Katy Garner and her sister grew up in a small town in Arkansas and were always close.
“We both were cheerleaders in school, made pretty good grades, and loved to just hang out with friends and each other. No one has a perfect childhood, but we had each other. We knew that. And that's what made us so close. We even have matching tattoos to remind each other of that,” Garner told VICE News.
They both became nurses, and Garner’s sister married a doctor and had three children.
Then, around the time of the 2020 presidential election, Garner’s sister started looking at some of the conspiracy theories swirling online about how former President Donald Trump lost the vote. Ultimately she found QAnon.
“It took her about three months to become totally obsessed,” Garner said. “That’s all she would talk about. You could call her and somehow the conversation would turn into how we live in a world with reptilians and how the Clintons are evil baby-eaters.”
Then she found Michael Brian Protzman, known to his followers as Negative48, who is the leader of a QAnon offshoot that’s been camped out in Dallas for the last three weeks awaiting the return of John F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr.
Garner’s sister left her family behind and drove to Dallas about a month ago and has cut off almost all communication with her family.
According to Garner, her sister has so far handed over about $200,000 to the group, and is being forced to drink a hydrogen peroxide solution and take “bio pellets” to ward off COVID-19 and stay healthy. Her phone calls and messages are also being monitored, according to Garner, who believes her sister will never return.
“She left her children for this and doesn't even care. She is missing birthdays and holidays for this. She truly believes this is all real and we are the crazy ones for trying to get her to come home. But she won’t,” Garner said. “I don't believe she will ever come back from this. We are in mourning.”
Garner’s sister was one of the hundreds of people who initially traveled to Dallas to see JFK reappear on Nov. 2. However, when that didn’t happen, the goalposts shifted, and Protzman convinced dozens of people that if they waited long enough, something else would happen.
Katy says her sister’s brief messages to her parents have gone from “be home in a few days” to “I am not coming home, my husband can take care of the kids. I am not leaving until this is over.”
While the group initially appeared to be waiting for the reappearance of JFK, over the weekend, the tone of Protzman’s comments shifted dramatically. Besides proclaiming that he was God’s representative on earth, he also took part in a video chat where participants openly spoke about having to experience death in order to learn the truth.
“Ultimately... we have to experience that physical death... let go... come out on the other side,” one of the participants in the video call suggested.
Hours later, the administrator of Protzman’s Telegram channel posted a screenshot of a navigation app showing the destination as Waco, Texas, where in 1993 a monthslong law enforcement siege of the Mount Carmel compound belonging to the Branch Davidian religious sect ended with 76 people dead, including 25 children.
The QAnon offshoot cult that has been camped out in Dallas for three weeks has been widely mocked for claiming that John F. Kennedy and his son would suddenly reappear.
But as the weeks have passed, the group’s rhetoric has become increasingly extreme, and many cult and extremism experts are concerned about the direction the group has taken.
“The moment when the leaders of a cultic group start talking about the need for physical death to reach utopia is the moment to get the authorities involved,” Mike Rothschild, the author of The Storm Is Upon Us, a book about QAnon, tweeted.
Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioral scientist who researches social media manipulation and far-right extremism, compared the shift in direction of the group’s rhetoric to the beliefs expressed by accused murderer Matthew Coleman earlier this year.
“These are basically the exact same spiritual/religious teachings that the guy in California was getting into just before he brutally murdered his two young children,” Orr tweeted.
Several extremist researchers who are closely tracking this group’s activities told VICE News that they have sent information to the FBI. A spokesperson for the agency’s Dallas field office told VICE News that it “cannot open an investigation based solely on protected First Amendment activity” but urged members of the public who “observe threatening, suspicious or illegal activity” to get in touch.
A spokesperson for the Dallas Police Department told VICE News that “the department has limited contact with the group. At this time there is no significant reason this group should be a cause of concern.”
When contacted by VICE News on Sunday, Protzman did not deny the allegations about the threat his group posed to its members. But rather than responding directly to the specific questions sent to him, he lashed out at the media’s coverage of his group, mocked mask-wearing, and said the media were the “whores for the 1% globalist pimps.”
But for those whose family and friends are under Protzman’s spell, concerns about their safety are growing by the day.
“I'm very worried about her safety,” one friend of a person inside the group told VICE News, requesting anonymity to speak openly about the situation. “We don't know if she's given him any money, but her husband is about to cancel her cards. She's blowing through money fast.”
The woman said her friend’s husband was making the decision to cancel the credit cards because he’s “worried about how he's gonna pay his mortgage this month.“
In an audio chat among members of Protzman’s group on Telegram, one man spoke about cashing in his retirement savings in order to fund his stay in Dallas.
As well as soliciting funds from members of the group, Protzman and his core group of supporters continue to solicit donations from the hundreds of thousands of people who follow him online.
The financial impact on the group’s members is just one concern that’s been shared by members of a splinter group of former Protzman followers, who are now trying to help people to leave him.
In the Telegram channel the splinter group has set up, one woman spoke about her fiancé, who traveled to Dallas initially at the beginning of the month, returned home to Missouri, but returned to Dallas a week later, after Protzman made another prediction.
Now she’s worried that her fiancé may be lost to her for good.
“I keep asking him to come home, and he keeps saying something big is going to happen and he doesn’t want to miss it,” a member of the Dealey Plaza Truthers group wrote. “I have already thought that perhaps my fiancé might be penniless if he stays with this group. I just hope they wake up before losing everything.”
Protzman’s latest deadline for “something big” to happen is Monday, the 58th anniversary of the assassination of JFK in Dallas. But once that passes without anything happening, Protzman will likely propose another date to keep people from leaving. And while Katy Garner believes her sister cannot be saved, she wants other families to be alert to the warning signs that someone is falling down the same rabbit hole as her sister.
“[Protzman] must be stopped,” Garner said. “My sister may be too far gone, but it's not too late to bring awareness to others. Do not fall into this trap. Do not believe what these people say. They are all delusional and brainwashed. And if you notice a family member isolating themselves, speaking of nonsense, say something. Bring them back to reality. We didn't put two and two together. She hid this from us for a year. Don't let what happened to my family happen to yours. Pay attention and hold the ones you love tight.”
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