The curious case of Staci Burk: ‘Ballots and planes’
Staci Burk (Staci Burk provided)

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include information provided by Arizona state Sen. Kelly Townsend after initial publication.

Six days after the Nov. 3, 2020 election, two men, ball caps pulled down to obscure their faces, appeared in the alcove at Staci Burk’s doorway and disabled the security system for her home in a master-planned subdivision in Florence, a town southeast of Phoenix in the Sonoran Desert.

Trump partisans in Arizona had been churning with anger, mistrust, and wild conspiracy theories. The day after the election, a large crowd had gathered in downtown Phoenix, some of them outfitted in tactical gear and armed with guns, incensed that Fox News had called Arizona for Democrat Joe Biden.

“They’re not going to steal this election from us, are they?” Republican Congressman Paul Gosar told the crowd, amid chants of, “Let us in.”

Burk, a law student, former school board member and domestic-violence survivor, had received a tip about illegal ballots from a FedEx supervisor in Seattle, whom she had contacted at the prompting of a man in her pulmonary hypertension online support group. Burk had relayed the tip to two elected officials she knew from her time on the Gilbert School Board from 2011 to 2015 — state Rep. Kelly Townsend and Congressman Andy Biggs, both Trump loyalists.

Burk said Townsend pressured her to divulge the identity of the FedEx supervisor, claiming it was a matter of national security because of the election. In deference to the FedEx supervisor’s request to remain anonymous, Burk refused. Then Burk said Townsend threatened to go to Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb and County Attorney Kent Volkmer to get them to forcefully compel the information from her.

Townsend contacted Raw Story after initial publication of this story, and denied that she threatened to go to the sheriff and county attorney to get them to compel Burk to divulge the name, but she said she did turn to Sheriff Lamb and former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery for advice. Townsend also said she did express to Burk in strong terms that the woman in Seattle needed to report her information to law enforcement.

According to Burk, she received a call from a Trump campaign worker from Pennsylvania named “Brandon” — only a day before the security breach at her home. He mentioned how the Seattle allegation appeared to be connected to a new and separate claim about ballots, this one centered on Arizona.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on Nov. 7, Christine Ong Cothrun, a Phoenix-area realtor and 2020 Republican National Committee delegate, received a tip about ballots on a 19-seat passenger jet parked outside the Swift Air facility at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Word quickly spread among the Trump partisans, many of whom had attended a “Stop the Steal” rally in downtown Phoenix that day, about HL 8230, operated by Korean Air.

They rushed to the airport to investigate. Among them were Marko Trickovic, a Three Percenters Original leader who had rallied outside the Maricopa election center with Townsend and Gosar the night after the election; Josh Barnett, an unsuccessful congressional candidate; Tom Van Flein, Gosar’s chief of staff; and Ryan Hartwig, a former Facebook content moderator who had achieved renown in conservative circles as a whistleblower for Project Veritas.

Upon learning about the new allegations centering on the Korean Air flight, Burk called Townsend, an early proponent of the Obama birther conspiracy. Townsend put her in touch with Trickovic.

The events following the election hurtled Burk into an eddy of deepening fear and intrigue, as a string of security breaches — including at least one attempted break-in — took place at her home.

Each new day seemed to bring Burk into contact with a dizzying succession of strangers offering troubling new leads, pulling her into the orbit of a network of operatives surrounding Trump’s legal team. They pumped her up with assurances that the allegations were true and that she held the key to massive election fraud and foreign interference that could potentially tip the outcome of the 2020 election and allow Trump to remain in office for another four-year term.

This is the first installment in a three-part series about Burk’s experience following the 2020 election that is based on extensive interviews and unrivaled access to audio recordings of her conversations and text messages during that period.

Ultimately, the entire web of allegations surrounding the Korean Air flight turned out to be unfounded. By late December 2020, an investigative team deployed on behalf of attorney Sidney Powell determined there was no merit to the claims. But by that time, a security detail tied to retired Lt. General Michael Flynn was lodged in Burk’s house. Members of the security team eventually stole Burk’s cell phone, and it ended up at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC around the time of the attack on the US Capitol.

Soon afterward, Burk fled her own home in fear of the security team that was supposed to be keeping her safe, and began a halting journey towards the realization that there was no widespread election fraud.

‘THOSE WERE MY GUYS’

Three Percenter Marko Trickovic had posted a video on his Facebook page that went viral on Election Day promoting the claim that Trump voters were encouraged to use sharpies, which caused their ballots to spoil. In doing so, he became one of the primary originators and promoters of the #SharpieGate conspiracy theory.

By the morning after the election, the video had gone viral.

PolitiFact and USA Today promptly rated the claim “false.” The Maricopa County Elections Department maintains that sharpies and other felt-tipped pens are the best instruments to complete ballots. However, Trickovic told Raw Story recently that he “will stand by” his claim “until the day I die.”

Alarmed by the strange security breach at her home and the troubling things she was hearing about illegal ballots, Burk began communicating with Trickovic. He texted Burk a phone number for Pinal County Sheriff Lamb.

“Call him,” Trickovic told Burk. “He’s expecting your call. They want to get deputies to watch over you.”

A Florence police officer responded to Burk’s home on a suspicious activity call the following day, according to an incident report. The narrative records Burk’s report that two men appeared at the door and one of them appeared to be typing something on his phone as the other man studied a piece of paper.

The Nov. 10, 2020 report indicates the police closed the incident. Chief Bruce Walls told Raw Story the officer found no reasonable suspicion to justify further investigation.

Trickovic also texted Burk the phone number for a man named John Shattuck, whom he says he met that very day through Hartwig. In a declaration written for attorney Sidney Powell, Trickovic would later describe Shattuck as someone who “apparently does work for the Pentagon and does hostage negotiations.” Similarly, Burk wrote in a lawsuit that Shattuck told her he was “in frequent communication with Pentagon officials and acts as a liaison” between the Department of Defense and a group that conducted border surveillance called Arizona Border Recon.

In 2018, Shattuck had huddled with former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio during an “Angel Families” rally at the US Capitol to highlight people killed by undocumented immigrants. Tim Foley, the founder of Arizona Border Recon, delivered remarks at the event following an introduction by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who called him “one of those who have stood watch and truly deserve the titles ‘brave and courageous.’”

Jim Penrose, a former National Security Agency official who was working alongside retired Lt. General Michael Flynn to overturn the election, had a more colorful descriptor during a phone conversation with Burk several weeks later: “John Shattuck’s an info-war operator, as far as I can tell.” Far-right conspiracy theorist Ann Vandersteel described Shattuck in an adulatory introduction for a segment promoting Arizona Border Recon as someone who “get[s] a lot of stuff done in the cover of darkness.”

Through Shattuck, Burk spoke with Shelby Busch and Steve Robinson — an Arizona couple who were collecting information to aid Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell — Trump’s personal lawyers, in their quest for evidence to persuade lawmakers to nullify the election results in the battleground states.

Meanwhile, Trickovic spread the word about Burk’s plight. One of his friends, Sommer Tolley, took an interest. Tolley called Burk and told her she wanted to come to her house to make sure she was safe. At first, Burk demurred, but Tolley persisted, telling Burk that she had previously pursued law, and could come help her study. Eventually, Burk relented.

According to Burk’s recollection, when Tolley arrived at Burk’s home on Nov. 16, she told her about a man she knew who had worked for the Department of Defense and who could help with her security.

Scott Koch, a private security contractor, already knew about Burk’s security breach, Tolley said, although she had not mentioned it to him.

Burk suggested they call Koch. When they got Koch on the phone, he told them he would only speak in person. Koch arrived at Burk’s home later that day, according to her recollection, and demanded that she and Tolley remove all recording devices, including phones and laptops, from the room before he would agree to talk.

Koch worked for a local security firm, Mayhem Solutions Group, which in October had recognized him on the company Facebook page as “employee of the week.” He owned a Cessna fixed-wing, single-engine airplane, according to FAA records, and liked to fly over the desert at night.

During their meeting, Burk said Koch told her he was an Oath Keeper, suggesting he was involved with the far-right militia group whose members, including founder Stewart Rhodes, are now under indictment for seditious conspiracy.

After Burk retrieved her phone so that she could show Koch images of the two men at her door on Nov. 9 from her security camera, she began recording the conversation. In one portion of the recording, Koch can be heard making a startling confession.

When Burk asked about HL 8230, operated by Korean Air, Koch told her he knew “the two agents that were standing there… at the plane when it was in Phoenix.” He added that “those were my guys standing there.”

Koch continued: “Ballots were unloaded. And they were shipped from UPS and FedEx here.”

Burk told Koch that, based on what she had heard about the aircraft, some of the ballots unloaded from the plane went to the Maricopa County election center.

“Some of them did,” Koch agreed. “Most of them went to Las Vegas.”

Koch seemed to imply that the purported illegal ballot operation was being run by the National Guard.

“The plane is in the care of the National Guard,” he said. “Our government agency, we don’t need to pay anybody. The National Guard has custody of the plane.” He told Burk that the information collected by the amateur sleuths seeking evidence of illegal ballot fraud was “dangerous as hell.”

“I don’t know Marko, but I know who Marko is, because Marko is on our radar just like everybody else,” Koch said. “If Marko gets close enough, they will shut him down. If they have to make it seem like he did something illegal. If they have to put him in prison. If they have to make him have a car accident.”

Koch also told Burk he knew the identity of one of the men captured on her security camera during the Nov. 9 breach at her home. Burk later matched the name to an airline mechanic at Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Burk said she provided the name to the Florence police. Chief Walls told Raw Story he was not aware that a suspect had been identified.

Trickovic told Raw Story that he didn’t know Koch. But Townsend, the state lawmaker who introduced Trickovic to Burk, appeared to have been familiar enough with Koch at the time to have his cell phone number, according to one account. Townsend had spotted two men, who turned out to be Koch and his boss, Shawn Wilson, behind the no-campaigning line at the Maricopa election center on Election Day. She asked Steve Daniels, a close friend of Trickovic, to ask the men what they were doing.

At the time, Townsend gave no indication that she knew Koch, according to an affidavit signed by Daniels in November 2020. The report by Daniels helped reinforce the impression that Koch was involved in nefarious activity.

Eight months later, Burk learned that Townsend had spoken with Koch at a rally in the summer of 2020. Had she known about the web of relationships among the people involved in the Korean Air ballots intrigue, she told Raw Story she would have been much more skeptical about election fraud claims. Instead, she said it appeared to her that multiple people were confirming and validating the claims independently of one another.

To keep track of connections, Staci Burk put this chart together last year.

“What bothers me about Kelly Townsend having secret conversations with Koch — to me, when all that stuff went down, she was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’” Burk said. “All that stuff was, ‘Really, Koch confessed to election fraud?’”

But later, Burk spoke to a mutual acquaintance named Bill Way who told her he had been with Townsend and Koch at a rally in the summer of 2020, and that Townsend had said she would call Koch later.

“That’s not a casual encounter,” Burk said. “That ticks me off.”

Way confirmed the preexisting relationship between Townsend and Koch in a phone text to Raw Story: “I can confirm that they were clearly very familiar with one another,” he wrote. “And that they said they would talk later that day. It seemed clear that they had each other’s phone numbers and that Koch was going to call her later.”

Townsend maintains that she had never heard of Koch prior to learning about his bizarre confession. She said she apparently spoke to Koch through a chain-link fence at the Maricopa County election center while ballots were being counted, but didn't know who he was at that time. Townsend also said she recalled speaking with a man at a rally who handed her a business card and offered to provide her with security, but she said he didn't look like Koch and that she doesn't have Koch's number saved in her cell phone. And she said she's not sure if she knows Way.

"I meet so many people that I don't want people to feel bad, so I talk to them like I know them," Townsend told Raw Story.

Like Koch, Townsend describes herself as an “Oathkeeper,” although she has been coy about whether her embrace of the term represents an affiliation with the far-right militia group or merely as someone who honors her oath of enlistment as a US Navy veteran.

In late June 2022, Townsend was served with a subpoena by the US Justice Department to turn over documents relating to the effort to organize a bogus slate of electors for Trump, and correspondence with a dozen Trump allies, including Giuliani and Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner.

One day after Koch’s visit, Burk, Tolley and Trickovic joined Shelby Busch and Steve Robinson, the Arizona couple helping Giuliani and fellow Trump campaign lawyer Sidney Powell, on a conference call. The purported confession quickened Busch and Robinson’s interest in the Korean Air story.

“Can you two take ten minutes right now to independently write up your exact account as concise as possible?” Busch asked, addressing Burk and Tolley. “Include his name, position, contact information, approximate date and time of when all of this happened. Get it written up. I don’t care if it’s handwritten; it doesn’t have to be typed. Sign it, and get it over to us ASAP. We have a meeting in an hour and a half.” Later, in the conference call, Busch specified that Powell would be participating in the meeting.

Burk was reluctant to write the affidavit, comprehending the weight of the allegation she would be making. She stalled for time by asking if the Powell team could confirm that Koch actually worked for the Department of Defense, as he had claimed. She also made a point to emphasize that she didn’t know if she believed anything Koch said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Robinson said. “There’s going to be lies mixed in with truth. Just get everything you can to us ASAP.”

“The quicker we can get your statement, the quicker we can get it over to our cyber team upstairs, and they can start figuring out who this guy is,” Busch added. “And the sooner we can get it to our security team so that they can get you protection on the ground.”

Trickovic joined Busch and Robinson in urging Burk to take action.

“Yeah, you need to write the affidavit, Staci,” he said. “They need ’em ASAP.”

Near the end of the conference call, Burk disclosed something she hadn’t even told Tolley.

“Oh, by the way, just between you and I — I wasn’t sure if I could trust Sommer wholly one-hundred percent — but I have an audio recording of the entire thing,” Burk said.

The revelation that there was a recording, which would appear to hold more evidentiary weight than an affidavit, elicited no discernible response from Busch and Robinson.

The conference call concluded with Busch promising Burk that their “number-one priority” was to “get security moving in your direction.”

Later, Burk recalled receiving a phone call from Powell, likely sometime in November 2020 although she can’t remember the exact date, asking for the Koch recording. The call is referenced in a text exchange between Burk and Busch from February 2021.

Burk wrote: “So, later, when Sidney called, I said I already gave the stuff to her team through you guys. She said she didn’t know who you were and didn’t have it, that’s why they were asking.”

In response, Busch told Burk that she had given the Koch recording to Emily Newman, an attorney who was working with Powell at the time. Busch also told Burk that she had been “in communication with” Giuliani, Joe Flynn — the brother of Michael Flynn — and Phil Waldron, a retired Army colonel with a background in information warfare.

As Burk dithered on the requested affidavit, Trickovic became increasingly impatient, and he expressed his frustration in a despairing phone text the day after the conference call with Busch and Robinson.

“The audio has him admitting he brought illegal ballots to the tabulation center,” Trickovic said. “That was the smoking gun to get a warrant right away and secure the facility. That’s why they wanted it. Now, they moved on and told us to back away so they can do what they do. They have my audio from today even though he detracts from what he said the other night. It’s a dead case. They needed that within a certain time period. We will lose Arizona going forward. I guess they are right. Doesn’t really matter anymore. I put my family in danger for nothing. You put yourself in danger for nothing. It’s not worth it in the end. I wish I never would have gotten the tips I had about the plane and all of it.”

Responding to Trickovic, Burk questioned why the onus was on her to put the allegations in writing when Tolley had also heard Koch’s bizarre confession.

“My point was Sommer heard everything,” Burk said. “She is in a much better position to protect herself, and she could have sent an affidavit. She didn’t want to put her family at risk either. I told her to get her affidavit over to them. She has a husband, and they have two people and guns (that they know how to use).”

Tolley declined to comment for this story.

Meanwhile, Shattuck told Burk he was trying to move Trump’s legal team to act on the Korean Air allegations. Shattuck had tried without success to push the Korean Air story into the conservative media ecosystem. Even One America News Network, which is currently defending itself in a defamation lawsuit for promoting a controversial story that a Dominion Voting Systems employee had assured “antifa” that Trump would lose the election, passed on the Korean Air story.

“John had Chanel Rion, a reporter and chief White House correspondent with OAN News, reach out to me about this story, and Chanel told me that the White House had already investigated the planes, and there was nothing there without the employees coming forward at Swift,” Marko Trickovic wrote in his declaration.

“I mentioned we had connected the plane to Seattle and that the whistleblower there saw truckloads of ballots moving through the facility. She mentioned that we need the whistleblower to come forward, and I told her she tried multiple times, but Chanel never got back to me, and it seemed like they were trying to bury the case and hush the whole thing up.”

While Busch and Robinson were briefing Powell on the new development with Koch’s bizarre confession, Shattuck said he was relaying the information up to Giuliani and Kerik. Referencing an eight-minute excerpt of Koch recording, Shattuck told Burk: “In a nutshell, I’ve been on the phone this morning with Rudy and his team. They’re watching — they’re listening to the audio, at least the eight minutes, now.”

Shattuck reeled off a list of names to Burk during the phone call: Sheriff Mark Lamb; Paul Teller, former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz; Jenna Ellis, Giuliani’s co-counsel; Ken Klukowski, senior counsel in the civil division of the Department of Justice; and Rion.

“I had to name-drop them to get them to f***in’ do something,” Shattuck explained to Burk.

“It’s in the right hands now,” Shattuck assured Burk. “What I did is I sent him — just so you know, I sent him the new recording, which is the eight-minute one, a picture of the ballots — you know the two bags? And I told him where they were. I sent him the screenshot of your front door. And I said, ‘These are the two guys that we’ve identified as disabling Staci Burk’s security system.’”

Shattuck said Kerik and Giuliani expressed specific interest in the allegations made by the FedEx supervisor in Seattle. Burk claims she spoke with the FedEx supervisor as recently as last month, but said the woman does not want to be identified and is not interested in speaking with Raw Story.

Kerik and Giuliani could not be reached for comment for this story, and Raw Story could not confirm Shattuck’s account that the two men were interested in the FedEx supervisor’s claim.

Reached by phone, Shattuck attempted to minimize his engagement with Burk, claiming that he has “had no exchanges with her since shortly after the election.”

Shattuck’s claim is belied by a string of phone calls and texts with Burk through November and December 2020, and Burk produced a text from Shattuck dated Jan. 9, 2021.

Pressed about his role in putting Burk in touch with the Flynn team, Shattuck disparaged Burk’s credibility before saying, “That’s all I got,” and hanging up the phone.

An investigative team working on behalf of Powell eventually reached the conclusion that there was nothing to the allegations about illegal ballots, from the account provided by the FedEx supervisor in Seattle to Scott Koch’s dubious confession.

“We interviewed Koch at length, and he said he fabricated everything,” Jim Penrose, a former National Security Agency official who investigated the leads for Powell, told Burk on Christmas Day, 2020.

“Yes, I’m saying the entire thing is fabricated,” he said “It’s all bulls***.”

When pressed by Burk, who had filed a petition in state court that included details of the purported confession, Penrose said, “Scott Koch and Shawn Wilson have completely denied it all and said that they were trying to… especially Koch said he was trying to look tough in front of you.”

Meanwhile, Wilson suggested to Burk that Koch’s purported confession was a ruse to gather intelligence on Trump’s militant supporters — a notion that infuriated Trickovic and Tolley.

“He also made claims to Staci that he had spoken to Scott Koch again and that he only said what he said to get more information from Staci about the planes and that Scott was just trying to investigate her and get close to our political movement because they believed we wanted to go after the governor with violence and storm the capital in Arizona, which is insane and an obvious lie,” Trickovic wrote in his declaration on Dec. 6, 2020.

Tolley has similarly claimed that Wilson and Koch attempted to falsely implicate her in a plot to violently attack the Arizona state government.

Sharing an article about four men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a March 2022 Facebook post, Tolley wrote, “Probably 4 patriots who planned a good rally or protest being set up. Doubt they really wanted her kidnapped. Scott Koch and his boss Shawn Wilson tried to state that myself and a few others planned to do the same to [Arizona Gov. Doug] Ducey. So, we went live and called them out immediately. No offense, but these bad governors deserve to pay for their crimes against humanity for a long time behind bars. No way I would take that revenge out of the hands of the Lord.”

Koch could not be reached for comment for this story. Wilson did not respond to multiple messages, but a receptionist who answered the phone at Mayhem Solutions Group referred to Koch as a “former employee.”

By Dec. 4, 2020, a security detail comprised of members of the Flynn-associated 1st Amendment Praetorian private security group had replaced Wilson and his Mayhem Solutions Group team. Brandon Pittman, one of the 1st Amendment Praetorian members, brought up Trickovic in the Christmas day phone call with Penrose.

“One of our guys is Marko that is supposed to be responding kind of as backup,” Pittman said. “He was involved in this. Is he…?”

“Marko’s trustworthy,” Penrose said. “I’ve vetted him…. Yup, Marko’s a good guy.” Penrose then acknowledged to Burk that he hadn’t informed Trickovic that his investigation had concluded that there was no merit to the claims about ballots on a plane at Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Penrose could not be reached for comment for this story.

Trickovic cited his ties to the Flynn team in a Facebook post five days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, although he did not mention Penrose by name. Pushing back against a friend who expressed confidence that the Trump camp would maintain the upper hand, Trickovic wrote, “I talk to Flynn’s team daily, man. I speak to his chief of staff. It’s not looking good, man.”

Referring to a far-right clamor for the president to invoke the Insurrection Act, Trickovic wrote that Trump’s enemies weren’t “being arrested.”

“Flynn has about had it with Trump,” Trickovic said. “It’s Trump not wanting to execute the plan. This is getting dire, man.”

Reflecting on the saga recently, Trickovic said that at the time he believed the allegations about ballots on the plane at Phoenix Sky Harbor, but ultimately accepted the Flynn team’s eventual determination that “it was a nothingburger.”

Trickovic said he has struggled to discern what is true about how the ballots-on-planes theory originated and for what purpose. He suggested it might have been a counter-intelligence operation designed to make Trump supporters look bad, while indicating he is less inclined to believe it was a hoax deliberately manufactured to benefit Trump.

“If there’s any truth in this entire thing, this lady was targeted,” Trickovic said of Staci Burk. “Her life was destroyed. It’s not fair to her…. Nobody has suffered like she has…. Make people understand that she had no ill will. She thought she was doing the right thing.

“Unfortunately, everything went sideways. Everything came back to bite her through no fault of her own.”