How Oath Keepers Are Quietly Infiltrating Local Government

By Ciara O’Rourke
·18 min read

GRANBURY, Texas — In late August, the constable in a small county outside Fort Worth logged on to his Facebook account and called for the execution of a mayor nearly 2,000 miles away.

“Ted Wheeler needs to be tried, convicted and executed posthaste,” John D. Shirley wrote on Aug. 31. “He has blood on his hands, and it’s time for justice.”

What precipitated Shirley’s outburst against the mayor of Portland, Ore., was the shooting death on Aug. 29 of a member of a right-wing group called Patriot Prayer by an antifa activist. The killing was a violent escalation of clashes that had roiled Portland in the weeks since George Floyd was suffocated to death by police. Shirley said “patriots” in “socialist-controlled cities” needed to protect themselves. As the presidential election approached, he warned of “open conflict.” Twitter suspended his account shortly after, but he continued to post about violent disputes on Facebook with crescendoing alarmism.

“If you doubt these lefties won’t put you and your family against a wall and pull the trigger, then you aren’t paying attention,” Shirley said on Oct. 10. “Their hatred for you is palpable. We dare never let them regain power again.”

Since 2018, Shirley has been the constable of Hood County, a conservative, mostly white community outside of Fort Worth popular among retirees. As constable, Shirley is empowered to serve warrants and subpoenas and make arrests. It might seem odd that an elected member of law enforcement would incite violence against another democratically elected official in one of the nation’s largest cities. But Shirley was also a sworn member of Oath Keepers, which in recent months has been warning of a civil war.

Depending on whom you ask, Oath Keepers is either “the last line of defense against tyranny” or an extremist militia. They describe themselves as a nonpartisan association of tens of thousands of current and former military, police and first responders who pledge to defend the Constitution and refuse to obey orders they consider unconstitutional. The Southern Poverty Law Center on the other hand lists Oath Keepers as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today” and has kept tabs on incidents involving members that may betray the idea that the group is just about defending the Constitution. In 2010, for example, a man in Tennessee driving a truck with an Oath Keepers logo was accused in a plot to arrest two dozen local officials.

By the time he was posting about Wheeler, Shirley had been an Oath Keeper for more than a decade, serving on the organization’s board of directors, as its national peace officer liaison, and as the Texas chapter president. But he isn’t the only elected official in Hood County affiliated with the group. One member, a newly elected justice of the peace, said in February that Oath Keepers was having a “surgence” there. Shirley has described an incoming county commissioner as an Oath Keeper.

I first learned about Oath Keepers in Hood County in March, when I received a message about the group’s growing presence there. Some residents have speculated that there are even more elected officials who are Oath Keepers, though no one else I spoke with said they belonged to the group and many denied knowing much about it at all.

Oath Keepers has made inroads across the country with thousands of law enforcement officers, soldiers and veterans. Still, it’s not common for elected officials to openly identify as members, said Sam Jackson, a University of Albany professor who wrote a new book about the organization. After all, Jackson said, this is a group that, in 2014, was prepared to shoot at police who weren’t on their side during the Bundy standoff, when hundreds of armed civilians confronted federal rangers trying to impound a Nevada rancher’s cattle that had been grazing on protected land.

Daniel Peters, a left-leaning gadfly who regularly challenges conservative county commissioners, told me that Shirley’s ominous postings made him afraid for his safety. Shirley, he said, “is very openly calling for violence toward people like me.”

Mendi Tackett, a Democrat who stays at home with her kids, said she thinks there’s a “healthy number of people here who are definitely in on the ideology.” It’s concerning that active law enforcement or military personnel could be involved with the organization, she told me, but she suspects that “some of these folks are more talk than they are actual action.”

Either way, what’s happening in Hood County may represent a shift for a group that was once seen as a governmental antagonist but is now establishing itself inside the halls of the elected officialdom. And it is setting up potentially dangerous conflicts between officials with different ideas of what constitutes legitimate government authority. Over the past 10 months, Shirley has promoted protests over orders to slow the spread of Covid-19 and cast doubt on a peaceful local demonstration against police brutality. And despite their avowed neutrality, the group’s attention of late has focused on defending one individual—Donald Trump—who himself has been accused of undermining the constitutional transfer of power by refusing to concede an election he lost resoundingly.

“Our POTUS will not go down without a fight,” Oath Keepers said in a recent email blast. “He WILL NOT concede. This election was stolen from We The People. We will prevail but we need your help! Or we lose our democracy.”

Oath Keepers was formed in 2009 after the election of Barack Obama. When the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, announced its debut, he wrote in a blog post that its primary mission would be “to prevent the destruction of American liberty by preventing a full-blown totalitarian dictatorship from coming to power.”

Ascertaining how widespread support is for that mission is subject to debate. In 2014, Rhodes said Oath Keepers had about 35,000 members who paid dues to the organization. This year, the Atlantic reported there were nearly 25,000 names on a membership list the magazine obtained.

But Hood County, named after the Confederate Army General John Bell Hood, could offer insight on a very local level of how the group has continued to grow in small but measurable ways across the country.

An early clue came this February at a candidate forum for local Republicans. Dub Gillum a retired state trooper who was running for justice of the peace in Hood County’s Precinct 4, said on Feb. 11 that Oath Keepers was experiencing “a resurgence—or surgence—in Hood County.”

When I reached out to Gillum he told me he did not remember saying that there was a “surgence” of Oath Keepers in Hood County. “Personally,” he said, “I do not see a ‘surgency’ of Oath Keepers in Hood County but rather a resurgence of patriotism.”

Gillum said he started following Oath Keepers on Facebook in 2010, when the social media platform suggested it to him as a group he might like. The Oath Keepers’ mission resonated with him. It felt like a reaffirmation of the oath he took when he became a state trooper in 1990. Oath Keepers was a networking resource for him when he was a trooper, he said, but he’s never attended any of the group’s events. He doesn’t consider himself “active” in the organization.

About a week later, on Feb. 20, Hood County News, the local newspaper, reported that Oath Keepers, “one of the nation’s largest anti-government militia groups,” was scheduled to hold a rally on Feb. 24 at the Harbor Lakes Golf Club in Granbury, the county seat named for another Confederate general that has twice won recognition as the “Best Historic Small Town in America.”

Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate who once worked for Texas Congressman Ron Paul, was supposed to lead the rally for “all Oath Keeper candidates running in the primary.” The event was also billed as a swearing-in for anyone who wanted to take the “Oath to the Constitution” for the first time.

But the next day, the paper reported that the meeting was canceled after the golf club backed out, saying the event was “misrepresented in the planning” and that the rally’s agenda was “unbeknownst to Harbor Lakes.”

Still, on Feb. 22, a post on the website Hood County Today written by Nathan Criswell, the county’s former Republican Party chair, declared “Oath Keepers emerge in Hood.” A local chapter would soon be operational in the county under John Shirley’s leadership, Criswell said.

On Feb. 25, an “insider’s perspective” of Oath Keepers written by the constable was published on the site. Shirley said he had first heard about Oath Keepers in 2008 and reached out to Rhodes before the group was even officially formed. Shirley “was immediately fascinated with the idea of peace officers and soldiers rededicating themselves to their oaths and to the Constitution,” he wrote.

He defended Oath Keepers as a “nonpartisan organization almost exclusively dedicated to teaching first responders and soldiers to respect their oaths, know what the Constitution says and how that knowledge applies to their jobs.” Descriptions of the group as a “right-wing,” “racist,” “anti-government” militia were “ad hominem attacks” lacking evidence, he said.

But some residents were alarmed by a scene that unfolded outside a local gym a couple months later. By then, the coronavirus pandemic had hobbled communities across the state and Governor Greg Abbott had ordered gyms, among other businesses, to shut down. Lift the Bar Fitness in Granbury followed that direction, at least for a while. By April, David Todd Hebert, who owns the gym with his wife, had grown impatient with what he considered an unconstitutional mandate from ”King Abbott.” They decided to reopen the gym even if it meant going to jail.

The gym announced on Facebook that members could finally come back even though Abbott’s executive order was still in effect. Someone commented that the police better “bring a lot of guns” if they were planning to stop them, Hood County News reported.

When Lift the Bar Fitness opened on April 28, about 10 Oath Keepers turned up “to make sure that we stayed open,” Hebert told me. They were friendly, he said, and they’d heard he was going to get arrested. They wanted to document any violations of his constitutional rights.

Hebert didn’t get arrested. In fact, he said, no officers showed up. But the story started to spread through the county. I heard that armed Oath Keepers prowled the parking lot and scared off city police officers who arrived to shut down the gym. In one telling, there was a near shootout between the cops and the Oath Keepers, Shirley and Stewart Rhodes among them.

“That didn’t happen,” said Matt Mills, the county attorney who also stopped by the gym that day and confirmed that both Shirley and Rhodes were there. But even if Granbury officers had arrested Hebert, it’s unlikely the case would have gone anywhere. Mills has refused to prosecute anyone who violates the governor’s orders, which he also considers unconstitutional.

Mills is not an Oath Keeper, he said, and he told me he didn’t know much about them. But the organization continued to extend itself to conservatives in the deeply red county, where Republicans hold every elected office.

On May 2, a group called Hood County Conservatives announced on Facebook that Scott London, a former New Mexico sheriff, would be “speaking about the New Organization (The Oath Keepers in Hood County)” at their upcoming meeting at the county courthouse.

Oath Keepers showed up to Black Lives Matter protests at the courthouse the following month. The events, held on June 6-7 in spite of some reported threats directed at one of the demonstration’s teenage organizers, were peaceful. But from their perch in the impressive limestone building that anchors the county’s charming downtown square, Shirley and two other constables asked Sheriff Roger Deeds whether the county had any riot shields, Deeds said.

It didn’t, perhaps because the county of about 60,000 people didn’t need them. But a couple weeks later the commissioners court accepted a donation of eight riot shields to be used by the sheriff’s office, Shirley and another constable, Chad Jordan. The agenda for the June 23 commissioners court meeting said the shields were donated by Scott London. Dub Gillum told me Oath Keepers had paid $1,000 for the “needed tactical equipment.”

Like several elected officials and most residents I spoke with in Hood County, Deeds, who once belonged to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, and last year backed a successful effort to declare the county a “Second Amendment sanctuary,” was aware of Oath Keepers but said he wasn’t too familiar with the organization. He said he isn’t a member and doesn’t think any of his deputies are either, though some folks in town suspect otherwise. His office also has never coordinated with Oath Keepers, he said, but he doesn’t “believe they’re bad people by any means.”

David Fischer, the county’s Republican Party chair, told me he knows some people in Hood County are Oath Keepers but said it’s “not an issue in this county — we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t come up very much. ... I’m aware there are Oath Keepers here, but that’s all I know.”

When I asked him about some of the things Shirley has said on social media—about leftists murdering people, and that Ted Wheeler should be executed—he laughed.

“Constable Shirley is kind of outspoken,” he said. “He’s an elected official so nobody can do anything to him.”

Shirley, who has described Hood County leaders as “RINOs & closet authoritarians,” doesn’t get along with the other officials and thinks the commissioners court is “out to get him,” Fischer said. The constable’s comments also aren’t representative of the Republican Party in Hood County, Fischer said — “not at all.” The GOP chair said Shirley hasn’t even interacted with the party since he was elected.

In September, around the time Shirley’s Twitter account was suspended, Twitter also banned the accounts of Stewart Rhodes and Oath Keepers under its violent extremism policy. Oath Keepers had tweeted that there would be “open warfare against the Marxist insurrectionists by election night, no matter what you do” and that “Civil War is here, right now.”

As Election Day neared, both Republicans and Democrats in Hood County feared violence was looming across the United States. Smoking a cigarette outside the county’s early voting site after casting a ballot for Trump in late October, J.W. Williams said he was bracing for another civil war. He was sure there would be conflict, and that leftists would start it.

“You want to defund the police?” he said. “Better not, because the police are the only things keeping us from doing what we want to do.”

Shirley, meanwhile, warned that antifa and Black Lives Matter activists would cause mayhem every election cycle unless Democrats were “stopped cold.” Hood County did its part, voting for Trump by about 64 percentage points and electing every other Republican on the ballot by comfortable margins.

By the end of the week, it was clear that despite the county’s efforts, Trump had lost, even if he refused to concede. The kind of unrest that Shirley had predicted didn’t materialize, but the president marshaled his supporters around a new cause — overturning what he called a rigged election.

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud but an avalanche of misinformation about the election has fueled falsehoods about hundreds of thousands of trashed Trump ballots and election officials tampering with votes cast for him. Some Republicans have called on the president to accept the election results. Shirley is not among them.

Until Trump does concede, Shirley said, “we fight.”

The morning after the election, Shirley wrote on Facebook that his previous speculations that Americans were experiencing a psychological operation had been “putting it lightly.”

“We’re living in evil times, folks,” he said. “Buckle up.”

He started to use new hashtags: #StopTheSteal and then #StopTheCoup. He continued to claim that Trump had won the election.

“YOU CAN FEEL IT IN YOUR BONES,” he said on Nov. 7. “THIS WAS TAKEN FROM US ILLEGALLY. THE ONLY WAY WE LOSE IS IF WE DON’T FIGHT. LEAVE IT ALL ON THE FIELD. IT’S TIME TO SEPARATE THE WINTER SOLDIERS FROM THE SUNSHINE PATRIOTS.”

Shirley called Bill Gates the “master manipulator of the heist” and shared posts from Steve Bannon, who was permanently suspended from Twitter after suggesting FBI Director Christopher Wray and infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci should be beheaded.

The constable traveled to Washington for the so-called Million Maga March on Nov. 14, and later described wading through the rally to keep “his fellow countrymen safe.” When he posted a photo from the event, he boasted there was no violence.

“ANTIFA was too scared of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers,” he said. “They actually hid behind a police line at SCOTUS.”

Despite the overheated posts flying on social media, Hood County, outwardly at least, looks like a lot of small American towns. People’s kids play sports together and their parents watch amicably from the sidelines, even if they disagree about politics. Hebert, the gym owner who worked in law enforcement in Louisiana, said “it’s got some small-town politics but it’s not that kind of county, even as close as it is to Fort Worth.”

Chris Coffman, city manager of Granbury, said that while there was polarization on the extreme ends of the political spectrum, “by and large people love each other here. They get along with each other, help each other.”

In some ways, though, the community’s facade as a tourist town and one of the best places to retire feels misleading, said Adrienne Martin, chair of the Democratic Party. “There’s a lot of ugly stuff underneath the surface that nobody talks about, that nobody deals with.” Her husband grew up in Granbury and he doesn’t recognize it anymore, she said. “It used to be a little quaint small town. Now it’s Trumpville.”

Dozens of flags supporting the president snap in the wind across the county, and Trump campaign signs line the roads. Robert Vick, the Democratic state Senate candidate, told me that one of his campaign signs was shot up with bullet holes. He worried about Shirley’s rhetoric, and in what ways it could inspire people who read and believe it. He pointed to the alleged militia plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as an example. Recent court filings claim that the men accused had drawn up a Plan B to take over the Michigan Capitol and stage a weeklong series of televised executions of public officials.

After I was alerted to Shirley’s posts earlier this year, I reached out to him for comment several times. He never responded to me directly but in October, he posted a letter addressed to POLITICO on his Facebook page.

“You attempt, in vain, to smear the Oath Keepers by trying to link constitution loving patriots to hate groups while in the same breath tell people ANTIFA isn’t violent and isn’t an organized terrorist group,” he said. “Shame on you. Your lies do nothing but further expose you for the frauds & conmen most Americans already know you are. Your sad attempt at pushing the loony left into a civil war will fail. Trump is going to win, and then we’ll see how our government will choose to deal with insurrectionists.”

Jack Wilson, an incoming county commissioner who was endorsed by Governor Abbott, also declined to talk when I reached him by phone. Wilson is a firearms instructor who has worked as a reserve sheriff’s deputy and attracted national attention when he shot and killed a gunman at a church on Dec. 29, 2019. At the time, Shirley tweeted his admiration, calling Wilson a hero.

“And more than that he’s an #OathKeeper,” Shirley said. “He’s served his nation and communities most of his life. Hood County is lucky to count him among our citizens.”

But on Nov. 24, Shirley announced on Facebook that he was stepping back from the organization.

“I’ve decided to retire from being an active member in Oath Keepers,” he said. “I’ve been part of that organization for 10 years and it’s time to let other younger patriots take up the mantel.”

He added that he was taking a “much needed break from social media,” and that he may be back at some point.

“I’m currently of the opinion that all social media was designed to be or has become weaponized,” he said.

I tried to ask Shirley about his decision to retire as an active member of Oath Keepers but he didn’t respond to my questions.

His account briefly appeared to be deactivated. But his silence lasted only about a week. Since then, he’s posted more than 30 times, a mix of claims about the election and debunked misinformation. He’s recently shared posts about 200,000 votes supposedly hijacked from Trump in Georgia and suitcases full of fraudulent ballots there. On Dec. 7, he shared an email from Scott London to Granbury City Council members and Hood County commissioners discouraging them from pursuing or enforcing any new coronavirus restrictions, and reminding them of their oaths to the Constitution.

“We are the #DigitalConstitutionalMilitia. Our weapons of war are FB posts, Tweets, YouTube Videos, TikTok,” Shirley said back in November. “It’s up to US to do OUR part of this existential battle for the soul of #America. Patriots… You have your orders.”