Traffic Stops Involving Extremists Are Particularly Dangerous to Officers
On August 9, 2002, Massillon, Ohio, police officer Eric Taylor, 31, was shot and killed following a lengthy car chase by Donald W. Matthews, leader of a Stark County anti-government sovereign citizen group. Another Massillon officer was wounded, while Matthews himself died in the shootout. This was the latest in a series of violent confrontations between extremists and law enforcement officers in Ohio over the past few years.
The incident began after an Ohio Highway Patrol trooper stopped Matthews' Ford Taurus for speeding. When the trooper approached the vehicle, Matthews declined to cooperate. Only rolling his window down a crack, he refused to give the officer his drivers license. Instead, he lectured the officer about his 13th Amendment rights and other subjects, before abruptly driving off.
The trooper pursued Matthews and radioed for help. Matthews' vehicle was stopped once more, but Matthews again drove away before any action could be taken. By this point the chase had entered the town of Massillon and several Massillon police cruisers joined the pursuit. Matthews pulled into a gravel lot behind some construction trailers. As police officers approached, Matthews leapt out of the car while it was still in drive and began firing a handgun at the police.
One of Matthews' shots struck Eric Taylor, tearing through a kidney, as well as his pancreas, aorta, heart, and lungs. He died at a hospital several hours later. Taylor was the first Massillon police officer to be killed in the line of duty since the 1940s; he is survived by a wife and two young children.
A Ticking Time Bomb
The killer, Donald Matthews, 61, lived in the Canton suburb of Jackson Township and was active in the extreme right-wing sovereign citizen movement. For a number of years he had been involved with a group called the National Constitutional Academy led by Joe Cosma. After Cosma's death two years ago, Matthews took over the group, which has about two dozen members. Stark County has been a hotbed of sovereign citizen and militia activity since the 1990s. Matthews also taught constitutionalist classes in Cuyahoga County, another area of noted extremist activity. His last known occupation was as a salesman in a sporting goods store, a job he quit to devote himself full time to his cause.
Law enforcement officers had long been aware that Matthews was potentially dangerous. In January 1998, a Jackson Township police officer who had tried to stop Matthews for speeding wrote afterwards that Matthews had made it "very clear" that he would defend "what he believes to be his freedom to the death of himself and anyone violating his rights." Matthews told the officer that it was unconstitutional to make him have a drivers license or to follow speeding laws, that he would not honor a court summons or ticket, and that "if an officer attempted to physically arrest him, he [would] kill that officer or officers to defend his freedom." One week later, Matthews himself filed a court document in which he stated that "anyone who tries to enforce a bogus warrant will do so at their own peril." Matthews claimed that police officers "joined in coercion, intimidation, kidnapping and conduct becoming a military occupation force, and were engaged in warfare against me." An ATF agent who investigated Matthews in 1997 concluded that he was "very potentially dangerous" and should be watched closely.
Nor were law enforcement officers the only ones to consider Matthews dangerous. The owner of a local gun club informed police in 1998 that Matthews had bragged that he would kill officers who tried to serve a warrant or perform a traffic stop on him. Similarly, the owner of a local catering establishment warned police in February 2000 that Matthews threatened to kill any officer who pulled him over without a proper warrant.
Blaming the Victim
Officer Taylor's death left most residents of Massillon and Stark County shocked, but members of Matthews' Academy had little remorse about Taylor. One member, Dwight Class, told a Canton reporter that if the state trooper who had pulled Matthews over had produced proof to Matthews that the trooper had taken an oath of office and had a bond, "it would have been a nice, simple conversation." Class's wife, Sárra, simply said that Taylor "should have been shot."
After Taylor's death, one associate of Matthews dropped off a message at a makeshift memorial for the officer that citizens had erected at the location where he had been shot. The message, addressed to Taylor, stated "Sorry you had to die for a speeding ticket…I'm sure you now know it was not worth it. Perhaps your fellow revenue collectors, I mean peace officers, would do well to take a lesson from your death and think twice about stopping people who are hurting no one and merely traveling the public way." The author accused the officers in the incident of acting "like a pack of wild dogs." The letter was signed, "for God and our constitutional republic, Capt. Emma Shlarp."
"Emma Shlarp" was in reality Heather Summers, a Canton resident and friend of Matthews who used to work with Nancy Koernke, wife of imprisoned Michigan militia leader Mark Koernke, on a shortwave radio show called the "Kitchen Militia." When identified, Summers said that she did not condone Matthews' actions, if he shot first, but did blame the Ohio Highway Patrol officer for starting a chase. She told a local reporter that the chase started "with the state trooper who had to go out and collect revenue." Summers said that the letter was not designed to threaten or incite people to violence. When asked about Summers, Nancy Koernke called her a "real genuine American."
Anti-government extremists on the Internet reacted similarly to the news of Taylor's murder. "I don't view this as a threat," wrote one poster to an anti-government message board, "I view this as an eventual reality, if the [jack-booted thugs] keep up this type of 'us' versus 'them' behavior." Michael A. Hoffman II, a prominent Holocaust denier, posted on his own Web site that Matthews was "shot to death by the modern American equivalent of the old British highwayman, who demands at gunpoint that we 'cross his palm with the coin of the realm.'" Others defended Summers. Larry Lawson, operator of a right-wing Web site, claimed that the "scumbag media and Jack Booted Thugs" were harassing Summers over a "non-PC letter." Lawson also blamed the Anti-Defamation League for its "propaganda."
No Isolated Incident
Unfortunately, the tragic death of Eric Taylor was not an isolated incident. Traffic stops involving ideological extremists are frequently confrontational and often dangerous. In Ohio alone, a number of incidents have occurred in recent years that illustrate how dangerous the roads can be:
June 1995: Michael Hill, a militia and sovereign citizen activist, was shot and killed by a Frazeysburg police officer after Hill pulled a gun on the officer during a traffic stop.
January 1996: Larry Martz, a militia and sovereign citizen activist, and friend of Michael Hill, attacked an Ohio Highway Patrol trooper during a traffic stop near Cambridge, Ohio. Martz had 23 weapons in his truck.
February 1997: Cheyne and Chevie Kehoe, two white supremacists from Washington state, engaged Ohio law enforcement officers in two well-publicized gun battles following a routine traffic stop in Wilmington, Ohio. It was later discovered that the two were part of a small group of extremists who had committed a number of crimes, including murder, to establish an "Aryan People's Republic."
March 1997: Morris Gulett, a Dayton member of Aryan Nations, rammed a police cruiser during a chase following an attempt to pull him over for going the wrong way down a one-way street. One week earlier, another Ohio Aryan Nations member was arrested following a traffic stop during which police discovered he had a loaded handgun stuffed in a beer carton.
Such episodes are not limited to Ohio; they have occurred in every corner of the country. In New Hampshire in August 1997, an extremist named Carl Drega, stopped near a supermarket in Colebrook, New Hampshire, for rust holes in his pickup truck, opened fire with a rifle on the state trooper who stopped him, killing him as well as another state trooper who had just pulled up. Drega then stole one of the police cruisers, drove into town, and murdered a judge and a newspaper editor, before dying in a final shootout with police on the Vermont side of the border. In March 2000, a Nevada Highway Patrol officer stopped three anti-government extremists near Nye County. They fled, crossing the California border, firing at pursuing police vehicles. When their vehicle got stuck in Death Valley, they left it for a defensible position, where a standoff ensued. During the standoff, the extremists' gunfire forced down a California Highway Patrol helicopter. Eventually they surrendered. In October 2001, a Bell County sheriff's deputy stopped Steve Anderson, a militia member and white supremacist, for a routine violation in eastern Kentucky. Anderson stepped out of the vehicle and opened fire at the officer with an AK-47 (the officer escaped unharmed). On his pirate shortwave radio show, Anderson had urged listeners to shoot at police officers who pulled them over. He is still a fugitive.
Armed and Dangerous
Such violent incidents take place every year and will continue to occur in the future. The Anti-Defamation League has long been concerned about the dangers faced by law enforcement officers when they encounter ideological extremists. Many fringe movements are innately hostile to law enforcement; right-wing anti-government extremists and white supremacists are often inordinately so. Anti-government extremists such as sovereign citizens and militia members generally believe that the government is not legitimate-that the true government was replaced by an illegitimate "de facto" government-or that the government is under the sway of a vast conspiracy, the "New World Order." White supremacists may also possess these beliefs, as well as anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the "Zionist Occupied Government" (ZOG). Extremists thus often see federal and local law enforcement officers alike as symbols of an "illegitimate" government.
Sometimes extremists who are stopped by police are fugitives, have committed some illegal act (Timothy McVeigh, for instance, was caught during a traffic stop), or may have illegal weapons or explosives in their vehicle. Such individuals may naturally act violently when stopped. In May 1998, for example, Officer Dale Claxton of Cortez, Colorado, stopped a truck that had been reported stolen. Three men, later identified as anti-government extremists, leapt out of the truck and sprayed Claxton's cruiser with automatic weapons fire, killing Claxton before he could even leave his vehicle (a massive manhunt ensued; two of the shooters were eventually found dead, but the whereabouts of the third assailant, Jason McVean, are still unknown). However, even extremists with no prior criminal record may sometimes react explosively to traffic stops, as they decide they are "not going to take it anymore." To such individuals, the traffic stop is the last straw and the officer involved is the symbol of all their "oppression."
Not every traffic stop involving extremists will be violent; most extremists are more likely to be irritating than truly to be dangerous. Still, the record of violent incidents in recent years strongly suggests that caution should be used when dealing with such individuals and that all precautions should be taken to help insure that traffic stops involving extremists do not become out of control or violent. This can save people's lives.
Resources for Officers
Although the individual inside the vehicle may be well-armed and explosively angry, the officer conducting the traffic stop may very well think the stop is routine, and thus may be unprepared for any confrontation or violence that might ensue. Sometimes, though, there are verbal or visual identifiers that may indicate to the officer that he or she is dealing with an ideological extremist.
Law enforcement officers are taught a number of safety techniques, all of which can be used to protect oneself in the event of a confrontation with an extremist. To help officers recognize when they may be in such a situation, the Anti-Defamation League has compiled some possible extremist identifiers, as well as other important officer safety information for dealing with extremists, in two publications available on the LEARN Web site.
Officer Safety and Extremists: An Overview for Law Enforcement Officers is a comprehensive look at a variety of officer safety situations involving extremists, including not only traffic stops but also residence visits, rallies and marches, and other situations. It provides visual and other identifiers, and discusses defusing and safety techniques that may sometimes be helpful.
Flashpoint America: Surviving a Traffic Stop Confrontation with an Anti-Government Extremist is an article that deals specifically with the issue of traffic stops, and is suitable for passing out to officers. It expands upon many of the issues discussed in this bulletin.
In addition, the Anti-Defamation League has a highly-respected training program for law enforcement on criminal extremism, which includes a module specifically on officer safety issues. Law enforcement agencies and departments may contact ADL for more information and to help arrange training events.