How Sarasota Became the Conspiracy Capital of the United States

Conspiracists like Michael Flynn and the Cyber Ninjas have descended on Sarasota, where doctors recently signed 4,000 mask waivers for children with anti-vax parents.
September 20, 2021, 2:40pm
Former National Security Adviser and QAnon celebrity Michael Flynn at a Sarasota anti-mask event in September 2021 (Defend Our Union/Rumble)​
Former National Security Adviser and QAnon celebrity Michael Flynn at a Sarasota anti-mask event in September 20Defend Our Union/Rumble
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The video opens like the trailer for a post-apocalyptic movie.

There’s doom-laden, bass-heavy music; drone footage of cars backed up as far as the eye can see; and hundreds of people queuing around the block. Then, a young girl appears on camera, looks straight down the lens, and says: “My father sacrificed for your freedom.”

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But this isn’t the latest dystopian movie from Roland Emmerich. It’s a video from an event organized in Sarasota, Florida, last week, where organizers claim thousands of parents were able to get mask-mandate waivers signed for their children.

No one is willing to take credit for organizing the event, which took place at a picturesque wedding location near the city of Venice, but one person who is central to the event was disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“You can see the numbers of people that are here to learn about our health and the health tyranny we are facing in this country,” Flynn said in the video taken at the event.

It would have been difficult to miss Flynn’s presence at the event: He brought his own personal security team, who were photographed wearing camo gear and carrying assault rifles.

While Flynn’s presence at such an event may seem strange, the former general and QAnon icon lives just 25 minutes away, in Englewood, and is part of a growing cast of pro-Trump conspiracy theorists, insurrectionists, and election truthers who call Sarasota County home.

Overstock.com founder and uber–conspiracy theorist Patrick Byrne recently purchased six properties in the country, all at extremely inflated prices. Cyber Ninjas, the company with no election audit experience currently running the recount in Arizona’s Maricopa County, is headquartered in Sarasota County.

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Charlie Kirk, head of the pro-Trump, far-right group Turning Point USA, which is targeting local school boards around the country, also lives in the county. As does Florida Sen. Joe Gruters, one of Trump’s closest political allies in the state and someone who promoted buses full of pro-Trump rioters heading to Washington on Jan. 6.

And let’s not forget Maria Zack, the conspiracy theorist who believes that the 2020 election was somehow stolen through the use of Italian military satellites. She also now lives in Sarasota County.

In the words of Chris Anderson, columnist for the Sarasota Herald Tribune, “Sarasota County has somehow become the Conspiracy Capital of the World."

As a result, local conservatives have been emboldened, launching campaigns against the teaching of critical race theory and attempting to disrupt school board meetings. The groups are currently focused on trying to overturn mask mandates, but they have their eyes set on another goal: undermining election integrity in Sarasota County.

Last month, the Sarasota County School Board enacted a 90-day mandatory mask policy in an attemptbto slow the spread of COVID-19 in schools. Right-wing political and parent groups were outraged and bombarded school board meetings and held protests.

The attacks were also personal. In one private Facebook group, called “Concerned Parents of Sarasota Schools” which has 2,300 members, someone doxxed a teacher at a local school by posting her online dating profile. “Just your typical libtard. I’m surprised she doesn’t have a list of preferred pronouns. Weirdos,” one of the group’s members wrote under the picture.

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In a bid to circumvent the ban, local chiropractor Dan Busch began handing out signed mask mandate exemptions to anyone who showed up at his office. 

The Sarasota School Board subsequently tightened the rules about waivers, saying they would not accept those signed by chiropractors, but would continue to accept those signed by medical doctors, osteopathic physicians, and advanced registered nurse practitioners.

As a result, pro-Trump groups like Moms for Liberty, Defend Florida, and Families 4 Freedom decided to organize last week’s event in Venice, recruiting a dermatologist and a gynecologist to sign the waivers for the children who showed up.

Despite Flynn’s claims that people attended last week’s event “to learn,” the vast majority were actually there to get mask exemptions signed for their children. According to comments in the Facebook groups that helped promote the event, up to 4,000 waivers were signed in a single day, though none of those involved would speak to VICE News in order to corroborate that number.

According to one of those involved in the event, each assessment with the children lasted just three minutes.

Chad Dion, a member of Families 4 Freedom, told VICE News that he would answer questions about the event via email. However, he failed to respond to the questions and said in a message: “We have no comments to give VICE News.”

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Like all the other groups, parents’ rights group Moms for Liberty denied to VICE News that it organized the event, though messages shared by leaders of the Florida chapter of the group suggest they were closely involved in the running of the event.

The group was founded last year by Bridget Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County School Board and the wife of Florida GOP vice chair Christian Ziergler, who organized buses for people to travel to Washington on Jan. 6.

Christian Ziegler is also the owner of Micro Targeted Media, a digital marketing company that says “we do digital and go after people on their phones.”

Bridget Ziegler, who is no longer affiliated with Moms for Liberty, said she was unaware of who organized the mass waiver signing event.

Ziegler was also involved in drafting the Parent Bill of Rights, controversial legislation that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in July. The law seeks to transfer more power away from government and into the hands of parents, and DeSantis cited it when he implemented a ban on school districts bringing in mask mandates.

However, a recent interpretation of the bill by a Florida court ruled that school districts did have the power to overrule parents in the case of a public health emergency.

Moms for Liberty failed to respond to requests for an interview.

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The video of the mask mandate event featuring Flynn was posted on the alternative video-sharing site Rumble, by a group called Defend Our Union.  The group calls itself “a national network of grassroots organizations made up of citizens who love our nation” and was founded by Caroline Wetherington, who is also the founder of Women for Trump Florida.

Bypassing mask mandates is not Wetherington’s only focus right now. She’s also pushing hard for a voter canvass in Sarasota County, part of a wider effort to undermine the electoral process.

And that effort is being supported by Byrne, who told his 120,000 Telegram followers that Wetherington’s campaign is “a really solid and below-the-radar way to discover and prove there's a lot of election fraud.”

Wetherington’s Defend Florida group has been working with Liz Harris, the conspiracy theorist who conducted a recent unofficial canvass in Maricopa County, Arizona despite the fact the Department of Justice said such efforts amount to voter intimidation.

There are already reports popping up in Florida of people showing up to homes unannounced and demanding voter information.

Last week one of the admins for the local Defend Florida Facebook group said: “We are seeking a new canvassing team leader in Palm Beach. If you have organizational skills and have 15-20 hours per week to help.”

Defend Our Union and its local chapter, Defend Florida, didn’t respond to requests for comment.