(Photo: Matt Gibson / Flickr)
It had been one of those mornings for West Memphis, Ark., police officers Brandon Paudert and Bill Evans. By 11:00 on May 20, they'd already spent three hours monitoring a suspicious rental truck and vehicle with Arizona license plates parked at a local motel, trying to determine whether the truck contained a shipment of illegal drugs. As members of the West Memphis Police Department's drug interdiction team, their job was to stop the seemingly endless flow of narcotics that passed through their town on busy Interstate 40. Officer Paudert called it in, and the West Memphis chief of police arrived at the scene to assess the situation.
When it was discovered that the truck and car was nothing more sinister than a grandmother moving her family, the good-natured ribbing began.
After all, the chief of police was not just the officers' boss; he was Brandon Paudert's father.
"I told them to get off their butts and get back on the interstate," Chief Bob Paudert recounted later. "They were really laughing."
Chagrined, Paudert and Evans returned to I-40, watching for signs of drugs on the move through their jurisdiction. When Evans spied a white minivan with unusual Ohio license plates, he pulled the van over at the exit near Mile Marker 275, and called his partner for backup. Safety came first, and in the dangerous world of drug trafficking, there is no such thing as a routine stop.
Inside the white minivan, a 16-year-old boy named Joseph Kane remained in the passenger seat, while his father, Jerry, age 45, stood in front of the police SUV and argued with the officers. There was a tussle, and Jerry Kane pushed Officer Evans into a roadside ditch. The boy quickly emerged from the minivan with a loaded AK-47 and aimed at Evans. The officer put one hand on his pistol, and held the other up to the boy as if to signal "Stop." The boy shot Evans several times and turned his attention to Paudert, who took cover behind the police vehicle.
A package delivery man, exiting the highway at Marker 275, stopped his truck to witness the horrific scene. He called 911, and the alert went out: "Officer down!"
While Paudert was able to fire his pistol seven times, he was outgunned and the police vehicle offered little protection from Joe Kane's assault rifle. The boy chased Paudert around the police SUV, shooting him several times in the back of the head before returning to Evans in the ditch. There, he fired again. The Kanes then rushed to the minivan and pulled away, while Joe continued to shoot at the downed officers.
Another alert went out: "Two officers down!"
According to a preliminary investigation report, Brandon Paudert was struck 11 times and died at the scene; Evans was hit by 14 rounds and died at the hospital.
In the next 90 minutes, there was a frenzy of activity around West Memphis. The highways were closed, law enforcement from various agencies converged on the area looking for the white minivan with odd Ohio plates, and calls started coming in from alert citizens. The van was spotted at a local country club, a commercial truck terminal, and an apartment building. One witness claimed that Jerry Kane had asked for directions to the nearest Walmart. As seen in Walmart security videotapes of the parking lot, Joe Kane walked into the store and made a purchase, while his father removed the license plates from the vehicle.
The first to spot the van was an Arkansas wildlife officer who rammed into the Kanes' vehicle to prevent it from leaving. The Kanes fired more than a dozen rounds at the officer's truck, but he wasn't hit. As police converged on the scene, two more officers were wounded in a frenzied shootout before the Kanes were both killed. Crittenden County Sheriff Dick Busby was shot once in the shoulder, and W.A. Wren, West Memphis' chief of enforcement, was hit multiple times in the abdomen. Both men survived.
Over the next few days, West Memphis mourned the loss of its officers. At the same time, the department, other law enforcement officials, and the public at large began to question exactly what had provoked the violence.
Who are the "Sovereigns"?
It would be tempting to dismiss the violence that took place that day as an isolated event — an unstable father and son who exploded in a moment of vicious, unexplained fury. The truth, however, is more frightening. Jerry Kane and his young son were active participants in the sprawling subculture of "sovereign citizens" in America: hundreds of thousands of far-right extremists who believe that they — not judges, juries, law enforcement or elected officials — get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and who don't think they should have to pay taxes. While law enforcement officers may disagree on how to deal with or even label this extremist subculture, one thing is certain: it's trouble. The sovereign movement is growing fast, and its partisans are clogging up the courts with their indecipherable filings. When cornered, many of them lash out in rage, frustration and, in the most extreme cases, acts of deadly violence.
It is difficult to say precisely how many sovereigns there are in the United States today, in part because there is no central leadership and no organized group that members can join — instead, there are a variety of local leaders with individualized takes on sovereign citizen ideology and techniques. Those who are attracted to this bizarre subculture typically attend a seminar or two, or visit one of the thousands of websites and online videos on the subject, and then simply choose how to act on what they've learned. Some start by testing sovereign ideology with small offenses such as driving without a license, while others proceed directly to taking on the IRS as tax protesters.
In the mid-1990s, the IRS estimated that there were approximately 250,000 such tax protesters in the U.S., not all of whom were full-blown sovereign ideologues. Since the late 1990s, an abundance of evidence suggests that the sovereign citizen movement's growth has been explosive, although there have been no more recent IRS estimates because Congress in 1998 prohibited the agency from tracking or labeling those who file frivolous arguments in lieu of paying their taxes. But a conservative estimate of the number of all kinds of tax protesters today would be about 500,000.
In the 2008 criminal tax trial of actor Wesley Snipes, whose tax filings made clear that he was a sovereign tax protester, IRS senior technical adviser Shauna Henline testified that the agency receives between 20,000 and 30,000 frivolous returns each year, along with roughly 100,000 letters from tax protesters. Earlier, in 2001, the U.S. Senate's Finance Committee held hearings on the growing movement and, by 2008, the Department of Justice had decided to introduce the National Tax Defier Initiative in a bid to target key movement leaders. "Simply stated," then-Assistant Attorney General Nathan Hochman said in announcing the DOJ initiative, "we want to pull back the curtain and show the public that the promoters of these tax and bogus schemes are not some wizards that have revealed the tax-free universe to America, but instead are nothing more than garden variety hucksters and modern day snake oil salesmen, peddling their bogus tax products."
Not all tax protesters are sovereign citizens, and many newer recruits to the sovereign life did not start out as tax protesters. But based on the available evidence, a reasonable estimate of hard-core sovereign believers today would be 100,000, with another 200,000 just starting out by testing sovereign techniques for resisting everything from speeding tickets to drug charges, for a total of 300,000. As sovereign theories go viral throughout the nation's prison systems and among people who are unemployed and desperate in a punishing recession, this number is likely to grow.
Redeeming the "Strawman"
While many sovereign citizens own guns, their weapon of choice is paper. A simple traffic violation or pet-licensing case can end up provoking dozens of court filings containing hundreds of pages of pseudo-legal nonsense. For example, Donna Lee Wray, Jerry Kane's "common-law wife," was recently involved in a protracted legal battle in a dog-licensing case. She filed 10 sovereign documents in court over a two-month period, then declared victory when the harried prosecutor decided to drop the case. A three-year dog license in Wray's Pinellas County, Fla., costs $20.
Tax cases are even worse —sovereign filings in such legal battles can quickly exceed a thousand pages. While a normal criminal case docket might have 60 or 70 entries, many involving sovereigns have as many as 1,200. The courts are struggling to keep up, and judges, prosecutors and public defenders are being swamped.
It isn't just the number of pages that is causing courts to sag under the weight of these filings. The documents are written in a kind of special sovereign code language that judges, lawyers and other court staff simply don't speak. Sovereigns believe that if they can find just the right combination of words, punctuation, paper, ink color and timing, they can have anything they want — freedom from taxes, unlimited wealth, and life without licenses, fees or laws, are all just a few strangely worded documents away. It's the modern-day equivalent of "abracadabra."
At its core, the current sovereign belief system is relatively simple and 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. Some sovereigns believe this perfidious change occurred during the Civil War, while others blame the events of 1933, when America abandoned the gold standard. Either way, they stake their lives and livelihood on the idea that judges around the country know all about this hidden government takeover but are denying the sovereigns' motions and filings out of treasonous loyalty to hidden and malevolent government forces. 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.
The next layer of the scheme is even more implausible. Since 1933, the U.S. dollar has been backed not by gold, but by the "full faith and credit" of the U.S. government. According to sovereign researchers, this means that the government has pledged its citizenry as collateral, by selling their future earning capabilities to foreign investors, effectively enslaving all Americans. This sale, they claim, takes place at birth.
When a baby is born in the U.S., a birth certificate is issued, and the hospital usually requires that the parents apply for a Social Security number at that time. Sovereigns say that the government then uses that certificate to set up a kind of corporate trust in the baby's name — a secret Treasury account — which it funds with an amount ranging from $600,000 to $20 million, depending on the particular variant of the sovereign belief system. By setting up this account, every newborn's rights are cleverly split between those held by the flesh-and-blood baby and the ones assigned to his or her corporate shell account.
The clues, many sovereigns believe, are found on the birth certificate itself. Since most certificates use all capital letters to spell out a baby's name, JOHN DOE is the name of the corporate shell "strawman," while John Doe is the baby's "real," flesh-and-blood name. As the child grows older, most of his legal documents will utilize capital letters, which means that his state-issued driver's license, his marriage license, his car registration, his criminal court records, his cable TV bill, and correspondence from the IRS will all pertain to his corporate shell identity, not his real, sovereign identity.
The process sovereigns have devised to split the strawman from the flesh-and-blood man is called "redemption," and its purpose is two-fold. Once separated from the corporate shell, the newly freed man is now outside of the jurisdiction of all admiralty laws. More importantly, by filing a series of complex, legal-sounding documents, the sovereign can tap into that secret Treasury account for his own purposes. Over the last 30 years, there have been hundreds of sovereign promoters packaging different combinations of forms and paperwork, attempting to perfect the process. While no one has ever succeeded, of course, they know with the religious certainty of a true cult believer that they're close. All it will take is the right combination of words, say the promoters of the redemption scam.
Jerry Kane was one such promoter.
Why Do They Do It?
Newcomers drift into the movement in a variety of ways. Originally, the sovereign citizens movement mostly attracted white supremacists and anti-Semites, mainly because sovereign theories originated in groups who saw Jews as playing a behind-the-scenes role in manipulating financial institutions and controlling the government. Most early sovereigns, and some of those who are still on the scene, believed that being white was a prerequisite to becoming a sovereign citizen. They argued that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave blacks U.S. citizenship, also made black Americans permanently subject to federal and state governments, unlike themselves.
In recent years, however, most new recruits are people who have found themselves in a desperate situation and are searching for a quick fix. Others are intrigued by the notions of easy money and living a lawless life, free from any unpleasant consequences. (Moreover, many self-identified sovereigns today are black and apparently completely unaware of the racist origins of their ideology.) When they experience some small success at using redemption techniques to battle minor traffic offenses or local licensing issues, they're hooked. For many, it's a political issue. They don't like taxes, traffic laws, child support obligations or making banks rich, but they are too impatient to try to change what they dislike by traditional, political means.
In times of economic prosperity, sovereigns typically rely on absurd and convoluted schemes to evade state and federal income taxes and hide their assets from the IRS. In times of financial hardship, they turn to debt- and mortgage-elimination scams, techniques to avoid child support payments, and even attempts to use their redemption techniques to get out of serious criminal charges. Jerry Kane, who'd suffered a series of personal defeats in life, specialized in teaching a mortgage-elimination technique that had no basis in the actual law.
Once in the movement, it's an immersive and heady experience. In the last three decades, the redemptionist subculture has grown from small groups of like-minded individuals in localized pockets around the nation to a richly layered society. Redemptionists attend specialized seminars and national conferences, enjoy a large assortment of alternative newspapers and radio networks, and subscribe to sovereign-oriented magazines and websites. They home school their children so that a new generation will not have to go through the same learning curve that they did to see past the government's curtain to the common-law utopia beyond.
While the techniques sold by promoters never perform as promised, most followers are nonetheless content to be fighting the battle, and they blame only the judges, lawyers, prosecutors and police when their gurus' methods fail. While most have never achieved financial success in life, they take pride in engaging the government in battle, comparing themselves to the founding fathers during the American Revolution.
In recent months, their movement has grown to the point where a group called the Guardians of the Free Republics is attempting to assemble its own common-law-based, alternative government on a national scale. Already, the group, which earlier this year demanded that the governors of all 50 states step down, claims to have set up a common-law court in every state. At least 1,350 people have signed up to serve as jurors on these pseudo-legal judicial bodies.
Liens, Litigation and Murder
A litigation plan based solely on conspiracies and absurd legal theories is doomed to fail. When the inevitable happens, the sovereign has two choices: he can admit he was wrong and fell for an obvious scam, or he can blame the government. Considering that most sovereigns were already desperate when they joined the movement, spending years and many dollars on worthless redemption techniques can only have worsened their situation. Realistically, some angry outbursts are to be expected when the moment of truth arrives.
Sometimes, those outbursts are aimed at self or family. But far more often, the sovereign takes aim at his perceived enemies. The judge that dismisses his claim, the county recorder who refuses his filing, the reporter that calls him a deadbeat dad, and the sheriff who evicts him from his foreclosed home — all are possible targets of a sovereign's rage (see tips for law enforcement officials, p. 24). Since most sovereigns favor paper over guns, this revenge most often takes the form of retaliatory property liens and tax forms that are designed to ruin an enemy's credit rating and cause them to be audited by the IRS.
But in those cases where a sovereign feels particularly desperate, angry, battle-weary and cornered, his next government contact, no matter how minor, can be his final straw. The resulting rage can be lethal.
Jerry and Joe Kane were not the first sovereigns to lash out at a routine traffic stop and it's unlikely they'll be the last. In 1995 in Ohio, a sovereign named Michael Hill pulled a gun on an officer during a traffic stop. Hill was killed. In 1997, New Hampshire extremist Carl Drega shot dead two officers and two civilians, and wounded another three officers before being killed himself. In that same year in Idaho, when brothers Doug and Craig Broderick were pulled over for failing to signal, they killed one officer and wounded another before being killed themselves in a violent gun battle.
And, in a 1993 case that bears an eerie similarity to the recent events in West Memphis, an Alabama officer approached a family's car in a strip mall parking lot. A shopper there had told the officer that a boy in the back seat was asking for help. The officer walked to the car and asked to see the father's driver's license. There was an argument, and the father made some typical sovereign claims. Then, without warning, the father pulled out his gun and shot the officer. Badly wounded, the officer tried to run to his car, but instead met the wife of the sovereign, who pulled out her own weapon and shot him dead. The couple had warrants out for their arrest in Florida, and the car they were driving had unusual sovereign-style license plates. Sovereign citizens George Sibley and Linda Block were executed for the murder by the state of Alabama several years later.
May had been a stressful month for Jerry Kane. He'd been traveling around the country with his teenage son, giving seminars to financially strapped individuals and promising them the tools to avoid foreclosure. His seminar fee ranged from $100 to $300 "per man," but a man was free to bring his wife and children for that price. If a follower were in really dire straits, Kane would let him attend free.
As a former long-haul trucker, Kane was used to long hours on the road with his son, but in his most recent online radio show, he'd told his followers that he was frustrated with the seminar circuit and planned to cut his scheduled tour off early, after one more date in Florida. A recent seminar in Denver had been a disaster — no one had shown up — and he'd just completed a two-day event in Las Vegas, traveling thousands of miles in his old Plymouth Voyager. Despite his efforts and time, only six people had attended.
To make matters worse, Kane knew that driving cross-country was risky. As a sovereign citizen and a member of the larger antigovernment "Patriot" movement — a free man who believed that the Constitution guaranteed his right to travel without restriction — he was breaking a number of laws. He didn't have a driver's license. His van was registered to an accommodating ministry in Ohio. There was a brick of marijuana in the car. And, most importantly, he had outstanding warrants for his arrest in two states. In Ohio, he faced charges of forgery and theft by deception. And only a few weeks earlier, he'd been arrested in New Mexico for driving without a license and concealing his identity. He'd been preparing a series of documents to file in New Mexico that were designed to punish the police officer who arrested him. Kane was determined to make the officer and his family pay.
On May 20, Jerry and Joe Kane were driving east on I-40 from Las Vegas to their last seminar and a new life in Florida. Kane had met a Floridian named Donna Lee Wray at one of his foreclosure seminars three months earlier, and they had fallen in love. Father and son were headed, they thought, to a bright new life. Instead, they left a trail of human wreckage and smashed-up hopes and dreams.
Today, even after learning many of the facts behind the sovereign citizens movement that helped lead the Kanes and others to murder, the late Officer Paudert's boss and father, the West Memphis chief, struggles to make sense of what happened. Bob Paudert mourns his son and the other casualties of the collision of sovereign citizen ideology and law enforcement, and he worries that his personal tragedy could repeat itself with other police officers on roads around the nation.
"How much more routine can you get than a father and son in [what looked like] a church van?" he asked in an interview. "Your guard is down and you're just not ready for a shootout. We need indicators that tell us what to look for."
There are telltale signs of sovereign citizens — strange license plates, unusual comments about the Fed and other government agencies, and so on. But they are not always easy to spot. And while not all are violent — sovereign leaders around the country have had mixed views of the Arkansas shootout, from painting the Kanes as heroes to various wild-eyed conspiracy theories about them being "set up" by government forces — there is little to suggest that the killings have weakened the movement. Donna Lee Wray, for example, reacted to the death of her new family by firing off angry missives demanding, among other things, that she be paid $1 million every time her "copyrighted" name is printed by those writing about the case. The number of sovereigns across America is clearly expanding, and with that growth comes an increasing level of danger.
Bob Paudert, in an emotional interview with the Intelligence Report, said he knows only too well what the cost can be. "It was the worst day of my life, ever," the chief said. "I hope no parent has to go through what we've been through."
J.J. MacNab is a nationally known tax and insurance expert who has testified before the U.S. Congress and in other important venues. The author of numerous articles, she is currently at work on a book about the sovereign citizens movement.