewart Rhodes has made a bold claim: Within the ranks of his sprawling anti-government militia are thousands of retired and active law enforcement officers.
Rhodes’ organization embraces wild conspiracy theories. Like the Three Percenters and other militia groups, the Oath Keepers refuse to recognize the authority of the federal government. Instead, many inside the movement claim that local sheriffs and police chiefs are the highest-ranking officials in America and that the Constitution is the only legitimate law governing the United States. It is part of a broader militia movement that has proven to be a breeding ground for racism and domestic terrorism.
It’s been difficult to figure out whether Rhodes’ claims were real or simply bluster, because of the secretive nature of the movement and because cops tend to keep their militia affiliations quiet, fearing disciplinary action.
However, over the last year, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting identified almost 150 current and retired cops who were members of Facebook groups run by and for Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and other militias. These law enforcement officers are a subset of a larger contingent of cops we identified as members of Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or other extremist groups on Facebook.
We were able to identify cops in these groups by writing software to scour Facebook for connections between users who belonged to both extremist and law enforcement groups on the platform, then verifying the identities and professions of active-duty and retired officers. (Read more about our methodology here.)
Our analysis includes some of the most extensive evidence yet that militias are drawing support – and membership – from within American law enforcement. These connections place a number of American cops on a collision course with the federal government.
Daryl Johnson, a security consultant who spent six years as the senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, said the presence of militia members in police and sheriff departments should concern every chief and sheriff in the country.
“At a bare minimum, just think about operational security or counterintelligence or insider threats,” Johnson said. “Most of these militia members have sworn an oath to a body that’s separate to their department. If they’re called on to investigate or arrest a fellow member of that militia group, or if they have insider information about police tactics or equipment or training, then where do their loyalties lie?”
‘When the Collapse comes they will call them all out to kill Americans’
The Oath Keepers and Three Percenters both say they’re the last line of defense against a new world order seeking to enslave everyday Americans. They promote the conspiracy theory that the federal government is controlled by a mysterious elitist cabal, which plans to take away Americans’ guns, overthrow local governments and install martial law over citizens, including setting up concentration camps to kill dissenters.
Militia groups want cops to join because they have guns, experience and training that will prove invaluable when, as their ideology contends, America’s next civil war begins.
Threaded into this worldview is the idea that military personnel and law enforcement officers represent the final word on the Constitution. Members of the Oath Keepers pledge to follow the group’s orders and bylaws over those of their own agencies or politicians.
The extent to which some cops have embraced the conspiracy theories pushed by militia leaders is on display inside the closed Facebook groups we joined.
For example, Greg McWhirter, a sheriff’s deputy at the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office in Montana and a member of at least 15 militia-connected Facebook groups, posted a video of Rhodes in the Facebook group “Idaho Oath Keepers” earlier this year. The clip touts a conspiracy theory that the left is trying to flood America with immigrants who will vote for Democrats and upset the balance of power.
McWhirter also has appeared in one of Rhodes’ official Oath Keepers videos, giving fellow militia members advice on how to patrol voting stations after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump warned, without evidence, that the 2016 election would be rigged. Without revealing where McWhirter works, Rhodes introduced him as a member of the group’s national board of directors and a “peace officer liaison.”
“What this is, is a video tutorial from our experienced police officers,” Rhodes says in the video. “We’re asking you to go out as part of our call to action to go and hunt down and look for vote fraud.”
In the closed Facebook group “Central New York Oathkeepers,” under a story about the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordering submachine guns, former New York Police Department Sgt. John Mahoney asked a reasonable question:
“Why? Why would the Department of Agriculture require Sub-Machine Guns? Whom are they planning to shoot???”
Another former NYPD cop and group member, Pearse Columb, had an answer:
“They are arming ALL these depts because when the Collapse comes they will call them all out to kill Americans that have no food and the money is worthless.”
Reached by phone, Mahoney said he still is involved with the Oath Keepers, which he described as an honorable group. He said he doesn’t agree with the actions of all Oath Keepers, but said the organization’s principles are sound.
Columb didn’t respond to several calls for comment.
Valerie Van Brocklin, a former federal prosecutor who trains police departments and other public employees on social media use, said many police officers mistakenly believe that they can say whatever they want in their spare time.
“Most cops think that if they’re off-duty and using their own computer, then they have their First Amendment rights,” Van Brocklin said.
But it’s not as simple as that, she said. Police departments have codes of conduct and ethics, and many have developed specific social media policies that employees must abide by, even when they’re not working. It’s all part of the long-standing concept of “conduct unbecoming a police officer,” she said.
‘They hate Muslims and they hate immigrants and they hate the government’
The American militia movement’s rise has been fed by white supremacy, conspiracy theories and bigotry.
The first wave of modern militias was sparked by the 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, during which federal agents surrounded a rural family’s home after charging the family patriarch, Randy Weaver, with weapons violations. Weaver was a white supremacist who attended meetings of the Aryan Nations – facts that were somewhat lost in the ensuing shootout, in which Weaver’s son and wife were killed by federal agents. Weaver became an overnight cause célèbre for conspiracy theorists who, convinced that Ruby Ridge marked a watershed moment for American liberty, started preparing for a coming civil war.
Militia growth sped up in the aftermath of the botched federal siege at the Branch Davidian religious sect compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, then slowed after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, carried out by an anti-government terrorist steeped in the militia movement.
Recent years have seen more heated standoffs between militia groups and federal law enforcement, and militia groups have been widening their targets beyond the federal government and toward immigrants and Muslim Americans.
In 2008, with the election of Barack Obama as president, militia groups began actively recruiting again, spurred on by the racist “birther” movement, which questioned Obama’s nationality and thus his legitimacy as president. Both the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers were founded out of the fear that he was about to start taking away Americans’ guns. The two groups now are the largest and most well-known organizations in a crowded field of militia groups that vary from clubs of just a few people to thousands-strong collectives.
The Three Percenters, founded by an Alabama gun rights activist, is a loosely affiliated organization with no linear leadership. Named for the highly contested theory that only 3 percent of Americans took up arms against the British during the Revolutionary War – most historians believe the number was significantly higher – the group concentrates on Second Amendment issues.
The core principle of the Oath Keepers is that members take an oath to defend the Constitution above all else. The group describes its aims in theoretically reasonable terms, noting on its website that enlisted military personnel are obligated to refuse any order that “is not constitutional or according to regulations” and listing a “declaration of orders we will not obey,” which includes orders to disarm American citizens, impose martial law or set up concentration camps in U.S. cities.
However, in practice, the group’s actions have proved problematic, giving militia members justification to take the law into their own hands, often at gunpoint and often in conflict with law enforcement agencies assigned to keep Americans safe.
In April, the militia group United Constitutional Patriots began detaining hundreds of border-crossers at gunpoint before handing them over to U.S. Border Patrol agents. The group had received a visit from Rhodes, the Oath Keepers founder, a month before. After news spread of the group’s actions, the FBI arrested its leader and the local police department kicked the militia out of its campsite.
In 2014, the Oath Keepers and other militia groups flocked to Nevada to aid a family, the Bundys, which had for years grazed its cattle on federally managed land without paying legally mandated fees. Despite years of legal wrangling and courts’ repeated rejection of the Bundys’ claim of a constitutional right to graze cattle on the land for free, militia members took the position that they, not the courts or the federal government, were the final word on the claim.
In Oregon two years later, militia members – including Oath Keepers – gathered again to protect two ranchers who had been found guilty of arson for setting fires on federal land and had been ordered to report to prison to serve their sentences. Again, the justification militia members gave for rallying to the ranchers’ aid already had been rejected numerous times by the courts. In the end, a lawyer for the ranchers wrote to the local sheriff saying that the militia members did not represent his clients’ views and that they didn’t want their help.
Beyond these high-profile clashes with local, state and federal governments, militia members also have taken to supporting racist and violent causes.
These groups have become highly visible at rallies organized by white supremacist groups, most notably the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. And since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, anti-government militias have spawned domestic terrorists. In the last 15 months alone, militia members have been convicted of planning at least two violent acts of terrorism against Muslim Americans.
In April 2018, three members of a militia group connected to the Three Percenters were convicted of conspiring to bomb a Somali community in Kansas. Their lawyers argued in court that they worried President Barack Obama was on the verge of declaring martial law after the election of Donald Trump and that militias needed to step in to kill Muslims, whom they described as “cockroaches.”
In January, two members of a group called the “White Rabbit Three Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia” pleaded guilty to the 2017 bombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota. (A third member, the group’s alleged ringleader, pleaded not guilty and faces trial.) Again, the group was heavily influenced by conspiracy theories. Days before he was arrested, the group’s leader posted a video claiming that the federal government was descending on Clarence, Illinois, and calling on militia groups to rally to his defense.
Law enforcement agencies themselves have expressed concern over the militia movement. In 2014, three-quarters of the nearly 400 law enforcement agencies surveyed by North Carolina researchers said anti-government extremism was “one of the top three terrorist threats in their jurisdiction.”
Lane Crothers, a political science professor at Illinois State University and the author of a book on the militia movement, said that unlike neo-Nazi groups and white supremacist groups, militia members typically don’t acknowledge that their views are extremist. They don’t see themselves as bad guys, he said.
“The militias have this kind of notion of an idealized America,” Crothers said. “This notion is a racialized one and a gendered one, but somehow or another, they believe that it’s reflecting some kind of constitutional spirit. So from their point of view, they’re actually patriots.”
Crothers, who has spent hundreds of hours alongside law enforcement officers researching another book, said the very nature of police work can make officers susceptible to conspiracy theories. Cops are being lied to constantly, he said, both by the civilians they have to deal with every day and often by the departments for which they work. In the end, he said, it can become hard to separate fact from fiction.
“You live in a world where the PR people have just put out some statement about an incident that you were at, and you know that every word in the PR statement is false,” Crothers said. “It gets very easy to accept the deceptions and to imagine the power of conspiracies.”
Johnson, the former domestic terrorism analyst, was starker in his analysis of militia groups.
“These are hate groups,” he said. “They pretend they’re not, and they’ve learned to portray themselves as innocent neighborhood watch-type groups, but they’re hate groups. They hate Muslims and they hate immigrants and they hate the government. And police officers have been entrusted to protect and serve our communities, so they should be open-minded and unbiased.”
‘He will squish you like the little bug that you are!’
Inside one Facebook group we briefly joined before being banned, we identified 17 current and former law enforcement officers, including retired cops from Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Arkansas, Illinois and Texas and cops and sheriffs who are still on-duty in New York, Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky.
The group, “XII% Dirty Dozen National,” is an offshoot of the Three Percenters. It was founded by Diane Zauderer Miller, whom members call “the General.” Here’s how she describes the group’s name: “We all know of 3% patriot organizations, however I believe that *more* than 3% of patriotic Americans are willing to stand our ground against threats both foreign & domestic – more like a DOZEN PERCENT – that’s 12% or in Roman numerals: XII%.”
The group, which has more than 14,000 members on Facebook, serves as a place where budding militia members can organize and discuss real-life meetups and the formation of new militia chapters.
Zauderer Miller regularly appoints quasi-military titles to members around the country, such as “Commander of Oklahoma” and “1st Sergeant of the Oklahoma Battalion.” Reached briefly by direct message on Facebook, Zauderer Miller, like other militia leaders, denied her group is a militia, calling it a “humanitarian group.” But the group’s own website calls it a “civil defense force.”
“We train our people/squads to be able to provide Security and Protection to themselves and others who need it within our jurisdiction,” the site reads.
Like several other similar Facebook groups we joined, this group serves as a gathering place for conspiracy theorists and Islamophobes.
A typical civilian post, for example, warned readers of an Islamic takeover of the United States ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, because more than 90 Muslims were running for political office across the country.
“Wake up people don’t let this happen,” one commenter wrote.
“Need to go back to their own shit hole,” another commented.
More recent posts and comments have taken aim at Somali American Rep. Ilhan Omar. In April, one poster encouraged someone to put a “bullet in her head,” using several slurs to describe her.
At least two active-duty and four retired law enforcement officers commented inside this group.
Arthur Terwilliger, a detective at the Cornwall-on-Hudson Police Department in New York, has been a member of Dirty Dozen since November 2015. In that time, he has commented a few times, including writing “Yes” under a meme featuring a photo of Trump saying, “I will halt the entry of all Muslim immigrants until we can figure out what the hell is going on. Are you with me? Comment ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ ”
In another comment, under a post about an undocumented immigrant allegedly threatening the president, Terwilliger wrote, “He will squish you like the little bug that you are!”
Reached by phone, Terwilliger called Reveal’s reporting “bogus.”
“I love my country, and I think Donald Trump is the best thing to ever happen to America,” he said when asked about his activity in the Dirty Dozen group.
Inside other Facebook groups we joined, police officers searched for militia groups for real-life training and meetings.
When Todd Johnston, an officer at the Rocky Top Police Department in Tennessee, posted a message introducing himself to a group called “Militia Wanted Tennessee,” a fellow member immediately asked if he was looking for a militia group to join.
“Sure thing, my friend,” Johnston replied.
The member responded that Johnston could join a local Three Percenter group, then suggested they continue their discussion via direct message.
Johnston did not respond to phone and Facebook messages seeking comment. Rocky Top Police Chief Jim Shetterly didn’t respond to our letter or several phone messages.
In Massachusetts, John Rocca, a program manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs Police, discussed the dates and location of a forthcoming meeting with a fellow group member inside “Oath Keepers of Massachusetts” in 2015.
In the same group, Charles Ricko, who retired from the Charlemont Police Department in Massachusetts last year, helped to organize meetings and offered moral support to fellow militia members. After another member posted about having organized a successful meeting, Ricko responded enthusiastically, “sign them all up!”
In Missouri, Patrick Burton, chief of the Licking Police Department, was a member of the Facebook group “Missouri Oath Keepers” for at least three years.
And in Boundary County, Idaho, Deputy Dave Schuman posted so frequently inside the group “Oath Keepers of Boundary County” that he appeared to be using the group to advertise his political campaign. He was running for sheriff.
Burton and Schuman did not respond to calls for comment. Rocca and Ricko both said that while they had been briefly interested in the Oath Keepers, they soured on the organization as it became more radical. Both said that they had not been involved with the Oath Keepers for several years and that they disagreed with the group’s current direction.
“I signed up at their tent at a motorbike rally, but that’s as far as I ever got,” Rocca said. “I never attended any meetings or anything like that.”
‘Call the FBI, call the terrorist watch list, call whoever you want’
In late 2018 and earlier this year, Reveal sent dozens of letters to departments whose officers were members of groups connected to the militia movement.
We detailed each officer’s activity on Facebook – whether the officer simply was a passive member or was actively participating or posting inside the extremist groups. The responses we received from department heads ran the gamut. Some expressed genuine concern and launched internal investigations. Others didn’t respond. Some chiefs and sheriffs were furious that we would even question the motives and activities of their employees.
“Call the FBI, call the terrorist watch list, call whoever you want,” Chief Steven Dixon of the Cornwall-on-Hudson Police Department screamed at a reporter in a phone call when we told him about Terwilliger’s activity in the Three Percenters group. Dixon then hung up.
Until recently, Officer Eric Salmestrelli of the Portland Police Bureau in Oregon was a member of at least two extremist groups on Facebook – one devoted to the Oath Keepers and one Islamophobic group.
Inside the Oath Keepers group, Salmestrelli had posted several times, including posting a meme asking, “Is Barack Obama a Saudi-Muslim ‘Plant’ in the White House?”
Under an article posted by another member about Obama-era policies, Salmestrelli wrote, “Fuck him. And his progressive jihadi agenda.”
The Portland Police Bureau recently came under scrutiny after it was revealed that officers there had a cozy relationship with the group Patriot Prayer, which regularly holds rallies and events in Portland and elsewhere that attract white nationalists and white supremacists. Shortly after we contacted the bureau, Salmestrelli’s profile disappeared from Facebook.
In late March, the bureau’s acting Internal Affairs Lt. Amanda McMillan said the department had decided to take no action against Salmestrelli. His posts, she wrote, had taken place prior to Salmestrelli joining the department.
“Ultimately, it was determined that, as the posts in question all occurred prior to the member’s employment with PPB, no jurisdiction existed,” the letter states.
Salmestrelli couldn’t be reached for comment.
At a recent congressional committee hearing on the rise of domestic terrorism in the United States, Michael McGarrity, the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism, joined high-ranking officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department in stressing that well-armed militias like those police officers have joined across the country pose a significant threat.
“There have been more arrests and deaths in the United States caused by domestic terrorists than international terrorists in recent years,” McGarrity said at the hearing. “Domestic terrorism continues to pose a persistent threat to the homeland. We currently have 850 predicated domestic terrorism investigations.”
Asked later about that figure, McGarrity said approximately half of those are open investigations into “anti-government, anti-authority” groups.
Researchers Daneel Knoetze and Michael Dailey contributed to this story. It was edited by Andrew Donohue and Matt Thompson.