Like most, you may be unfamiliar with Turner-Brown. Learning about it might make you wonder how something a Justice Department official calls “diabolical” has not been more widely reported. That may soon change. The Department is attempting to compel a private organization to turn over documents related to its operations. That attempt may make its way to a federal court, though legal experts scoff at the idea.
Turner-Brown seems like something that could be found only in an underground comic book, but its possible connection to real-life deaths has elicited the continuing attention of the FBI. The term refers to the Turner-Brown Heritage Society, so named in honor of slave insurrectionist Nat Turner and slavery abolitionist John Brown. It also refers to an award the Society has been presenting annually for the past decade to five individuals or groups who have “performed exceptional acts” in the spirit of the group’s two namesakes. The recognition, given as part of the ceremonies at a grand banquet, comes with more than a thank you. Each recipient also gets fifty thousand dollars. It is the criteria for winning this prize that has caught the government’s interest, causing the group’s existence to become less obscure. Turner-Brown and its honorees never have tried to hide, but they never have advertised themselves. The Justice Department thinks it knows why.
For the first few years, the Turner-Brown Award banquets were seen as an elaborate hoax, or a sort of left-wing performance art produced on an unusual scale. A quarter of a million dollars is a lot to pay for a yearly fantasy, a sum that made people begin to take notice – that, and the fact prize winners are honored for supposedly having killed people. The thing that began to intrigue authorities the most was the basic rule that anyone hoping even to be nominated for an Award had to provide irrefutable proof of his or her worthiness. No, there have been no severed heads on pikes prominently displayed during the annual gathering, but the Society claims to review verifiable evidence before bestowing an honor. The Justice Department would like to know more about that.
Circumstantial evidence suggests the Turner-Brown Award recipients have earned every penny of their prizes. That evidence may have been provided in remarks made by a 2013 honoree, Ezekiel Roth, during his acceptance speech. It has been reported such speeches customarily include cryptic allusions to the speakers’ alleged deeds, but something Roth said that year from the dais in the banquet hall of Washington’s elegant Ellicott Hotel resonated two years later with a deputy sheriff sitting at his desk in Gilead, Texas.
Harry Cooper had been nearly obsessed with the unsolved murder of a resident of his small town. The victim, Roger Thornton, not only had no known enemies, he had been well-liked enough to have been elected five times to the state assembly. That would have been an unlikely feat for anyone out of step with the sentiments of Gilead and its environs, but Thornton knew what his neighbors and constituents wanted and made sure they got it. His murder in his home was beyond mysterious, made even more so because he had not been robbed, but Deputy Sheriff Cooper knew something the public did not. The killer intentionally left a clue indicating the murder might have been politically motivated: a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution had been stuffed down Thornton’s slit throat.
Cooper, by chance one day looking at Facebook, saw something someone had posted about “some crazy group that said it ‘honored true warriors defending the Constitution against its desecraters.’” There was a reference to Ezekiel Roth’s speech in which he spoke of “’the satisfaction drawn from watching an enemy of the Constitution consume its words.’” Cooper has said reading that made his “hair stand on end,” and would not leave him alone. He began to wonder if it was possible this group, “this Turner-Brown Heritage Society” was really about what it said it was. He learned he was not the only one who had begun to wonder. Despite being chastised by his superiors for his “wacky notions,” Cooper contacted the FBI and discovered there was a special task force eager to catch a break.
The FBI, becoming curious about the claims of Turner-Brown, has had an unacknowledged presence at the Society’s invitation-only affairs. The Award banquets are said to be lively events, with moments of sobering solemnity, attended by the political and social activists who comprise the group’s membership and their guests, a few of whom are luminaries from the worlds of arts and letters, entertainment and sports. Bureau agents take note of every attendee, and record and parse every word of every acceptance speech. The agency, though having looked at any possibility of a connection to any known case, had found nothing. According to the reported statement of a Justice official speaking on the condition of anonymity, after Harry Cooper’s call from Texas the attitude among members of the FBI’s Turner-Brown Task Force became “Well, why not take another look at Roth?”
Because Roger Thornton’s death had been seen by the authorities as a local matter, it had not reached the notice of the FBI or even state agencies. Cooper’s hunch changed that, and agents began to look for any case similar to the one in Gilead. They found four others, in four different states. They felt they were onto something. Each victim, like Thornton in Texas, had a copy of the Constitution stuffed down his slit throat. Also like Thornton, each victim not only had been a state legislator, they all had been considered leaders in the push to enact voter ID laws.
In an editorial this past May, the Washington Post – not known as a bastion of liberal thinking – labeled voter suppression efforts in Texas “chicanery” and said those efforts were “…resurrecting Jim Crow-style obstacles to the ballot.” It stated further that a federal court has determined more than 600,000 Texans would be affected. In Gilead, Roger Thornton’s views on voter ID laws were well known. He seemed incapable of following the lead of those who believed such laws should be discussed publicly only in terms of guarding against voter fraud. This non-existent problem was to be the only talking point. Thornton never stuck to the script, and talked frequently and boastfully about the intended effects of the laws: to create an electorate more favorable to his way of thinking by eliminating the potential votes of those who might think otherwise. In 2011, he was quoted in the Gilead Gazette as saying “the trouncing of the opposing party in upcoming elections will be a testament to the benefits of my actions and those of my colleagues in Austin.” In the FBI’s estimation, someone like Thornton would have been an inviting target for someone in a group like Turner-Brown – if such a group happened to be engaging in more than just the free expression of speech. Looking at Roth more closely became an imperative.
Ezekiel Roth has said he does not know if he is a marked man, but he assumes he is a heavily surveilled one. He has stated in interviews that when he began to hear from family, friends, co-workers and even old classmates that agents were asking questions about him, he wondered what took so long. Roth speaks with the laid-back air of a stoner, not with the fervor of a zealot, not even with the bravado afforded a man who was awarded a Bronze Star while serving six tours of duty in Afghanistan – which Roth was. Since the existence of an investigation began to be reported, making Roth a bit of a public figure, he has not been shy about extolling the virtue of the Turner-Brown cause.
Here is Roth, from an interview on CNN: “People were killed just for trying to obtain the right to vote, sometimes people who already could vote but saw others could not. What? Am I supposed to stand by and let people be disenfranchised just because no one is trying to disenfranchise me? I don’t think so. How could I, after seeing some of my brothers-in-arms die while we were fighting to give people half a world away a chance to vote? No way. I can’t do it. People say they’re proud of me for what I did over there, but not as proud as I am for receiving a Turner-Brown Award right here. John Brown has been a hero to me since I was a boy. I was raised on the Bible, and it was obvious to me he was a prophet just like those prophets of old. He saw what was going to happen to this country and said it was going to happen and they killed him and it happened anyway – just like he said. The sin that was slavery was washed away with blood. There should be a national holiday for him. There was a blood sacrifice made by people in the 1960s, too, but people trying to take us back to those days need to understand that people trying to vote won’t be the ones bleeding this time. They think the only thing people can do to try and stop them is to fight them in statehouses and courthouses. Well, some people have moved beyond fighting nice. The financial backers, think-tanks, super-pacs and politicians behind the voter ID movement all think they’re safe, but they’re not anymore, not any of them.” When pressed to explain this last part, Roth demurs. He understands the limits of free speech, he recognizes the line beyond which lies self-incrimination.
Roth would probably have to incriminate himself if the FBI has any hope of tying him to a crime. The investigation of him has yielded nothing. Members of the task force find this frustrating and infuriating, given what they believe to be a salient factor: Roth was not following his normal routine during any of the five murders he is suspected of being connected to. Once a month, over a five-month period, he was not at home, work, his girlfriend’s apartment or any of his usual haunts. In fact, according to his own taunting statement, he was not anywhere in his hometown of Chester, PA. Each time he was away, he supposedly was on a fishing trip with a group of friends, staying in a cabin in the woods near Lake Mayfield in Michigan. Roth says he assumes the FBI found no credit card activity anywhere, and learned through GPS monitoring that his cellphone and car – and those of his friends, all fellow Heritage members – were always there at the lake when throats were being slit elsewhere.
The FBI’s empty hands has pushed the Justice Department to the embarrassing position of rattling its saber at Turner-Brown. To date, the Department has initiated no legal proceeding, doing nothing more than announcing it continues to build a case to present to the court, and warning that members of the Turner-Brown Heritage Society will be “subject to federal prosecution if found to be engaging in or abetting criminal acts.” This feeble attempt to scare the Society into turning over its records has become a source of derision in legal circles. It is generally understood Justice has no legal basis for requesting records. It also is obvious that turning over any documents would be the last thing the Society would do if it really does reward people for “creating enemy casualties in the battle against disenfranchisement.”
That battle isn’t the only one being fought by the membership of Turner-Brown, as evidenced by the diverse areas of interests honored each year. In 2013 alone, the year of Roth’s award, his fellow honorees included Janice Aingsley, who focused on state legislators trying to impede women’s right to control their own bodies; Samuel Welles, who has said “dangerous police officers should be removed from communities by any means necessary”; Margaret Harris, who decided people losing their island homelands to rising seas are owed something from people here who actively work against those trying to combat climate change; and James O. Johnson, who believes legislators who vote in favor of those trying to skirt clean air, water and soil regulations are guilty of attempted murder. It is a foundational belief of the Society that – were they alive today – Nat Turner and John Brown would not confine themselves to one fight.
If Ezekiel Roth really is involved in the “diabolical” activities the Justice Department suspects he is, it is his response to the federal government’s inability to prevent state governments from enacting the voter ID laws he and the Turner-Brown Heritage Society oppose. Legislators who vote to approve such measures should bear in mind Roth’s words that they “…all think they’re safe, but they’re not anymore, not any of them.” How can they be, if there are some who are out for their blood?
( If there are questions concerning the content of this post, please review its title.)