In the dark of a January night, a Nevada County sheriff’s deputy pulled over to offer help to a man parked on the side of Highway 49. The stop led to the discovery of two loaded guns in the man’s pickup, and ultimately, two misdemeanor charges.
Prosecutors offered Brent Douglas Cole a deal: If he pleaded guilty to one of the charges, he would lose his weapons but be sentenced to just two years of probation and fines.
Cole, 60, unequivocally rejected the offer, court documents show. Choosing to represent himself, he pleaded not guilty and filed nearly four dozen pages of court documents – some rambling and seemingly off-point – in which he quoted the Second Amendment, alleged court malfeasance and argued he was another target of a broad “seditious conspiracy ... intended to bring the United States to absolute ruin.”
The case remains open. Cole last appeared in court June 5 – less than two weeks before he allegedly opened fire on a California Highway Patrol officer and a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger, wounding both. Authorities say the gunfire started after the officers came across Cole’s unsanctioned campground on BLM land in a remote corner of Nevada County, southwest of the popular South Yuba River campground. Cole, too, was shot in the confrontation and remains in stable condition at a Roseville hospital.
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Cole is under arrest, facing charges of attempted murder, said Nevada County sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Pettitt. He was unavailable for comment this week.
As sheriff’s detectives continue their investigation, Pettitt said he didn’t want to speculate about Cole’s motivation. But the suspect’s writings – filed in courthouses both in Nevada County and Anchorage, Alaska, on his social media sites and numerous other websites – indicate he is part of the “sovereign citizens” movement, a leaderless anti-government group whose reach the FBI says has been growing in recent years.
Sometimes referred to as “constitutionalists” or “freemen,” those in the movement typically don’t recognize the authority of federal, state and some local government agencies. That includes court systems and most law enforcement agencies.
Much of the ideology espoused by sovereign citizens relates to bureaucratic issues, including property rights, state and federal taxes, and license and registration requirements. But some of their tenets have raised concerns among law enforcement agencies. In a 2011 bulletin, the FBI described sovereigns as a “domestic terrorist movement” posing particular danger to police. Observers say the Nevada County shooting would be in line with extreme examples of violence attributed to the movement.
“Because of their beliefs about both the lack of authority of the government as well as their connections, oftentimes, to significant amounts of weaponry, it makes them a unique danger for law enforcement in ways other (movements) may not be,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Levin, a former police officer, said many people in law enforcement are aware of the movement and have taken advantage of training he and other groups offer to tailor their approach when they encounter sovereigns.
“Typical routine assignments (that officers) could be responding to – a domestic call; it could be a warrant for something minor – will escalate because these people regard this as an intrusion on their privacy, to which they can respond violently,” he said.
A ‘flesh and blood, living man’
On June 14, the day of the Nevada County shooting, the ranger and CHP officer were attempting to tow several motorcycles from Cole’s illegal encampment on BLM land, Pettitt said. He said he did not know exactly what precipitated the gunfire. Nevada County dispatchers were alerted to the shooting about 3 p.m. when they received a call for mutual aid.
The officers have since been released from a hospital. The CHP officer has been identified as Brant Hardin, a 20-year veteran. The BLM declined to name its officer.
Pettitt said investigators are not sure why Cole was in Nevada County. They believe he is from Alaska, and public records indicate he lived there for some time. Cole has written in court filings that he went to high school in Idaho and attended two years of college in Anchorage. At the time of his January arrest, Cole wrote in court documents, he had been camping in the area and needed his guns to protect against bears. He did not indicate how long he had been there or why.
In a document waiving his right to an attorney in the misdemeanor case, Cole wrote that he had previously worked as a carpenter and truck driver and in construction. He said he had represented himself in two previous court cases. In one of those cases, involving reckless discharge of a firearm, an Alaska district court judge questioned his competency to represent himself, noting his “disjointed and, in part, illogical” pleadings, according to court documents. That case later was dismissed.
In posts on social media and various websites, Cole has ranted about the Constitution, criminal “banksters” and “California’s kangaroo court.” He has posted about environmental conspiracies and his belief that Gen. George S. Patton was assassinated to keep him from revealing that the U.S. was in cahoots with Russia during World War II. He is a supporter of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose standoff with the BLM has rallied anti-government and pro-gun allies.
In court documents, Cole refers to himself as a “statutory attorney general,” a “natural born, flesh and blood, living man” and a “federal agent in good standing and exempt from this state law.” In one writing, he charges that the court system is controlled by a “private guild” that serves at the behest of foreign powers.
Before the shooting, Cole filed documents in Nevada Superior Court asking that his misdemeanor charges be dropped. He also asked that the deputy pay him $60,000 for violating his rights and that each legislator “who voted for enactment of the unconstitutional statutes” cited in his arrest pay him $30,000.
FBI: Approach with caution
Cole’s arrest caught the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks extremist groups. The story appeared on the center’s blog within days.
According to bulletins written by the center and the FBI, the sovereign citizens movement is a loose network of people that lacks leadership and any formal hierarchy. A central tenet is the notion that state and federal governments are illegitimate and incongruous with the “common law” system set up by the country’s founding fathers.
Many maintain that the American dollar lost its value after the government abandoned the gold standard and “assert that the U.S. government now uses citizens as collateral, issuing Social Security numbers and birth certificates to register people in trade agreements with other countries,” according to the FBI bulletin from 2011.
Sovereign citizens also are known for filing bogus liens and court filings full of “pseudo-legal nonsense,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center: “The weapon of choice for sovereign citizens is paper.”
The FBI bulletin acknowledges much of the movement is simply “quirky,” and their offenses relatively minor, such as creating fake license plates. But it is growing and not to be ignored, the agency warns.
“Although the sovereign citizen movement does not always rise to violence, its members’ illegal activities and past violent – including fatal – incidents against law enforcement make it a group that should be approached with knowledge and caution,” the bulletin states.
The FBI attributes the deaths of six officers between 2000 and 2011 to “sovereign citizen extremists.”
Pettitt, the Nevada County sheriff’s captain, said his agency is aware of sovereign citizens living in the area. He said their beliefs don’t make them criminals and that in general they have not posed serious problems.
“But we’re always aware of it,” Pettitt said. “Every traffic stop you do, you look for clues about who you’re dealing with.”
Pettitt said he believes the shooting was an isolated incident.
“It’s unfortunate but definitely not the norm,” he said. “Most of the people down there are families enjoying the river ...”