The Arizona chapter of the Oath Keepers was in disarray.
Jim Arroyo, leader of a breakaway faction would go on "60 Minutes" in April and blast founder "Stewart Rhodes and his 10 militia buddies for winning first place in the ultimate dumb-ass contest" because members of paramilitary had gone inside the US Capitol on Jan. 6.
Kait Hylton, a former southern regional director for the Oath Keepers in Arizona, offered assurances in a private chat forum set up so that members across the country could communicate that she and Rhodes were working on a plan to reorganize the state.
One man stepped forward.
Michael Mauldin told members of the Oath Keepers in the recently leaked Rocketchat forum that he had served in the Marine Corps and Army Rangers with a combat tour of Afghanistan. He said he lived in Surprise, in the northwestern suburbs of Phoenix.
"I'm finding Oath Keepers is a mess in AZ," Mauldin wrote in the general chat on March 17. "If you want an infantry [platoon sergeant] with deep connections and pockets to help, I want to take over here.
"We must start reacting as a soft counter-insurgency," he continued. "Train together. BBQs, shooting events. Rally around the flag. Show people the Constitution and vets, firemen, cops, patriots. This is where we are gonna shine, folks."
Mauldin, now 42, appeared to have resources on hand to help the Oath Keepers. He said he had a training center, and bragged about doing consultant work for federal agencies. He talked about providing firearms training to law enforcement, military personnel and "millionaires." "I gave out ammo and armor to members who couldn't afford it back in November," he said. Mauldin said Oath Keepers could train for free at his facility. "Just make the trip to Arizona and bring 500 rounds per weapon."
"Madmarine4212," the username Mauldin chose for himself in the chats, underscored the rough-and-ready image he wanted to project.
By April, Mauldin was vetting other prospective members despite not being vetted himself.
Mauldin texted Ken Long, a prospect from Scottsdale on Signal, an encrypted voice calling and messaging app, on April 23.
"I texted him some personal information so he and FN9 can start vetting me," Long reported, referencing both Mauldin and Hylton, who participated in the chat under the username "FN9."
On May 11, Mauldin summoned Long in the Oath Keepers private chat.
"Kait wants us to meet," he said. "You and I are going to be the instruments in the valley."
Long promised to call Mauldin after work, and said he would find a restaurant where they could meet midway between Scottsdale and Surprise.
That same day, Mauldin was talking on Signal to Gary Landers, an Army veteran in Massachusetts who decided to join the Oath Keepers after the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol.
"Not sure if I mentioned this already, but when madmarine4212 called me on signal (just to get to know me better he said) I think he was vetting me?" Landers told Dave Emrick, an Oath Keeper from Charlotte, NC, in the chat on May 12. "But to the point, after talking awhile, he actually offered me a job on his gun range! I was flattered."
But in mid-June, Mauldin suddenly went quiet. Members shared their suspicions in quiet one-on-one conversations that Mauldin might not have been all that he seemed.
"I got the lowdown on him directly from Kait," Landers told an Oath Keeper leader from northern Georgia who went by the username "Moonshine," in a confidential chat on June 23. "She felt it was out of place that he was acting like he was vetting her and then when he refused to pass on his DD214 and other required docs, she shut his vetting down."
Hylton confirmed that she had terminated Maultin's vetting because he refused to provide a copy of his military discharge papers in a phone conversation on Thursday. She declined to speak further with Raw Story and did not respond to subsequent messages.
Mauldin texted Landers on Signal in early July, but he ignored and then blocked him, on Hylton's advice.
"I wish I knew what his game is — a fed or a messed-up vet?" Landers told Moonshine.
The saga of the charismatic interloper who dazzled Oath Keepers with gripping war stories, intrigue and high-level connections is detailed in thousands of messages exchanged through the paramilitary group's Rocket.Chat messaging platform. The contents of the forum, which include about 22,000 messages from March through mid-September, were reportedly obtained by a hacker as part of 5GB data breach whose contents were turned over to the transparency group Distributed Denial of Secrets. The data was released to journalists and researchers earlier this week.
So far, more than 20 Oath Keepers members or associates have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, including 17 who are facing interlocking conspiracy charges. Four of the Oath Keeper defendants have accepted plea deals, but the government continues to make arrests, with the latest, Jeremy Brown, taken into custody on Thursday.
The conspiracy-minded group founded by lawyer Stewart Rhodes in 2009 targets military veterans and retired law enforcement, who believe they are defending the United States from left-wing "tyranny" and sinister "globalist" forces.
"Every analyst would speculate that they are the subject of a variety of criminal investigations owing to their presence at the insurrection," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino. "A breach like this would invariably expose any possible informant that is using their electronic resources."
Mauldin could not be reached for comment, either at the phone number or the email he shared with Oath Keepers on the Rocket.Chat messaging platform. Searches for business privilege licenses issued by the city of Surprise or businesses incorporated in the state of Arizona turned up no records of training facilities under Mauldin's name.
Whether Mauldin was a federal agent working undercover, and whether his avowed military experience and vaunted connections were real or not, he often encouraged preparations for violence and nurtured their grievances in his statements to other Oath Keepers. But Mauldin's comments went beyond the paranoid flavor of anticommunism that is common among Oath Keepers by explicitly promoting racial division.
In an open chat in early May, Mauldin regaled Landers and Emrick with a story about how he pulled a .45 pistol after "one of the biggest darker gents I've ever seen jumped out of his Escalade" in the Phoenix area.
Landers, the Army veteran from Massachusetts, picked up on Mauldin's racist signaling.
"Do you believe the race war is on?" Landers asked.
"Yeah, I do believe they will use race," Mauldin responded.
Offering no evidence, Mauldin asserted that the man wanted to fight to him because of his race. But despite projecting onto the purported adversary, the three Oath Keepers denied any racial animus on their own part, instead subscribing to a conspiracy theory holding that Black people are manipulated into violent behavior by a shadowy cabal of leftists intent on undermining the United States.
"Been really effective so far," Mauldin commented.
"By black mobs f***ing sad and stupid," Emrick agreed.
"I know the commy left have been pushing for this to stir up shit and then implement more control over us," Landers said.
"Be careful," Mauldin counseled. "Arm up brothers and sisters. Don't hide what you are."
Emrick mentioned that he has a "damn neighbor who is flying a BLM flag loud and proud."
"Seriously," Mauldin warned. "Tell your women, or men, shit is gonna heat up."
Later that day, in a separate conversation with Emrick, Landers said, "Well with what mm4212 was talking about, I'd say the race wars are on our door step or soon will be."
"Agreed," Emrick responded. "And I know at least one enemy combatant down the street. BLM flag flying."
Emrick and Landers could not be reached for this story.
Brian Levin, the extremism researcher at California State University, said federal agents who infiltrate extremist groups have to be careful to avoid instigating criminal activity.
"There are ways someone can lurk," said Levin, who previously worked as a New York City police officer and teaches criminal justice. "The best advice is to be someone who listens more than speaks. But that doesn't mean they can't appear to be interested. The more that it appears that potential criminality is being orchestrated, the less legal — or less likely it's going to go before a jury. That said, oftentimes undercover folks are not playing with Eagle Scouts."
In one private conversation with Moonshine, the northern Georgia Oath Keepers leader, Mauldin defended the Confederate general who founded the Ku Klux Klan, complaining that "no one looks up to Nathan Bedford Forrest and sees how good he was and what he became."
Mauldin shared with Moonshine that he had witnessed a Klan rally at the age of 11 or 12 when he was growing up in southern Georgia. He told Moonshine that his mother disparaged the Klan as "just a bunch of assholes with eyeholes in their bedsheets."
Moonshine agreed with Mauldin's dismissive view of the Klan, while expressing a bizarre view that progressives are their contemporary equivalent.
"It's madness, yet the same things the Klan said and did we are seeing the Dems doing yet again," he said. "Race, skin color, calling whites subhuman, mob mentality. Even calling blacks race traitors!"
In another private conversation with John Robertson Jr., a 61-year-old Oath Keeper in eastern North Carolina, Mauldin said, "We are a warrior race. And I know it. And believe in it. I can prove right now there is an agenda against white peoples."
Mauldin suggested he might be interested in moving to North Carolina and promoted the idea of like-minded people living near each other. The concept has been widely promoted among white nationalists seeking to build racial cohesion and create a foundation for future white ethno-states.
"I just want to be with good neighbors, pool our resources, raise poultry," Mauldin told Robertson. "We should build a community. We can raise birds and rabbits, and we'll eat fine."
Robertson indicated that he was in tune with Mauldin's thinking. After hearing Mauldin lament that Confederate generals no longer receive respect, Robertson warned, "Many people are going to find out the true meaning of racist when our people become polarized and then become offensive. It's all orchestrated to make this happen to bring down our Constitutional Republic."
Robertson could not be reached for comment for this story.
Overt white nationalism is a departure for the Oath Keepers. Although the Oath Keepers has long taken a hostile stance towards Black Lives Matter, the organization has also made a concerted effort to fend off charges of racism, often highlighting the participation of Black members in its public relations efforts.
Addressing militia activists at a campground outside of Winston-Salem, NC in April 2017, founder Stewart Rhodes denounced the white supremacist activist Richard Spencer.
"He's a real Nazi who wants to create a whites-only homeland and kick everybody out who's not white," Rhodes said.
"I don't live in Richard Spencer's America," Rhodes added. "And I won't. Over my dead body will I live in a white nationalist America. That's not how it's supposed to be."
Reflecting Rhodes' opposition to white nationalism, the Oath Keepers would stay away from the Unite the Right rally organized by Spencer in Charlottesville, Va. later that year in August 2017. But four years later, the leaked chats show that white nationalist ideas are increasingly gaining ground within the Oath Keepers membership.
While Mauldin promoted racial division in the Oath Keepers chats, he also won the trust of members by presenting himself as someone with experience and connections.
During a private chat in early June, Moonshine confided in Mauldin that two individuals in his Oath Keeper group in northern Georgia had gone to Washington DC on Jan. 6, and were later visited by the FBI.
Mauldin indicated he was also present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, although considering his subsequent refusal to provide proof of his military service to his fellow Oath Keepers, everything he says must be regarded with skepticism. Mauldin told Moonshine that he was photographed at the Capitol, and a that federal agency contact tipped him off "like a friendly reminder, don't mess up, from friendly sources inside."
Considering Mauldin's potential duplicity, the exchange is more notable for the statements made by Moonshine, a regional leader speaking candidly in what he believed to be a private conversation. Beyond providing personal security for Trump confidant and political operative Roger Stone — the group's official mission on Jan. 6 — the Oath Keepers' purpose when members joined the siege on the US Capitol seemed murky to Moonshine.
"Our guys came back and said comms sucked, command and control sucked, nobody knew what the hell was going on, and after the Stone mission they were pretty much left wandering around," Moonshine complained.
He expressed a similar complaint about a Nov. 21, 2020 #StopTheSteal rally organized by Ali Alexander in Atlanta in which Oath Keepers were brought in to provide security alongside 1st Amendment Praetorian, a private security group associated with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
"In Atlanta national [Oath Keepers] rolled in with no plans, no comms plan… nothing," Moonshine said.
Then, he asked Mauldin, for the second time: "In your opinion… just what was the purpose of OK in DC?"
Mauldin cryptically suggested that it was a setup: "Everything else is locked down…. They were waiting for someone to f*** up, brother…. To go all in."
Unsatisfied, Moonshine kept pressing for answers.
"SR kept talking about Insurrection Acts [sic], [special forces] going into FBI and CIA and securing the buildings," Moonshine said, referring to Stewart Rhodes by his initials. "Which seemed to me to be a bit out there."
Moonshine said that when he met Rhodes "he seemed to be insulated around an entourage," adding that his group in northern Georgia had "only been with OK less than a year" and were "trying to figure things out and stay alert."
Mauldin told Moonshine the Oath Keepers were compromised.
"Y'all have problem, brother," he said. "It's not in the rooms; it's with someone you know and think you can trust."