Leaked database reveals 100 current and former Oath Keepers with ties to North Bay

“I thought it was a different sort of organization,” said Michael Carter, a U.S. Marine veteran and former Los Angeles Police Department officer who lives between Willits and Laytonville. “When I saw pictures of guys running around in camouflage, I said ‘This is not for me.’”

To Pearson, the former police chief in Forestville, an increasing alignment he sees with white nationalist groups has pushed him to take a step back from the Oath Keepers, although he still considers himself an active member. The possibility of “a race war” felt palpable in the last year, he said.

“And yet, all that has kind of gone away. I haven’t heard anything frightening in the last six months that would cause that kind of tension,” Pearson said. “I haven’t heard much activity going on in the last six months, eight months in Sonoma County. I couldn’t reach in my phone book and pull up another active member’s phone number.”

Several people interviewed for this story said they ultimately shied away because the Oath Keepers had become too controversial to openly align with, but were unwilling to blame the organization itself for the negative press.

One of them was Arron Johnson, Sonoma-based founder and CEO of The Lodge Winery and & Olive Oil Company. Johnson said he didn’t witness anything that turned him off from the group, but was disappointed that Rhodes and other leaders never took the trouble to defend the organization against mounting accusations.

“If you can’t stand up for the standards you’ve established, something’s wrong,” Johnson said. “There was no, ‘Come see it. See what we’re trying to be.’”

If the Oath Keepers “ever get their act together,” he added, he will return to the ranks.

But for the skeptics who were already beginning to sour on the Oath Keepers, Jan. 6 was the event that finally drove them away.

“As time went on I lost interest, and haven’t revisited the subject,” Silinonte of Petaluma said. “And after what I saw last January, I’m in total disagreement with their current mission.” He does not know any current members, he said.

Gasster, the Republican Party chair, expressed a similar opinion.

“I am conservative and Republican,” he wrote. “I support peaceful advancement and application of our founding principles as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and our U.S. Constitution. The violent events of January 6 were utterly abhorrent to me.”

The Press Democrat did not confirm that any North Bay Oath Keepers were present at the Capitol riot in Washington, D.C., last January. A Santa Rosa native, Evan Neumann, is among the indicted but has no apparent ties to the organization.

Future unclear

Since Jan. 6, 2021, the Oath Keepers have continued to spread conspiracy theories online, according to a December 2021 article by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Laid bare by the leak and with its leaders hounded by federal prosecutors, civil lawsuits and financial difficulties, the organization’s future is unclear. Extremism scholars say other movements, like QAnon and the Proud Boys, are gaining steam in its stead.

The Oath Keepers interviewed for this story uniformly denied ascribing to such movements. Still, some didn’t hesitate to cite current conspiracy theories, including that Black Lives Matter or Antifa protesters were responsible for the violence at the Capitol, even as court case after court case and report after report — not to mention countless videos shot by the trespassers themselves — places the blame on right-wing organizers who spread election fraud lies.

“If you ask me why would Oath Keepers be at the Capitol, it wouldn’t be to take it over,” Graf said. “It would be to protect people from agent-provocateur types.”

Piggott, the analyst and researcher, said it’s no surprise that disparate, even contradictory perspectives exist among Oath Keepers past and present.

That ambiguity, Piggott said, is by design.

“The Oath Keepers is much more broad, it’s a multi-issue organization. It was done that way on purpose,” Piggott said. “Look at Jan. 6 — even if you interviewed all of the folks there, you still would probably get five or six different reasons those folks attended. Leadership kept everything purposely ambiguous so as to attract a larger swath of people.“

The Oath Keepers’ history demonstrates how an “oath” to the country can be interpreted many ways, and weaponized toward many ends. That ambiguity allowed some members to be called to hurricane response, some to armed rebellion and others to online chat groups.

And although many in the North Bay did little more than submit an email address or a monetary donation to the Oath Keepers, in doing so they took a step down a road toward more extreme points of view.

“Just because the organization itself is not actively promoting political violence doesn’t mean that folks who are immersed in this ecosystem won’t take the next step, and we’ve definitely seen this in the last few years,” Piggott said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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