How a Small-Town Sheriff Ended Up on a Crusade to Radicalize American Law Enforcement

Richard Mack is the leader of a growing “Constitutional Sheriffs” movement, which claims sheriffs hold ultimate authority over the federal government.
July 28, 2021, 3:17pm
Richard Mack speaks with a constituent during the meeting of the state committee of the Arizona Republican Party, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018 in Phoenix.
Richard Mack speaks with a constituent during the meeting of the state committee of the Arizona Republican Party, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018 in Phoenix.  (AP Photo/Matt York) 

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Across the United States, sheriffs have been rebelling, refusing to enforce public health mandates, disregarding gun laws, and rubbing shoulders with militias. 

Many might see this behavior from law enforcement as a dangerous trend toward vigilantism. But when Richard Mack sees sheriffs behaving this way, he takes a victory lap. To him, those sheriffs are patriots, joining his decades-long crusade to forge ties between anti-government extremists and local law enforcement. 

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Mack, a 69-year-old, several-times-failed political candidate and one-time reality TV star who goes by “Sheriff” despite having not held that office since the early 1990s, is the leader of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA). Long before he founded that group, in 2011, he toured the country on the anti-government and patriot speaking circuit, stoking fears of an imminent power grab by the federal government. 

As he lays out in his book, The County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope, Mack believes that God enshrined sheriffs with the highest constitutional authority in the U.S., which gives them special powers to decide which federal and state laws to enforce and which to ignore. In other words: Sheriff Supremacy. CSPOA also believes that county sheriffs have the authority to arrest government employees who attempt to enforce laws they don’t agree with. 

These days, the notion of rejecting the authority of the federal government is resonating in many parts of the country that are still reeling over the results of the 2020 election. Former President Donald Trump’s loss, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, exposed the deep cultural divides in the U.S. and riled long-simmering anti-government hostilities—fertile conditions for Mack’s messaging. 

“There’s been so much abuse from the government,” Mack told VICE News. “The COVID-19 mandates have awakened a good many people across this country—not just sheriffs and county commissioners, but awakened the populace.”

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His repertoire of situations that could involve federal agents, which he likes to trot out at speaking events, has lately expanded from gun-grabbing and federal land management to include Critical Race Theory, mask mandates, and vaccines. A video published recently on the CSPOA site advised “What To Do When The Feds Come Knocking On Your Door About Vaccinations?” 

One matter of urgency for Mack appears to be the proliferation of 5G technology: the “Health” section of the CSPOA website is dedicated to advertising special stickers, $39.95 for a set of two, that you can affix to your cellphone to protect you from 5G radiation. 

Mack claims CSPOA now has about 10,000 members (which is up from the 5,000 he quoted in interviews back in 2016) and that the majority are civilians. VICE News has not independently verified these numbers; it’s worth noting that fringe groups often exaggerate their membership numbers to make them seem more popular than they are.

Dues for civilian membership are $99 annually. You can choose to join at different levels; the highest is “Diamond Level,” which, for a one-time payment of $5,000, gets you all kinds of swag, including a CSPOA dress shirt, plus several copies of Mack’s books, and a one-on-one meeting with the man himself. (It’s unclear how many Diamond Level members ponied up for the package.) There’s also the CSPOA certification package, a six-week online course for $149 on “How to help end tyranny and peacefully restore liberty in your city!”

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Mack says he’s less fussed about sheriffs becoming bona fide members and more concerned with opening them up to his ideas by taking his training courses. “I don’t push membership with sheriffs. I never have. I’ve always been afraid that would get in the way. People would say, ‘Mack’s just about money and dues and membership,’” said Mack. “That’s not my purpose with sheriffs. I want a change in behavior.” 

He said he’s trained close to 400 sheriffs. The sheriff training course is similar to the civilian certification package that’s available to civilians (about 80 percent similar, said Mack), but with a few law enforcement-specific items aimed at police behavior. 

Meanwhile, his civilian “posse” is a pool of potential candidates to draw from. “Just about every sheriff race in this country has at least one candidate running as a Constitutional sheriff,” Mack claimed. “Yes, I take credit for that. I think it’s wonderful.” 

Mack and his flock of “Constitutional Sheriffs'' tout themselves as the ultimate defenders of liberty and the only thing standing between freedom and tyranny. “You’re going to watch your country die if you do not get your sheriffs on board with this holy cause,” he said at an event promoting his book back in 2009. "The president of the United States can't tell your sheriff what to do.” 

Extremism experts who have studied the movement say the opposite is true: that their ideology, rooted in the conspiracy-oriented, anti-Semitic “Posse Comitatus” movement of the 1970s and 1980s, threatens to undermine the democratic process. 

“The mere fact you have any sheriffs at all getting involved with an open extremist group is a very remarkable and very troubling phenomenon,” said Mark Pitcavage, an expert with the Anti-Defamation League who has tracked militias, and Mack, for decades. “It’s not good to have extremists as law enforcement officers. Sheriffs have a tremendous amount of power. And if they want to, they can abuse that power. We did not start off this country with vigilante law enforcement.”

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But Mack doesn’t really mind being labeled an extremist. “In some circles, I take it as a badge of honor,” Mack told VICE News, before quoting former Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater’s infamous rebuttal to being called an extremist. “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” Mack said. “I’m very passionate that we should be running our own lives, and that we should be enjoying individual liberty across the board.” 

Mack and CSPOA are closely intertwined with the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia that’s currently under intense scrutiny after at least 17 of its members were charged with federal crimes for their alleged role in the violent Capitol insurrection (four of those have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the feds). Mack was a founding board member of the Oath Keepers. Mack, members of CSPOA, and Oath Keepers were also part of the 2014 standoff between the federal government and the Bundy family in Nevada. (Mack claims he left his position with the Oath Keepers six years ago). 

But while Oath Keepers are increasingly a household name, CSPOA has received much less attention in the media. 

Pitcavage thinks that needs to change. 

“The Oath Keepers have gotten a lot of attention when it comes to the whole issue of extremists infiltrating law enforcement,” said Pitcavage. “But it’s the CSPOA that has been the real success story in this regard, not the Oath Keepers.” 

Upward spiral to success

Lately, it’s not only sheriffs that Pitcavage is worried about defecting to Mack’s cause; it’s entire counties. 

Earlier this summer, Mack traveled to Elko, Nevada, where about a hundred residents had gathered for an important announcement. Men in stetson hats, blue jeans, and blue button-downs assembled before a podium; one of them had brought their horse with them. 

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(The horse, who goes by “Gandhi,” is reportedly something of a local celebrity, having once traveled from Nevada to Washington, D.C. to participate in a rally in support of ranchers. Somewhere in Kansas, on his way to D.C., Gandhi stumbled and fell into a groundhog’s hole. His rider succumbed to his injuries and died on his return from D.C..

The announcement was that two adjoining counties—Elko County and Lander County— had just become the first local governments in the U.S. to join the anti-government CSPOA. In a joint resolution, the counties vowed that “any conduct contrary to the United States Constitution, Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights will be dealt with as criminal activity.”

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From left to right are Lander County Sheriff Ron Unger, Eureka County Sheriff Jesse Watts, Elko County Sheriff Aitor Narvaiza and Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association founder Richard Mack in the Elko City Park in Elko, Nev., on Sunday, June 20, 2020. Rural Nevada residents are celebrating moves by two county commissions to join a "constitutional sheriffs" group that argues local law enforcement has final say over how to interpret laws. (Jeff Mullins/The Daily Free Press via AP)

Mack, who in recent years has switched out his trademark suit-and-tie look for a more-relaxed sheriff aesthetic, formalized their membership by presenting them with plaques. Since then, Lyon County, on Nevada’s border with California, has followed suit and declared themselves a “Constitutional County.” 

“He’s had slow and steady success over the past decade, while still operating fairly under the radar without any sort of public backlash,” said Pitcavage. “He’s slowly been building these relationships, convincing people to join CSPOA. Every sheriff who becomes a member, every elected official who becomes a member, adds to the legitimacy of CSPOA. And makes it easy for him to recruit the next person. That creates the circumstances for more success. It’s an upward spiral.”

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While CSPOA’s website makes vague promises to prospective members about “ending tyranny” and “restoring liberty,” the real-life consequences of this simmering movement are already evident in the counties whose sheriffs have signed on. 

Take, for example, Sheriff Dar Leaf of Barry County, Michigan, who has recently emerged as a darling of the Constitutional Sheriffs movement. He joined militia members at armed anti-lockdown rallies last year, including two brothers who were later arrested on suspicion of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor over COVID-19 restrictions. He refused to enforce a ban on guns at polling places when election day rolled around, despite fears of armed voter intimidation. He tried to rally other sheriffs and coordinate with Trump advisers as part of a plan to “seize” Dominion voting machines after the election. Most recently, he’s hired a private detective to go from township to township in search of evidence of voter fraud in the 2020 election. 

A constitutional sheriff in Klickitat County, Oregon, recently made headlines when he vowed to “arrest, detain, and recommend prosecution” of any elected official or government employee who attempted to enforce future public health mandates related to COVID-19, like mask mandates and social distancing. 

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Perhaps the most notorious of all constitutional sheriffs is former Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio, who faced a slew of accusations of various forms of police misconduct including his controversial “immigration round-ups”. He repeatedly flouted court orders and was ultimately convicted for contempt of court, which Trump pardoned him for. 

Mack says he’s “astonished” by the pushback from the media and other local officials who aren’t on board with his movement. “Who does it hurt if we’re strictly enforcing the Bill of Rights in every county? Who does that hurt?” said Mack. “They seem deathly afraid of it. And I can only determine that the only person it could hurt is a tyrant.”

Even with growing membership and three “constitutional counties” under his belt, Mack doesn’t seem like he’s taking his foot off the gas anytime soon. When VICE News reached him by phone, he’d just returned from a 65-day multistate tour titled “ARISE USA! THE RESURRECTION!” The tour, led by Robert David Steele, a former CIA spy and early promoter of QAnon, was supposed to be 110 days long, but it ended early after they ran out of money. Mack said he has no interest in QAnon and claimed he had no idea that Steele was involved in the conspiracy movement. Still, he wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to spread his gospel.  

Mack, Steele, and other ideologues traveled the country in gaudy blue buses emblazoned with an image of Mount Rushmore and the ARISE logo, visiting deep-red enclaves of America, peddling lies about a stolen election, and ginning up grievances against the federal government. 

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“There were definitely some things I disagreed with, but overall I thought he had a commitment to returning to our Constitution,” said Mack. “He gave his talk, I gave mine.” 

The path to anti-government celebrity

For decades, Mack has been dining off the thing that made him famous: that time he sued the federal government over gun laws, and won at the Supreme Court. “It’s the one thing that’s my calling card,” Mack told VICE News. 

He grew up in a law enforcement household: His dad was an FBI agent. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Mack tried and failed three times to get into the FBI. He ultimately launched his career in law enforcement as a cop in Provo, Utah. 

In the late 1980s, Mack returned to his hometown in Graham County, Arizona’s third-least-populated county, where he was elected sheriff. In those early years, he made news only for deeply local affairs—for example, commenting on the arrests of rowdy protesters who were defending the habitat of the endangered red squirrel, or remarking on the wreckage of a helicopter that happened to crash in his jurisdiction. 

That all changed on Valentine’s Day 1994. Mack appeared on the local radio station with a big announcement: He had filed a lawsuit against the Clinton administration over the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which had been signed into law a year earlier. The new law created mandatory background checks for handgun purchases, and it required local law enforcement to assist the federal government in its enforcement. (Mack was the first sheriff to come out nationally against the Brady Bill, followed a month later by Sheriff Jay Printz, located 1,000 miles away in Ravalli County, Montana.) 

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In that radio announcement Mack appealed to his constituents, asking them to send in donations for the inevitable legal defense fund he said he’d need when the feds learned of his rebellion and came to arrest him. "My oath says that I will uphold constitutional law," Mack later told a reporter from West Virginia, as he thumbed through a booklet about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that he kept on his desk. "It doesn't say anything about enforcing Hillary and Bill's law."

It wasn’t long before the NRA found out about Mack and threw its support in his corner. Mack was invited to go on national news to talk about his legal battle, which also earned him major kudos among the surging “patriot” or militia movement. He capitalized off his new national profile, and wrote two books, From My Cold Dead Fingers: Why America Needs Guns! (number 898,146 on Amazon’s best-seller list as of Wednesday) and Government, GOD, and Freedom: A Fundamental Trinity

Soon, Mack found himself called to join fights that had absolutely nothing to do with Graham County. In March 1995, he traveled to Challis, Nevada, to show support for farmers in their showdown with the federal government over public land use. In a speech, according to The Idaho Falls Post Register, Mack warned that standoffs between civilians and the feds, like what happened in Waco, Texas, could happen to anyone. He told them that they had to cling to their guns because they were the best weapon against the tyranny of the federal government and a “New World Order.” 

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The following month, the militia movement suddenly came under intense scrutiny after one of its own, Timothy McVeigh, blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Mack was invited onto CNN to talk about the bombing, and about then-President Clinton’s efforts to crack down on domestic terrorism. In that segment, Mack made no secret of his allegiance to the militia movement, and stated that he’d even formed his own “citizens posse” in Graham County. 

“We shouldn’t try to demonize militias,” said Mack. 

“Wait a minute,” interjected the reporter. “You’re an official of the government.”

“True,” replied Mack. 

“It seems to me that's the government forming these militias,” the reporter said. “That's rather alarming, isn't it?”

“The key issue here is the people of America, the people that have formed these militia groups and other groups that are seeking a return to our constitutional foundation are afraid of their own government,” Mack said. “They do not trust our government.”

Mack’s apparently pro-militia stance, voiced on CNN just a week after the Oklahoma City bombing, was not well received by the broader public. It sparked a recall effort back in Graham County. For the first time, Mack’s name appeared in a state-by-state report on the militia movement by the Anti-Defamation League. (Mack vehemently denied ever being part of a militia. “Several militia groups honored me, and I'm sure I went to a meeting or two with a militia group back then,” said Mack. “But I've never been a member.”)

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He was served with a brutal review of his tenure as sheriff the next year, when his constituents voted 70 percent in favor of his opponent. 

"He spent too much time away from here. He wanted to get on TV, waving his little copy of the Constitution like it was a Bible," one resident told the Salt Lake Tribune

Anti-government extremist just can’t seem to get a job in government 

In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Brady Bill that Mack and others had been fighting against. With that triumph in his back pocket, he sauntered back to Provo and tried to run for sheriff there.

Mack brought with him his national reputation, and some baggage. He’d made himself a national figure, but for the wrong reasons. He was eyed with suspicion in the local press. His opponent, incumbent Sheriff David Bateman, routinely reminded voters of Mack’s “extremist” ties. Needless to say, Mack lost. As if two humiliating defeats weren’t enough, he tried running for city councillor in Provo—and lost again. 

He later heard that Cuyahoga County, New York, needed an interim sheriff. He began gunning for that position all the way from Utah, but failed to even get an interview. In 2003, he tried running for governor of Utah as a Libertarian, and made fluoridation of public drinking water a centerpiece issue of his campaign. Ultimately, he dropped out of that race and instead joined the cast of Showtime’s American Candidate, where 10 contestants competed in a mock political campaign, which included delivering a speech on the War on Terror, and were voted out on a weekly basis, like The Apprentice. But he couldn’t win a fake political race either. He was the fourth to go out. His last bid for political legitimacy was when he attempted to run for U.S. senator in Arizona. 

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Richard Mack, of Provo, left, speaks at a political rally on Tuesday, June 8, 2004, in Provo, Utah, that he organized as part of a new political reality show called "American Candidate" on Showtime. Mack, a Libertarian, was one of 12 contestants selected to participate in ``American Candidate''. Each of them kicked off their campaign Tuesday, after getting notice a day and a half earlier that they were to hold a kickoff rally. The two candidates with the lowest turnout wouldn't make it to the next round. (AP Photo/George Frey)

Sheriff supremacy

Even while he was trying and failing to get into political office, Mack was refining his personal brand and messaging at speaking engagements on the militia circuit and doing PR for Gun Owners of America, a lobby group that advertises itself as being even more hard-line on gun rights than the NRA. 

Mack began touting his “sheriff supremacy” doctrine, and courting disgruntled officials who he thought might be receptive to his pitch for radical, anti-government law enforcement. In 2002 at a gun convention in Las Vegas, Mack held an invitation-only seminar for Nevada sheriffs and deputies to teach them how to resist enforcing federal laws. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the seminar was sparsely attended: One sheriff and a sheriff’s deputy showed up. The other attendees were political hopefuls, ranchers, or right-wing activists. During the seminar, Mack grew emotional and blinked back tears, the Tribune reported. "I've had it with them [federal law enforcement],” Mack said. “There's not any person I would allow to be a victim of them—if I were still a sheriff."

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the anti-government extremism movement surged. Stewart Rhodes, who had spoken at many of the same events as Mack, formed the Oath Keepers in 2009. 

“Mack became one of the Oath Keepers’ key early members in its earliest years,” said Pitcavage. “Because of his celebrity status on the far-right, he’s an important figure in terms of legitimizing the Oath Keepers. By the same token, he taught him there might be something to recruiting from law enforcement.” 

In late 2009, Mack was the star speaker at a “Freedom Festival” in Post Falls, Washington, which was attended by a handful of state lawmakers, including Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, who was recently accused of “domestic terrorism” and supporting “armed conflicts of political violence.” The festival, according to the Spokane Review, was further evidence of “a new rise of the militia movement in America, but one that blurs the line between extremism and mainstream.”

More than 10 years later, and after hundreds of seemingly regular civilians and far-right militants joined forces and stormed the U.S. Capitol, the line between extremist and mainstream politics seems fuzzier than ever. Elected officials in some places are parroting the same lines as extremist groups, legitimizing their conspiracy theories, and fomenting partisan anger.

“We are taking America back, just as I’ve said, county by county, state by state,” said Mack. “Washington, D.C. will have to come along or get left behind. We certainly hope they will. But we don't have a lot of hope that that will happen.”

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Correction: This story originally said that Jay Printz was the first sheriff to sue the federal government over the Brady Law. Richard Mack was the first. We regret the error.