Scattered across about two dozen round tables, the 75-person crowd of mostly white, retirement-age men and women applauded as Richard Mack, the founder and president of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, took the mic in the fellowship hall of the First Baptist Church in Murphy, North Carolina. 

The September 9 event kicked off with introductory comments from Cherokee County Sheriff Dustin Smith, who brought along about a half-dozen county deputies. But Mack, in a baby-blue blazer with a sheriff’s star pinned to the lapel and shiny, chocolate-colored cowboy boots, was the real draw. People had come as far away as Pennsylvania and paid $70 each to hear from the former sheriff of a rural Arizona county. 

His unnaturally dark hair slicked back, his skin tanned like a pro golfer, the 70-year-old clenched his teeth, his jowls shaking with barely contained righteous rage. 

“Doesn’t matter where the threat comes from,” he said. “No one is allowed to violate the Bill of Rights.” 

Citizens for a Better America, a local group whose website defines their mission as striving “to actively defend our liberties and uphold our rights according to our Constitution,” sponsored and paid for the event. It was advertised as an unique opportunity to meet Mack and learn about the “constitutional sheriff” movement, which holds that the elected county sheriff is the person meant to protect citizens from the federal government—especially when it comes to regulations on things like guns or the environment, or taxes. 

Sheriffs, Mack’s group believes, are “the last line of defense standing between the overreaching government and your Constitutionally guaranteed rights.”

Dan Adams, a real estate agent in Murphy listed as the contact for Citizens for a Better America, told The Assembly that the idea to invite Mack was the culmination of three years of planning. Their ultimate goal is to encourage other sheriffs in the state to join Mack’s movement, he explained over the phone. “And so we decided to make it a bigger deal.”

Citizens for a Better America describes Smith as the first constitutional sheriff in North Carolina, “a significant achievement for the county.” Smith ran unopposed in the November 2022 election as a Republican, and there is no record of him calling himself a “constitutional sheriff” during the campaign.

The Cherokee County Sheriff’s office. (Photo by Holly Kays, Smoky Mountain News)

Adams, however, says the group paid for all three GOP candidates for sheriff to take Mack’s 6-week online class that costs $195. Adams described Smith as “a very studious sheriff and a believer in the Constitution.”

Smith, who is stocky with a crew cut, wore a corduroy blazer. He rallied the crowd with a callback to COVID-19 health mandates as the kind of thing local sheriffs need to stand against. 

“We need to make sure that we stand together,” he told the crowd, to applause. “We were elected by the people, for the people. That’s our job … We lived through 2020. We all know what that was like. That will never happen again!” 

The crowd hooted in approval.

Mack’s appearance in Cherokee County was his first visit to North Carolina and just one of his many stops around the country in his quest to recruit local communities and their sheriffs.

Mack was the sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, from 1988 to 1996, but rose to national attention in 1994 as a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requiring local law enforcement to conduct background checks. 

The suit, which had the backing of the National Rifle Association, eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing the majority 5-to-4 opinion that struck down portions of the act. “Federal Government may not compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program,” Scalia wrote. 

Mack has—wrongly, according to legal experts—interpreted this decision to mean that the sheriff has broad powers in their county and is not beholden to state or federal law.

The lawsuit made Mack a far-right star, with rabble-rousing speeches at Tea Party rallies and a book written with Randy Weaver, an Idaho white supremacist whose wife and infant daughter were killed by U.S. Marshalls after an 11-day siege, and an unsuccessful run for office in Texas as a libertarian. 

In 2011, he formed the CSPOA. Early events included frequent appearances alongside Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the militia group Oath Keepers who is now serving 18 years in prison on sedition charges related to his role in the January 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol. 

CSPOA ideology mirrors that of the Oath Keepers: fealty to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights requires constant vigilance against the federal government. “The Oath Keepers and I were a marriage that was made in heaven,” Mack said in 2009—though he has since distanced himself from Rhodes and said he left the Oath Keepers organization in 2014. 

How CSPOA is funded or organized isn’t entirely clear. The group attempted to register as a nonprofit in Arizona in 2020, but they are listed as inactive for failure to file any annual reports. They still make frequent requests for donations. 

Richard Mack speaks in Elko, Nevada, on June 20, 2020 along side Lander County Sheriff Ron Unger, Eureka County Sheriff Jesse Watts, and Elko County Sheriff Aitor Narvaiza. (Jeff Mullins/The Daily Free Press via AP, File)

The event in Murphy was one stop on Mack’s nationwide tour, which he has been conducting since mid-2020 when he gained traction during the COVID-19 pandemic as far-right groups organized against state health mandates. In 2021, Mack claimed to have conducted 72 trainings in 27 states.

It’s hard to capture the reach of the movement, though a pair of political scientists and The Marshall Project conducted a study of 500 sheriffs last year and found that, while only a handful were CSPOA members, almost half agreed that they had authority over state and federal officials in their county.

Mack had hyped his trip to North Carolina for over a month, promising “over 100 people” were registered. Ultimately, only a handful of actual sheriffs were present. The audience was eager though—applauding jokes about gas stoves and Hunter Biden, crowding the table where pamphlets, freeze-dried emergency rations, and merchandise branded with the CSPOA logo were for sale. 

Core to the movement is the belief that the Second Amendment guarantees unfettered access to firearms, but Mack also touts a variety of standard GOP positions and less-standard conspiracy theories about immigrants being “paid to come here” to vote for Democrats. 

Mack has also been a proponent of election conspiracies, arguing that electronic voting machines are being hacked. In 2021, Mack teamed up with Texas-based True the Vote to make the case that widespread voter fraud had occurred in the 2020 election. His website urges sheriffs to investigate voter fraud and has asked that sheriffs “join us in this holy cause.”

Mack’s effort grew out of a movement known as Posse Comitatus—or “power of the county” in Latin—founded by William Potter Gale in the 1970s. Gale’s group attracted white, Christian men who formed “posses” that subjected public officials to “treason trials.” In 1983, one of the group’s leaders killed two federal marshals and a deputy sheriff in Arkansas, which largely ended the movement.

Mack’s movement has embraced much of the ideology, although he has toned down the overt racism and anti-semitism. 

All this was on display at the September event in Murphy. Mack shared PowerPoint slides quoting Scalia’s opinion in the Brady case, alongside quotes by James Madison, to make his case for an all-powerful sheriff who decides right from wrong. 

“We shouldn’t be enforcing laws that aren’t lawful,” he said. “We shouldn’t be enforcing laws that are unjust.”

Mack brought along Dar Leaf, the county sheriff from Barry County, Michigan who in May 2020 stood in a Grand Rapids park with members of a local militia who were later charged with plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

Shortly after the militia members were arrested, Leaf gave a television interview arguing that they may have been trying to effectuate a “citizen’s arrest,” because “a lot of people are angry with the governor.”

Leaf is a genial man in black combat boots who projects dad-joke energy—“if you can smell a fart through it, you can get a virus through it.” 

He closed his talk with advice for Smith, the Cherokee County sheriff, as one official facing controversy to another: “A sheriff’s gotta have courage. When you show courage, your people in your community will get behind you or beside you.”

“We shouldn’t be enforcing laws that aren’t lawful.”

Richard Mack

He’s not wrong that Smith’s first year on the job has been controversial. Last December, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Police shot veteran Jason Kloepfer multiple times in a SWAT raid, conducted after a neighbor reported to Smith’s office that she thought Kloepfer was holding a woman hostage in his trailer. According to a lawsuit Kloepfer filed in June, the raid was based on a tip law enforcement failed to verify.

Smith has distanced himself from the botched raid and has claimed in two press releases that he was not “on the scene at the time of the shooting.” But video footage from Kloepfer’s personal surveillance system, which the Smoky Mountain News also confirmed via public records, shows Smith was there during the raid. Kloepfer’s suit claims that, while he was lying wounded in the doorway of his home, Smith “walked up from lurking in the shadows.” Smith is also a subject of a State Bureau of Investigations probe into the shooting.

Cherokee County Sheriff Dustin Smith

Smith has used the shooting as a way to argue for more resources, including for his own SWAT team, which has become the subject of debate by county leaders. For his part, Mack would not address Smith’s job performance directly: “I do not arm-chair quarterback any sheriff in this country regarding the work he does in his office. That is not my job and it has very little to do with our mission.”

Mack’s appearance in Cherokee County has also created some tension between Smith and the Board of Commissioners. Adams said a county commissioner asked Smith not to attend the training. 

Smith promised to conduct an interview after the event, but did not reply to calls or emails. During a brief conversation outside the event that Saturday, he complained that the media had been overly critical of his job performance. “I think we can all find something of value here,” he said, referring to Mack’s training.

Smith was one of only two sheriffs from North Carolina to attend, along with Nick Smitherson from Yadkin County. While there was a nametag out for Clay County Sheriff Mark Buchanan, he did not show up. (Smitherson and Buchanan didn’t respond to requests to comment.) 

Mack blamed the lackluster attendance on the media in an email after the event: “I have had some sheriffs say they do not want the baseless attacks that they have seen me receive and they do not want to deal with all the false accusations.”

The support Mack did draw has proven more controversial than the event itself: a challenge coin (a small token used by law enforcement to signify group affiliation) and a laudatory letter from Congressman Chuck Edwards. An aide from Edwards office, Lake Silver, presented them to Mack before the lunch break, and offered his own praise for the ex-sheriff, an “amazing patriot.”

Richard Mack receives a citation from Lake Silver, a field representative from Rep. Chuck Edwards’ office. (Photo by Kyle Perrotti, Smoky Mountain News)

Silver then read from Edwards’s letter: “It is the work of constitutional law enforcement officers like yourself and so many others that allow us all to sleep easier every night. We know that with those who seek to destroy our country, you act as a strong line of defense for the soul of our nation.” 

Edwards, who owns several McDonald’s locations and also noted in his letter that he is a registered firearms dealer, walked back some of his praise for Mack in a written statement after the conference, telling The Assembly in a statement: “I know of the individual in question only through his successful Supreme Court case focused on Second Amendment rights.”

Not everyone was happy to see Mack in Cherokee County.

Dixie Carter, a Democrat and retired social worker, told me she had planned to protest the event, but local leaders had advised her not to, for fear of confrontation. “I’ve heard that they are real serious about their guns, and anything that’s going on, people are gonna show up with their guns.” 

While the county is overwhelmingly Republican—Democrats are less than a quarter of voters and didn’t even run a candidate for sheriff last year—she said she was “just really shocked that the sheriff was in that group.”

Carter, who moved here from Georgia, said she has been troubled by Democrats’ reluctance to engage. “They are afraid to be outspoken,” she said. “They know a lot of people and go to church with them, and they don’t want to make others mad.”

She’d hoped the CSPOA’s training might be a wake-up call. A month earlier, she’d attended the local library board meeting where the lead pastor of Murphy First Baptist—which hosted Mack’s event—condemned I am Jazz, a book about a transgender youth that religious groups around the country have targeted. The library board voted to keep the book on the shelves.

“We know that with those who seek to destroy our country, you act as a strong line of defense for the soul of our nation.” 

Letter from Rep. Chuck Edwards

But she also couldn’t blame the hesitation to do more. “They are afraid they are gonna get shot,” she said. She noted the local gun store, Cherokee Guns, has a billboard that reads “F Diversity Equity Inclusion,” under an automatic rifle (what looks to be a real one, not just a picture of one). 

Other Democrats saw Edwards’ praise for Mack as legitimizing extremist activity. 

“It looks like he’s supporting external actors to politicize the rule of law,” said Katie Dean, the Democratic chair of the 11th District and candidate for the House primary last year. “And it’s concerning.”

The local Democrats told people they could protest on their own, but asked them not to carry party signs. Their official statement was strongly worded press release about the CSPOA training: “There is no place in Western North Carolina for anti-American hate groups like the Oath Keepers and others who had a hand in producing last Saturday’s event in Cherokee County. We do not welcome their seditionist ideology here in our community. We will not remain silent as the Sheriff, and those he welcomes, seek to destroy our way of life from within.”

At lunch I sat with Leaf and Charles McDonald, the Trump-aligned former sheriff of Henderson County who lost his re-election bid in the 2018 GOP primary. He drew statewide attention for calling protestors “vile and disgusting” and for supporting immigration raids. 

McDonald spoke very little. I asked him if he might run for office or re-enter law enforcement. Shrugging, he said nothing was out of the question.

We also sat with two Georgia sheriffs, Janis Mangum from Jackson County and Stephen Tinsley from Clinch County, who told me they drove up on the advice of Georgia sheriffs who had attended Mack’s previous events. 

Both of the sheriffs expressed workaday concerns, including trouble with hiring and lack of funding. Neither seemed as concerned with Mack’s lofty rhetoric about “moral responsibility.”

“I heard God mentioned quite a few times during the session, and it’s mentioned a lot in our group,” said Adams. He pointed to Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of legislation that restricts gender-affirming care for transgender youth, which the legislature overrode, as an example of why vigilance is needed. 

“I don’t know that we have an immediate problem, but you gotta be on your toes these days,” he added.

Mack ended the Murphy training with his vision for a national convention that draws up to 1,000 sheriffs from across the county. And he made an appeal for attendees to officially join CSPOA—which can be done online for just $11.

Mack said he was returning to his home outside of Phoenix for an appearance at the Constitution Day Festival with failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who has still not conceded her 2022 defeat. Next month he is back on the road with a half-dozen stops in Minnesota. 

“Every one of CSPOA’s trainings is an opportunity for them to radicalize law enforcement into believing they don’t have to enforce the law,” said Rachel Goldwasser, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has listed the CSPOA as an anti-government group

Events in places like Cherokee County are especially concerning, she said, because they have seen sheriffs in more rural areas readily embrace “the false narrative by CSPOA that they have more power than the president.”

Mack closed with a tearful reading of the Declaration of Independence, after remarking that three of the signers were former sheriffs. “The sheriff preceded our country’s Congress,” he said. “And a lot of communities have their own sheriffs. I know that it’s an honorable position, which is the ultimate protector of the future.” 

Correction: The spelling of the name Stewart Rhodes has been corrected, as has SPLC’s classification of CSPOA as an anti-government group. The paragraph about what the footage from Kloepfer’s home shows has also been corrected.

Jessica Pishko is an Asheville-based independent journalist and lawyer who is working on a book about sheriffs and the threat to democracy to be published in 2024 with Dutton.