At these gatherings in northeast Washington, the jackboot of tyranny is always said to be descending, the hand of the federal government always inches away from stealing your guns, your land, your freedom to speak or to pray.
But at this particular "God and Country" celebration in June of 2016, the sense of impending doom among these self-proclaimed patriots has a grim weight to it. Blood had been spilled. Cops had gunned down militia member LaVoy Finicum during the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
Washington state Rep. Matt Shea visited Malheur during the occupation, and now at this gathering in Stevens County the following June, he's leading a roundtable titled "You Should Be Scared," warning the crowd that what happened to Finicum could happen to them.
"That could be any single one of us that just says 'no' one day," the Republican Spokane Valley legislator says. "Any single one of us!"
But then Shea introduces one of the reasons he's hopeful: The "finest legislator of the state of Idaho," a woman who "has people so scared in Idaho that even the speaker now is afraid to have her in his office."
"Representative Heather Scott, get up here!" Shea yells, and the crowd whistles and cheers.
Scott, a small woman with long brown hair and just a hint of Holly Hunter in her voice, tells the crowd that some people think Idaho is safe because it's dominated by Republicans.
"No, we're not safe," Scott says. "We're allowing refugees into our state. Last week, we lit up our Capitol with rainbow colors."
She used to be complacent, she says. A few years earlier, she didn't know anything about politics or even bother to vote. A message from God changed all that.
"I called Matt right away," Scott says. "God's telling me to run for office."
Ever since, the fates of Scott and Shea have been intertwined. Shea has feted her with awards and praise and invited her to secret meetings.
Each has zig-zagged from one controversy to another, feuding with the press and their own party. And then in December of last year, an independent investigation commissioned by fellow state lawmakers alleged that as a leader in what some call the "patriot movement" — a loose network of militiamen, sovereign citizens, rural survivalists and anti-government conspiracy theorists — Shea had fomented multiple "armed conflicts." His role in the Malheur standoff was tantamount to "domestic terrorism," investigators concluded in the report.
In Olympia, Shea has subsequently been booted from the Republican caucus, but also cheered by hundreds at a recent gun rally on the capitol steps. Scott can relate. When Scott was temporarily stripped of her committee assignments three years ago, a wave of her own supporters rallied to her defense.
Shea and Scott exist in two realities — the world of the Legislature and the world of incendiary self-proclaimed patriots. The tactics and mindset that can make you famous in one world can make you infamous in the other. Shea has been the star of a Rolling Stone feature, a podcast series and international news stories, and Scott is following in his footsteps. Even if Shea and Scott never are able to reshape the Inland Northwest's identity, they can still reshape its reputation.
"My goodness, just one person can make a huge difference. And you have done that," Shea tells Scott in a 2016 podcast. "To the point that, I think, they're kind of afraid of you right now."
"And I think a lot of people feel the same way about you, Matt," Scott responds.
A BUG OR A FEATURE?
Heather Scott knows how to make a first impression.
During Scott's very first week in office in 2015, representing the northernmost part of Idaho, from Sandpoint up, fellow lawmakers watched her climb on her new desk in Boise and ask them if the little black object hanging from the wire on the ceiling could be a "listening device." She then pulled out a knife and cut it down.
But it wasn't a bug.
"We later learned that the object was believed to be a part of the Capitol building's fire suppression system," Idaho Republican state Reps. Caroline Nilsson Troy and Don Cheatham said in a statement.
Scott, for her part, has never confirmed their account and denied ever causing damage to the statehouse building. The fire suppression incident, long whispered about in the halls of the statehouse, first became public knowledge in 2017 when then-Idaho State Rep. Christy Perry wrote a letter summarizing her "serious, if not grave, concerns regarding the behavior patterns of Representative Heather Scott."
Perry wrote that Scott's "escalating pattern of behavior" meant that some female members of the caucus "do not feel safe working in her presence."
It wasn't just that Scott carried a gun into the Capitol. This is Idaho after all. Perry says she personally kept two Smith & Wesson lightweight revolvers in the statehouse.
The difference, Perry says, is that there was a paranoia that came out in everything Scott did.
"When you couple odd behavior and aggressive behavior and know that person does carry, that raises a concern to a different level," Perry tells the Inlander.
Scott declined to be interviewed for this story; like Shea, she says the media is part of a coordinated conspiracy, driven in part to silence people like them.
In Perry's letter, she wrote about Scott sneering and glaring at her colleagues, bashing them in events in their own districts, and claiming female legislators were given leadership positions if they "spread their legs." And while the frustration with Scott wasn't universal, Perry wasn't alone.
"Some of those concerns were shared by others," Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke says. Bedke found the comment about female legislators to be particularly horrifying — he suspended Scott from all committees until he felt she'd adequately apologized. Today he says she's "grown as a legislator."
From her first campaign on, Scott has portrayed the Republican-dominated Idaho Legislature as an "orchestrated circus" and a "swamp," beset by sell-outs, bullies, cowards and "evil people."
Sometimes those accusations get personal: When an affair between Perry and an Idaho state senator became public in 2016, Scott shared the news on Facebook and speculated about legislative corruption: "How many good bills backed by citizens were kept in committee chairmen drawers and why?" Scott wrote.
In Idaho, Scott has argued, the battle isn't between Republicans and the tiny Democratic minority. It's between the "gravy train" Republicans — addicted, she claims, to federal bribes, beholden to crony capitalism — and those working for the citizens.
Set aside Scott's views on abortion and same-sex marriage and transgender rights and Muslim refugees, you could almost consider her a hardcore libertarian. She believes the county government's job is to protect you from the state, and the job of the state is to protect you from the feds.
Scott imagines tyranny coming not from a bang, but a succession of whimpers.
"I think a lot of people are waiting for this big war, and they're hunkered down and they've got their food and they've got their bullets," Scott says in a 2015 YouTube video. "It's not how we're going to be taken. We're going to be taken one small battle at a time."
As a result, Scott and a few allies have turned even minor procedural votes — updating the state's notary laws, for instance — into tooth-and-nail battles where the state's sovereignty and the future of liberty is alleged to be in jeopardy.
Unlike Washington state, where Shea's vote is drowned out by Democrats, Idaho is conservative enough that Scott's vote matters. In 2015, Idaho representatives had to return to Boise for a special session after Scott's choice to help kill a child support bill — citing fears about foreign tribunals and Sharia law — threatened to cost Idaho $200 million in annual child support payments.
This approach has given her nearly perfect ratings from the libertarian Idaho Freedom Foundation. She's beloved by Idaho Second Amendment Alliance.
"She doesn't compromise," says Anna Bohach, a former constituent. "That's what I like about Heather. We don't compromise on our principles."
But more moderate legislators saw Scott as killing perfectly fine bills by spreading fear and falsehoods.
"There are people who get things done in the Legislature because they work well with their colleagues and come up with tangible ideas," says former Idaho Rep. Luke Malek, a Republican. "And Heather Scott is not one of those people."
Malek would work in the Legislature and then read one of Scott's newsletters — roaring with inflammatory rhetoric — and it seemed like she's coming from a different world entirely.
"There's like this alternate reality," Malek says.
That reality is called the "American Redoubt."
First dreamt up by survivalist fiction author James Wesley Rawles, the Redoubt calls for conservative Christians and Jews to escape ostensible government persecution in liberal areas and migrate to the Inland Northwest to turn the region into a bulwark against governmental tyranny — even a fortress in the event of a governmental collapse. Scott's district is in the heart of it.
Last December, Rawles put both Scott and Shea on his list of "key leaders and promoters of the American Redoubt movement."
"The beauty of it is, we're all in the Redoubt," Scott tells Shea on Shea's podcast. "It is a place where people from all over the country have been fleeing."
The Redoubt movement has its own alternative media network, filled with some of Scott's most ardent supporters like Redoubt News blogger Shari Dovale — "Patriot Journalist" on her business card — and pseudonymous Radio Free Redoubt radio host John Jacob Schmidt.
The Redoubt is a haven for groups like the Oath Keepers, a loosely organized, militia-aligned patriot group of mostly law enforcement and military veterans who've vowed to defy unconstitutional orders. Shea's an Oath Keeper. Despite not having military experience herself, Scott took the Oath Keeper's oath, too.
"It was serious," Scott says in a YouTube video. "It was like when I got married."
But don't confuse the Redoubt with the sort of white ethnostate the Aryan Nations once dreamt of in North Idaho in the 1980s, members of the movement insist. The Redoubt, Scott wrote in a statement last month, is "not a hideout for racial supremacists, religious zealots, bigots, –phobics or 'deplorables.'"
Yet, it's not hard to see why some people conflate the Redoubt movement with Idaho's ugly past. Montana pastor Chuck Baldwin — the first on Rawles' list of Redoubt movement promoters — celebrates the Confederacy and preaches anti-Semitic 9/11 conspiracy theories.
As for Scott herself? There was the time — a few weeks after a white supremacist who celebrated the Confederate flag shot nine black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2014 — that Scott proudly flew the Confederate battle flag on a parade float, arguing it was a symbol of "free speech." And a day after the 2017 alt-right rally in Charlottesville, when a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of protesters, Scott published a quote on Facebook arguing that a "white nationalist" was "no more than a Caucasian who [is] for the Constitution and making America great again." Scott later argued she was just starting a conversation about how liberals distort language.
In her statement, Scott declared that she rejects "ANY AND ALL forms of racial supremacy" and believes "as the late Lavoy Finicum stated, that 'Freedom is Color Blind.'"
In fact, some conservative critics of Scott believe that she and similar legislators deploy these sorts of controversies intentionally.
"The formula is simple. Use white nationalism stories to trigger the media, be the martyr and rally support from sympathizers who don't like to be called racists," an Idaho rancher wrote last year on the moderate-leaning Idaho Conservatives blog.
Put another way, she and Shea are looking for fights that, they believe, will portray themselves as victims.
THE STANDOFF THAT WASN'T
It was Matt Shea who made Heather Scott a star.
You can trace the moment back to Aug. 6, 2015 — the day that Scott believed the government was coming to take a veteran's guns. A year after John Arnold, a Vietnam veteran in North Idaho, had a stroke, he was informed by Veterans Affairs that he was no longer able to handle his own finances — or possess a gun.
And so Scott called up Shea.
Shea, a veteran himself, knew a thing or two about showdowns with the United States government. In 2014, Shea had gone down to Cliven Bundy's ranch in Nevada to support the armed protesters and militiamen who had come to Bundy's defense when the Bureau of Land Management started taking Bundy's livestock because he'd refused to pay grazing fees.
Shea had even formed an alliance of state legislators and other leaders called the Coalition of Western States — that's COWS, for short — dedicated to fighting against the federal government's so-called "war on rural America."
Jay Pounder used to be part of Shea's informal security detail and, breaking with the lawmaker, he leaked hundreds of pages of internal Shea documents to the media. Shea's ultimate goal, Pounder says, goes beyond concerns over public land: The showdowns themselves are the point.
"They always want these flashpoints," Pounder says. "They have to have a flashpoint in order to have the holy justification in order to start shooting back."
When Scott tells Shea about how Arnold might lose his gun rights, Shea leaps into action. He writes up a formalized operational plan, dubbing the tactics "Operation Armed Backyard."
He outlines principles like "Expose them as tyrants, by making them act like tyrants" and "human life is more important than stealing guns."
The goal, Shea writes, is for the VA to back down without anybody getting hurt, according to leaked documents. He wants hundreds to attend and for other states to join the fight.
He doles out assignments: Schmidt would be in charge of "secure communications and intercept." Shea ally Anthony Bosworth — who'd been arrested for standing with his AK-47 in front of Spokane's federal courthouse and refusing to leave — was to conduct site-recon, set up early warning observation posts and establish evacuation routes. Scott's job? "Identify patriot bail bondsmen," and contact law enforcement and local elected officials.
The document also included a long list of unassigned potential tasks, including identifying "available patriot aircraft" and "multiple resupply routes" and organizing "civilian action teams."
Scott and Shea put out the call on Facebook.
"THE SEIZURE OF THE GUNS OF ONE OF US...IS THE SEIZURE OF THE GUNS OF ALL OF US," Shea writes.
Infowars, Alex Jones' right-wing conspiracy website, hypes it as a "showdown."
And so in Priest River, a town about 1,800, a hundred protesters — some armed, a few carrying large wooden crosses — gather to stand in support of the veteran. Members of the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters of Idaho, another patriot group, both show up. The Bonner County sheriff stands in solidarity with the protesters.
"I'm here today because I believe Priest River is the next battleground for the federal government," Scott announces at the start of the rally. "It's a war against our vets."
But the VA didn't come to take the veteran's guns — the VA doesn't do that. Instead, Bryan Hult, Bonner County's local advocate for veterans, arrives and suggests there'd been a misunderstanding.
"I called [Arnold] to visit with him to clarify what the letter said, period," Hult tells the Inlander.
Scott later reports that the VA was working with Arnold to restore his gun rights.
Shea is ecstatic.
"They ran in fear from Heather Scott!" he proclaims on a 2016 podcast.
Accolades shower down. The American Legion gives Scott a "Certificate of Appreciation." Shea and his Washington legislator allies give her their "2015 Statesman of the Year Award," featuring a Don't-Tread-On-Me rattlesnake coiled against an American flag backdrop.
Ben Olson, publisher of the Sandpoint Reader in Scott's district, says the Priest River rally significantly raised Scott's profile in the Redoubt.
"That really launched her within the patriot movement and the Christian conservative crowd," Olson says. "They look to her for guidance."
The next flashpoint, however, wouldn't be so bloodless.
CODE NAME: GREENBEAN
On Dec. 11, 2015, Shea sends out a COWS press release, decrying the imprisonment of Dwight and Steven Hammond, two ranchers in Harney County, Oregon. The release — which lists Scott as the group's Idaho coordinator — accuses the BLM of waging a "war on rural America" through "bureaucratic terrorism."
That same day, COWS works with Cliven Bundy's son, Ammon Bundy, to publish a "Redress of Grievance," demanding Oregon and Harney County officials intervene to help the Hammonds.
And then on Jan. 2, 2016, Ammon makes a move even the Oath Keepers organization condemns — seizing Harney County's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters with a group of armed protesters.
The next day, Shea puts out a Facebook statement once again accusing the BLM of "bureaucratic terrorism," but noting that the Hammonds have "rejected any help from COWS" so their "vast network of patriots" has not been involved.
But behind the scenes, Shea has a plan. COWS has "intelligence assets," he writes in one internal message, "on-site providing real time intelligence."
He works from a similar template as Operation Armed Backyard. This time, he calls it "Operation Cold Reality," and sends it to a list of allies, including "Greenbean" — Scott's code name within Shea's network.
Shea's goal is not only to convince the federal government to "stand down" without violence, he writes in various memos, but to "re-establish legitimate leadership over Patriot Movement" and to pursue "the Vision of Restoring a God-Honoring Constitutional Republic."
The COWS would lead a negotiating team, Shea writes. "Greenbean" would "drive to Burns from Boise for linkup."
So she does: Scott invites her legislative seatmate Rep. Sage Dixon and Idaho Rep. Judy Boyle on a fact-finding trip.
As they drive down, Dixon thinks about the Ruby Ridge siege in North Idaho. In 1992, an FBI standoff ended in the deaths of three people and a dog and fanned the flames of the militia movement. It went down in his and Scott's district. In conflicts like these, he worries, "it usually ends up in somebody dying." He wants to do what he can to prevent that.
Shea, the three Idaho legislators, and other members of COWS walk into the Harney County courthouse to meet with County Judge Steve Grasty and other local officials. The group presents themselves as potential negotiators, urging the county officials to make concessions and, at least on one occasion, accuses the BLM of terrorism. Grasty is unpersuaded.
"Get these criminals — and they are terrorists — out of my county!" Grasty declares.
"By calling these people criminals and terrorists, that is just going to escalate this even further. I think that's very dangerous," Scott tells Grasty. "I see citizens that are pushed to their limits and they have no other options. ... I live in a rural area, everyone has a gun. Not everyone is a terrorist."
At the time, Dixon says, he didn't know Scott was part of COWS. Neither did Grasty.
"I didn't realize it until a couple of weeks later, that 'Holy crap, this group was one of the instigators,'" Grasty tells the Inlander.
Back then, Grasty repeatedly urged the group not to meet with the occupiers, warning them it would be dangerous and they could inadvertently boost the occupiers' resolve. The Idaho legislators, after praying about it, go anyway.
"These lawmakers have shown great courage to support us," Oregon occupier LaVoy Finicum says, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Finicum is killed on Jan. 26, 2016, less than three weeks after meeting with the legislators — shot by law enforcement officers at a roadblock after he'd reached for a pocket that contained a handgun.
The days that follow risk more bloodshed: Refuge occupier Sean Anderson, a central Idaho resident, screams on YouTube, demanding that the American people converge upon the refuge, and that "if they stop you from getting here, kill them."
And as the FBI tries to get Anderson and the other holdouts to turn themselves in on the final night of the 41-day standoff, a terrified Anderson makes another call to arms on a live-stream recording over the internet, urging listeners to contact "the Idaho 3-percenters, and tell 'em that they're here to kill us!"
Ultimately, it was a member of COWS — Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore — who helps talk Anderson and the others into giving themselves up peacefully. Toward the end, Fiore congratulates the four holdouts for making history and assuring them that their call to action was being answered.
"There are all of the legislators who stand with you... they're all coming here," Fiore says, naming Boyle and Scott as two from Idaho. "These are your people."
Shortly after the standoff ends, Redoubt News' Dovale records a jubilant press conference with Scott and other COWS members in a Harney County parking lot.
"We've been involved in this since day one, in parts of the negotiations," Scott says, smiling and praising Fiore as a "star." "We're just very pleased it ended peacefully."
"You have God-given rights and you need to exercise those rights so we don't lose those rights," Scott tells Dovale.
THE HEATHER CHANNEL
Pounder, for his part, sees Scott as more of a passenger — albeit one in the front seat — in the patriot and Redoubt movements than a driver.
"She's kind of this follower," Pounder says. "She's not a strong leader. She takes orders from Matt and executes those orders."
Yet Scott is part of the club. She's invited to a clandestine meeting — disguised over email as a "family picnic" — where Shea distributes documents discussing topics like "biblical warfare," assassination, sabotage and designing a new society after a governmental collapse. She's included in Shea's encrypted "Redoubt Emergency Network," a chat where his fellow patriots discuss Antifa riots, try to ferret out traitors and leakers and, on occasion, fantasize about violently attacking their foes.
When the chat turns to opponents of Shea's dream of turning Eastern Washington into a 51st state, Schmidt muses about the appeal of "skull stomping godless communists" and Scott jokes that that "sounds like the name of a rock band."
Pounder knows the feeling. He was part of those chats, too.
"You truly feel like you're part of a family. You're part of something important and big and be able to reshape what America is," Pounder recalls. "But you don't realize that family's really dysfunctional when you look beneath the surface."
But sometimes others look beneath the surface.
Heather Scott is "a kind individual who loves her community, who loves people, but is being led by people who don't love people — they love power."
In December, at the request of Washington state House, the independent Rampart Group investigative team released a 108-page report examining whether Shea promoted political violence. And it's all laid out: The secret meetings, the violent chats, the God and Country rallies, the Oath Keepers and the Oregon standoff.
Scott's name appears in the report at least 20 times. When the investigators look at the documents Shea prepared for the Priest River rally, they conclude that the organizers were probably "preparing for a conflict that carried with it a significant risk of violence."
While Shea has suffered in the world of the state Legislature since the report's release, in the world of the Redoubt, he's portrayed as the noble victim of a vicious smear. In particular, his defenders scoff at the portrayal of the Priest River rally as an "armed conflict."
Meanwhile, Bedke, the Idaho House speaker, says he hasn't read the report yet. "I pulled it up, but I just didn't have time to wade through it," he says.
If he had, he would have read a report that portrays Scott as a legislator who repeatedly teamed up with Shea as he ascended in the patriot movement by instigating conflicts that risked "bloodshed and loss of life." The Idaho Statesman, for one, has called for the Idaho House to "thoroughly investigate the charges" against Scott and to "take the appropriate actions."
The Redoubt, of course, has a much different take: When asked for an interview for this story, Radio Free Redoubt host Schmidt replied that "Heather is a patriot, a Christian, and has a huge heart for her community and her country, unlike you, you opportunistic turd."
Among the constituents who keep reelecting her, Scott is seen as a breath of fresh air, willing to take on career politicians in the name of liberty.
To a moderate former legislator like Malek, Scott is someone who sabotages the complicated legislative process by spreading misinformation that "creates divisiveness, creates fear, creates anger."
To Pounder, Scott is "a kind individual who loves her community, who loves people, but is being led by people who don't love people — they love power."
To Scott and Shea, all these varied reactions are evidence of the same thing: proof they're in the right. When they succeed, they see it as evidence that they're effective. When they fail, they see it as evidence that they're so effective that dark forces are conspiring to stop them.
Scott describes to Shea in a 2016 podcast how the left comes after people like them: First they try to marginalize you. Then they try to demonize you, then to litigate you and then they try to criminalize you.
"It's a good versus evil thing," Scott says. "It's Satanic."
"It really is," Shea says. "It's a grand conspiracy of evil." ♦
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Walters, born and raised in Spokane, has been writing for the Inlander since 2008. In that time, he's written about Rep. Matt Shea's feud with the Spokane County sheriff, death threats wolf lovers sent to Washington state employees, and about how chemtrails aren't actually a thing. He can be reached at email@example.com.