If you ask Bob Paudert how many times he has watched the unwatchable — a heinous video of his only son being gunned down on an Arkansas highway — the retired lawman can only give you an estimate.
“Thousands of times, if I had to guess,” he said recently. “Easily.”
Brandon Paudert, a seven-year veteran officer with the West Memphis Police Department, was killed in 2010 alongside his partner, Bill Evans, during a routine traffic stop on Interstate 40. The officers were fatally shot by a 16-year-old, Joseph T. Kane, and his father, Jerry R. Kane Jr., 45, both of them members of the sovereign citizens movement — a far- right, anti-government group whose adherents believe they’re constitutionally exempt from U.S. laws.
Bob Paudert, the West Memphis chief of police at the time, was among the first to arrive at the scene and vividly recalls the moment he discovered his 39-year-old son’s bullet-riddled body lying face-up in the middle of the road.
“I found him with the back of his head shot off,” Paudert told The Washington Post. “It was a horrible, horrible scene. I didn’t care about going to work after that. I lost my passion for law enforcement that day.”
The officers’ killings were a wake-up call for law enforcement, raising awareness about the threat far-right extremists pose to officers. The double-slaying led the FBI to classify sovereigns as a growing “domestic terrorist movement” in a bulletin published by the agency the following year.
Now, Paudert and other experts in homegrown extremist movements fear that the Trump administration is ignoring that threat as officials shift federal resources to root out Islamic extremism.
Reuters recently reported that the administration plans to rename “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) — a Department of Homeland Security pro- gram that funds local terrorism prevention efforts — to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.”
The news was met by strong resistance from Democratic politicians such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who joined 10 other senators in drafting a letter to Cabinet secretaries warning
that ignoring far-right groups “would severely damage our credibility with foreign allies and partners as an honest broker in the fight against violent extremism, and prove divisive in communities across our country.”
Paudert went public with his concerns on the Trace, in an ‘as-told-to’ commentary head- lined: “My Son Was Murdered in the Line of Duty by Right- Wing Extremists. Trump Should Focus on the Threat Posed by ‘Sovereign Citizens.’”
Using information from government reports and the trials of tax protesters, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimated in 2011 that the number of people testing out sovereign techniques nationwide was about 300,000, with one-third of those being “hardcore sovereign believers.” Among the movement’s best-known acolytes is Terry Nichols, who helped plan the Oklahoma City bombing, according to the FBI.
Mobilized by economic uncertainty and fears that the federal government planned to confiscate people’s firearms, far-right groups increased dramatically in number nationwide during President Obama’s eight years in office, experts say.
Even so, Paudert cautioned, the sovereign ideology is apolitical in nature and attracts followers from inside and outside the mainstream — regardless of who’s running the federal government.
“A lot of people think these are disgruntled people who are out of work, but doctors, lawyers and FBI agents have all been involved with sovereign citizens,” Paudert said. “They hate government and they’re willing to kill and be killed for their beliefs.”
Of the 66 criminal justice/ military homicides perpetrated by al-Qaeda and its associated movement and far-right extremists from 1990 to 2015, 54 of those deaths — more than 80 percent — came at the hands of the far right, according to an analysis by the University of Maryland’s START (Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism) program.
“Nearly two-thirds of homicides were ideologically motivated (62.1 percent), meaning that there was evidence that offenders’ ideologies, at least in part, motivated them to commit the murders,” the START study says. “An example of this would be an anti-government extremist who hunts down a police officer because his ideological beliefs demand that he fight back against the government, particularly law enforcement.”
Ryan Lenz, the editor of the SPLC’s Hatewatch blog, said the key to combating far-right terror groups is forcefully engaging them.
If the Trump administration chooses to ignore the far-right threat, he said, it is risking calamity.
“I think it speaks to negligence and shortsightedness to say these people are not dangerous when all data points to the fact that white domestic terrorists have killed more people since 9/11 than Islamic extremists,” Lenz said. “When the federal government starts to step in and crack down and garner convictions — high-profile or low-profile — there becomes this panic in the movement and they start moving into different ideologies.”
“That’s what we’ve seen in last few years of Obama ad- ministration — local authorities doing a great job cracking down on paper terrorism and making sure they know they’re under the microscope of the law,” he added.
With the possibility of federal law enforcement turning a blind eye to the far right, Paudert believes the need for awareness about the evolving threat will increase.
“My two officers were killed because they’d never heard of sovereigns and they had their guard down during that traffic stop,” Paudert said, noting that the Jerry Kane and his teen- age son, Joseph, didn’t come up when the officers ran their vehicle’s registration — just before the father and son killed the officers in cold blood.
“Had they known about sovereigns, I am absolutely certain that today they would be here,” he added.
“I study that video constantly to see if I can understand it even better,” Paudert said. “I can’t bring Brandon back for his three kids, but I can make it easier for other officers to remain safe and keep them alive for their families.
“I know the education works because I get letters from around the country from officers telling me it saved their lives,” he added.