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Leaked database reveals 100 current and former Oath Keepers with ties to North Bay

The history of the Oath Keepers

The Oath Keepers surfaced in April 2009, three months after the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. Founder Stewart Rhodes, a paratrooper veteran, Yale Law School graduate and Montana resident, introduced the group to the world with a speech in Lexington, Mass.

He chose the site and the anniversary of the first battle of the American Revolution in 1775. Addressing a “cheering crowd of cops, firefighters, military veterans and period re-enactors in Yankee Doodle hats,” according to an account in Rolling Stone magazine, Rhodes warned listeners that the republic was in danger, and suggested patriots could soon be called upon to fight once more.

Rhodes and other former military members spoke about “a looming second revolutionary war, globalism’s threat to American sovereignty, and the need to resist supposedly tyrannical governance that would subvert Americans’ natural rights,” according to a December 2021 article on the group published by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

In the 12 years since, more than 38,000 people signed up, according to the leaked membership rolls. The position of the group, if it ever was well defined, has shifted during that time.

Those shifts most often have been driven or broadcast by Rhodes, a vocal public figure fond of appearances on the conspiracy show InfoWars and similar venues.

A year has passed since a star-spangled mob stormed the United States Capitol in a violent frenzy that left five dead and the nation traumatized.

More than 700 rioters now face federal charges for their involvement in the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, which began when several thousand people entered the Capitol Complex in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election and keep Donald Trump in office.

In the crosshairs of the Department of Justice prosecutions is a group known as the Oath Keepers, whose members are accused of some of the most flagrant crimes during the Capitol breach.

The intensifying scrutiny of the Oath Keepers in the past 12 months has revealed the inner workings and national scope of an organization that extremism experts label as anti-democratic radicals.

That organization has tentacles that reach across the nation, even extending to Northern California. But while Oath Keepers in some parts of the country appear well-organized and violent, a leaked cache of membership data paints a different picture in the liberal stronghold of the North Bay.

Since its inception in 2009, the group targeted former police officers and military veterans who sought to solemnify their oath to protect the Constitution. But some question the ways in which that vow was interpreted and implemented.

“While the group claims to defend the Constitution, the entire Oath Keepers organization is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy Americans’ liberties,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based advocacy group that specializes in civil rights.

While trials continue, including against 17 Oath Keeper affiliates, focus has now turned toward 2024, with political scientists concerned extremist groups could react even more violently to the next presidential election.

In September, an online whistleblower organization called Distributed Denial of Secrets published a trove of Oath Keepers information. The leak included membership sign-ups dating back a decade, as well as chat logs, email listservs and donation data.

At least 100 people enrolled in the organization while living in the North Bay, the leak showed.

Using that data, The Press Democrat conducted research and interviews into who these members were.

Loosely affiliated, nearly defunct

Rather than the well-coordinated militia described by the Oath Keepers’ most visible supporters and its most vocal detractors, Press Democrat reporters discovered a network that is only loosely affiliated and nearly defunct. It primarily serves as a vent for right-leaning residents of a left-leaning region, some of whom are open to theories about internal threats to the United States that are not grounded in reality and often demonize racial justice movements.

Sonoma County had the largest share of local membership with 41 members. Twenty-three members said they lived in Napa County, 14 in Mendocino, 12 in Lake and 10 in Marin.

They skewed white, male and of retirement age. Around a dozen appeared to be women. Many owned businesses, like a private dentistry practice or firearms training school. Some own multiple properties, according to public records. None appears to have been arrested in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 or in its aftermath.

Among the North Bay contingent are at least a dozen military veterans and more than 10 former or active law enforcement officers, the professed backbone of the organization. But there’s also a firefighter, a dentist, a winery owner, a plumber, a blogger, a heavy metal drummer, a real estate appraiser, an educator who recently worked at a Waldorf school in Sonoma, and the head of the Napa County Republican Party.

Political scientists say diffuse membership is a hallmark of the Oath Keepers and other extremist groups.

“It is across the country, and therefore we are not isolated from the networking effects of these groups, either before or after Jan. 6,” Sonoma State University political science professor David McCuan said.

And while some local members remain committed to the stance of the Oath Keepers, others have come to vehemently reject it. The majority reported only minor involvement with the organization, attending few to no live gatherings and in some cases never communicating with other members at all.

The Press Democrat interviewed 17 people whose names appear on the membership rolls by phone or via email. Almost no one denied their affiliation, though some described it as a passing phase. Seven spoke in detail about their experience with the Oath Keepers.

Never rescinded the oath

Since its inception in 2009, the Oath Keepers organization has relied on a conspiratorial mindset. There are 10 orders from the government that Oath Keepers must pledge to refuse, including “disarming” American citizens and imposing martial law.

The history of the Oath Keepers

The Oath Keepers surfaced in April 2009, three months after the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. Founder Stewart Rhodes, a paratrooper veteran, Yale Law School graduate and Montana resident, introduced the group to the world with a speech in Lexington, Mass.

He chose the site and the anniversary of the first battle of the American Revolution in 1775. Addressing a “cheering crowd of cops, firefighters, military veterans and period re-enactors in Yankee Doodle hats,” according to an account in Rolling Stone magazine, Rhodes warned listeners that the republic was in danger, and suggested patriots could soon be called upon to fight once more.

Rhodes and other former military members spoke about “a looming second revolutionary war, globalism’s threat to American sovereignty, and the need to resist supposedly tyrannical governance that would subvert Americans’ natural rights,” according to a December 2021 article on the group published by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

In the 12 years since, more than 38,000 people signed up, according to the leaked membership rolls. The position of the group, if it ever was well defined, has shifted during that time.

Those shifts most often have been driven or broadcast by Rhodes, a vocal public figure fond of appearances on the conspiracy show InfoWars and similar venues.

In the North Bay, the core principle of defending the Constitution was often the initial reason for joining — especially in the organization’s infancy, when its values were still nebulous.

“I served in the 82nd Airborne (Division of the U.S. Army). I took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution,” said Phil Graf, who lives in Sebastopol and is mostly retired, though he teaches some gun training classes.

“I’ve never rescinded that oath. I can’t say the same for most of our politicians.”

When he heard founder Stewart Rhodes speak at a small Oath Keepers organizational meeting in San Francisco more than a decade ago, Graf signed up on the spot, making him one of the most veteran members in the North Bay.

“We were concerned the politicians and bureaucrats had slipped the bounds on the Constitution,” he said.

Frank Pearson of Forestville told The Press Democrat it was his 30 years of experience in law enforcement that made him a candidate for a regional leadership role in the Northern California chapter. He was the police chief in Bethel, Alaska, before moving to Sonoma County and joining the Santa Rosa Police Department in the 1980s.

He medically retired several years later, but his credentials led to an offer to take up a post as “commander.”

“I told them I’d get back to them on that. I wanted to hear what they had to say, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting my tail stuck with a bunch of white racists,” Pearson said. “And the opportunity never came up, I wasn’t offered another command, and that was fine with me.”

Pearson added that “a lot of police officers were involved in it just for the purposes of keeping order. When law enforcement order breaks down, we have to do something, and that’s when the Oath Keepers would step in.”

In effect, the same instinct that propelled his decision to join law enforcement and swear an oath to the Constitution drove his enrollment in a force that could one day oppose the very same governmental agencies he worked for.

Others without a background in law enforcement or active combat joined as “associate members,” viewing themselves more as financial and political supporters of the cause. As of 2021, members could pay $10 monthly, $50 annually or $1,200 for life.

Napa County Republican Party Chairman Mark Gasster was an associate member before letting his membership lapse. Napa registered nurse Dale Weide was a founding associate member at the very beginning of the organization, according to a laminated card he still keeps despite leaving the organization years ago.

An Oath Keeper’s founding member identification card. (Dale Weide)
An Oath Keeper’s founding member identification card. (Dale Weide)

Another North Bay resident named Bob Crowley touted his decades of experience in policing, writing upon enrolling in the organization, “I have many certifications which may be helpful. I am currently active law enforcement, working with the Marin County Sheriff’s Office.”

The Press Democrat reached Crowley at the number he had provided the Oath Keepers. Crowley, however, said he has left the Sheriff’s Office and denied “true interaction” with the Oath Keepers.

Deal breaker for police employment

Representatives from local law enforcement agencies said they did not know of any Oath Keepers serving in their agencies, and that hiring policies would likely prevent any member of the organization from being offered a job today.

“Based on the ideologies of a group like the Oath Keepers, an individual who is part of the organization is not eligible for hiring. An organization talking about overthrowing the government because you don’t think it’s legitimate — that doesn’t make someone eligible for employment here,” said Sgt. Chris Mahurin, spokesman for the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Both Santa Rosa police and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office have an extensive background check process that would reveal an applicant’s group affiliations.

“They provide their pass codes to social media accounts during the hiring process. We go through all that stuff to make sure they’re not following any of those groups,” said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia.

However, neither of the officials could say whether their agency’s policies explicitly bar Oath Keepers. Such affiliations would require individual consideration, Mahurin said.

“Some of these new ones (organizations) that keep popping up, I can’t say which would be a disqualifier,” Mahurin said. “If any of our employees were part of an organization like this, it would trigger an internal investigation. I can’t say it would lead to termination.”

Pearson was one of several sworn officers in the local Oath Keepers group while he was involved, he said.

Rise of the movement

Oath Keepers interviewed by The Press Democrat pointed to the last decade’s protest movement for racial justice and against police brutality as a sign of the “breakdown,” as Pearson put it, in law and order.

Many new Oath Keepers were drawn to the organization during the demonstrations that followed the killing of teen Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

“Right around the time of Ferguson, I saw a few articles of (Oath Keepers) helping people out with securing of business from arson and theft,” former member Joseph Silinonte of Petaluma said in an email. “It seemed like a good thing to help when it was needed.”

Oath Keepers appeared armed in Ferguson that summer, posted on rooftops and “guarding” local businesses. They claimed they were preserving order. Neighborhood activists saw it as a form of intimidation, even incitement.

Other North Bay members said they thought of the Oath Keepers merely as a service organization.

“When one of the hurricanes happened, people needed help,” said Elaine Muller of Rohnert Park, who is retired after stints in the Army and U.S. Postal Service. “I looked at it more of a Red Cross kind of thing more than anything else.”

The Oath Keepers claim to have offered aid after five hurricanes. News accounts suggest their participation ranged from traditional disaster response like handing out water bottles to infuriating local law enforcement in Florida after 2018’s Hurricane Michael, when a heavily armed group was arrested for driving around on “patrols” in violation of a curfew.

But no one interviewed by The Press Democrat said they participated in Ferguson or any other “post-disaster response” organized by the Oath Keepers. And according to multiple members, the militant fervor that brought members to sites of unrest across the country never took hold in the North Bay.

Compared to chapters in the rest of the country, Pearson said, North Bay Oath Keepers are minimally active.

“I’m not sure you’re going to find lots and lots of material in Sonoma County. We’re pretty laid back,” said Pearson. “It’s a lot lower key; if there are small pockets of hardcores, I haven’t run into any in a while.”

The Press Democrat identified few in-person events hosted by the Oath Keepers in the region. Founding member Weide shared an email about a 2014 “meet and greet” that appears to have drawn just five attendees.

Pearson recalled tactical drills being held in Northern California but said he did not attend.

Militancy is muted

In the Bay Area, the organization has drawn attention a handful of times. At the now-canceled annual weapons expo Urban Shield in Alameda in 2017, community activists were outraged after photos from inside the counterterrorism event showed an Oath Keepers booth. Militiamen with the organization were also present in Berkeley at the Patriots Day Free Speech Rally the same year.

Some experts guessed that militancy is muted in the North Bay because of the political landscape, which is predominantly Democratic and has relatively restrictive gun carrying laws.

“The environment here is not tolerant of that extremism,” Sonoma State professor McCuan said. “Their businesses could be boycotted, there’s a variety of things that could be done that affect their economic well-being.”

Staying out of the public spotlight is common for Oath Keeper pockets across the U.S., said Stephen Piggott, a white extremism researcher and organizer with the Western States Center. A decentralized organization, many Oath Keeper chapters are latent or operate largely online. A minority of members creates the most noise, he said.

“There are some regions in the country where there are certainly more active Oath Keeper mobilizations. Certainly we saw with Jan. 6 large numbers of Oath Keepers there. But I would say more generally I’m not seeing large kinds of mobilizations of Oath Keepers in many places around the country,” Piggott said.

Many in the North Bay appear to have distanced themselves from the Oath Keepers. Some say they lost interest over years of low activity. Others split during the rightward movement of the organization throughout the Trump presidency, or were turned off by what they saw as infighting among Oath Keepers leadership.

“I thought it was a different sort of organization,” said Michael Carter, a U.S. Marine veteran and former Los Angeles Police Department officer who lives between Willits and Laytonville. “When I saw pictures of guys running around in camouflage, I said ‘This is not for me.’”

To Pearson, the former police chief in Forestville, an increasing alignment he sees with white nationalist groups has pushed him to take a step back from the Oath Keepers, although he still considers himself an active member. The possibility of “a race war” felt palpable in the last year, he said.

“And yet, all that has kind of gone away. I haven’t heard anything frightening in the last six months that would cause that kind of tension,” Pearson said. “I haven’t heard much activity going on in the last six months, eight months in Sonoma County. I couldn’t reach in my phone book and pull up another active member’s phone number.”

Several people interviewed for this story said they ultimately shied away because the Oath Keepers had become too controversial to openly align with, but were unwilling to blame the organization itself for the negative press.

One of them was Arron Johnson, Sonoma-based founder and CEO of The Lodge Winery & Olive Oil Co. Johnson said he didn’t witness anything that turned him off from the group, but was disappointed that Rhodes and other leaders never took the trouble to defend the organization against mounting accusations.

“If you can’t stand up for the standards you’ve established, something’s wrong,” Johnson said. “There was no, ‘Come see it. See what we’re trying to be.’”

If the Oath Keepers “ever get their act together,” he added, he will return to the ranks.

But for the skeptics who were already beginning to sour on the Oath Keepers, Jan. 6 was the event that finally drove them away.

“As time went on I lost interest, and haven’t revisited the subject,” Silinonte of Petaluma said. “And after what I saw last January, I’m in total disagreement with their current mission.” He does not know any current members, he said.

Gasster, the Republican Party chair, expressed a similar opinion.

“I am conservative and Republican,” he wrote. “I support peaceful advancement and application of our founding principles as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and our U.S. Constitution. The violent events of January 6 were utterly abhorrent to me.”

The Press Democrat did not confirm that any North Bay Oath Keepers were present at the Capitol riot in Washington, D.C., last January. A Santa Rosa native, Evan Neumann, is among the indicted but has no apparent ties to the organization.

Future unclear

Since Jan. 6, 2021, the Oath Keepers have continued to spread conspiracy theories online, according to a December 2021 article by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Laid bare by the leak and with its leaders hounded by federal prosecutors, civil lawsuits and financial difficulties, the organization’s future is unclear. Extremism scholars say other movements, like QAnon and the Proud Boys, are gaining steam in its stead.

The Oath Keepers interviewed for this story uniformly denied ascribing to such movements. Still, some didn’t hesitate to cite current conspiracy theories, including that Black Lives Matter or antifa protesters were responsible for the violence at the Capitol, even as court case after court case and report after report — not to mention countless videos shot by the trespassers themselves — places the blame on right-wing organizers who spread election fraud lies.

“If you ask me why would Oath Keepers be at the Capitol, it wouldn’t be to take it over,” Graf said. “It would be to protect people from agent-provocateur types.”

Piggott, the analyst and researcher, said it’s no surprise that disparate, even contradictory, perspectives exist among Oath Keepers past and present.

That ambiguity, Piggott said, is by design.

“The Oath Keepers is much more broad; it’s a multi-issue organization. It was done that way on purpose,” Piggott said. “Look at Jan. 6 — even if you interviewed all of the folks there, you still would probably get five or six different reasons those folks attended. Leadership kept everything purposely ambiguous so as to attract a larger swath of people.”

The Oath Keepers’ history demonstrates how an “oath” to the country can be interpreted many ways, and weaponized toward many ends. That ambiguity allowed some members to be called to hurricane response, some to armed rebellion and others to online chat groups.

And although many in the North Bay did little more than submit an email address or a monetary donation to the Oath Keepers, in doing so they took a step down a road toward more extreme points of view.

“Just because the organization itself is not actively promoting political violence doesn’t mean that folks who are immersed in this ecosystem won’t take the next step, and we’ve definitely seen this in the last few years,” Piggott said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

Emily Wilder

Criminal justice and public safety, The Press Democrat  

Criminal justice is one of the most stirring and consequential systems, both in the North Bay and nationwide. Crime, policing, prosecution and incarceration have ripples that reach many parts of our lives, and these issues are under increasingly powerful microscopes. My goal is to uncover untold stories and understand the unique impacts of criminal justice and public safety on Sonoma County.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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