Sounding the Alarm on the Sovereign Citizen Movement
Two to three times a week for over a year now, retired West Memphis Police Chief Bob Paudert relives the worst day of his life in front of an audience.
On May 20, 2010, then-Chief Paudert was in the car with his wife when he heard a call come over his radio announcing two officers down along Interstate 40 in West Memphis, Arkansas. One of the first officers on the scene, Paudert left his wife in the car and found one of his police officers, Bill Evans, riddled with bullets, dead in a water-filled ditch next to the road.
Remembering the radio said two officers were down, he walked up the hill from where Evans’ body was to find his son, Sgt. Brandon Paudert, on the ground next to his cruiser. “The back of his head had been shot off with an AK-47,” Paudert said Wednesday at the bipartisan Center for National Policy, pausing to hold back his emotion.
It all began with a routine traffic stop: the sequence of events was captured on the police cruiser’s dashboard camera and shown to the audience.
At 11:36 a.m., Evans pulled over a white Dodge Caravan. Inside were the driver, Jerry R. Kane Jr., his 16-year-old son Joseph Kane, and two dogs. Paudert arrived afterward to give backup. During the stop, Joseph Kane suddenly jumped out of the passenger seat and ambushed the two police officers with an AK-47. The officers had no idea they were in danger.
The Kanes, who were killed less than two hours later during a shootout with police in a Wal-Mart parking lot, were part of a decentralized right-wing extremist movement known as the Sovereign Citizen Movement, which Paudert and the FBI consider a rising domestic terrorist threat inside the United States.
“The thing about sovereigns,” explained Dick Marquise, a retired FBI agent who now works for the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training (SLATT) Program, “is you can’t say it’s an organization.”
Arising out of the antigovernment extremist milieu associated with Ruby Ridge, Waco, and the Oklahoma City bombing, sovereign citizens do not recognize the legitimacy of federal, state, and local laws nor the public employees empowered to enforce them. Renouncing their citizenship and declaring themselves “sovereign,” they believe they do not have to abide by the law or pay taxes. While Paudert says there are sovereigns in every state, he believes one epicenter of the movement is in Southern Alabama, near the Florida border.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks the movement’s activities, estimates there are 100,000 hardcore adherents to the ideology, some with military-training. Paudert told Security Management he knows of sovereign-citizen compounds with firing ranges where people discharge hundreds of rounds of ammunition per week. During his presentation, Paudert repeatedly mentioned how expertly Joseph Kane wielded his AK-47 with deadly accuracy, observing the teenager was more accurate when pistol-gripping and firing an assault rifle than most police officers are when firing their service weapons.
“They are more dangerous to law enforcement than international terrorists,” he warned during his presentation. “These people are within our own backyard; they’re here. They’re in every state we have and they are extremely dangerous.”
Since 2002, six law enforcement officers, including Evans and Paudert, have been killed during altercations with sovereign citizens and another four wounded, said FBI Spokeswoman Kathleen Wright.
Now retired from the West Memphis Police Department, it has become Paudert’s mission, often answering e-mails past midnight, to warn law enforcement of U.S. citizens who are “willing to kill and be killed for their beliefs,” he said. He doesn’t want any other officers caught by surprise like Evans and his son.
“I had never heard of sovereign citizens mentioned before May 20, 2010,” he said. “Never heard the term. Had no idea what it was. Brandon and Bill never heard of it.” Paudert called around the country and discovered other police departments had never heard of the movement either, an intelligence blind spot he blamed on poor FBI information-sharing. In response, Paudert became a one-man intelligence-sharing shop, traveling the country and giving sovereign citizen presentations to law enforcement audiences.
Paudert helps educate police officers by describing common indicators law enforcement may observe that may signal they’re dealing with a sovereign citizen. Often sovereign citizens create or purchase fake license plates and vehicle registration cards for their vehicles, which they call “vessels,” and use fake drivers’ licenses as their form of identification. Law enforcement officers should pay attention to bumper stickers displaying terms like “Posse Comitatus,” “I Am an American National,” or “Not Subject to Corporate Federal or Corporate State Jurisdiction.”
When interacting with authorities, Paudert said, sovereign citizens often try to confuse them with legal-looking documents with red script or a red thumb-print that say they are outside government jurisdiction. They also like to question police officers' jurisdiction or answer police officers questions obliquely or with a question in return. During traffic stops, sovereign citizens have been known to answer police questions with the answer: "I am a free man, traveling upon the land." Some sovereigns film their interactions with police and then place them on websites run by sovereign citizens or their sympathizers.
Paudert counsels police officers to refuse documents from someone during a traffic stop that do not appear to be the driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. “Paperwork is a universal distraction used by sovereigns” to get law enforcement officers to drop their guard, he explained.
In the Kanes’ case, Jerry told the officers that he was a pastor traveling the country preaching the gospel with his son. A Bible sat on the front seat of the van, which was registered to a church in Ohio. (There was no way the officers could know it was a vacant building that was once the home of the Aryan Nation.) “When law enforcement hears you’re with a church, their guard goes down to zero,” Paudert said. “They’re not prepared to be killed when they’re dealing with church members.”
The former police chief also tells law enforcement officers across the country to call for backup if they suspect they’re dealing with a sovereign citizen. “Do not ever approach that vehicle alone, whether there’s one in there or five in there,” he said. “It makes no difference: they are deadly.”
Although Paudert then followed up to say that not all sovereign citizens are violent, he stressed police should act with extreme caution when interacting with them. “I don’t want to see any other family suffer,” he said. “So I’m doing everything within my power to do my part in educating officers about [sovereign citizens].”
His zeal has had an immediate impact. Paudert says the FBI has begun to take the threat from sovereign citizens seriously, engaging the mainstream media and raising the profile of the movement as well as sharing information with state and local law enforcement and conducting sovereign citizen awareness training.
“I think [the FBI] is doing a great job now,” he said.
That’s important, because Paudert believes the threat will only grow as sovereign citizens become more confrontational. In Nevada, for example, Paudert toldSecurity Management that sovereign citizens have organized a phone bank to alert each other when a compatriot is pulled over by police.
“If one person gets stopped, they can group dial the others and the sovereigns will all come to that traffic stop,” he said. “Some will have weapons. Some will have video cameras. And they’re there just to intimidate the police officers.”
That’s why Paudert says it’s critical for police officers to call for backup before engaging a known or suspected sovereign citizen.
“We’re telling officers that when they stop [a sovereign] be prepared and always have backup, because they’re going to have someone coming.”