Montgomery County police call Butler’s stay in the mansion, which lasted only a few hours, something entirely different from a legitimate claim: breaking and entering, fraud and attempted theft. They say it is one of the most audacious local cases in what law enforcement officers called a growing national trend where self-
described “sovereign” nationals try to move into homes they don’t own.
This month in Memphis, a woman saying she was a Moorish American was evicted after a SWAT team moved in on a 9,000-square-foot mansion she said she owned. Tabitha Gentry was charged with trespassing and burglary, but in court she denied the legitimacy of the charges, repeatedly interrupted the judge and invoked her sovereign rights.
Similar cases have occurred around the nation, where sovereign nationals have slipped into empty houses, sometimes going unnoticed for a week or two, authorities say.
“It’s going on in every state,” said Kory Flowers, an investigator with the Greensboro, N.C., police and a national expert on sovereign groups.
Police in the Washington area say they have not seen nearly as many sovereign cases as other states, notably California, North Carolina and Georgia. In terms of the property’s value, the Bethesda mansion incident appears to be unprecedented in the area.
Moorish American sovereigns get their name in part from the Moorish Science Temple of America, a religion formed in the early 20th century that preached obeying laws and had an uplifting message for African Americans: Be proud of who you are, said Spencer Dew, an expert on Moors and professor of religious studies at Centenary College of Louisiana.
But in the years since, a series of Moorish offshoots have twisted some tenets for their own gain — notably the idea that black people lived in what is now the United States long before the arrival of Europeans, Dew said.
Sovereign nationals, law enforcement officials say, use that tenet to justify the assertion that land instruments such as mortgages are not valid and that local laws do not have to be obeyed.
Moving into foreclosed or unoccupied houses is one of the more visible ways sovereign nationals break the law. The gambits are rarely successful, often ending within hours or days when neighbors call the police after noticing unusual activity or “No Trespassing” signs in the windows of the large residences sometimes targeted.