Orange County Oath Keepers had roots in sheriff’s office

Goshen, NY. The local chapter fizzled in 2019, but fair or not, the stain of violent extremism has traveled to the furthest tentacles of the sprawling group.

Goshen /
| 15 Feb 2021 | 10:48

Three years ago, the Orange County Oath Keepers carried their banner through Goshen, N.Y., in the Mid-Hudson St. Patrick’s Day parade, wearing yellow-on-black T-shirts with the group’s slogan in yellow: Guardians of the Republic. Not on Our Watch.

That logo has now become notorious for its ties to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Three members of the Oath Keepers – from Ohio and Virginia – are among the suspects charged with conspiracy, the most serious charges the FBI has brought.

As details emerge of the violent extremes the attackers were prepared to go that day, apprehension lingers back home about what kind of neighbors would be part of such a group, especially since two founding members of the Orange County Oath Keepers worked in the sheriff’s office.

Longtime Orange County Undersheriff Kenneth Jones is second-in-command under the county’s longest-serving sheriff. He is also the first name on the county panel charged by the state with reforming the police in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Jones said dredging up a brief affiliation seven years after the fact is a politically motivated attempt to humiliate him, and continues the attack on law enforcement going on for over a year. He was a member of the Orange County Oath Keepers for a little over a year, he said, in 2013 and 2014, when it was a very different group that sprung up largely out of the remnants of the Orange-Sullivan Tea Party.

“I don’t see the connection of the dots that my position on Police Reform and Reinvention is somehow jeopardized because I once belonged to an organization that was a different organization at the time I belonged to it,” he said. As a member of the Orange County Oath Keepers, he attended Honor Flights for veterans and picnics benefiting POWs. When it started turning into a militia group, he said, he got out.

“It’s fairly outrageous, that I have a reporter calling me up as if it has even the slightest whiff of truth to it, when it’s a complete and total fabrication, that I am an Oath Keeper, or that I had anything to do with anything that occurred in Washington on January 6,” said Jones. “I’m in law enforcement.”

A chilling effect

But for people of color especially, an association with the Oath Keepers – a group now known to be violent in carrying out extremist beliefs – chills what is supposed to be the collaborative, trust-building process of police reform described in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203. Among the handful of callers into the county’s Feb. 10 public comment session, concerns included the lack of transparency or Spanish translation of the reform process and “the white supremacists in the department.”

“Knowing that someone like that is supposed to be working to get it better, is not a good feeling or situation to be in,” said Sabrina Jennings, 32, a Black resident of Warwick. She made clear that she does not know Jones, and has no problem with her hometown police department. Still, she said, “the fear of standing up to them with somebody like that in office is terrifying.”

After she signed an open letter criticizing the Town of Warwick’s police reform efforts as woefully inadequate, Jennings was not alone in worrying about police retaliation. “Some of the people who are writing the letter are like, what do we do if the police show up and start harassing us? We don’t know,” she said. “How do we know it’s not going to backfire on us when we ask them to do the right thing?”

Because the Oath Keepers expressly recruit from law enforcement and military, this friction is playing out in communities and police stations across the country. Search “Orange County Sheriff Oath Keeper,” and the first hit is about a deputy in California’s Orange County placed on leave after wearing patches on his vest, while on active duty, emblazoned with “Don’t tread on me” and “Oathkeeper” alongside the Roman numeral “III,” which stands for the Three Percenters, another militia group tied to the insurrection.

Jones is sensitive to the tension of having police oversee the police. “We played no part in selecting members of the committee,” he said. “That was the county executive. Because we knew we were the organization that was going to be reviewed, we didn’t want to play a role, in sort of like picking your own umpires.”

It’s another example of the age-old problem of how to police the police. “One huge glaring issue is the complaint process that’s proposed that I imagine has been in place all along,” said Patricia McMillan of Warwick, calling into the county’s open meeting on Feb. 10. “How can you have people complain to the very agency that they are complaining about?

McMillan, who is Black, is a CPA who has run for local office in the past. She financed the publication of an open letter criticizing the town police reform efforts. “It has to be an independent agency that will accept complaints and do the investigation,” she said.

McMillan called the countywide panel unrepresentative of the community. “It seems to have just business and organizational leaders, and in that sense completely is not in compliance with the guidelines” set out in Cuomo’s order, she said.

Jones said the panel asked “hard, pointed questions” and made recommendations the sheriff’s office does not oppose. “I don’t think any of them were sweeping changes to our current operating standards,” he said. “There were tweaks to our operations standard, and we’re comfortable with that. We want to be the best we can be, and we’ve strove toward that goal for 19 years.”

Those reforms include reexamining how they deal with calls involving people with addiction or mental health issues, installing part-time diversity officers to help with hiring and training, posting their operating procedures on their website, “and redesignating one of our people as a community affairs person, to try and bring a closer relationship to the public we serve,” he said.

A Warwick Valley High School alum, Jones has taught criminal justice for three decades at SUNY Sullivan to a cross-section of inner city and rural students, and he’s received excellent online student reviews. He got into law enforcement, as part of the first wave of college-educated police officers, to reform it. He supports the scrutiny like the kind going on then and now. “It prevents you from turning sideways,” he said.

But he finds this “outlandish” focus on a blip on his long resume to be unfair and misleading, and says he’s at a loss how to defend himself. “I feel violated to some degree, because how do you defend yourself in the negative?” he said. Does he bring up his students, friends, and family, which includes nieces and nephews of color? “If I’m a racist, I’m doing a pretty poor job at it,” he said.

Who are the Oath Keepers?

According to the FBI, the Oath Keepers “are a large but loosely organized collection of militia who believe that the federal government has been coopted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights.” Dues-paying members take an “oath” to defend the Constitution above all else; the group’s website lists 10 orders its members will never obey regardless of who issues it, beginning with any order to disarm American citizens. The national website is populated by posts heavy on conspiracy theories of a stolen election and references to “vengeful House Democrat-Marxists.” Membership information is closely guarded; estimates range from 1,000 to tens of thousands of members.

The Orange County chapter was founded by Sheryl Thomas, a mother of five who grew up in Texas, and got into organizing when she started the Orange County Tea Party movement in 2009. After rubbing shoulders with Oath Keepers at meetings in Sullivan County, she was approached by Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the national Oath Keepers, a Yale Law school graduate and former Army paratrooper, about starting a new chapter in Orange County.

“I sat with Stewart a couple times, and said I want to know where the organization is going,” she said. “It seemed a good thing to be involved with at the time. At its face value it sounds like something that would be good for the community.”

The new chapter had its launch party-cum-freedom rally in the spring of 2013 at the Town of Crawford Park in Pine Bush, N.Y. “At that time it was very pro-veteran, very pro-law enforcement, and I agreed with that,” she said. “I liked their mission statement if you read it straight out, it made sense to me, kind of a coming together of law enforcement, firemen, EMS, veterans.”

Oath Keepers comes to the sheriff’s office

Undersheriff Jones joined Orange County Oath Keepers in 2013, shortly before Thomas started a job at the sheriff’s office in the newly created position of range supervisor overseeing civilian handgun training. Jones and Thomas began co-hosting a radio show on Red State Talk Radio called “Sheryl and the Sheriff.” In one 2015 episode they talked about the Second Amendment rally in Albany they’d attended together in protest of the NY SAFE Act, which bans assault rifles. Riffing about gun owners who would no longer be allowed to keep their assault rifles, Jones joked: “Well I didn’t do anything the last 20 years, although I have an urge to do something with it right now because you just passed a stupid law.” They tossed around the idea of New York City being annexed away from the state, an idea Jones liked, “so the rest of the state couldn’t be a sanctuary for illegal aliens.”

Scott Hamill, a retired deputy sheriff captain at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, has been calling on Facebook for an investigation into Oath Keepers working in his former employer’s office. He said Jones tried to recruit him into the Oath Keepers in 2013, when they were colleagues, but he declined. Although he’d been a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), this felt outside his “moral comfort zone,” he said. Hamill now lives in Sarasota, Florida.

“Him and Sheryl, they brought that into the sheriff’s office, and you know, they have to own it,” he said. “It’s not that they were bringing in the Girl Scouts of America. No, you’re bringing in the Oath Keepers, and they have these radical ideas about how government should be, and their ideas are – if you don’t do what we want you to do, we’re going to take it by force. If Ken Jones as undersheriff couldn’t see there was a radical side to Oath Keepers, he’s crazy. It’s not responsible to join an organization that fosters some of those radical ideas when he was in the business he’s in,”

Hamill left the department discontented. “When you’re in government, you’re supposed to be that middle of the road, kind of not taking anybody’s side kind of thing,” he said. “I would think that anybody who’s members in organizations like that is compromised to a certain degree in the public’s eye.”

Even in 2013, said Hamill, the beliefs associated with the Oath Keepers were clear, and the far end radical. “I didn’t know anything about race back then,” he said. “How it was presented to me was, ‘Oh we’re going to stand up for Second Amendment rights. But it wasn’t what the NRA was saying, it was more of the militia mentality — ‘We’re this group with guns, and we’re not going to let anybody take our guns.”

The public’s idea of what groups like this believe, and the lengths they will go to defend them, is hazy. That clouded mission led the sheriff’s contingent to leave the Orange County chapter, and eventually the group dissolved.

A dark turn

After the Oath Keepers’ involvement in the Bundy Ranch standoff, Thomas decided to part ways with the group, along with Jones and another member. For them, the 2014 armed confrontation between federal law enforcement and the cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and his anti-government supporters was a wake-up call. Some analysts draw a straight line from the Bundy standoff to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“It slowly got to the point where I didn’t want to be involved,” said Thomas. It was taking on “more of a militia tone” that she didn’t want to be part of. “I wasn’t onboard with the mission, what I saw the changes becoming, and so that’s why I let it go.”

Jones cut ties completely when he saw the Oath Keepers heading in that direction. “Like a lot of organizations, they may start well, but it was penetrated by forces that were not veterans, not policemen, not firemen, who were supposed to be the composition of that organization,. The national organization was penetrated by Three Percenters. Once that occurred, I withdrew. I did exactly what a professional should be doing, recognizing an organization that’s taken a dark turn and withdrawing.”

In 2015, Thomas handed the chapter over to a fellow founding member, Chip Murray of Slate Hill, N.Y., who ran the chapter until it fizzled out in 2019.

“I don’t really know where it went from when I let go of it,” said Thomas. “But I was distressed to find out there were Oath Keepers that were possibly in D.C. on Jan. 6, maybe for reasons that weren’t peaceful. I believe in grassroots movements, but I’m not in favor of anything that might have transpired that was not legal or violent in any way.”

Under Murray’s leadership, the Orange County Oath Keepers did things like provide security for a young people’s free speech rally in Boston in 2017 in coordination with local authorities, and march in the Mid-Hudson St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2018, as pictured. Murray’s parade recap on the Oath Keeper website reported that his group had overcome “fake news” by “Leftist propagandists at the Chronicle ‘newspaper,’” and “a dozen smiling pair of Oath Keeping eyes were back for the second year to represent the Orange County Chapter.”

But behind the scenes, the group began to crumble. Back when Thomas and Jones were running the show, the chapter was pretty well organized, said Murray. Local chapters answered to the state chapter, run by a well-respected retired state trooper, and to the national chapter, he said. There was an annual state dinner with good speakers.

“It just deteriorated over the years,” said Murray. “There was no support from national, people got disenchanted. The perception of the public was that we were militia, and it was killing us. That ambiguity was making it difficult to recruit.”

To get his group into the Mid-Hudson Saint Patrick’s Parade, Murray had to argue their case before the organizers at Hibernian Hall. “We’re not these domestic terrorists these knuckleheads are making us out to be,” he said. “It’s about the Constitution, period.”

As philosophies diverged, and the founder, Rhodes, was less and less hands-on, state chapters started to splinter, said Murray. “They pretty much did what they thought they needed to do with their own chapters,” he said. “I’m sure there are paramilitary groups, I’m sure there are militias forming” elsewhere in the country, he said.

That appears to be the case in Ohio, where the FBI affidavit against Oath Keeper Jessica Watkins, 38, an Ohio bartender and Afghanistan veteran, reported that “the Ohio State Regular Militia is a local militia organization which is a dues-paying subset of the Oath Keepers.” Watkins allegedly led an organized group of Oath Keepers to break into the Capitol on Jan. 6 decked out in paramilitary gear sporting patches with that now infamous logo reading: “Not on our watch.”

“We’ve got to be careful, where there’s so much tension and anger,” said Murray. “We’ve got to get the stories right. The result is anything but good if you’re mislabeling good people, patriotic people who love their country, who are law abiding, God-loving people, and all of a sudden you’re hanging the word ‘terror’ on them.”

The members of the Orange County Oath Keepers who jumped ship in 2019 formed another group called Orange Strong, said Murray. Like the Oath Keepers in its original mission, the new group is focused on community preparedness – backing up emergency services in case they get overwhelmed – but with a broader membership base that includes people with first aid or communications skills.

Murray organized two buses to go down to the Capitol on Jan. 6. The group included old people using canes, he said, and beelined back to their buses when things started to heat up.

The Orange County Oath Keepers no longer exists, and hasn’t for over a year. For the undersheriff who left seven years ago, it’s such ancient history that bringing it up now feels like an underhanded attack. But as chilling details emerge about the Oath Keepers who converged on the Capitol last month, the association with local law enforcement officers needs to be better understood — by those subject to their enforcement, and by the officers themselves.

The Oath Keepers have chapters across the country, including Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. The state chapter directory on the national Oath Keepers website lists Facebook pages for New York and Pennsylvania that have since been shut down.
The New Jersey chapter has its own website and lists regional coordinators, including coordinators representing Sussex and Bergen Counties.
In 2017, the New Jersey chapter had a table at the Autumn Lights Festival in West Milford, N.J. Members marched in Ringwood’s Fourth of July parade that same year.
North Jersey’s regional director passed our request for an interview along to the chapter’s public information officer, who did not respond by press time.
“Knowing that someone like that is supposed to be working to get it better, is not a good feeling or situation to be in. The fear of standing up to them with somebody like that in office is terrifying.” Sabrina Jennings
“We’ve got to get the stories right. The result is anything but good if you’re mislabeling good people, patriotic people who love their country, who are law abiding, God-loving people, and all of a sudden you’re hanging the word ‘terror’ on them.” Chip Murray