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The message at the seminar was enticing: If you filed documents using peculiar language—invoking, for example, the jurisdictions of the air and water—you didn’t have to wear masks on planes. You could get pulled over for speeding and not show your driver’s license. You could squat in a building and legally own it in just a few months. In fact, many U.S. laws simply didn’t apply to you at all.
“The ultimate goal is to be free, to be the king,” said David Straight, a white-bearded man with a bald eagle on his belt buckle. An audience of 20 sat rapt and took notes as Straight spoke. The cost of attendance was $200. “When the bailiff says, ‘All rise,’” he continued, “I lean back in my chair and put my feet up. I’m the boss.”
Straight is part of a political underground known for unusual courtroom antics. They’re called Sovereign Citizens by the judges and attorneys they antagonize, but they call themselves many names: free men on the land, Natural Persons, or, in Straight’s case, American State Nationals. The gist is that a secret body of laws has been hidden from the people. Harnessing it—typically in strangely worded legal filings but sometimes also in armed confrontations with anyone perceived as a threat—can set you free.
The movement is as decentralized as you’d expect from a group that hates being subject to any government. Some sovereigns are tax protesters, others obsess over capital letters and hyphens in laws. Some sovereigns sport DIY license plates, others peddle get-out-of-debt hacks. There are both white nationalist sovereigns and Black nationalist sovereigns. Recently, a band of the latter, who pledged allegiance to a Moroccan state, engaged the police in an armed, nine-hour standoff on the I-95 in Massachusetts.
These groups are often associated with scams and what those within conventional legal circles call “paper terrorism”—for example, filing liens on their enemies’ properties that can take months to untangle.
But Straight is one of a handful of gurus with a new specialty: exposing the corruption they see within a particular agency of government, Child Protective Services (CPS). Or as Straight likes to call them, “traffickers.” He fuses QAnon, anti-vax, and anti-government ideas into a mega conspiracy, convincing desperate parents they can get their kids back no matter what—and that an evil deep state, rather than lowly bureaucrats and child welfare laws, are responsible for their journey into foster care.
“Satanic rituals are performed in this country using children,” Straight said, stern-faced, in an interview after the seminar, which took place in Phoenix in June. He had spent the eight-hour day chugging energy drinks and talking nonstop. “We have the forensic evidence to back it up. We know where the underground tunnels are. We’ve rescued children and women who are breeders out from under those tunnels.”
VICE News asked Straight to send us the “forensic evidence,” but he never did. He also didn’t respond to follow-up questions about his resumé. In his seminars, he claims to be a Navy SEAL and boasts of dramatic escapades in Ronald Reagan’s drug war in Panama. But the Navy SEAL Museum holds no record of him, unlike every SEAL after World War II, according to a spokesperson.
Straight also claims hundreds of victories in court—reuniting families and getting the convicted out of jail, in addition to personally suing the FDA. But a search of state and federal court records via PACER and Westlaw reveals his name as a party only in a handful of business disputes, linked to a ranch in Bend, Oregon.
“We need a NATIONWIDE movement to destroy—yes, destroy—every CPS and DFS and APS and whatever other alphabet soup agency in the entire USA.”
Ranchers may have been where Straight got his start. His website lists him as a member of Ammon Bundy's defense team. Bundy was one of a family of ranchers who, along with militia members, led an armed standoff against the Bureau of Land Management in 2014. When reached by VICE News, Bundy denied that Straight served on his legal team. Bundy is now a candidate for Idaho governor, running against all things related to the federal government—in particular, taxes and vaccines.
Tax evasion is more-typical sovereign citizen fare. But the movement is evolving along with the conservative fringe.
“Sovereign citizens have always been antagonistic towards Child Protective Services because it is an example of the government literally intruding into their own homes—a government they believe is illegitimate in the first place,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League. What’s changing is sovereign citizen ideas are becoming more diffuse, mingling with QAnon and the anti-vaccine movement, he added.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mark Grenon, best known for selling the toxic bleach “Miracle Mineral Solution” as a bogus religious sacrament and coronavirus cure, has consulted Straight as part of his legal defense. In 2020, while in prison in Columbia, Grenon asked his followers to donate to Straight’s PayPal. At his seminar in Phoenix, Straight referenced the Great Awakening and prophesied that former President Donald Trump would once again take office. Straight also predicted that vaccinated Americans would soon die off in droves.
“Fauci, Obama, Biden, et al. are going down,” Straight wrote in a post on Facebook in June. “They are witnessing their demise as I write this. Q told us on several occasions: ‘PANIC IN D.C.’”
As these ideas take off, people who follow them are ending up in bad shape.
Since 2020, four parents—from Colorado, Utah, Kentucky, and even France—have been charged with kidnapping or attempting to kidnap their biological children out of foster care, after getting involved with online conspiracy groups. These kidnappings were widely reported as the result of QAnon, but they were also linked to sovereign ideas.
“Sovereign citizens separated themselves from all these made-up rules and government and state conspiracies and called it out and refused to allow it to ruin their lives,” one of these parents, Neely Petrie-Blanchard, of Kentucky, said in a virtual interview with VICE News from the Marion County jail in Ocala, Florida.
“Satanic rituals are performed in this country using children. We have the forensic evidence to back it up.”
For years, Petrie-Blanchard had been a follower of E-Clause, a group pitching theories similar to Straight’s. He even counts E-Clause’s founder, Chris Hallett, as “a very good friend,” Straight said in a seminar. Hallett and Straight teamed up to shill the so-called Pentagon Pedophile Task Force, which they claimed operated under the personal direction of Trump to feed information about underground trafficking rings to the Department of Defense.
Petrie-Blanchard was charged with custodial interference after she ran away with her kids during scheduled visitation. (The Amber Alert that went out mentioned her car’s license plates: ECLAUSE.) Later, Petrie-Blanchard turned on Hallett. She decided that her former teacher was part of the conspiracy to harm her daughters. In November 2020, eyewitnesses said she went to his house in Ocala and fatally shot him in the head.
Petrie-Blanchard is awaiting trial for murder and is pleading not guilty, supported by a temporary insanity defense.
“I really believe that Donald Trump would be helping me. At least that is what I was told,” she said. “I've come to believe that [sovereign citizens] are a money-making business that helps spread conspiracy theories and supports giving false hope to people who, like me, needed help and didn't have the money or the expertise to help myself or my children.”
Conspiracy theories about the child welfare system also put people who work within that system in danger.
Kellye Hughes, a Fort Worth adoption attorney, was recently sent terroristic threats by a man who had posted on social media about attempting to revoke his citizenship using David Straight’s paperwork. The man was later convicted and served time for threatening Hughes. But her courtrooms now all have extra security present at hearings, and she carries a firearm with her and sits where she can see the door at dinner with her family.
Christine James-Brown, director of the Child Welfare League of America, also worries about front-line social workers who investigate reports of potential abuse or neglect.
“Welfare workers are already at risk,” she said. “You’re called to a home, in a community you're not used to. When you add conspiracies on top of it, you can lose workers. Some people might say, ‘Yay!’—until the first child is killed by their parents.”
Most people at Straight’s seminar seemed to be in a moment of crisis.
Spa owner Marilyn Hueper told VICE News the FBI had accused her of entering the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. She’d traveled to Arizona from Alaska to get Straight’s help preparing a defense.
“They think I have Nancy Pelosi’s laptop,” she said almost gleefully, before denying that she did.
Others at the seminar were seeking help from Straight after what might have been legitimate miscarriages of justice. Phoenix resident Carmen Russell was at the seminar with her young kids. She said her husband had been arrested for carrying a gun in a Walmart in an open-carry state, and she believed he’d been targeted because he was Black.
“Every time I file the paperwork to show his status as an American State National, they switch the players, switch the case, and move him from facility to facility,” Russell said. “They’re calling him incompetent.”
Tim Colburn had recently lost temporary custody of his newborn daughter. The Arizona Department of Family Services alleged Colburn and his wife, Annie Hastings, had neglected her and placed the baby in foster care in December. Colburn and Hastings deny neglecting their baby. But instead of fighting back with traditional legal representation, they were retaining Straight. They couple had paid him $6,000 so far in 2021 and personally organized and paid for the space and equipment rental at the Arizona seminar VICE News attended.
“My grandfather was a judge. I grew up very patriotic with a belief in the system,” Colburn said. “When that system attacks me and takes my baby away for no damn good reason, it makes me question why do I want to be a part of that?”
“David was my life raft,” he continued. “He gave me the confidence to stand up for myself. He was that patriarchal father figure, who said it’s OK to attack the government if they're hurting you and your family.”
Straight instructs parents like Colburn to follow a roadmap. Fire your lawyers and self-represent. Revoke your U.S. citizenship to become what he describes as an “American State National.” Straight also recommends personally suing judges, social workers, and lawyers who are corrupt—or at the very least, appear to stand in a parent’s way to reuniting with their children.
Another one of Straight’s methods involves trademarking a child’s name and selling it on merchandise—unicorn T-shirts, in Colburn and Hastings’ case. When a name becomes of value to a business, Straight argues, lawyers and judges are unable to mention it in filings because “states may not interfere with commerce,” Colburn explained. (Since his interview with VICE News in June, the Arizona Department of Family Services has moved steadily toward terminating the couple’s parental rights.)
So do sovereign strategies ever work?
“If the goal is to delay [proceedings], maybe they work a little bit,” said retired judge Warren Granville, of Arizona’s Maricopa County, who presided over several cases where sovereign citizens tried to reference commercial statues in courts where they weren’t relevant.
In one of Granville’s cases, a man named Michael Crane faced murder charges. Crane filed “many, many pleadings referencing the UCC or the uniform commercial code,” Granville recalled; Crane was trying to make the argument that the judge had no jurisdiction over him. Crane’s antics dragged out the case—which eventually ended in a life-in-prison sentence—for seven years, to the chagrin of the victims’ families.
Ultimately, though, the strategies don’t work, according to Granville. “The judge and jury are never going to be addressing the points that a sovereign citizen wants,” he said.
Distinguishing legitimate critique of the child welfare system from conspiracy theory can often be tricky.
Children from foster care are, in fact, trafficked more frequently than other children. But the reason isn’t a coordinated effort to harm them on the part of the government. Rather, it’s “unstable living situations, physical distance from friends and family, traumatic experiences, and emotional vulnerability” that can lead children to run away and make them susceptible, as the Children’s Bureau summarized in a recent guide for agencies.
It is also true that too many children, especially Black and brown ones, are removed from their families by social workers, according to James-Brown, the Child Welfare League of America director. When families have resources to address poverty, housing insecurity, and mental health issues, fewer removals occur. The child welfare system is actively working toward reforms that prioritize keeping families together, James-Brown said.
But by the time many parents turn to sovereign ideas, it’s mostly too late.
Like many at Straight’s seminar, Colburn and Hastings originally found him on Facebook. In private groups with names like “#FOSTERWAR” and “Stop CPS From Legally Kidnapping” with tens of thousands of members, interactions typically go like this one. In September 2019, a dad posted that his daughter had been removed because his family was residing in an extended-stay motel. Commenters swarmed and offered advice, such as “blowing up Trump's tweets,” contacting an attorney, and looking up Straight on YouTube.
“We need a NATIONWIDE movement to destroy—yes, destroy—every CPS and DFS and APS and whatever other alphabet soup agency in the entire USA,” wrote one person.
Straight is part of a network of sovereign gurus whose names pop up regularly in these forums. Also in his orbit are Timothy Charles Holmseth and Kirk Pendergrass, two other members of the “Pentagon Pedophile Taskforce”; Anna Von Reitz, who calls herself a judge but presides over “common law” courts of her own invention; and David Jose, the YouTuber behind videos like “Get kids back Stolen By CPS!!!!!”
Jose, who credits Straight as a mentor, is a man of many schemes. When he’s not working with parents, he peddles documents he claims will force states to conduct Arizona-style forensic audits of the 2020 presidential election—by threatening election boards with fines. The idea has caught fire among at least one Georgia gubernatorial candidate and the Pennsylvania grassroots group Audit the Vote, who recently served “affidavits of maladministration” to confused state senators. No fines have been issued.
Unnecessary court filings waste time and resources. But it might be easier to shake trust in sovereign methods than it is to reinstill trust in the system.
VICE News checked in with Colburn, the dad fighting the Arizona Department of Family Services, a month and a half after he’d organized the seminar for Straight. Colburn was pensive. He had not spoken to Straight in weeks, and now said he felt “cheated” for paying him. “David overpromises and underdelivers,” Colburn said. “It’s disappointing because I held him in high respect.”
But Colburn is continuing to represent himself in court. Even more than Straight, Colburn doesn’t trust lawyers.