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 faceup 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 program 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.”
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment about CVE and how the Trump administration plans to prioritize far-right groups such as the sovereign citizens.
Paudert went public with his concerns on the Trace, in an as-told-to commentary headlined: “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 antigovernment 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 administration — 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.
His passion for law enforcement, which sustained him during a 35-year career, never returned after his son’s death. But over the past six years, Paudert has traveled to every state except Hawaii to educate police officers about the dangers of far-right groups like the sovereign citizens.
His travels were funded through a Bureau of Justice Assistance initiative known as State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training (SLATT). But in 2016, Paudert said, the Department of Justice under Obama abruptly slashed funding for SLATT, causing about two dozen trainers to lose their positions.
The trainers, who believed strongly that the program was saving police officers’ lives, received no explanation for the cancellation, and many were dumbfounded, Paudert said.
“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 teenage 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.
At the time, Paudert said, sovereign citizens were classified by the FBI as “white-collar criminals” because of their affinity for financial scams and falsifying license plates, driver’s licenses and currency.
Even now, with the sovereign citizen movement classified as a domestic terrorist threat, Paudert said, too many law enforcement agencies across the country remain ignorant about the threat, the movement’s members and how to identify them before it’s too late.
The lack of awareness explains why Paudert often finds himself alone in a hotel room after one of his seminars, obsessively replaying his son’s final moments on his laptop, frame by painful frame.
The trauma of watching his son’s death on loop can feel unbearable; but, Paudert said this sort of morbid engagement has a therapeutic benefit: By deconstructing Brandon’s death over and over, he believes he’s increasingly prepared to teach officers about how to avoid a similar fate.
He recently noticed, for example, that his son turns his head to look at his partner at the precise moment Joseph Kane opens his door and points an AK-47 in the officer’s direction. Paudert said the revelation confirms that neither officer had any suspicion that they were in the midst of a deadly threat as they looked over the strange paperwork and homemade “traveler’s card” the Kanes had given them.
“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.