Domestic terror: extremists, sovereign citizens and law enforcement
In June, police showed up at Norman Raddatz’s door to arrest him on a criminal harassment charge involving an ongoing anti-Semitic hate crimes case.
When they tried to enter, Raddatz fired more than 50 rounds from a high-powered rifle inside his home, killing one officer and wounding another, authorities said. After the shooting subsided, the house burst into flames, and Raddatz’s body was later found in the charred remains.
Raddatz was described as a sovereign citizen, and the incident compares with a number of other violent confrontations involving sovereigns over the past year.
Except that it occurred in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
The sovereign citizen movement, which has emerged as a key combatant in the battle against domestic terrorism in the United States, continues to swell, with violent incidents erupting on a regular basis. But authorities and experts say the exponential growth of sovereign citizens — their numbers are now estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands — isn’t strictly a U.S. phenomenon any more. The movement’s tentacles, they say, are reaching worldwide.
“It has gone international,” said Bob Paudert, the former police chief of West Memphis, Ark., whose son and another officer were gunned down by sovereign citizens during a traffic stop in 2010. “We know they’ve been in Canada for several years, and now they’re organizing in Australia.
“This is exactly where we were in 2010. We had no idea who they were or what they were, the judges didn’t know, and the officers didn’t know.”
Sovereign citizens are a loose network of individuals whose adherents believe the government is corrupt and out of control; therefore, they do not recognize local, state or federal authority or tax systems. In Canada, they’re sometimes known as Freemen on the Land.
Not all are violent, but in recent years they have come to be considered a top domestic terrorism threat by the FBI and other government agencies.
In the Canadian case, Raddatz was a divorced father of three who had been going through financial difficulties, and his house was in foreclosure.
After he shot the officers, authorities said, the 42-year-old self-employed refrigeration mechanic set his house on fire, then died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
In the United States, a survey of law enforcement officers published last year found sovereign citizens were perceived as their greatest terrorism concern. Now, authorities are starting to take notice in other parts of the world as well.
Just last month, law enforcement officials in Australia issued a report warning of a growing threat from sovereign citizens.
A confidential assessment by the New South Wales Counter Terrorism and Special Tactics Command said there were up to 300 sovereign citizens in the state and that the numbers were increasing, according to a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corp., which obtained the document. The assessment said sovereigns had “the motivation and capability to act against government interests and should be considered a potential terrorist threat.”
Among the sovereign citizens’ activities described in the document were plans to kidnap a judge, court officials and a police officer. Sovereign citizens had threatened to burn down the home of a judge, “cause harm with firearms,” the report said, and “to murder sheriff officers if they attempt to seize property.”
Detective Superintendent John O’Reilly, commander of the NSW Counter Terrorism and Special Tactics Operations Group, told the network that while Australia had not seen violent incidents like those in the U.S. that resulted in casualties, “a number of instances have ended up in people being placed under arrest.”
An author who has tracked anti-government extremists for two decades said the sovereign citizen movement has been ramping up internationally over the past several years.
“They’re growing by leaps and bounds,” said J.J. MacNab, who is a fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
Canada and Austria have been hit hard, she said. Other “hot spots,” she said, are England, where some sovereign citizens stormed a courtroom and tried to arrest a judge; Ireland; Scotland; Australia; New Zealand; South Africa; “and smaller amounts in the Netherlands and Germany.”
“Sometimes, it’s really bizarre, because they take American laws and apply them to foreign countries,” MacNab said. “In Canada, you might see someone stand up in court and take the Fifth.”
Back in America, violent incidents associated with sovereign citizens continue to stack up.
On Nov. 23, Black Lives Matter activists were demonstrating outside a police precinct headquarters in Minneapolis, where they had been stationed for more than a week to protest the death of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man who was shot and killed by a white police officer.
About 10:40 p.m., gunfire erupted, wounding five black protesters ages 19 to 43.
Authorities charged Allen L. Scarsella with felony assault and second-degree rioting while armed with a dangerous weapon, saying he fired eight shots from a .45-caliber handgun. Three men who were with him, who also were armed, were charged with aiding a riot.
According to the probable cause statement, Scarsella called a friend after the shootings and confessed. The friend, a police officer from a department outside the Twin Cities, said Scarsella was a sovereign citizen.
“The officer was aware that Scarsella owned and carried guns and that he had very intense opinions,” the document said. “He knew that Scarsella had negative experiences and opinions about African-Americans.”
In September, West Virginia authorities charged self-proclaimed sovereign citizen Thomas David Deegan with threatening to commit a terrorist act by plotting a violent takeover of the state Capitol in Charleston.
A criminal complaint says Deegan, 39, made a series of conference calls telling participants that “we are at war” and that “the more bodies that come to Charleston, the less likely for bloodshed.”
During a Sept. 14 call, the complaint said, Deegan solicited assistance in removing government officials from their offices so members of the sovereign citizen movement could take control. He said those who were removed would be charged with treason.
Deegan said the takeover was scheduled for Sept. 24 and that “West Virginia would be the foothold for the sovereign movement to take back the United States,” according to the document.
Some law enforcement agencies are trying to do more to educate officers about the potential dangers of dealing with sovereign citizens. In October, authorities released a video produced by the Florida Sheriffs Association and U.S. Attorney’s Office “to raise awareness for law enforcement regarding the sovereign citizen movement and how they may impact us.”
Deputy Chief Brett Meade, of the University of Central Florida Police Department, gives tips in the video on how to deal with sovereign citizens. Meade says there’s no question sovereign citizen activity is on the rise.
“Here in Orange County, we probably document a new sovereign at least once a week,” he says in the video. “Virtually any sheriff, any police department in the state of Florida, has had an encounter with someone claiming to be a sovereign or a sovereign belief.”
Paudert, who since his son’s death has traveled the country teaching those in law enforcement and the court system about sovereign citizens — including recent sessions in Manhattan, Kan., and St. Joseph — said the movement “hasn’t died down at all.”
Paudert said he recently was contacted by the California Gang Investigators Association.
“They want me to come out next year,” he said. “They said they’ve really seen an increase out there. They told me one county had 300 of them. It’s just amazing.”
Other agencies also are issuing warnings about sovereign citizens. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General recently published a bulletin advising the public how to recognize sovereign citizens and warning people not to get into confrontations with them.
The bulletin describes sovereign citizen scams such as illegally occupying HUD properties and improperly deeding properties to themselves. It also tells of cases in which sovereign citizens have rented HUD real estate-owned property to unsuspecting tenants.
“Sovereign citizens may retaliate if you confront them,” the bulletin said, filing frivolous liens that take time and money to get dismissed and may affect your credit. “Further, engaging in a verbal argument with these individuals could spiral into a violent confrontation.”
While sovereign citizens remain a top concern of law enforcement, they don’t have the market on acts of domestic terrorism.
In August, three North Carolina men who authorities said held extreme anti-government views were charged in a plot to attack armed forces taking part in Jade Helm 15, an eight-week multistate military training exercise that spawned a multitude of conspiracy theories. All three have pleaded guilty for their involvement in the conspiracy.
In November, two Virginia white supremacists were charged with trying to buy guns and explosives in what authorities said was a plot to incite a race war by shooting or bombing occupants of synagogues and black churches.
And just this month, Robert Lewis Dear Jr. was charged in connection with a Nov. 27 shooting spree at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colo., that killed a police officer and two civilians and wounded nine others, including five officers.
While no clear motive has yet been revealed, Dear referred to abortion in a series of outbursts at a Dec. 9 hearing, shouting “I am a warrior for the babies” and “Protect the babies.” Some authorities and politicians call the shooting an act of domestic terrorism.
Earlier this year, Planned Parenthood came under harsh criticism by abortion opponents when a series of undercover videos taken by an anti-abortion group showed agency officials discussing the use of fetal tissue for research. Abortion foes said the videos showed that Planned Parenthood was selling baby parts for profit, but the organization countered that it made no money off the sale of fetal remains and that the videos were deceptively edited.
Meanwhile, some worry that the Dec. 2 shooting rampage at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 dead and 22 injured could diminish the attention given to domestic terrorism. The attack was carried out by a couple apparently inspired by the Islamic State and is being investigated as an act of foreign terrorism.
In October, the Justice Department announced that it was stepping up its focus on domestic terrorism, creating a domestic terrorism counsel to serve as the main point of contact for federal prosecutors working on domestic cases.
Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin said the new office was formed “in recognition of a growing number of potential domestic terrorism matters around the United States.”
The announcement bolstered findings earlier this year by The Kansas City Star that law enforcement had shifted its attention from domestic to foreign terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.
As a result, the newspaper investigation found, federal authorities had lost sight of domestic extremists. That lack of focus, funding and information-sharing across disparate agencies occurred at a time when violence was metastasizing, leading to fatal consequences for unsuspecting victims around the country.
Carlin, who runs the Justice Department’s national security division, acknowledged that authorities had been sharply focused on Islamic extremists in recent years, “and rightly so.”
However, he said, “we recognize that, over the past few years, more people have died in this country in attacks by domestic extremists than in attacks associated with international terrorist groups.”
A Justice Department spokesman said last week that the new domestic terrorism counsel position has been filled. However, Marc Raimondi wrote in an email, “We haven’t released the name of the coordinator publicly.”
Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, said things become complicated when authorities are battling foreign and domestic threats at the same time.
“We’re basically dealing with two competing threat streams,” said Johnson, who was pilloried in 2009 for writing a report warning that there could be a surge in violence committed by domestic extremists.
“You’ve got the homegrown violent extremists, and then you’ve got the domestic terrorism guys. In the intelligence community, homegrown violent extremism is the Muslim variety, and domestic terrorism is the traditional, non-Islamic stuff. But people use those terms interchangeably — even police do — and it gets very confusing.”
MacNab said it’s a mistake to concentrate on one form of terrorism at the expense of another. People shouldn’t be making comparisons of how many have been killed by domestic terrorism compared to Islamic or foreign-inspired terrorism, she said.
“It’s not a competition between jihadists and right-wingers — who’s killed more, who’s more dangerous,” she said. “Either side could change all that in a single day.
“They should be looking at the overall potential threat.”
The Justice Department is committed to thoroughly investigating all terrorism no matter the source, Raimondi said.
“Both domestic and foreign terrorism pose threats to our public safety, and stopping such acts is our highest priority,” he said. “The Department of Justice and our component agencies investigate, follow the evidence and prosecute acts of violence with the same high standard regardless of the perpetrator’s motivation.”