The foreboding letter was signed by a man calling himself “Alessio Don De Grande.”
Pointedly referencing his membership in a shadowy criminal enterprise, he demanded $250,000 in cash within 15 days. The couple in eastern Washington state who found the typed, two-page missive on their car windshield on Feb. 28 were informed they would be killed and their property would be seized if they didn’t pay up. Their daughter and her family in California could expect a none-too-friendly visit, too, the note said.
It was one of several threatening letters that members of a right-wing militia group in Stevens County, Wash., would report receiving that month. De Grande, whose name was signed at the bottom of each, claimed to be involved with a mysterious group based outside the United States, and heavily insinuated that it was a Mexican cartel.
But in reality, authorities now say, the sender was James “Russell” Bolton, the militia’s own leader. On the group’s website, he had once warned that murderous cartels were infiltrating the United States, just another example of the “subversive political insurgency” that threatened to overtake the country.
In recent months, Bolton allegedly tried to take advantage of the fears that he had stoked. Officials believe that he posed as a made-up cartel boss himself so that he could extort money from his followers.
The Stevens County Sheriff’s Office, which Bolton once sought to lead, is now on the lookout for him. Though a nationwide warrant for his arrest was approved on April 22, the Spokesman-Review reported last Thursday, the 51-year-old is still at large.
In 2010, Bolton had mounted an unsuccessful write-in campaign to be elected sheriff of Stevens County, which is located in the rural northeast of Washington state, bordering Canada. At the time, he described himself as a Marine Corps veteran and the owner of a custom woodworking business. Vowing that protecting citizens’ “liberties and freedom” would be his first priority, he gained the endorsement of Richard Mack, the former sheriff of Graham County, Ariz., and a leader of the constitutional sheriff’s movement, whose adherents pledge not to enforce federal laws they believe are unconstitutional. Ultimately, Bolton finished last in a four-way primary with about 13 percent of the vote.
It’s unclear when Bolton became the leader of the Stevens County Assembly, a militia that described itself on its now-defunct website as a volunteer corps of “God-fearing American citizens” seeking to “secure real American communities during the present insurgent political and social change.” Nearly all of the writings available on archived versions of the site are attributed to him and date from 2015 to 2017. He appears to have frequently railed against same-sex marriage, socialism, the media, President Barack Obama, Islam, federal regulation of land used for grazing cattle, and sanctuary cities, while also repeating far-right conspiracy theories.
“We can not think that we are going to win our nation back, but be content to win a portion of it back as our contribution to our restoration and preservation,” he wrote in one undated article.
The group’s schedule of events, last updated in 2016, consisted of bimonthly prayer meetings and a film screening at a senior center. Bolton apparently wanted the group to get bigger. According court records obtained by the Chewelah Independent, people interviewed by police mentioned that Bolton told them that they needed to grow the militia’s membership and collect more donations, or else he would have to relocate.
At the end of February, militia members began receiving mysterious letters, according to the Spokesman-Review. One man found a note taped to a gate at his girlfriend’s house near the small city of Deer Park, Wash. That same day, a woman down the road found an identical letter attached to a tree on her property. Both were told that their families would be hurt if they didn’t pay $10,000 in cash in exchange for protection. Two days later, a couple in the small community of Rice found a manila envelope on their car containing the letter that asked for $250,000.
Initially, the Deer Park couple tried to track down the perpetrator. Told to leave the money in their mailbox, they instead filled an envelope with a powder that would turn skin purple, according to police. They also set up a hidden camera. When someone stopped by to pick up the envelope, it captured a blurry picture of a white SUV. The couple tried to chase after the car, but had no luck, the Spokesman-Review reported.
It wasn’t until mid-March that the Rice couple notified the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office, according to the paper. Visibly unnerved, they insisted that the door be shut before puling out the ransom note. They told detectives that they had placed a red ribbon on their flagpole to confirm they had received the letter, as its mysterious sender had requested, and had met with their stockbroker to see if they could afford the payment. The male victim had started carrying his gun everywhere, and asked about getting a bulletproof vest.
"I could see that they were scared,” Undersheriff Loren Erdman wrote in his report.
According to KXLY, the man told police that Bolton had mentioned getting threats, too. When detectives called the militia leader, he claimed he and his wife had received menacing phone calls, but he had shaken it off because it was “common” in his line of work. Asked if someone could be targeting the group for financial reasons, Bolton reportedly responded that the Stevens County Assembly had about $900 in its bank account.
The mystery was still unsolved in late March, when Bolton called the sheriff’s office to say he had started getting threatening emails. He also told detectives that a red Ford pickup truck had followed him home, and the passengers had yelled at him and run him off the road, the Chewelah Independent reported. Investigators were unable to confirm his story. Asked to see the emails, Bolton claimed his computer had been hacked. He also said that he hadn’t been able to write down the red truck’s license plate number because it was covered up with cardboard.
Then, in mid-April, a tipster told detectives that Bolton had “lost his mind” and tried to kill another militia member, KXLY reported. A police report filed in nearby Spokane alleged that Bolton had gone over to the man’s house and pushed him down the stairs, causing him to hit his head on the floor and bleed heavily. When the man got up, police wrote, Bolton punched him in the nose and tried to suffocate him with a plastic bag.
Eventually, the station reported, Bolton stopped and explained to the wounded man that his wife had been kidnapped. He needed $100,000 for her release, he claimed. The bloodied victim believed his story, and initially lied to both hospital workers and the police about how he had gotten hurt. Later, he told authorities he had been prepared to give the militia leader most of his life savings. Then he started getting strange emails from Bolton, who now claimed that his wife was free but the kidnappers still wanted the ransom. At that point, the man started to question whether the story had been made up.
Emails allegedly sent to the victim by Bolton display a far-reaching paranoia. “We are witnessing the end of the U.S. as we have known it,” he wrote in one message, according to KXLY. The militia leader allegedly told the man to change his email and phone number, and not tell anyone about what had happened because they were being monitored and needed to “go dark.” Meanwhile, in an email sent to the militia’s entire Listserv, Bolton reportedly claimed that the group was being tracked by three mysterious men. “WA state is being over-run by socialist/liberals and there doesn’t seem to be any organized force who will stop them,” he wrote.
After additional interviews prompted authorities to take a closer look at Bolton, the Independent reported, detectives found that he had a 2013 white Ford Edge SUV, which resembled the car captured on a hidden surveillance camera. In an arrest warrant, they wrote that there was probable cause to conclude that Bolton had been behind the letters demanding money, and had also made up a fake story about his wife’s kidnapping to steal another $100,000.
Bolton faces five counts of extortion in the first degree and one count of attempted theft in the first degree. It’s not yet clear whether he will also be facing charges in Spokane County.