CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- Police are still investigating after two people with ties to the “Sovereign Citizen Movement” were found dead Wednesday in an apartment.

So-called “sovereign citizens” believe they are immune from government and should be able to decide for themselves which laws they want to obey and which ones they do not. In some cases, they have been known to violently confront police in pursuit of their ideologies.

Who are “Sovereign Citzens” and what do they believe?

The Sovereign Citizen Movement does not resemble a “traditional” cult as it lacks any centralized organizational structure but rather is a system of nationwide gurus and local leaders that develop individualized ideas of personal sovereignty and how it should be exercised.

The FBI describes the Sovereign Citizen Movement as antigovernmental extremists “who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or ‘sovereign’ from the United States.” As a result, they are known to avoid paying taxes, not carry a driver’s license, engage in frivolous legal action, and refuse to obey law enforcement and court orders.

The contemporary belief system is rooted in racism, antisemitism, and conspiracy theories.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, sovereign citizens believe that the American government set up by the founding fathers– called common law– was secretly replaced in the 1800s by an illegitimate government in favor of admiralty law– the law of the sea and international commerce

Sovereign Citizens believe that the US government has entered into contracts with foreign nations to effectively “sell their citizenry” and this is done through driver’s licenses, social security numbers, and other identity documents. So, they believe there are certain legal ways to divorce themselves from the government so they no longer have to obey what they believe is an illegitimate government.

In addition, some followers believe that there is a secret-corporate trust set up by the US government in every newborn baby’s name and that “by filing a series of complex, legal-sounding documents, the sovereign can tap into that secret Treasury account for his own purposes,” according to the SPLC. The Internal Revenue Service calls the notion that secret accounts are assigned to each citizen “pure fantasy.”

In essence, the Sovereign Citizen Movement instills in followers that all of their problems are the result of an illegitimate government and banking system and offers them a way out.

A history of violence and “paper terrorism”

The FBI has designated the Sovereign Citizen Movement as a domestic terrorist threat as followers have been known to engage law enforcement in violent, deadly ways.

Some recent examples of violence include:

  • In 2010, Jerry and Joseph Kane, a sovereign father and son killed two Arkansas police officers during a routine traffic stop.
  • In 2016, Gavin Eugene Long, alleged to belong to one of the movements sub-groups, killed three law enforcement officers in an ambush in Louisiana.
  • In 2018, Travis Reinking shot up a Waffle House in Tennessee, killing an employee and three patrons. Reinking later identified himself as a sovereign citizen in 2017 after being arrested for showing up at hte White House and demanding to meet with President Trump.

But, while some followers of the sovereign movement have resorted to violence, the most widely-used tactic is called “paper terrorism.” The Department of Homeland Security describes paper terrorism as “clogging the courts with nonsensical, voluminous filings, phony lawsuits, and false liens against public officials as a form of harassment and intimidation.”

This tactic is utilized in the perpetration of white-collar crimes, such as money laundering, tax evasion, and housing-related schemes. For example, Mt. Pleasant dentist, Judy Villanyi, was previously sentenced to federal prison for tax fraud in connection to the movement

It is also often used as a retaliatory measure when a government official upsets a sovereign citizen. For example, a Nevada man countersued a Utah law firm for $38 quadrillion (that’s 38 followed by 15 zeros) after the firm sued him for placing an unjustified lien against the property of one of its clients.

How big is the movement?

The Southern Poverty Law Center explains that there is no way to know exactly how many sovereign citizens there are in the United States today because of its lack of centralized leadership.

However, in 2010, the SPLC estimated that there were roughly 100,000 “hard-core believers” and another 200,000 “starting out by trying sovereign techniques,” for a total of 300,000 individuals.

The South Carolina connection

In December 2003, the Sovereign Citizen Movement took center stage in Abbeville, S.C. when members of the Bixby family engaged in a day-long gun battle with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. According to court documents, SCDOT officials were working on a project to expand SC-72 that required crossing the Bixbys’ property. The Bixbys did not believe that SCDOT had a right of way across their property and threatened violence to prevent construction. What resulted was a 12-hour standoff that left two public officials dead. Steven Bixby was found guilty of two counts of murder, sentenced to death, and as of 2021 remains on death row.

So how did a quiet Upstate town become the epicenter of extremism in South Carolina?

Even though the sovereign citizen movement is not well-known, its followers are abundant in the Upstate, particularly in Abbeville where people are drawn to the town but to “live among kindred spirits who despise the federal government every bit as strongly as their ancestors did in 1861.” Perhaps, this idea that Abbeville embodies the spirit of secession stems from its self-proclamation as the “birthplace and deathbed of the Confederacy.” 

In 2004, the SPLC suggested there may be more anti-government extremists in the vicinity of Abbeville than anywhere else in the country.