(Reuters) - The gunman who killed three Baton Rouge police officers identified himself as a member of an African-American offshoot of the anti-government Sovereign Citizen Movement last year, documents showed.
Gavin Long, a former U.S. Marine sergeant who was shot dead by police on Sunday, affiliated himself with the Washitaw Nation, an African-American group whose members view the federal government as illegitimate, in legal papers filed in a Missouri county. In an interview on Monday, a senior member of the Washitaw Nation denied that Long was a member of the group.
In papers he filed in May 2015, Long also said he wanted to change his name from Gavin Eugene Long to Cosmo Ausar Setepenra as part of reclaiming what he described as his indigenous identity, according to Jackson County, Missouri, public records. But court officials said Long never completed the process of legally changing his name.
Filing such papers is a common practice among members of the Sovereign Citizens Movement, according to Ryan Lenz, an expert from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organization that tracks extremist groups. The center estimates there are 300,000 followers of Sovereign Citizens in the United States.
“He is definitely a Sovereign,” said Lenz. “That process is a Sovereign Citizen tactic dating back for years. There is no other ideology that such a process falls under except Sovereign Citizens.”
Frederix Joe Washington, the senior member of the Washitaw Nation, said he did not know Long. He also said that people often use the group’s name without its permission.
“We know nothing about this man,” Washington said. “We don’t give cards out, IDs out, licenses or passports. None of this has been given out by us.”
A U.S. counter-terrorism official said investigators were examining Long’s relationship with the Washitaw group. The official said U.S. agencies can only monitor such groups to a limited extent due to constitutional free speech guarantees and usually only do so when violence is threatened or committed.
The Sovereign Citizen movement is largely made up of right-wing anti-government white Americans, who say the federal government has been corrupted since the 19th century, according to researchers. Since the 1990s, some black separatists have adopted the Sovereign Citizen ideology as well.
Sovereign Citizens say they are allowed to ignore the federal government and often believe they can issue their own identification cards because they refuse to recognize federal law. The movement, which is more of an ideology than an organization, is highly decentralized and has little in the way of formal structure, researchers said.
There were 24 cases of violence or threats committed by Sovereign Citizen followers from 2010 to 2014, and all but five occurred at government offices, during routine traffic stops or at adherents’ homes, according to a Department of Homeland Security intelligence assessment leaked to the news media in 2015.
Those episodes included people affiliated with the movement being charged with the 2012 killing of two policemen in Louisiana, convicted of the 2010 shootings of two policemen in Texas and the 2014 shootings of two law enforcement officers in California. A self-professed member of the movement was also convicted of plotting to kill a federal judge and an IRS official in Alaska in 2011.
All told, federal and state prosecutors have brought over 100 cases against self-described Sovereign Citizens since 2000, according to J. J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
Experts say that U.S. officials in both the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama put less emphasis on domestic terror threats in the aftermath of the 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.
During the Bush administration, the Department of Justice deactivated in 2001 its internal domestic terrorism task force, created after the 1995 Oklahoma City courthouse bombing. The Obama administration only reconstituted the task force in 2014.
In 2009, the Homeland Security Department team that analyzed domestic terror threats issued a report predicting that anti-government attacks would rise. The report was criticized by members of Congress and the secretary of Homeland Security, who renounced its findings.
But over the last decade and a half the number of extremist and armed anti-government groups in the United States has steadily grown, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The number of anti-government “patriot groups” grew from 217 in 1999 to 998 last year.
One of the Washitaw Nation’s principal doctrines is a claim that the purchase of Louisiana by the United States was illegitimate, experts said. Instead, they maintain that Washitaw Nation members are descendants of tribes in Missouri, and that they are therefore the real owners of Louisiana.
Reporting By Ned Parker and Mark Hosenball. Additional reporting by Julia Edwards and Julia Harte; Editing by Alan Crosby and Cynthia Osterman