When one Framingham man signed up for the far-right Oath Keepers, he volunteered that he had “extensive firearms training” and had survived mortar and sniper attacks and ambushes. A man from Westfield simply described himself as a “survival weapons prepper.” A Foxborough man said, “he can shoot well.”
At least 530 Massachusetts residents signed up for the organization at the heart of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection between the group’s inception in 2009 and 2018, according to documents provided to the Globe by the nonprofit journalist collective Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDoSecrets. The state list includes police officers, military veterans, and a couple of politicians; some hinted at their military skills when they signed up.
But with the Oath Keepers’ founder Stewart Rhodes on trial for seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government, local members of the group are distancing themselves from the group’s extremism. Some said they thought it was little more than a patriotic club and they turned against the group when it became clear it was extremist.
“I thought it was just a fraternity of retired and discharged military dudes,” said Kenneth Marciano, a military veteran who was living in North Attleborough when he paid dues to the organization 10 years ago, in an e-mail. “The (expletive) they pulled on Jan 6 was disgusting. I don’t consider myself a member as I have never been active and really was only interested in the swag that they sent back in 2012.”
Experts on far-right movements say the marketing of the group as a relatively innocuous pro-Constitution organization filled with duty-bound first responders and veterans was a facade. At the heart of the Oath Keepers, they say, was always a violent and extremist militia whose ideology had undercurrents that were inherently racist and antisemitic. Members patrolled the site of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, where one counterprotester was killed and marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
“The Oath Keepers are a symptom of the disease,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow for George Washington University’s program on extremism.
Lewis said in recent years the group overtly leaned into white supremacist conspiracy theories, claiming that the last presidential election was stolen and that buses of immigrants had been trucked into voting places to skew its results.
“Conspiracy theories have become part and parcel of significant subsets of the right today,” Lewis said. “This is a group that is mobilizing militia for one president to prevent transfer of power to another.”
Marine Corps veteran Hans Hansen, who currently lives in Connecticut but previously resided on Cape Cod and in Boston, said he thought the Oath Keepers were innocuous enough when he joined years ago. The Oath Keepers’ emphasis on public service and constitutional rights seemed to Hansen like an extension of the oath he signed when he joined the military. He said it took him about a year of newsletters to realize the group was moving in the direction of an extremist group like the Ku Klux Klan.
But at the beginning, Hansen said in a statement, “The group was very attractive to many veterans who were looking to continue to stand up for the Constitution after military service and be part of a patriotic group of veterans.”
Federal prosecutors contend that the founder of the Oath Keepers and four associates planned an “armed rebellion” to keep former president Donald Trump in power after he lost the 2020 election.
Within days of Trump’s defeat, Rhodes and other Oath Keepers officials discussed bringing weapons to a “Stop the Steal” rally that would ultimately be held in Washington on Jan. 6, urging members to “fight” on behalf of Trump. One member who was on the call testified last week, “The more I listened to the call, it sounded like we were going to war against the United States government.”
Last month, the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism pored over more than 38,000 names on leaked Oath Keepers membership lists nationwide and identified more than 370 people it believes currently work in law enforcement agencies — including as police chiefs and sheriffs — and more than 100 people who are currently members of the military.
But the ADL did not publicly release the full roster of names on the organization’s rolls. That list was provided to the Globe by DDoSecrets, offering a glimpse of the people who are drawn to far-right extremism. The Oath Keepers found members in all corners of Massachusetts, from the Berkshires to the Cape and Islands. Addresses from cities, suburbs, and rural areas all appeared on the list.
When people signed up, along with addresses and contact information, some offered what they could do to help the organization. Multiple state residents said they could teach CPR; many self-identified as military veterans, who sometimes stated how long they served or what their specialties were. The rhetoric was at times revolutionary, at others apocalyptic.
A Stow man said he “took an oath and it is being walked on by the current so-called commander-in-chief.” A Hudson woman offered, “I do not want my grandchildren to be slaves of the (New World Order) and tyranny.”
The Globe reached out for comment to all the Oath Keepers in Massachusetts who provided their e-mail addresses to the organization.
To be sure, there are limitations to what can be drawn from the list of Massachusetts names.
Sam Jackson, a professor at the University at Albany who specializes in far-right extremism, thought the rolls in the recent data dump actually reflect an undercount of the organization’s members.
“It’s only telling us. . . a small part of the story,” he said.
At the same time, some members may have done little more than make a small donation or sign up for a newsletter. Some claimed they had never attended a meeting nor did they interact with other members.
Many on the Massachusetts list, when contacted by the Globe, distanced themselves from the Oath Keepers.
Sean Brady, an Army veteran from Hanson who once launched a long-shot bid for US Senate, told the Globe that when he sent the group a donation in 2009, “it was not about overthrowing our democratic republic, I stopped sending them money shortly after I learned more about their agenda and I really didn’t even realize that I was still in the system.” He has not had any contact with the group in 13 years, he said.
Speaking generally, Jackson, who has written a book on the group, said people should be skeptical of claims that Oath Keepers did not know what they were signing up for.
“I can’t imagine myself giving $40 to an organization to become a member without doing a little bit of due diligence,” he said.
But some Oath Keepers in Massachusetts made no attempt to distance themselves and doubled down on the anti-government rhetoric. Richard Selfridge, in an e-mail, said that both state and federal authorities are “totally out of control” and are ignoring the principles of the Constitution.
“States are ignoring their obligation to cancel unconstitutional laws and bow down to the federal government to take hold of the largess in handouts that is our own dollars,” said Selfridge, who identified himself to the Oath Keepers as a retired airline pilot from Townsend. “Nothing the Federal government is doing is even remotely legal and borders on outright Treason.”
The Massachusetts list includes several people in law enforcement, including Scott Hartzler, who left the Falmouth police in 2014 after alleged misconduct. Another person on the rolls, John Ouellette, was a Braintree patrolman until he retired in 2020, according to the department.
The list also included David Bonaparte, a former Raynham detective who was once hailed as a hero for his role in the investigation of the 1978 kidnap-murder of Mary Lou Arruda. He is now retired from Raynham police. Also in the Oath Keepers’ directory was Joseph R. LaFlower, who retired as a sergeant in the Warren Police Department in 2018 after more than three decades on the force.
In addition, at least two Massachusetts politicians signed up. Ron Beaty, a Republican candidate for Barnstable County Commissioner, said in a statement that in 2014 he made a small donation to the group because he understood it to be “individual American Patriots swearing allegiance to the United States Constitution.”
“I had no idea, at that time, that there may possibly have been some extremist elements within the group,” Beaty said.
The second Massachusetts politician, David Sanders, who is an elected member of the Wilbraham Republican Town Committee, said in a Facebook post he had not been active in the group for a decade.
Sarah Ryley and Jeremiah Manion of Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also included.