The Vegas Plot
In the world of right-wing extremism, how do you tell who is dangerous?
Devon Newman parked her black Honda Civic outside the warehouse. Her friend David Brutsche glowered in the passenger seat — they’d spent the 12-minute crawl across Las Vegas bickering about the mission. How committed are you, David barked, in that prison-guard way of his. Is this a joke to you? A game of let’s pretend? A few weeks ago, when the mission was still a dark fantasy, their pal Scott Reibach had warned them: “What we’re doing, you know, is dangerous. We could be hurt, we could be shot by these knuckleheads, we could be thrown in prison for the rest of our lives.” David didn’t flinch. “I’m willing to give my life for this,” he said.
It was mid-August and over 100 degrees. The air chapped lips, parched throats. The sun was starting to dip behind the mountains that ring the Las Vegas Valley; the Strip was shaking off its afternoon slumber. From outside the warehouse, David and Devon could glimpse the tops of the Wynn, the Encore, the Palazzo, and the Trump, its 64 stories sheathed in 24-karat-gold glass. That was not their Las Vegas. Neither was the Vegas of foreclosed McMansions — that was farther out, near the mountains, in the gated communities in Henderson and Summerlin.
Devon and David’s Las Vegas hadn’t lost its sheen in the recent recession; it had none to begin with. It was a Vegas of dollar stores, check-cashing services, EZPawn shops, gas-station slot machines, and storefronts stripped of fancy names — they offered DOG GROOMING and NAIL TIPS, nothing more. Everywhere there were apartment complexes painted in earth tones, their nameplates missing letters, their yellow welcome flags frayed. It was a Vegas of frustrations and resentments, of second and third chances squandered — the Strip’s opulence in sight, but always out of reach.
The warehouse was similarly glamourless, building B in a warren of squat structures. Scott worked there at a fledgling video-production business, near Code Red Emergency Plumbing and H&J Trophies. His boss didn’t mind if David and Devon stopped by. They mostly huddled in a backroom, on three couches arranged in a U, mapping out the mission until the sky was black and the Strip ablaze.
The mission: Kidnap a cop at a traffic stop. Jail him (or her, but likely him) at a house in the burbs. Hold their own trial. And then:
“Put a bullet in his head,” David said. He grinned.
David was 42. He was 5 feet 10 inches tall with a disheveled air and a slight paunch. He’d recently shaved off his graying hair, adding a hint of menace. He had a lazy eye that had forced him to wear a patch as a kid, and now it made him appear as if he was always glancing over your shoulder. He was easily ruffled, and you never knew what might tip him from impassioned screed to full-blown rage. Devon and David’s squabbling had really started the day before, and had something to do with groceries. It seemed petty now that they were debating where to dispose of a dead cop.
“Just as long as it’s far enough away from anywhere,” Devon said. “Because the coyotes and stuff will, you know, come after the body, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just, if there’s anybody around it’ll be noticeable.”
“We’re not worried about it being noticed,” David said. “We’re gonna declare to the public that we executed him. I don’t want to keep that secret.”
Devon looked like a grandmother you’d bump into at a game of church-hall bingo. She was 67, dark-haired, only 5 feet tall. She favored flowered blouses and capris and, during their meetings, sat rod-straight, scribbling to-do lists with the efficiency of the paralegal she once was. She was cooler-headed than David, and more cerebral; no one understood why she tolerated his eruptions.
“Can you put him in a bath with some kind of something to get rid of all the DNA?” David asked her now.
Devon eyed the ceiling, as if the answer was written there. “Once the guy is dead, you put him in a bag and throw in — I’ll have to find out what you could use. Maybe vinegar. Maybe bleach.” Then, she supposed, you’d peel away the bag and run.
A few months before, David was hawking bottled water to parched tourists, a bottom feeder in the Strip ecosystem. Five days a week, he rolled a cooler to the intersection of Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard, near the old Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon. He could see angel statues trumpeting outside Caesars Palace, waterspouts dancing in the Bellagio lake, and a billboard of a showgirl in a jeweled thong preening over Bally’s. Beers sloshed, children wailed, and men handed out nightclub passes or cards promising girls direct to your room.
In every patch of shade lurked an entrepreneur. David jostled for space with Michael Jacksons, Mickey Mouses, feathered showgirls, magicians, and panhandlers with cardboard signs: homeless, jobless, in need of a penis enlargement or weed. David shouted “Ice cold!” for so many hours that he sometimes did it in his dreams. He bragged of pocketing up to $1,000 a week. But shilling water was illegal. He tried to sidestep the law by asking for donations, but he racked up citations anyway. All the while, David fumed at the cops — in his mind, well-armed bullies. He fantasized about buying a spy camera, recording what he saw as police malfeasance, sending the videos to the district attorney, and watching justice unfold.
One April weekend in 2013, David’s water enterprise again landed him in jail. His cellmate was about his age, trim, handsome in a soccer-dad way. His name was Scott, and he’d been stranded there for hours because of a shouting match at a bar. David understood; cops sucked. Hey, he asked, have you ever heard of sovereigns? No, Scott said.
David had discovered sovereignty the previous fall when he met his friend Rick Van Thiel. This was no longer the country of the Founding Fathers, Rick told him. It had been overtaken by a corporation, one that tricked you into signing contracts that enslaved you: birth certificates, Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, car registrations. If you tore them up, you were free — a sovereign, a king even, and no longer subject to most rules. It was a nationwide movement with perhaps hundreds of thousands of followers.
Much of sovereign ideology involves linguistic gymnastics, learned and spread online, and David often sounded like he was speaking in code. There was a difference between driving and traveling, between the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution for the United States. When David heard news reports about “sovereign citizens,” he scoffed — didn’t the media know a sovereign was a free man and a citizen a slave?
The justice system held no sway over sovereigns, David believed. Cops were foot soldiers of the corrupt government. The only jury he’d answer to was one of his sovereign peers. David filed papers with the county, declaring himself “a living, breathing, sentient human being on the land.” He submitted a list of fees that he’d charge in the event of government wrongdoing. (If he was unlawfully searched: $50,000 or 25 troy ounces of gold, whichever was more valuable, plus four times the cost of any items seized.) Using sovereign logic, he also tried to wriggle out of citations.
Scott liked what he heard and later agreed to store David’s water at the warehouse. Several mornings a week, David and Devon pulled up to the garage around 8 a.m. to haul Dasani bottles to and from Devon’s Civic. Devon, a devout Scientologist who’d served as a church spokeswoman, was David’s business partner and a fellow student of sovereignty. She scrawled notes constantly in a print-cursive hybrid: sketches of Renaissance-style dresses, recipes for kale-celery-apple juice and coleslaw, and details of sovereign concepts known as “common law.”
At the warehouse, David and Devon schooled Scott in a range of conspiracy theories: Fighter jets dump aluminum on us. Chicken is poisoned to give women cancer and feminize men (that’s why David and Devon ate organic food). The New World Order, an elite cabal, is plotting to slaughter much of the world’s population. Scott never mocked them. In fact, his politics weren’t far removed: His ringtone was the Muslim call to prayer, followed by gunfire, followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
An Air Force veteran, Scott now belonged to a militia, a chapter of the national group Watchmen of America. When David and Devon arrived one morning in June, Scott was clad neck to ankle in desert camouflage and military accoutrements: a kaffiyeh scarf, a tactical vest, and a giant Rambo-esque gun. His friend Nikki snapped pictures, which they planned to use for recruiting.
“Is that a real gun?” asked David, who hadn’t touched one since he was a kid.
“Now I know you’re not full of shit. You wonder about people, man.”
“We’re as real as you can be.” Scott hoisted the Rambo gun. “You want your picture?”
David hugged the gun awkwardly. Gave it a kiss.
Not long after, Scott and Nikki took David shooting south of the city, a panorama of brown peaks and scrubland. Under a blue sky, David struggled with his earmuffs and an AR-15 rifle. When he fired, he was tentative, unsteady. “You’re a natural leader,” Nikki reassured him. “You’re a natural speaker. Now you’re a natural shooter.”
To Rick, David raved about his new friends. David clearly longed for camaraderie. He had no education beyond a GED, little contact with his ex-wife and son. He was periodically homeless and a convicted felon, a shame he hid from Scott. Though he craved a sense of purpose, he sometimes showed up drunk to sovereign meetings, and mostly parroted what Rick said. One June night, Rick helped David and Devon teach a class for Scott’s pals in the warehouse, a sort of Sovereign 101. Something’s off, Rick told David. They were so zealous, almost caricatures of militiamen. “David is dying to be a part of something, whether a family or a group like this,” Rick said later. “He’ll do anything to be accepted.”
A dash-cam video shows a traffic stop in West Memphis, Arkansas: A father and son pull off to the side of Interstate 40 in what resembles a church van. The portly dad steps out of the vehicle and haggles with a cop. Suddenly, his teenage son leaps out, an AK-47 in hand. Joe Kane gunned down two officers on May 20, 2010, before he and his father were slain in a shootout with lawmen. The Kanes were sovereigns, like David, and their justification for killing cops had roots in a group called the Posse Comitatus.
Launched around 1970, the Posse was a racist, anti-Semitic clan that spawned chapters in at least 23 states. Its name means “the force of the county,” which members considered the highest form of government. Posse members were encouraged to rid themselves of state-issued documents, forgo paying taxes, carry guns wherever they pleased, and police the local sheriff.
The ideology’s popularity surged in the 1980s, when a foreclosure crisis rippled across the nation’s cropland. Posse leaders blamed the financial devastation on a Jewish conspiracy and offered dubious solutions, often for a price. At the Posse’s urging, hundreds of farmers sued lenders and the Federal Reserve and harassed government officials with liens, a strategy now called paper terrorism. The era showed how readily the destitute grasped onto Posse doctrine, and how quickly it could spiral into violence. In 1983, a North Dakota farmer named Gordon Kahl, who’d abandoned his driver’s and pilot’s licenses, traded fire with authorities trying to arrest him on a probation violation. Two U.S. marshals died. Months later, authorities tracked Kahl to Arkansas, where he and a sheriff were killed in a gun battle.
Right-wing extremism flared again in the 1990s after deadly confrontations between law enforcement and fringe characters in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas; by mid-decade, law enforcement had noticed a new breed of extremists who melded Posse and radical-right ideas. Because they often renounced their U.S. citizenship and sometimes tried to set up their own governments and courts, investigators dubbed them “sovereign citizens.”
Sovereigns are considered part of the broader “patriot” movement, which includes militias and tax protesters. But because they rarely coalesce into groups, à la the Ku Klux Klan, they’re harder to track. The most infamous sovereign was Terry Nichols, an accomplice in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people and remains the nation’s deadliest act of domestic terrorism. A few years before, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), he notified the Michigan Department of Natural Resources that he was no longer a citizen of the “corrupt political corporate State of Michigan and the United States of America,” much as David, years later, filed papers declaring his sovereignty.
The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, though, was not exactly representative of how violent patriots lash out. They more often follow Kahl’s approach: a small-scale attack. In 1997, a New Hampshire extremist, pulled over because of rust holes in his truck, gunned down two law-enforcement officers and later a judge and the editor of a local newspaper. In Idaho, brothers stopped for failing to use a turn signal shot and killed an officer.
Though sovereign beliefs were once intertwined with white supremacy, they’ve since been adopted by an array of races and ages — at various points, they were popular with black defendants in Baltimore and Hawaiian secessionists. The internet in particular has helped marshal sovereigns, who can devour lectures on YouTube, trade conspiracy theories in online forums, and buy sovereign starter kits. “It’s a cult of information,” says JJ MacNab, an expert on anti-government extremists. “You have a doctrine, but you don’t have a teacher. The internet kind of takes that role.”
In recent years, amid a surge in right-wing extremist activity, the FBI has warned that sovereigns may turn to terrorism. State and local law-enforcement agencies now view them as a greater threat than Islamic extremists or militias, according to a recent survey, in part because police are still learning their lingo and markers — for example, license plates from the “Washitaw Nation,” claims of diplomatic immunity, and citations signed with “TDC” (meaning under “threat, duress, or coercion”).
For cops, it’s a matter of personal safety: When sovereigns lash out, an officer is often the target. From 2009 to 2013, according to the ADL, more than a third of the 43 incidents of gunfire between law enforcement and extremists involved people with anti-government beliefs. (By contrast, only three incidents involved domestic Islamic radicals.) Those who turn to violence often share certain traits. They’re “wound collectors” who can’t let go of slights, says Joe Navarro, a retired FBI special agent. They’re paranoid and narcissistic, and may have been shunned by their fellow die-hards. Even so, there’s no reliable way to tell which extremist is a potential Joe Kane. “In a lot of cases you never do,” says Mark Pitcavage, the ADL’s director of investigative research. “Not until it’s too late.”
As soon as Devon and Scott walked into the warehouse, they stuck their phones in the fridge. It was mid-July in the summer of Edward Snowden and government-spying headlines, and they wanted to make sure no one listened in. After a few minutes, David gave up trying to roll his in foil, like a hoagie, and stashed it next to theirs. The three gathered in the backroom, a cavernous space with bright hospital lighting, to plan the mission.
The mission had spiraled out of one of David’s screeds. If you’d overheard him, you might have dismissed it as a madman’s rant. Scott, however, heard a battle cry. David had claimed he could justify gunning down a cop who swiped his water. In fact, what if they created their own police force? They’d tool around in a van, arrest treasonous officers, and subject them to jail, trial, and execution. “We’re talking about The A-Team,” David said, humming the TV show’s theme song. Of course, he didn’t have money. Or a team. “Damn it,” Scott said, “I got the gear. I’m ready to go.”
Now the three debated the plan’s minutiae, which changed by the moment, and Devon scribbled key words (though never too many, lest her notebook fall into the wrong hands). Should they buy a police radio? Devon had a gun, but how would David get one? What they really needed was money. Devon squeaked by on Social Security. She made plans based on how much gas money she could cobble together. As for David, he’d lived in a string of dumps where bedsheets served as curtains.
Scott’s pal Donnie soon joined the planning. He was gruff, the guy who’d deck you for looking at him wrong. In early August, he declared the mission ready to launch in two weeks. “Really?” David said. He hadn’t purchased a gun or fixed his van, their intended getaway vehicle. Donnie asked if he’d bought tan pants; they resembled Vegas police uniforms, and might help the team inch close to a cop without raising alarm. David waved him off. Anyway, David wondered, where would they jail the cop — or cops, if they snatched more than one?
The next week, Scott asked Devon and David to meet him in a neighborhood in the southeast part of the valley, a maze of putty-colored homes with red-granite front yards, each indistinguishable from the next. They followed him into one as sparsely furnished as a dorm room: black couch, glass coffee table, throw rug, poster from the movie Scarface. Scott told them his friend had lived here until her husband died. She’d stopped paying the mortgage, moved back to California, and told Scott he could crash here until the bank changed the locks. “This is where I think we can bring ’em,” he said.
Scott rooted around in the garage and found some wood planks. Devon’s face brightened. “Just put it on the wall and bolt it to the uprights,” she said, “and then you put the chains on that.” In an empty bedroom, the three dove in with all the casualness of neighbors doing weekend remodeling. “Are we gonna have them standing up the whole time?” David asked. “We’re not trying to torture ’em.” Devon lowered the plank, and they attached it to the wall. Let’s add a second piece, Devon said, so we can shackle their feet, too.
Something was bugging David: How trustworthy was Devon? With the makeshift jail ready, the mission felt so close, like breath on your neck. They’d recorded videos to distribute after the kidnapping, with her in reddish-purple hair extensions, and him in a Beatles-style wig. Devon’s statement was handwritten. “We have been brainwashed to believe that we need police and congressional legislation to protect us,” she said. David’s was extemporaneous: “How long do we allow them to get away with this?” The same night, Scott showed them a letter he’d written: If his capture was imminent, they should kill him. He pulled out a knife, sliced himself, and signed with a bloody thumbprint. David and Devon beamed.
But at home, Devon’s zeal fizzled. David had moved onto her couch, and while she napped and futzed around online, he seethed. “I don’t think she has any intention of ever doing this,” David told Scott. Later, Devon accidentally blurted out the secret that he’d been in prison.
“Thanks for telling him,” David snarled.
“I’m sorry,” Devon said, and she clearly was.
David marched over to her, slashing the air with his water bottle. “You ever tell anybody about anything that we’re doing, you’re gonna be dead faster than you can fucking breathe. You understand that? I’ll put the bullet in your head myself.”
“Then I can put one in yours,” she said. But her tone was soft, frail.
In the days that followed, Devon and David dreamed up a new plan. Online, they’d stumbled across a sovereign man in Canada who had rounded up a group of self-proclaimed peace officers. They were ostensibly patrolling the cops. The prospect of launching a similar group in Vegas electrified David. They could hand out pamphlets and film police, maybe enlist a sergeant he’d met while working the Strip. “A total lawful thing,” he told Scott and Donnie when they met again at the makeshift jail on August 18. Let’s shelve the mission for now.
Scott leaned against a wall. Donnie slouched over the kitchen table. They were visibly baffled. How had this happened? David’s about-face in particular — was this Devon’s doing?
When Scott pushed back, his tone boiled. You’ll never drum up support, he said. Thanks to the government, thanks to the media, most people think of sovereigns as boogeymen. “So you’re gonna go out there and hand out these fliers to people,” he said. “And they’re gonna go, ‘Oh, you’re the nut cases the DHS’” — the Department of Homeland Security — “‘has been telling us about.’”
David and Devon had anticipated this response. Dreaded it, even. “I was getting all pumped up to go get cops,” David said. “And I’m not saying I won’t do that. … But we want the best possible result. And we want it to be long lasting.”
“Not just a flash in the pan,” Devon said. She rubbed her eyes, exhausted.
“We don’t want to go grab this cop and then we don’t have the public support. We’re just renegade, uh, kidnapping criminals.”
“Terrorists,” Devon said.
“Terrorists,” David repeated.
Donnie jumped in. “To me, it’s progressing,” he said. “I was pumped walking around this place.”
“If we stick our necks out and do this and we get caught,” Devon said eventually, “That’s it, that’s the end.”
“To me, it’s not the end,” Donnie said. “It’s the beginning.”
“It’s gonna be the shot heard around the world,” Scott said.
Scott had more at stake than anyone — he’d been living an elaborate lie. There was no video business, no friend with a foreclosed home. There wasn’t a local militia. Scott was an undercover cop. His last name wasn’t Reibach. It was Majewski. He’d spent more than two decades in law enforcement, working as a highway patrol trooper and in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s gang unit. He was now a detective in its counterterrorism section.
By 2013, Scott was well aware of sovereigns. Nevada was a natural breeding ground. The federal government owns more than three-quarters of the state, and resentment toward this absentee landlord courses through Nevada’s history and culture. The Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement by Western states in the ’70s and ’80s to reclaim federal land, started here, and many Nevadans remain anti-Washington, anti-tax, and pro-gun — political manifestations of a cowboy self-image.
The recession kneecapped the state’s economy, heavily reliant on tourism and construction. Nevada shouldered the nation’s highest foreclosure and unemployment rates for years. The Vegas suburbs were as broke and dispirited as the Midwestern farms of the ’80s, and sovereign ideology proved just as alluring. In 2009, authorities raided the “Sovereign People’s Court for the United States of America” — really the backroom of a Vegas print shop spruced up with a judicial bench and a Ten Commandments poster. At the time, investigators told the Las Vegas Sun that each pseudo-court session drew up to 120 people, and helped cement Vegas as “a major gathering place for the movement in the West.”
More recently, Vegas cops noticed an uptick in the number of people they ran across claiming sovereignty. Some were in-your-face hostile. Police wondered, was there a Gordon Kahl or Joe Kane among them? They decided to set up a sting, a method favored by federal terrorism investigators, to root out the sovereign fringe, and they named it Operation Scarecrow, an apparent nod to a sovereign concept called the “straw man.” Police made a list of five to ten known sovereigns with criminal histories, including David.
David had been in and out of California prisons for much of his adult life. Between 1993 and 2004, he was convicted of molesting a young boy, of exposing himself to a bus driver, and of failing to register as a sex offender. (In the latter case, he represented himself, and initially told the judge that God had instructed him not to register.) Out on parole, he repeatedly tripped up. In 2009, with cops on his tail, he refused to leave a camper in Los Gatos, California, claiming, falsely, that he had a gun. The standoff dragged on for nearly six hours. When he surrendered, parole records say, police saw he’d slashed his torso, neck, and both wrists.
None of David’s misdeeds had terrorism ties. Days after meeting Scott, however, he stopped by the warehouse — a visit recorded by seven hidden cameras. Without much prompting, he fantasized aloud about shooting police, “boom, boom, boom,” his fingers curled into a gun.
Police soon abandoned the list and focused on David, whose fixation on cops helped convince them that he wasn’t a crackpot; he was a danger. In July, when the mission was just gearing up, he tried to explain that sometimes you need to kill for a greater cause, and shared a story about his old cat. It was very ill, diarrhetic and bleeding everywhere, clearly in agony. He strangled it. This was a key moment for police. David considered it a mercy killing. They saw it as confirmation of his blood lust.
Devon had no criminal record, and she hadn’t been on the sovereign list. But police came to view her as a schemer who could mold David’s tirades into a plan. With each meeting, police believed, Devon and David were crossing more items off a terrorist checklist. If police hadn’t helped the pair, someone else might have.
Nearly every step of Operation Scarecrow was sketched out and filmed, as if by an obsessive director. (I later watched the footage.) Nikki, Donnie, and Scott’s other pals — all undercover officers. The photo shoot with the Rambo gun — “theater,” in undercover parlance. At the makeshift jail, Scott feigned surprise at finding wood and tools; police had laid out everything beforehand. Like the warehouse, the home was wired. So, too, was Scott’s pickup. One afternoon, he rode around with David and Devon, searching for traffic stops to film. There weren’t any, so Scott’s supervisor staged one. By mid-August, worried that David and Devon might go rogue, officers were tracking their every move. Devon stopped at Citibank, Ace Hardware, Water to Go, and church. David mostly crashed at the apartment.
On the morning of August 20, Officer Patricia Longworth sat in her patrol car near a gas station in Henderson, a suburb in the southeast corner of the valley. Around 8 a.m., she heard two pops. Maybe firecrackers. She looked around. Nothing. She glanced over her left shoulder and saw a pale gunman, dressed in tan, firing round after round. Her rear driver’s-side window shattered. She screeched the car through the gas station lot and radioed her fellow officers: “I’ve been shot at!” Within a minute, two colleagues zoomed over and trained their weapons on a man shooting from the side of the road. He crumpled.
At first, the Operation Scarecrow team panicked. The gunman had aimed only at uniformed officers. Was this somehow tied to their cell? The shooter was 63 and a recluse. He’d holed up for years in his stucco home, his windows fortified with metal shutters; he’d eaten mostly tomato soup and ice cream, and stockpiled close to 200 guns. Investigators never nailed down his motive. He owned a few books with anti-government themes, but his library was too large to tease out their significance. He had no criminal history, and no ties to Devon or David.
But the team saw an opportunity for an extraordinary piece of theater. At 11:15 a.m., Scott texted Devon: Hey donny called me a bit ago and said he had some ideas, wanted to know if we could get together tonight. Around 7 p.m., she and David arrived at the warehouse. Donnie was pacing. My buddy tried to kill a cop today, he said. Big Ed. He was a militia guy, trained with us. Now he’s dead.
Donnie stared at David and Devon. “We sit in here and we talk,” he said. “Are we gonna talk or are we gonna do something?”
It was closing in on sunset. Devon backed away from the kidnapping. She blamed her health (she’d survived a recent bout of cancer). She’d drive to the makeshift jail, that’s it. David teetered. The mission could leave him homeless and alone. “My whole heart, my whole being, me, I am ready to fight,” he said, tapping his chest. “What I want to hear is that when I join you guys and do this thing that I’m going to be secure.”
Even after they reassured him, David kept waffling. “I’ll go in a couple of days,” he said. He picked at his sock, mumbled. “I’m not going out right this minute. I’m not ready to go out.”
Well, Donnie said, Scott and I are. Suddenly, like the buzzer that signals a game’s end, he shouted, “Let’s go!”
Scott hopped off the couch.
Devon grabbed her purse.
“Oh my God you guys,” David said. He sipped his water and rubbed his head. Stood up and asked for a gun holster.
I’m going to get my truck, Donnie said. Scott followed. David and Devon waited by the garage door where they’d once picked up water. “Hey, Dave!” someone yelled from outside. They jostled the door open.
A bang. Smoke. Officers flooded the warehouse.
Clad in navy jail garb, Devon and David sat at the defense table, scowling. It was September, and more than a month had passed since their arrests were briefly national news. Devon was mortified. Behind bars, she had to beg for contact solution. Her perfectly coiffed hair fuzzed. Her beloved church had distanced itself. She asked about David constantly. He found jail lonely, and cold. He seethed that he’d been assigned a public defender — unlike Devon, he clung to the belief that sovereignty could spare him, and wanted to represent himself.
As Devon and David’s attorneys combed through the evidence, including dozens of hours of video, they became convinced the pair had been railroaded. To their lawyers, David and Devon appeared only to want affirmation, companionship. Devon even told her attorney that she’d grown frightened of Scott and Donnie, and, on the night of her arrest, planned to call 911 as soon as she left the warehouse.
That morning was their preliminary hearing; a justice of the peace would decide whether there was enough evidence for them to stand trial. For prosecutors, it’s a low bar to clear. Yet before the hearing, they had unexpectedly dropped the two most serious charges, conspiracy to commit murder and attempted first-degree kidnapping with a deadly weapon. Only a single, lesser charge remained for each defendant. Scott took the stand wearing a beige suit and striped tie. He was the prosecution’s sole witness. David’s attorney, Jessica Murphy, laid into him first.
“In order to pull off the kidnapping, trial, and execution of a police officer, the group needed certain equipment, right?”
“That’s what we were planning, yes.”
“And he advised you he didn’t have that equipment necessary to pull off this operation; is that correct?”
“If you’re talking about clothing and uniforms, that’s correct.”
“We know he didn’t have a firearm; correct?”
“He also didn’t have a van anymore; correct?”
“That I’m aware of, no.”
Devon’s attorney, Carl Arnold, went next.
“So he wasn’t in shape to abduct a police officer, never shot a weapon before. Why did you take Mr. Brutsche as a serious threat to carry out this scheme?”
“Because of the comments that Mr. Brutsche had made to me in regards to his ideology,” Scott said.
The questions grew more pointed. Didn’t Devon and David say they wanted to educate the public before doing anything criminal?
Yes, Scott said.
Didn’t they believe they could rally police to join the sovereign cause?
How about the penultimate meeting, where they pitched the peace-officer idea? “How come you just didn’t go with, OK, these people are not a threat and just have been talking a whole bunch?”
I didn’t believe the plan was really dead, Scott countered.
The initial charges against David and Devon could have sent them to prison for decades. Instead, not long after the preliminary hearing, both accepted plea deals. Devon pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor, conspiracy to commit false imprisonment, and left jail in December 2013. David was released the following spring, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit kidnapping, a felony (and, in a separate case, conspiracy to commit prohibited acts by a sex offender, a gross misdemeanor). How much of a threat did they actually pose? There’s no way to know. How do you predict what evil someone is capable of, if any? Police had offered David and Devon all the tools necessary to kidnap a cop — and still they had hesitated. In June of 2014, however, a young couple steeped in anti-government dogma shot and killed two Vegas officers at a pizza buffet and draped a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag over one cop’s body. They scurried to a nearby Walmart, where inside the husband announced that the revolution had started. The wife killed a shopper before the couple died during a firefight with police. Authorities had crossed paths with the couple previously, police said at the time, but nothing suggested they were plotting a deadly rampage.
After their release, David and Devon melted back into the margins of society. Per the terms of their sentences, they haven’t spoken to each other. Devon’s only run-in with Vegas cops involved a traffic ticket. David returned to Las Vegas Boulevard a few times and got busted for selling water. In May, he told me he’s resigned to being a citizen instead of a sovereign.
He was living a short drive from the downtown casino district, in a ramshackle neighborhood of barred windows, abandoned shopping carts, and plywood for-rent signs. One complex bragged, on a giant yellow banner, that it performed background checks. There wasn’t much in his place besides some bags of organic vegetables, a mattress that reeked of urine, and a litter box for his black-and-white kitten, a stray he named Kitty. His hair had grown back, and he was dressed neatly in a striped button-down and jeans. He’d scratched out some goals on a piece of paper; the first was to turn on the electricity. It was either the life of a potential terrorist, as police still believe, or that of someone who wasn’t that dangerous to begin with.