In early summer 2018, it looked as though Oregon voters might get a chance to ban assault weapons in the state.
It was barely two months since a shooter had killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The proposed Oregon ballot measure met stiff legal challenges and was kept off the ballot, but not before militia groups like the Oath Keepers used the proposed gun restrictions as a rallying cry to bring hundreds of people out to a gun rights rally in Salem.
And those recruitment efforts by the Oath Keepers appear to have had some effect.
Not long after the pro-gun rally in Salem, Portland police officer Joseph Webber appears to have joined the Oath Keepers militia, an anti-government, anti-immigrant extremist group that was thrust into the national security spotlight for its role in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection.
According to data leaked earlier this month and reviewed by OPB, Webber — who is still a Portland police officer — is among more than two dozen current and former police officers, sheriff’s deputies, corrections officers, and members of the military in Oregon who appear to have joined the Oath Keepers militia since the group was founded in 2009. OPB compared data in the Oath Keepers leak against public records, social media and state law enforcement certification information to verify the information.
Reached by phone on the same number appearing in the leaked database, Webber denied joining the group before hanging up. He didn’t respond to follow-up text messages.
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said he expects officers to follow the bureau’s conduct and professionalism policies whether on or off duty. Potentially applicable policies include a prohibition against associations with people advocating criminal behavior or actions which might discredit the bureau or city.
Lovell told OPB this case has been referred to internal affairs for investigation.
The hacked Oath Keepers data was sent to the transparency group Distributed Denial of Secrets, which provided the information to journalists and researchers. In several cases across the country, journalists and citizen sleuths have been able to confirm law enforcement and military members using the leaked data. New York City police officers and a detective in the Hudson County prosecutor’s office were in the leaked data, prompting investigations from those two agencies.
The data include names, membership join dates and contact information for nearly 40,000 people across the country who at one point paid dues to the organization, including more than 1,000 names in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Except where people paid the approximately $1,000 for a lifetime membership, it’s not clear from the data if people are still members.
Oath Keepers in Oregon law enforcement
The earliest law enforcement officer in the state to join was Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputy Phillip Farrell, who signed up in 2009, according to the hacked records. Farrell retired from the Sheriff’s office in 2014 and, until 2019, worked as an instructor at Oregon’s corrections officer academy, according to his LinkedIn, where he recently liked a cartoon of a U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback. The cartoon — a reference to recently controversial actions taken by Border Patrol — stated the agent is not a villain and that the Haitian immigrant depicted is a lawbreaker, not a victim.
Farrell did not respond to multiple phone calls and text messages.
Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, who did not take office until after Farrell retired, called membership in an anti-government organization like the the Oath Keepers reprehensible.
“MCSO has a number of policies addressing members’ behavior(s) that may bring discredit to the Office of Sheriff and/or could be criminal, discriminatory or harassing in nature,” department spokesperson Chris Liedle added in an email.
In some cases, people who signed up for the Oath Keepers listed skills or experience they could contribute to the group.
“I currently work in a highly stressful environment,” one recently retired corrections officer from Oregon wrote. “I am professionally trained in restraint applications, use of chemical agents, taser deployment, basic first aid and firearms. I have the skills to de-escalate highly volatile situations.”
Current Nyssa, Oregon, police officer Nicholas Codiga joined the Oath Keepers in 2015, according to the leaked data. Codiga, who used to work for the Warm Springs Police Department, also appears to have shared content mocking Indigenous people on his social media accounts. In one Facebook post, a man who appears to be Codiga is photographed putting his face through a cutout that has long black braids, an orange prison jumpsuit and is holding a “WSPD detention center” sign.
OPB reached Codiga by calling the phone number in the leaked data. After confirming his identity, he hung up as soon as a reporter mentioned the Oath Keepers.
The Nyssa Police Department also hung up on OPB immediately after a reporter identified themselves. Nyssa City Manager Jim Maret said Codiga is transferring to a different law enforcement agency next month, but declined to say where. Maret said he didn’t know of a city policy prohibiting membership in militia groups.
Coos County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Shane Shobar joined the Oath Keepers in 2013 and wrote to the group, “I come from a long line of military members that have served from WWII to present time.”
Reached by phone, Shobar said he is no longer a member.
“That was years ago, and it was just co-workers and I talking about it, but that was it,” Shobar told OPB. He said patriotism motivated him to join. Asked if he thought being a member of an anti-government militia might conflict with his role as a law enforcement officer, Shobar said he didn’t give it any thought.
Shobar is currently a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit, along with Coos County Sheriff Craig Zanni and jail medical staff, over allegations that an inmate’s medical needs were ignored, leading to the person suffering kidney failure, nerve damage and permanent incontinence.
Zanni, who has been sheriff of Coos County since 2010, did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment.
Joining the Oath Keepers is as easy as submitting your name and contact information along with payment, which ranges from $50 to $1,500. The group also asks for a copy of a member’s DD214, verifying their military service, or other proof that they are a first responder. According to the Oath Keepers’ website, prospective members are then “vetted” and gain access to a “members only” online forum.
Former military police officer and current corrections officer at Snake River Correctional Institution Jerod Edmondson told OPB that when he joined the Oath Keepers in 2014, it was because he thought it was a veterans organization. He said he is not still a member and wasn’t aware of the group’s anti-government views when he joined.
Edmondson appears to have shared content on his Facebook page calling for “all illegals” to be deported, suggesting George Soros paid protesters “to riot and burn down Ferguson,” and that Muslim members of Congress are trying to destroy the country from within.
Edmondson is among six current and former Oregon corrections officers who appear to have joined the militia.
The Oregon Department of Corrections said employees have constitutionally protected speech rights that include off-duty political speech.
“The speech interests of our employees, while significant, are not absolute and there are limitations, including for off-duty speech and/or conduct,” DOC spokesperson Jennifer Black said in a statement. She added speech could be an issue if it affects the department’s mission or “business interests.”
Ties to extremism
The Oath Keepers militia was founded by Army veteran and Yale Law School graduate Elmer Stewart Rhodes in 2009. The group recruits people with experience in law enforcement and the military to prepare for what the organization characterizes as an inevitable armed conflict with the U.S. government.
The organization has been involved in or planned a number of criminal and violent actions over the past decade, according to University of Albany Assistant Professor Sam Jackson, who wrote a book on the Oath Keepers.
“It’s really problematic if you have members of law enforcement saying, for example, that they’re not going to comply with federal court orders because they think those federal court orders are unconstitutional,” Jackson said.
The Oath Keepers gained national attention in 2014 when the group helped back Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in an armed standoff with federal officers. Three months later, Lake Oswego police officer Vaughn Bechtol appears to have joined the organization. Bechtol is one of six Oregon law enforcement officers who joined in the months following the Bundy Ranch standoff, according to the hacked data.
“I read their mission statement at the time about military and law enforcement officers upholding their oath of office. I felt that lined up with my values,” Bechtol told OPB in an email. “As I did more research into the group after signing up, I realized they did NOT represent my values. I have never participated in any events, meetings, or discussions with any member of that group and I firmly stand against what they represent now after the atrocities of Jan. 6.”
Lake Oswego Police Department policies don’t explicitly mention militia groups but include multiple prohibitions against on- or off-duty behavior which would discredit the department.
“We expect our officers to share the responsibility of embodying our values while serving our community,” Assistant City Manager Madison Thesing said in a statement.
Thesing said violations of policy are investigated but did not specify if this incident would be.
“Some people might have joined Oath Keepers with a minimal understanding of the group,” Jackson said. “But if you had any real level of engagement with the group you would see their promotion of conspiracy theories, their calls to prepare for violence… Do we really want members of our law enforcement community to be absentmindedly joining civic organizations even if they ... aren’t a pernicious extremist organization like the Oath Keepers? I would hope that the people who we are entrusting with firearms and arrest privileges have better discernment than that.”
Oregon Oath Keepers also participated in another armed federal dispute in 2015 at Sugar Pine Mine in Southern Oregon.
Codiga is one of two Oregon law enforcement officers who joined around the time of the Sugar Pine Mine standoff, according to the data.
Core to the Oath Keepers’ ideology are a list of 10 hypothetical orders they say they will not obey, including any orders to disarm Americans, to force Americans into concentration camps, to invade any states, to support foreign peacekeepers on U.S. soil, or to subject civilians to military tribunals.
The group has been closely aligned with extremist causes since its inception following the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president. Oath Keepers founding member and former board member Richard Mack is the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a group that believes county sheriffs are the highest government authority and have the right to ignore state and federal laws.
A number of Oregon sheriffs have aligned themselves with Mack’s movement over the years. In 2013, then-Linn County Sheriff Tim Mueller led eight other Oregon sheriffs in sending a letter to then-Vice President Joe Biden stating they would refuse to enforce any new federal gun laws. More recently, sheriffs from across the state took a page from Mack’s movement and told Gov. Kate Brown they would not enforce state mask mandates, though no state officials asked law enforcement to enforce COVID-19 health guidelines.
Some on the leaked list of Oregon officials, like Shobar and his former colleague, retired Coos County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Robert Kramer, joined the militia in 2013. At the time, local chapters in Southern Oregon were taking on community service projects and championing popular local political issues, according to High Country News.
“I’m into defending the country but not physically overthrowing it at this point,” Kramer told OPB, adding that he only went to one Oath Keepers meeting.
Kramer, who retired in 2018, said he didn’t like that people were “stepping outside of the legal bounds” on Jan. 6., and he said the attacks on law enforcement at the Capitol “cut me a bit.”
Though Kramer said he is no longer a member of the Oath Keepers and was never active in the group, his views line up with at least one of their core beliefs: The U.S. government is waging a war against its own citizens.
“I really do believe with this administration and what they’re doing, they’re trying to push us into some kind of civil war,” Kramer said. “And I think they want to do that so they can come down hard on us.”
Oath Keepers in Oregon told Gov. Kate Brown in a 2019 Facebook post that she was risking a civil war after she ordered the Oregon State Police to bring back 11 Republican senators who had fled the statehouse to block climate change legislation from passing. That same month, militia threats forced the state Senate to close for a day.
Approximately 22 Oath Keepers have been charged for their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., though none of those people reside in Oregon. In the investigation’s largest single indictment, at least 18 Oath Keepers face conspiracy charges for their alleged role in plotting to thwart the certification of the Electoral College vote. Five have pleaded guilty and court documents suggest Rhodes, who hasn’t been charged, is a central focus of the investigation.
While some Oregon law enforcement officers joined the Oath Keepers years ago, the leaked data suggests others like Webber and retired Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office reserve deputy Todd Steward joined well after the militia group had firmly established itself and its views on the national stage.
Clackamas County Sheriff Angela Brandenburg told OPB she supports the state Legislature’s recently passed legislation HB 2936, which states “membership or participation in hate groups, racial supremacist organizations or militant groups erodes public trust in law enforcement officers and community safety.”
“The Legislature has made it clear to every law enforcement organization in the state that it is a conflict for law enforcement personnel to be a member or participate in these groups,” Brandenburg said. “My office will uphold this standard of conduct.”
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said officers have different backgrounds and life experiences. He said Webber’s potential membership in a militia is a reminder “that laws and our directives mandate that police do not act on any personal beliefs, but must uphold the Constitution at all times.”
Rep. Janelle Bynum was the chief sponsor of HB 2936, which strengthened law enforcement background checks and allows departments to check applicant social media accounts. But it’s not always possible to screen for something like membership in a militia organization.
“It’s not just a policing issue, it’s a community issue,” Bynum said. “What is an acceptable level of association with people who believe in white supremacy or racial superiority? The true change comes from within. Some of it you can mandate but not most of it.”