Sovereign Movement Is Anti-Government, Off the Grid....and Gunning for Justice
“Don’t come in or I’ll shoot,” Vince Edwards shouted at Costilla County Undersheriff Ricky Rodriguez, who was standing near the front door of the half-buried RV where Edwards was holed up.
Taking Edwards at his word, Rodriguez scrambled back to his patrol car and called for reinforcements just before 7 p.m. on September 29, 2016. While it wasn’t unusual to encounter strong-willed individuals living off the grid in the wide-open spaces of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, he wasn’t going to take any chances.
Edwards had fortified his RV with other jerry-rigged structures and sand embankments, creating his own Mad Max bunker among the sagebrush. Even though he was only wanted for a failure to appear in court, it looked as though he wasn’t going to go down easy. Especially not after Edwards called in his own backup.
According to a police report detailing what turned into an almost three-hour standoff, one of Edwards’s neighbors, Jeremy Costley, posted this on Facebook: “all Costilla County Colorado people in need of rapid response to country rd. 12 and 27. The police are trying to arrest someone unlawfully.”
Today, Edwards claims that he was unarmed during the incident and says he only threatened gunfire because he was frightened.
But as officers arrived on the scene with AR-15 rifles, they agreed that a firefight seemed imminent. At one point, two mysterious vehicles appeared on the top of a nearby hill, giving their occupants a strategic vantage point overlooking the huddled group of sheriff’s deputies and state patrol officers. In the gathering dark, one of the vehicles turned off its lights while the other kept its brights on. For the law enforcement agents, the effect was the same: They couldn’t see the people inside the vehicles. But they had to believe they were armed.
Then a third vehicle suddenly appeared on a county road and approached the encircled officers, head-on.
“Stop! Get on the ground!” Rodriguez shouted as the vehicle parked and four individuals got out.
They turned out to be some of Edwards’s neighbors, responding to the social-media call; they were unarmed. As officers moved forward to detain them, the two mysterious vehicles on the hill disappeared as abruptly as they’d arrived.
Finally, at 9:32 p.m., Edwards emerged from his RV, shirtless, with his hands in the air. He’d just ended an ongoing call with a 911 dispatcher and surrendered to a state patrolman on the condition that someone watch over his property and he not be held in Costilla County’s jail, because he didn’t trust the deputies there.
For Undersheriff Rodriguez, it was a satisfactory ending to a situation that could have turned bloody. But it was also a reminder of a constant challenge that his office, and Costilla County in general, has had to contend with in recent years: off-the-grid residents who hold “sovereign” beliefs.
Zanis McDonald, an individual with sovereign beliefs, was arrested in San Luis on May 2.
The sovereign movement is a catch-all label for people who believe they are subject only to common law, and therefore not subject to all the statutory laws of the U.S. government at its various levels — federal, state and local. Sometimes calling themselves “constitutionalists” or “freemen,” individuals who subscribe to a sovereign ideology often don’t believe they are required to follow any regulations drafted and passed by politicians — things like tax codes or driver’s license rules — because the U.S. government has been corrupted and sovereigns are not under contract to adhere to all of its laws.
The FBI considers “sovereign citizens” part of a terrorist movement, in part because sovereigns have participated in much larger and dangerous situations than the one involving Vince Edwards. Among the most notable are the Bundy standoff in Nevada in 2014, when cattleman Cliven Bundy refused to let federal agents onto his ranch, and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation in Oregon in 2016, during which armed militia, including Cliven Bundy’s son, Ammon, seized a visitors’ center for forty days in protest over control of federal public lands.
In Costilla County, sovereign ideology is most often manifested in off-gridders like Edwards, who refuse to follow land-use regulations — particularly the county’s requirement that all permanent residents build a septic system and have access to electricity and fresh water, no matter how remote their parcel of land. In the valley today, physical threats by sovereigns against Costilla County’s code enforcers are common, and enforcers never go out into the field without bulletproof vests.
But the clash isn’t limited to Costilla County. Individuals with sovereign beliefs have been at odds with elected officials across Colorado, and evidence suggests that the movement is growing throughout the United States.
On March 30, eight people were arrested along the Front Range for threatening and harassing elected officials with their own versions of subpoenas, arrest warrants and liens issued through a group called “The People’s Grand Jury of Colorado.” The tactic, which the FBI and Southern Poverty Law Center both call “paper terrorism,” has become a common technique used by sovereigns in all fifty states to harass public officials; the frivolous filings not only bog down court proceedings, but, in the case of liens, can negatively affect a victim’s credit score.
Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett was among those targeted by the “People’s Grand Jury.”
“We deal with this philosophy from time to time,” he says. “These guys call themselves ‘constitutionalists’ and essentially take the position that any state office is illegal or not authorized under their view of the world. A lot of these [communications] were a little odd and concerning — particularly the arrest warrant for myself and the claim that I owed close to a billion dollars. Much of it was actually delivered around the cul-de-sac that I live in in Boulder, so that was concerning to my family, that these guys knew where I live.”
The Colorado Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the arrests because the cases have yet to go to trial. But Garnett says he helped the AG’s office compile evidence prior to the indictment that was handed down on March 30, which listed dozens of offenses and other targets: judges, county officials and district attorneys, including former Denver DA Mitch Morrissey. The eight individuals arrested are all being held on bonds ranging from $100,000 to $350,000.
One of the individuals arrested on March 30 has also played a role in the off-the-grid scuffles in Costilla County: Bruce Doucette.
Doucette, who owns and runs a computer-repair store in Littleton, considers himself a “judge” within his movement and advised Ammon Bundy on how to set up a common-law jury during the Malheur standoff. In an April 12 post on its website, the Southern Poverty Law Center called Doucette “the most notorious common law ‘Superior Court Judge of the Continental uNited States of America.’”
“Many members of these courts are sovereign citizens who believe their judgments supersede federal and district court decisions, and then bring their quasi-legal activity into legitimate courts and use tactics including intimidation and paper terrorism,” the SPLC article stated, specifically mentioning the March 30 indictment in Colorado.
Doucette took his activity to Costilla County in late 2015.
At the time, the county was trying to step up enforcement of its land-use codes and was proposing a number of changes to its ordinances, including clarification around camping restrictions. Off-gridders, not used to having code-enforcement officers coming by their properties to do inspections, demand permits and issue warnings, were not pleased with the heightened regulation. Hundreds of residents joined a Facebook group called “San Luis Valley Just Us” and organized opposition, including protests at county commission meetings where changes to the code were being considered. Many claimed they couldn’t afford requirements like septic systems, and argued that they should be able to camp on land they owned without any restrictions.
Chloe Everhart, one of the moderators of the SLV Just Us page, divides the off-gridders in the San Luis Valley into three broad groups: people interested in building sustainable and eco-based communities, retired or poor folks who want to be left alone, and individuals with sovereign beliefs. “The challenge was that there wasn’t a clear consensus about whether our goal was just to not have these code changes passed that were going to make things difficult for people who were poor, disabled or frugal,” explains Everhart. “There were other people who said, ‘This is our opportunity to really create this sovereign world.’ There were a few people who were incredibly vocal about that, and it was hard to get work done when they were around.”
Everhart did her best to bridge the divides, but the differences ran deep. At commissioner meetings on September 9 and 15, 2015, dozens of residents packed administrative offices in San Luis — the county seat of Costilla County and the oldest town in Colorado — and the gatherings quickly turned ugly. Some of the discord stemmed from the fact that Costilla County has no public land, dating back to an 1844 Mexican land grant that consisted of nearly a million acres along the present-day Colorado and New Mexico border. During the past century and a half, much of that land was bought up and subdivided by wealthy landowners, beginning with William Gilpin (Colorado’s first territorial governor) in 1864, and later by the likes of the Forbes family, which owned hundreds of thousands of acres in the northern portion of the county.
San Luis’s predominantly Hispanic population has had little control over the subdividing and development that have occurred over the years, and while a handful of landowners accumulated vast tracts of land, Costilla County became one of the poorest counties in the nation, with 28.2 percent of its population currently living in poverty, according to the 2016 U.S. Census. In the 1990s, the perception of outsiders taking over was reinforced when Zachary Taylor, a white rancher from North Carolina, inherited a 77,500-acre tract of land from his father that locals refer to as “La Sierra” and began logging operations on his property — which some residents claimed threatened water sources that irrigate the valley (“A Mountain of Trouble,” July 6, 1994). The Taylor family closed off access to locals, who believed they were being denied their ancestral rights to hunt, fish and graze on the land. After the State of Colorado made a failed bid to purchase the land for $12 million in 1997, the issue was only partially settled when a private LLC bought the land from Taylor in 1999 and the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that some Hispanic heirs would be allowed access to the property.
In the local publication La Sierra, writer Maria Martinez charged that there was a racial element to the 2015 county commissioner meetings: “After the September 15 meeting, opposing sides milled in front of the meeting room. The ‘desert dwellers’ proposed talking about…one of two code enforcement officers who appears menacing because she never takes her hand off her gun when she goes about her job. ‘Locals,’ who were derisively called ‘Mexicans’ by the ‘desert dwellers,’ defended [the officer’s] work and her actions. The desert dwellers (derisively called ‘guero’) insisted that they are a part of the local community. This claim was opposed by locals.”
Ben Doon, the county administrator for Costilla County, denies that race played a major role at the meetings. He does, however, acknowledge that sovereign ideology gained a small yet notable foothold in the county because of the events in late 2015.
County Administrator Ben Doon was subjected to paper terrorism at the hands of individuals with sovereign beliefs.
The most vocal opponents to the land-use code were a few individuals associated with the “patriot” armed-militia movement. Rodger Marsh, who described himself to neighbors as a door-kicker and a trigger-puller, got in touch with self-appointed judge Doucette, and invited him to the San Luis Valley to teach off-gridders how to fight the county. In October 2015, Doucette made the trip for an event billed on social media as “Meet the Judge.” The rendezvous point was a steel bridge over a remote part of the Rio Grande, where Doucette explained to the crowd why he believed that Costilla County was violating their sovereign rights.
Marsh was arrested on a weapons charge a short time later, the SLV Just Us group disbanded, and the county decided to drop some of its proposed land-use changes. But the sovereign movement continued to play a role in Costilla County politics.
In early 2016, Doon started receiving many of the same types of “subpoenas” and harassing letters that Garnett would also get in Boulder. Doon has kept all of the letters inside a manila envelope in a file cabinet, some of them still unopened. The missives began arriving shortly after he wrote a letter responding to a front-page article in Alamosa’s daily newspaper, the Valley Courier, with the headline “‘Grand Jury’ Indicts Costilla County Officials.” Doon found that headline extremely misleading, he said, because the “Grand Jury” in question was actually the “People’s Grand Jury” being co-organized by Doucette in Denver.
Doon’s strongly worded rebuttal, which the Valley Courier published a day after the original article, explained that the “indictment” was a fake, and quoted from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s description of the sovereign-citizen movement. (The complete description on the SPLC website: “The contemporary sovereign belief system is based on a decades-old conspiracy theory. At some point in history, sovereigns believe, the American government set up by the founding fathers — with a legal system the sovereigns refer to as ‘common law’ — was secretly replaced by a new government system based on admiralty law, the law of the sea and international commerce. Under common law, or so they believe, the sovereigns would be free men. Under admiralty law, they are slaves, and secret government forces have a vested interest in keeping them that way.”)
But Doon’s response only brought him more unwelcome attention. “From then on, [harassment] was coming from two fronts. We had the folks off the grid here, and then from Denver there was a bigger movement,” he recalls. “Even if their numbers are low compared to other people who just want to be left alone for one reason or another or don’t have the means to comply, these folks are much more aggressive and threatening. So one or two of them equals the headache of fifty other people.”
And Doucette soon added to that headache. Over Easter weekend in 2016, he and another “superior court judge” traveled to Costilla County to swear in at least one “constitutional marshal” as part of the movement, witnessing as he took the oath of office.
Jeremy Costley's Oath to become a "marshal."
A paper copy of that oath contains a curious array of spellings and symbolism, designed to differentiate this oath from forms issued by the “false” shadow government that most people recognize as the U.S. government. The particular document Doucette witnessed contains a number of red fingerprints, which sovereigns believe is one of the strongest forms of identification. Some law enforcement researchers claim that sovereigns use their own blood as ink, avoiding black or blue ink because they associate those colors with corporations.
The marshal who took the oath that day was Jeremy Costley.
He was the man who invited me to the San Luis Valley to learn more about his movement.
Jeremy Costley’s home in the San Luis Valley.
On February 21, Jeremy Costley was stopped for a traffic violation in Antonito, and the stop wound up turning into a four-hour standoff, which ended peacefully after Costley negotiated his surrender.
During the stop, which Costley’s wife, Jessica, videotaped, Costley made a call to Doucette, who advised him to remain calm even though cops had discovered that Costilla County had put out a warrant for Costley’s arrest on charges that he was impersonating a peace officer — Costley’s claim to be a constitutional marshal.
I arranged to meet Costley at a motions hearing he had scheduled at 10 a.m. May 2 at the courthouse in San Luis. Arriving a few minutes early, I immediately spotted him across the street from the courthouse. Tall, rail-thin and sporting a scraggly goatee, Costley was wearing a cowboy hat and a coat covered in white dog hair.
“Well, let’s do this,” he said, after we shook hands. We headed into the courthouse, one of the principal buildings in the small town. But no sooner had Costley gotten through security than he was placed in handcuffs by deputies who were waiting for him inside the courtroom.
“Are you getting this?!” he yelled at me.
Flustered, Undersheriff Rodriguez brushed past me with the cuffed Costley.
I went back outside to talk to a couple of Costley’s friends. One of them, Zanis McDonald, was sitting in the passenger seat of a black pickup on the main road of San Luis. “This isn’t just in Colorado, this is nationwide!” he growled through his chest-length beard. “They’re arresting people and judges all over!”
Like Costley, McDonald is a military veteran, and he went on to describe his sovereign beliefs, as well as the close call he’d had with law enforcement last July when he refused to follow land-use requirements on his rural parcel in the valley.
“The kids told me someone was coming down the road,” he recalled. “So I stood in my doorway with my rifle on my shoulder…and [code enforcement] went creeping by.... They finally pulled up at the end of my drive and asked if they could talk to me. I told them no. They asked, ‘Do you have any permits?’ And I said, ‘Ain’t none of your business. Besides, you’re planning and zoning, you should know what permits I do and don’t have.’
“Fifteen minutes later, my neighbors are calling me telling me that there’s a bunch of patrol cars coming,” McDonald continued. “I called a bunch of folks to come to help protect my family.... They were going to storm my house with sixteen motherfucking police. And at the time, I had plenty of weapons but not much ammunition. But my cabin has no windows, and the front door is four inches thick, so they ain’t coming through that bitch too damn easy. I was scared for my family, but there was going to be a fight. I may not have had ammunition at that time, but we’ve got machetes and axes and shit. You come at me, you’re going to have a fight. And the police down here and planning and zoning know that I will shoot at them if they come down my road. I don’t give a fuck no more. They’re armed, and I consider them a threat.”
As McDonald was finishing his story, we both noticed that sheriff’s deputies were surrounding the car, which appeared to belong to a man sitting in the driver’s seat who had not said a word in nearly twenty minutes.
For the second time that morning, I watched an arrest occur right in front of me, as the undersheriff took a loaded Hi-Point .45 off McDonald, who started yelling, “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME, YOU FILTHY IRAQI BASTARDS!” (It was later suggested that he’d suffered a PTSD episode.)
Officer Cruz Soto checks the chamber of Zanis McDonald's sidearm to make sure it is unloaded.
After both Costley and McDonald were placed in custody, I obtained copies of their arrest warrants.
McDonald had been arrested for ignoring land-use violation notices and for threatening law-enforcement and public officials; the arrest-warrant affidavit noted that “McDonald is a convicted felon with Sovereign Citizen beliefs.”
Costley, on the other hand, was arrested on serious charges of sexually abusing one or multiple children who live in his home; his bond was set at $250,000.
When I called Costley’s wife shortly after his arrest, she insisted that the allegations were “bogus” and said she believed the charges were retribution from the county because her husband had considered running for sheriff after the previous undersheriff was booted from office for illegal poaching.
Jessica Costley did not show up at court the next day, May 3, for her husband’s hearing regarding the sexual-abuse charges. Instead, she elected to call in from an undisclosed “safehouse” that she later told me was a couple of counties over. During the hearing, when a Department of Social Services representative described a videotaped interview with one of the children who alleged years of sexual abuse, Costley demanded of the judge, “How do we know they didn’t threaten our children to get these allegations?”
Costley also claimed the court didn’t have jurisdiction over him because, as he put it, “I am not a United States citizen; I am a natural-born American.”
After the hearing, the offices of the Costilla County Sheriff’s Department and its Department of Planning and Zoning felt a little more relaxed. Issues with sovereigns had been “pretty calm for a long time,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t have many issues except for the people we [just] arrested.”
After a hearing on sexual-abuse charges, Jeremy Costley is escorted from the Costilla County Courthouse by Undersheriff Rodriguez.
Rodriguez’s deputies participated in recent trainings regarding the sovereign movement hosted by the Colorado State Patrol in Alamosa. “During the training, they indicated that the number-one domestic terrorists in the United States are sovereign citizens,” he recalled.
While not revealing too much about the training because it was “confidential,” Rodriguez said one of the things he learned was not to debate sovereigns about constitutional rights. “Basically, they said not to get into it and let them rant and rave about it,” he explained.
Rodriguez’s department shares information with the FBI about sovereign activity in Costilla County, he said, declining to go into specifics. “Safety is our main issue. We don’t know what they’re capable of doing,” he continued. “Ninety percent of the time, they won’t talk to us. But we keep an eye out on social media.” He estimated that the number of sovereigns living in the San Luis Valley has fluctuated between ten people to upwards of a hundred during the past several years.
Besides Costley and McDonald, the people most affected by their arrests were the two code-enforcement officers, Cruz Soto and Colleen Romero, who are tasked with patrolling the valley each day to look for land-use violations.
On May 3, I was approved to go on a ride-along with Romero, Soto and their boss, Land Use Administrator T. Martinez. They had never taken a reporter along before, and had adapted a liability form from the sheriff’s department, which included this line: “I understand that code enforcement activities are inherently dangerous and that even though officers will do everything possible to keep me safe, it is not possible to make me immune from risk of all injuries up to and including death.”
Soto and Romero never go out on patrol without bulletproof vests. “Just wait ’til you see the bullet holes in our car,” Soto joked before we headed out in a car that turned out to have no bullet holes.
But out on the prairie, with its flat expanses bordered on the horizons by mountain ranges jutting to snow-bearing altitudes, I understood just how isolated and alone Soto and Romero are during their patrols. “What’s difficult going into these areas is that you’re a sitting duck,” explained Soto. “The scary part is that when you look into these sovereign individuals with their beliefs, a lot of them legitimately believe that if you step onto their property, they can shoot you...and if you think about it, they can see you coming from a mile away. So you’re definitely wary and looking over your shoulder when you’re in these areas, knowing that in the past, these individuals have rallied the troops to respond to us.”
“So what about your backup?” I asked.
“There are other deputies in the valley, but even if they’re going mach Jesus, it’s going to take them a good amount of time to get to us,” he responded. “We try to avoid confrontations.... The DA even told us, ‘Out of all the individuals out there, I worry about you the most because you are in the mix of all of these individuals and they stand by their beliefs.’”
Land Use Administrator T. Martinez (center) worries about code-enforcement officers Colleen Romero (left) and Cruz Soto when they’re on patrol.
As we drove farther into no-man’s-land, Martinez and his two code-enforcement officers pointed out the kind of things they look for during their patrols. “People show up every day that we’ve never met and never seen on properties that were vacant yesterday,” said Martinez, gesturing toward RVs and campers that dotted the landscape.
The issue, he explained, is that many people buy cheap property in Costilla County — some of it through websites like Landwatch.com — without realizing that owners need to adhere to basic requirements such as building a septic system, which costs around $7,000 when done to code. Digging a well, the permanent solution to meeting the county’s fresh-water requirement (as opposed to a standing water tank), costs an additional $10,000 between drilling, casing and plumbing.
“Fifty dollars down, fifty dollars a month can sometimes get you five acres of land, with agents [erroneously] telling you that you don’t need permits,” said Martinez. “On a daily basis, pretty much, someone will tell me, ‘Well, I bought this property, and the real estate person said we don’t need permits and can live in an RV and we can do whatever we want.’”
So rampant is the practice of subdividing and leasing that Costilla County is the most vacant county in Colorado, with only 3,600 people spread between 40,000 lots and nearly 1,900 miles of county roads.
Martinez estimated that around 300 individual dwellings currently fit the description “off the grid.” He had no issue with them, he said, as long as the owners work to comply with the county’s land-use code, which was put into effect in 1998 to combat illegal dumping of trash and wastewater but has only been seriously enforced since 2011.
While Costilla County has land-use regulations, it doesn’t have a building code — so many of the off-the-grid dwellings look like what you might find in a dystopian desert wasteland.
Edwards’s half-buried RV is one example. The code enforcers showed it to me, tucked away in an arid part of the plains that locals refer to as “Iraqi Flats” because of the desert-like vegetation.
We also toured property once occupied by a character that Soto, Martinez and Romero referred to as “Dr. Love.” The dwelling was strategically located on one side of a rise so that it was not visible from the county road, and Martinez said he’d only found it after seeing the structure on a satellite image.
“That’s like a doghouse, or some kind of volcanic-rock igloo — I don’t know what it is,” said Martinez, gesturing toward an eight-foot-tall pile of rocks that was hollow inside and had been laboriously constructed next to a wooden shack.
Martinez said he understands that many people have trouble meeting the financial demands of land-use requirements, and added that he feels sympathy for those duped by real estate agents who claim that no permits are necessary. “Unfortunately, we still have to give them a violation notice,” he explained. “If we find them living without septic, a lot of times we’ll say, ‘You shouldn’t be living out here. There’s a fourteen-day camping limit. We’ll give you a couple weeks to figure stuff out.’”
An abandoned dwelling "off the grid' in the San Luis Valley.
About halfway through the ride-along, we arrived at an area where Costley and McDonald own land and have built their residences. “If they weren’t in custody, we probably wouldn’t be out here,” Soto admitted.
“I even ran back to the vehicle last week because it looked like the back trailer window [at Costley’s] was open and the curtain moved,” Romero added, “so I thought that someone was going to shoot at us.”
The officers wondered whether any family members would still be at the residences following the arrests. Sure enough, as we drove past McDonald’s dwelling, two children emerged from a windowless shack and yelled at us to go away.
“You’ve got to go! Go!” yelled a boy.
“This is a public road!” responded Soto from the driver’s seat of the SUV. “It’s not private! This is a public road.”
“Well, my parents say you can’t be here right now!”
“Well, I’m not on your private property!”
Then a different voice shouted from the shack, “Get inside!,” and the two children suddenly disappeared from view.
Soto then produced a cease-and-desist notice from inside the car, and asked, “Should I just post it on the RV, boss?”
“Sounds good,” responded Martinez. “You got the Gorilla tape?”
Brian Slater, Naval Postgraduate School Thesis & Dissertation Collection
While at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, Brian Slater spent fifteen months researching sovereigns in the United States, going back through the past decade. The movement stretches even further back than that, with roots in the Posse Comitatus movement that emerged during the American farm crisis of the ’70s and ’80s, and branches in the Montana Freemen of the mid-’90s.
Slater’s research, released as his postgraduate thesis in September 2016, studied court cases throughout the country related to sovereign individuals, as evidenced by the types of filings submitted by defendants or the crimes being prosecuted, including paper terrorism.
Slater — who notes that his research represents his own findings, not the views of the military — says he was surprised to find that cases related to sovereigns are growing exponentially on a J-shaped curve. “In my research, I found that this is happening in all fifty states,” he explains. “You would think it would be concentrated most where you had those earlier movements, like Montana. But that wasn’t the case; where I found it was most predominant was in Illinois, California and New Jersey.”
Brian Slater’s research shows sovereign-centered cases increasing on a J-shaped curve.
Brian Slater. Naval Postgraduate School Thesis & Dissertation Collection
“Colorado is, what I would say, medium to light as far as concentration goes,” Slater responds. “That being said, it’s on the rise.”
While Slater cautions that his data mostly covers the Obama years, adding that he isn’t sure what effect the current administration will have on the spread of sovereign ideology, he says he doesn’t think the person occupying the White House makes much of a difference to believers, since sovereigns appear to be focused on how the United States has become corrupted over the past 200 years, not just recently.
As for the number of sovereigns throughout the United States, Slater says that’s a squishy statistic because there are so many splinter groups and ideological variations, ranging from armed militias to relatively pacifist tax dodgers. He points out that the Southern Poverty Law Center’s estimate — that there are between 100,000 to 300,000 sovereign individuals in the United States — is very broad.
Whatever the true number, Slater cautions against writing off sovereigns as a bunch of crackpots, as has frequently occurred in media reports. “The sovereign ideology itself is not crazy,” he says. “Yes, the criminal acts are criminal. But their train of thought is not un-American. If you were to ask a non-sovereign citizen, ‘Do you think our government has gone off the rails?’ Or, ‘Are there illegitimate portions of the tax code?,’ there are plenty of non-sovereign individuals who would head-nod.... It’s not a foreign thought.”
While Bruce Doucette was being held at the Denver Downtown Detention Center, I made a request to the Denver Sheriff’s Department that I be allowed to visit. Doucette declined to see me, instead referring me to a spokesman named Rodger Dowdell who said he was located “with a team” in Florida.
Dowdell reiterated many of the things I’d heard when talking to folks like Jeremy Costley. “There is no such thing as a ‘sovereign citizen.’ When you look up the word ‘citizen,’ it means subject. And when you put a word meaning the highest ruler — sovereign — next to a word meaning subject, it’s an oxymoron; it doesn’t mean nothing,” Dowdell said.
“What’s happening is that people of all walks of life are waking up to the fact that our government has been hijacked,” he continued. “A group in Colorado discovered this and said, ‘How can we rectify it?’ The first thing they did was simple: They went to elected and appointed public servants and they demanded to see their oath of office and their bond. And if there was a defect, they gave them a twenty-day notice to get the defect fixed. If they didn’t get the defect fixed, they put their names on a notice of fraud and publicized it.... Now judges are trying to retaliate, and they’ve manufactured all sorts of bogus charges against these innocent people that are just trying to clean up their government corruption.”
As for armed standoffs like those carried out by members of the Bundy family in Nevada and Oregon, Dowdell said, “It’s the only method that the founders gave us, because think about it this way: If we the people are to be free men, then you can’t have anyone on top of us. So it’s our duty.”
Between Doucette’s arrest on March 30 and Costley’s on May 2, Costley had requested and received permission from others in the movement to give me access to their weekly conference call, known as the “national assembly call.”
During the April 20 call, I’d tuned in just in time to hear an exchange between Doucette and his wife. Despite everyone else listening, it struck me as a rather personal moment, though Doucette’s time was cut short when an automated voice from his jail’s phone system interrupted and announced in a cold, metallic voice, “You have one minute left.”
“Oh, so I have one minute left,” said Doucette, disappointed. “Well, please remember, this is a spiritual battle, and we need to win this one. We need to free everybody from this corrupt admiralty law and this corrupt government. So pray, everyone, please. Blessings to all and goodnight, and to my beautiful wife, I love you always. Bye, all.”
After Doucette left the call, the conversation became more businesslike and mundane, with motions made to pass resolutions about things like press releases and whether to reach out to a radio show in Utah.
Dowdell said he’d come to know Doucette through the type of call I’d listened to; increasingly, calls and social-media channels are acting as the connective tissues between states.
“It’s we the people in assembly, meeting. So it’s public,” said Dowdell. “It isn’t Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or anything else. This is the people getting together in assembly and making resolutions, which become the direct voice of the people to the county commissioners, who must comply.”
Colorado was the first delegation to start doing conference calls, which have been going on for a “few years now,” he said. “Colorado was definitely the leading state, and Florida was probably number two behind them. Other states involved are Oregon, Nebraska, North Carolina.... Illinois has their grand jury up and running, and Texas is moving forward.”
I asked Dowdell about Doucette’s chances of beating the charges. “I think it looks very good because [he] hasn’t taken on an attorney,” he said. “I’m very optimistic. He needs to be released, and it’s just a matter of time.”
On my final day in southern Colorado, I finally got a chance to visit Vince Edwards, who, against his wishes, had been transferred to Costilla County’s jail. He was being kept in a separate pod from Costley and McDonald because, as Edwards put it, “They don’t want us exchanging notes.” (Since his original arrest, McDonald, too, had been charged with child abuse.)
Edwards said he’d been in custody since the September 29 standoff, and even though his bond was set at $17,500, “it might as well be a million, because I’m poor.”
While Edwards had plenty of elaborate theories about why the original charge against him — that he’d threatened land-use administrator Martinez in an attempt to influence him to stop requiring permits — was unjust and immoral, he took solace in standing up to a system that he believes is corrupt to its core.
“When we say sovereign...there’s a lot of propaganda out there about it,” he said. “People don’t want us learning about our history in this country because we’re not going to bow down to the quote-unquote authorities. But the problem is, we’re the authorities. They’re the servants.”
And where does he fit?
“Really, I’m just a guy who exercises his rights and stands on his own two feet.”
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