One afternoon in early January, just outside the small, north Texas town of Pottsboro, Vincent Smith shot and killed his friend, Charles Carter, who was drunk. The two were members of the American patriot movement, and they had been organizing, through Facebook, a march of gun rights evangelists on Washington. According to those who knew him, just before he was killed, Carter was expressing an interest in acquiring the makings of a bomb. The march imploded, just feet from where it began, before it ever got on the road.
Carter and his girlfriend, Mandy Sulser, had been living in an RV on Smith’s property, a few miles from the Red River (Texas’s border with Oklahoma). The couple—both Texans, born and raised—ended up homeless last year after Carter lost his job, Sulser told me. They were living out of her car when Smith, an Air Force veteran who served Vietnam, who Carter and Sulser knew through mutual Facebook friends, invited them to stay with him. The three bonded quickly: Smith spent $1,000 buying back Carter’s guns from a pawn shop, Sulser said. “That is my friend,” Smith commented on a Facebook photo of Carter hoisting an AR-15. “He is badass.” (After his friend was dead, Smith claimed the shooting was an act of self-defense. No charges have been filed against him. Smith and his attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Sulser said she met Carter at her uncle’s funeral. She locked eyes with him while speaking to the gathered mourners. “There was just an instant connection,” she said. Carter and Sulser’s family grew close. He looked after her aunt and her cousin, who was 15 when his father was killed. She and Carter were best friends for almost a decade before becoming romantically involved last year.
“Charles always knew he had a higher calling, but he was too old for the military. This was the next best thing,” Sulser said. “It was mostly just meetings. Weekend training exercises. Being on guard, standing up for your rights, the Constitution—stuff like that. They’re not violent. It was mostly cops, ex-military, veterans. A lot of veterans. It was a way for everyone to get in a group and have one voice.”
(The Three Percenters group, however, is decentralized and its adherents are unpredictable. Last fall, a man affiliated with the group opened fire on a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Minneapolis, wounding five. In 2011, four self-described “militiamen” were arrested and charged with planning to purchase explosives and the biological toxin ricin in a plot to attack American citizens and government officials in Atlanta, Georgia, inspired by a book written by the Three Pecenter’s founder Mike Vanderboegh, who later ridiculed their plans.)
Carter’s own political beliefs were based in two foundational texts: The Bible, and the Constitution. “He believed in the law of the land—the original Constitution, not all these new laws that Obama’s passing and everything else. Letting in these refugees and paying them all this money to come and live here,” Sulser said. “Obama makes his own laws. Those aren’t laws that you actually have to abide by. Charles didn’t like those laws.”
“He always had a problem with people not standing up for what they believed in,” she continued. “He had moral fiber, whatever you want to call it. That everybody else doesn’t really have nowadays.” Sulser recalled Carter carrying a pocket Constitution around with him wherever he went.
After they got together, Carter pulled back from the Three Percenters; when Sulser got sick, and lost her job, he disconnected completely. “He was pretty much devoted 100 percent of the time to me,” she said.” (Sulser said she is sympathetic to the Three Percenters but isn’t actively involved in any patriot groups.) Carter’s hiatus ended after he and Sulser moved into Vincent Smith’s RV. According to Sulser, Smith is a member of the highly organized, image-conscious, and armed (but mostly harmless) Oath Keepers. Recently, Smith signed the petition advocating for open carry of firearms at the Republican National Convention. “Self defense is a god given right,” he wrote on Facebook. “The govt has no jurisdiction over our right to bear arms.”
In December, Carter and Smith began organizing a march on Washington—the “Paul Revere Liberty March,” or the “Paul Revere 2016 Final March to Restore America.” Several web pages and Facebook groups with information about the march’s purpose and itinerary have either been taken down or scrubbed of all reference to the plan, but cached versions of some remain online. One description, attributed to “Msgt Vincent G. Smith, United States Air Force,” envisioned the “march/caravan” as “starting from multiple points on the west coast, and advancing across America gathering steam and troops, with its final destination Washington DC and Final Aim at removing the corrupt leadership that has taken over our beloved country and ousted her God and constitution.”
“i Swear to God when we are done restoring America we will reach out to our brothers and sisters world wide and save them from the Tyrannical threat that at this moment is consuming them. I speak of Europe, Australia, and the entire western and third world,” the post attributed to Smith read [sic. throughout]. The Liberty March’s website included information about constitutional law and “Water Purification For Preppers,” but the “rules of engagement” had not yet been finalized by the time of Carter’s death. (“Coming soon,” the relevant page, since removed, read.) “It will be advertised that we will do this thing ‘As peacefully as possible’ But we will not be turned away.”
In a video posted to Facebook, on January 5—less than a week before his death—Carter thanked the people who had volunteered to help organize the march. “We couldn’t do this without our road captains, our biker community, our truckers, and any other patriotic American who’s tired of having the government, while they’re pissing on our heads, tell us that it’s raining,” he said. “I’m not backing up on this. I don’t intend to. My partner in this, Vincent Smith, doesn’t intend to. There’s a number of us—a very large number—that are tired of this shit.” A day before Carter posted that video, Sulser shared an image of white text on a black background, made to look like chalk on a blackboard: “I want a relationship with no gender roles: We both hustle, we both cook, we both clean, we both pay, we’re both romantic, and we spoil each other.” She tagged both Carter, her boyfriend, and Smith in the picture.
Before the shooting, Carter and Smith named Glen Estes, a Vietnam vet who owns a tattoo parlor in Tennessee, “national road captain.” Another man, Nic Giles, who lives in Washington state, served as the march’s spokesman. (The Paul Revere Liberty March website is registered in his name.) There had been an ongoing “power struggle” over control of the Facebook page, Giles told me in a phone interview. Charles wanted people to be armed, he said, and the others disagreed—the Facebook page was the medium through which such decisions were to be communicated. “It would be totally stupid to go, and say it’s diplomatic, but to carry guns. That would defeat the whole cause, because still, in the back of your mind, you’re planning a war.”
According to Estes, Carter even went so far as to approach yet another Facebook friend, a bounty hunter who lives in Colorado, to inquire about how he could purchase explosives. “I get a phone call 2 o’clock in the morning that Charles was trying to get explosives. I called my sheriff, the sheriff called the feds. The feds came and interrogated me.” Smith shot Carter “the exact same day,” just a few hours after Estes said he was questioned.
“Charles would have been picked up within a few days to be questioned if he hadn’t gotten shot,” Giles, the march’s spokesman, said. “We don’t want to put people’s lives in danger—the whole idea was to do this peacefully.” He added, “When it comes to overthrowing a government, you have to start off peacefully.”
Last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 998 “extreme antigovernment groups”—including 276 militias—active in the United States. That’s up from 874 in 2014, but down from the peak of 1,360 in 2012.
Texas was home to 54 extreme antigovernment groups last year, including six militias. Local and regional organizations are supplemented by a sprawling and intricate network of Facebook pages and groups, public and private, that draw interest from people all around the country, whose relationships grow, flourish, and splinter in the comment threads that trail behind right-wing image macros and links to World Net Daily stories as they are shared from one page to another. These are the people to whom the militants who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were broadcasting, whose aid and support they requested, and for whom the late LaVoy Finicum was not a reckless fool but a martyr.
While they often disagree over tactics, these groups share an ideology and a worldview that may seem paranoid and delusional to outsiders but which has worked its way increasingly towards the mainstream over the course of the last half-century—picking up speed in the ‘80s with the Sagebrush Rebellion, bolstered by the early ‘90s bloodlettings at Ruby Ridge and Waco, faltering after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and returning with the election of Barack Obama. Broadly, adherents to the antigovernment movement believe they do not have to pay taxes, can follow whichever laws they like, and must resist the rise of the “New World Order.” The most influential of these groups are the Oath Keepers, which are actually incorporated as a nonprofit; the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association; the Three Percenters; the Christian American Patriots Militia; and, of course, the Bundy family.
The antigovernment agenda revolves around two separate but related policy issues: The transferral of federally-owned lands to the states (so that they might be privatized), and absolute rejection of any form of gun control. This agenda is funded and supported largely by the American Lands Council, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and a constellation of dark money groups affiliated with Charles and David Koch. (Also: the Republican National Committee.) “The links between Koch brothers’ money, private groups which advocate that states wrest public lands from the federal government, and various elected officials,” are well documented, Spencer Sunshine, an associate fellow at Political Research Associates, a think tank focused on the American conservative movement, wrote to me in an email. “But there is neither documentation that often-armed Patriot movement groups are direct recipients of Koch brothers’ money, nor that they are explicitly strategizing with right-wing land use groups like the American Lands Council or Federalism in Action.”
“But,” Sunshine wrote, “in a real sense, it doesn’t matter.” For all intents and purposes, American militias and their supporters act as the de facto armed vanguard of the movement to wrest control of public lands from the federal government. “[Ammon] Bundy and his Patriot movement colleagues use illegal, paramilitary tactics to force their issues into public discussion and to mobilize their base. From the perspective of their movement, politically it is probably even better for everyone involved if direct coordination isn’t there. Together, they get to play a good cop/bad cop scenario—but without the bad press that would result from direct links.”
For these groups, the issues at hand are of existential, apocalyptic importance—they understand themselves to be victims of an oppressive regime that holds their lives and their freedom in equal contempt. (The founder of the Three Percenters, Mike Vanderboegh, is a former Maoist.) It is no wonder, then, that some of these so-called sovereign citizens would turn to violence: In Arkansas, in 2010, father and son—Jerry Ralph Kane Jr. and Joseph Kane—shot and killed two West Memphis police officers during a traffic stop; in Georgia, in 2014, Dennis Marx, wearing body armor and bearing an assault rifle and grenades, was killed attempting to storm the Forsyth County Courthouse; two days later, at a pizzeria in Las Vegas, husband and wife Jerad and Amanda Miller—who’d traveled to the Bundy Ranch earlier that year for Cliven Bundy’s famed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management—executed two police officers (over whose bodies they draped a Gadsden flag) and a civilian, before engaging law enforcement in a deadly shootout, at a nearby Wal-Mart, that ended in both their deaths. (Jerad was shot and killed by police, while Amanda committed suicide after being wounded.)
A study conducted that year by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism found that 86 percent of the law enforcement officials surveyed considered sovereign citizens to be America’s top terrorist threat, as opposed to 67 percent who considered Islamic extremists to be so. They’re not just a danger to others, either: In November, another one of the men who stood with Cliven Bundy at his ranch, Dale Potter, was shot and killed by his comrade-in-arms, Freddy Crisp, who was later charged with first-degree murder. The fact that the standoff at the Bundy ranch, or the Malheur occupation, didn’t end in greater bloodshed is nothing short of a miracle.
The bullet entered the left side of Carter’s face, 7.25 inches below the top of his head and 2.5 inches left of the midline, according to the autopsy report, prepared by the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office and obtained by the Sherman Denison Herald Democrat. He died at 3:44 pm on Monday, January 11. His postmortem blood alcohol levels were .206. (Operation of a vehicle is prohibited over .08.)
The Grayson County Sheriff’s Office denied public records requests for both a recording or transcript of the 911 call that summoned police to Smith’s property and for the affidavits used by law enforcement to get a search warrant, on the grounds that they are part of an ongoing investigation, citing an opinion memorandum from the Texas Attorney General.
In the shooting’s immediate aftermath, Smith contacted friends to give them his account of what happened. “Vincent was sitting in his Laz-E-boy chair, and Charles was nearby standing. Vincent started to get up, and Charles lunged at Vincent, grabbing his gun and pointing it at him. Vincent shot Charles with his secondary weapon,” Giles, the march’s spokesman, told me. “That’s how the shooting went down, from what Vincent told a couple people.”
But Sulser denied that this was possible: “I know Charles better than anybody,” she said. “He’s not a drunk, and he’s not mean. Not in that way.” She and I first spoke a few days following Carter’s death. Our conversation was brief—she was audibly upset. There was anger in her voice. When we spoke again, a few weeks later, she expressed her fear of Estes. “Be careful with that one. Watch your back.”
When I asked Estes whether he’d put a hit out on Carter, Estes snarled, “That’s bullshit. I ain’t no pussy. I’d drive to Texas myself if I wanted him dead. I swear on my mother.” He asked, “If I was gonna put a hit out on somebody, would I call the feds?”
Lieutenant Sarah Bigham of the Grayson County Sheriff’s Office, which is conducting the investigation into the shooting, said they have not had any contact with the Department of Justice or the FBI regarding Carter. “As far as we know he was not under investigation for anything,” Bigham told me. “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening, just that we don’t know about it.”
The man who Carter purportedly approached about the explosives, the bounty hunter in Colorado, corroborated Estes’ story. Carter, he said, wanted to know what kinds of explosives he had access to and which he could legally use. “He never asked for me to get him any,” the bounty hunter, who only spoke on the condition that his name not be published, told me. “I alerted Glen, because there was some talk of barricading off roads in DC. I’m not sure where that idea came from, or who. As I understood it, we were going on a peaceful march. And then he’s talking about blocking off roadways and stuff, which—I do fugitive recovery, it’s highly illegal for me to block off any roadway or even an apartment exit. He’s asking what kind of weapons I have, stuff I can get access to. It just kinda made me wonder, what’s really the intention here. But he never asked specifically if I could get him explosives or incendiary device.”
On March 15, the Grayson County Sheriff’s Office handed the case over to District Attorney Joe Brown’s office. The DA will either request further investigation, refuse charges, or forward the case to a grand jury. If the case goes to a grand jury, “The grand jury review typically happens within two to three months after our receipt of a case, but that time can be shorter or longer depending on several factors,” Brown said in a statement.
The “Liberty March” Facebook page is no longer online, but it was clear that several people had access to it (often simultaneously) beginning in December. (Another group, admined by a ‘patriot’ who once attempted to crowdfund an effort to kill president Obama, has taken up the march’s banner in Carter’s name.) Some posts, linking to news stories and conspiracy theories in equal measure, were signed from Estes, Carter, or Smith. Others were anonymous. One post, published on January 12—the day after Carter’s shooting—read, “I am struggling, I am grieving, I am in so much pain i dont know how i will go on. If i could go back in time and change it i would surely do so. I will struggle with this to the end of my days. Lord i look to you for your guidance, give me strength, give me understanding.” It continued: “Charles Carter my brother Rest in Peace There were other choices my friend, you gave me none. I am glad to be alive, but i am not glad you are gone. In Jesus holy name i pray. Amen” It was unsigned.
Until I spoke to him in late February, Estes was unaware that the police investigation into the shooting was, in fact, ongoing: Smith had told him that the shooting was ruled self-defense in the days after the event, and that that had been that.
“Vincent has gotten way more deeper in this shit than I ever thought,” he said. “They said they had petitions, they said they had authorization. They said they were gonna present it all to Congress. They lied to me, man. They lied to me.”
The night before the shooting, the bounty hunter—who told me he is involved with the Colorado chapter of the Three Percenters, and participates in volunteer border patrol groups in New Mexico—called into an internet radio talk show, hosted by Smith, to ask how the organizers intended to get people who were strapped for cash to take a month-long march across the continent. “Charles Carter didn’t really have much to his name,” he told me. Smith, meanwhile, claimed to own an airplane.
“I told him, ‘If we’re doing this march—I got a baby on the way,’” the bounty hunter recalled. “He said, ‘That’s no problem, I can fly you right back. I have an airplane.’ I thought, ‘Either you’re full of shit, or you have a lot more money than you’re portraying that you do have.’”
That night, following the radio show, Smith told the couple they needed to leave. The next day, Carter called the bounty hunter to ask whether he could come stay with him in Colorado. “I was about ready to do that. I told him Monday afternoon I could make it down on Tuesday to pick him up, if he could make it that long,” the bounty hunter said.
“He sounded drunk—claimed that he’d had six shots of Bacardi 151. He proceeded to ask me about military training, close combat, whether I could teach him some of that entering and clearing rooms type of stuff. It seemed reasonable, but again, after asking about barricades and what kind of weapons I had, I started putting two and two together, pondering what this guy is really up to. But I just thought, ‘Never mind, he’s just pissed off and drunk,’” he said. “About an hour later, I find out he was shot.”
In mid-March, Sulser tried to get Carter’s AR-15 back from Smith. Messaging over Facebook, he told her, “I may need to sell it and many other things if i get indicted. The lawyer is very expensive. If I get indicted i will sell all my weapons as well. If it stops at the grand jury I will be able to keep them and i will not need to sell it or mine.”
“You can’t sell it when it’s not your to sell,” Sulser typed back. She went on to remind him that were he to be indicted, and were his case to go to trial, she would likely be called as a witness. “You will have to look and face me eventually. You knew you shouldn’t have kept it in the first place. Because you knew it was his wishes for me to have it,” she wrote. “Not only is the love of my life gone but the one thing he wished for me to have above all you kept for your own reasons.”
Eventually, Smith agreed to return the gun to Sulser. (Sulser sent me screenshots of their conversation.) They made plans to meet, but shortly thereafter Smith said he’d had a heart attack: “I don’t think I will live thru a trial. That is why i hope the grand jury does not indict me.” On March 17, Sulser wrote, “So what’s happening what’s your eta for tomorrow do u know yet.” The next morning, Smith replied: “I have lost my car keys, they must have fallen out of my pocket while I was riding the Motorcycle the other day.. I am also not feeling very well. Dizzy and weak feel like I am going to pass out. Think I will go to the ER.” She hasn’t heard from him since.
In a video posted to Facebook just two days before his death and filmed by Sulser, a heavily bearded Carter addressed tensions growing out of intra-militia disputes at Malheur. “There’s a lot of people in the patriot movement that are fighting with each other right now, and we don’t need that. A house divided’s not gonna stand,” he said. In both this and the earlier video, Carter addresses the camera while driving. In the second video, he pulls over as he speaks, his voice full of emotion. “I’m watching a lot of people that I respect fight with each other. We don’t need to do that anymore. If you’ve got something negative to say about somebody, keep it to yourself.”
“There’s a lot of argument about agitation—people being upset about certain folks in our movement that are agitating the situation. Again, I won’t mention names. Most of you probably have heard a lot about it, especially recently, but that’s got to end,” he continues. “I don’t think going on [Facebook] and arguing about it with each other, blaming people, calling each other unpatriotic is gonna do anything about it.”
For her part, Sulser told me she’s done with the patriot movement. “I got fed up,” she said. Estes is similarly frustrated: “I wish I never ever touched that ‘Like’ on that Facebook page.”