Two men associated with a fringe church have filed handwritten court documents demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars and international flights after being accused of carrying guns to a children’s Christmas pageant at the request of their church leader, a former NFL star.
Jordan Salmi, 24, and Ryan Desmith, 22, were charged last month with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and carrying concealed weapons to Providence Academy’s pageant in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Both men were members of a church led by former Green Bay Packers player Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who told reporters he’d asked the men to photograph the event, which his children were attending.
Providence Academy called the Dec. 17 event a Christmas pageant. Gbaja-Biamila, a former defensive end for the Packers who said his wife enrolled the kids at the school, dubbed it a “pagan” ritual that violated his religious beliefs.
But the case grew more complicated during a Tuesday court appearance, when members of the church packed in to watch Salmi and Desmith deliver a bizarre defense that appeared to have roots in the “sovereign citizen” conspiracy movement. Both men effectively had their appearances rescheduled, and Gbaja-Biamila is not facing charges.
Gbaja-Biamila is the leader of Straitway Praiseland, a Wisconsin offshoot of Tennessee’s fringe Straitway Truth Ministry. The church calls itself “Hebrew Israelite” and claims to preach a literal reading of the Bible. Centered in a Tennessee compound where some members live, farm, and train with firearms, Straitway Truth Ministry has endorsed conspiracy theories like Flat Earth in its official pamphlets, as well as male members’ right to have multiple wives.
Gbaja-Biamila and his ex-wife divorced in 2017, splitting custody of their three children. His wife enrolled the children in Providence, a Catholic school, apparently against his wishes. Gbaja-Biamila told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that he believed the school and courts were trying to give his wife authority, which violated Straitway’s teachings. (On his Instagram, Gbaja-Biamila repeats the Straitway belief that women should be subservient to men.)
Gbaja-Biamila made no secret of his wish to keep his children out of the Christmas pageant. In the run-up to the event, he allegedly made YouTube videos threatening Providence Academy, prompting the school’s headmaster to notify police, according to the criminal complaint in Salmi and Desmith’s case.
In an interview, he told The Daily Beast that his conflict over the Christmas pageant “has been going on for the last two years,” since his wife left him over his new religious beliefs. He wrote the school a letter forbidding his children’s participation in 2018, prompting the school to call police, he said, adding that “in 2019, I was really proactive. In September, I sent an email to the school forbidding them from going.”
The day before the pageant, Gbaja-Biamila said, he and the school headmaster “met at another church at a parking lot and I gave him a bill for $150,000…. I let him know if you use my property, known as my sons and daughters, I’ll have to be compensated.” The headmaster probably thought it was a joke, he said. After the meeting, he called the headmaster again. “I said, 'Am I your slave? You’re gonna use my property without compensation?'.... He took offense and hung up on me.”
When it became clear the Gbaja-Biamila children would appear in the pageant, he allegedly sent Salmi and Desmith to photograph or film it, so that he could charge the school for use of his “property,” the Press-Gazette reported. The school’s headmaster recognized the pair and called police, who said they found both men carrying semi-automatic pistols. Desmith also carried an extra magazine and a knife, police said.
According to police, the pair refused to leave the church and had to be lifted from their seats in the audience. (Gbaja-Biamila said the two didn’t cooperate because the headmaster “said ‘I need to ask you to leave,’ but he never made the statement of asking.”) Outside, cops ran into Gbaja-Biamila, who allegedly told them that he was there to get his “property” (his children) and leave. In a criminal complaint, officers referred to Gbaja-Biamila as “the leader of the cult.”
Straitway Truth Ministry has long battled allegations of being a cult, with varying success. In a video of members training with guns in 2018, the main group’s leader announced, “One thing is for sure, a cult does not arm its people [or] teach them how to defend themselves and how to fight!” (This claim does not hold up, historically.) The group did not immediately return a request for comment on Wednesday.
Gbaja-Biamila didn’t explicitly deny the cult label, but told The Daily Beast that some cults could be a force for good. “I guess I’m not offended. I know when people think of cults, they think of Jim Jones, David Koresh. I think of the Green Bay Packers; their fans are a cult,” he said. “I guess I wear it as a badge of honor. Our cult revolves around Jesus…. There’s good cults out there, there’s bad cults. But I like to think we’re a good cult because we’re commandment-keepers.”
Salmi and Desmith’s first court appearance on Tuesday suggested further fringe beliefs among church members.
The pair refused to answer a judge’s questions, except to identify themselves as “man,” give statements like “you got my notice,” or ask “what court is this,” according to the Press-Gazette. Though strange, answers like these are popular among adherents to the “sovereign citizen” movement, who often follow a loose collection of beliefs that claim laws and courts are fake or illegitimate, or that they can opt out of the legal system.
Salmi and Desmith’s handwritten court filings show further traces of sovereign ideology, according to Joanna Mendelson, a senior investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Many sovereign citizens believe that their legal name is actually a “straw man,” a separate entity from their “flesh-and-blood” selves, she explained. Sovereign citizens often reference their “straw man” in all-caps, while using phony or just plain weird jargon to refer to what they see as their true selves.
Salmi and Desmith both tried a version of the tactic in handwritten documents they filed this week.
“There are a few elements throughout the document where they identify themselves in capital letters and then in the next line they talk about themselves in lower case letters and mention ‘beneficiary,’” Mendelson told The Daily Beast.
She also suggested that they deliberately referred to themselves as human or “i:man,” perhaps to differentiate from the Sovereign concept of “straw man.”
But while bogus sovereign citizen legal theory might leave only their “straw men” on the hook for criminal charges, the duo appear to have sought riches for their “flesh and blood” selves. Desmith and Salmi prefaced their legal filings with a series of demands, including “$300,000 before placed upon my person. All flights cancelled to New York,” and “Flights to Germany and Brazil with passport for 15 days.”
Speaking to The Daily Beast, Gbaja-Biamila simply described some of the group’s legal maneuverings as “constitutional.” And it’s possible Salmi and Desmith tried their hands at sovereign citizen tactics without knowing much about the movement, Mendelson cautioned, adding that the belief system has shown signs of spreading to less-committed conspiracy theorists because it “represents a get-out-of-jail pass.” In recent years, she’s seen the tactic rise in the prison system, where people view it as a silver bullet for their legal woes.
“Historically, a lot of the crimes committed by sovereign citizens were much more associated with their ideology, with their anti-government views,” she said. “But more increasingly today, we are seeing sovereign citizen ideology used by bank robbers, by sex offenders, and others as an attempt to solve their legal troubles.”
The ideology’s legal tactics have also become popular among small circles of Americans who want to operate outside the licensed medical system. (The tactic saves money, but has recently been tied to the deaths of two babies during birth at the hands of unlicensed midwives.)
This wasn’t the first time the men put such tactics on public display: In a related civil case earlier this month, a judge awarded a restraining order against Gbaja-Biamila, Salmi, and Desmith, ordering them not to come within 100 feet of the school or its events for four years.
When the judge called the trio “respondents” (a legal term for people in the case), Gbaja-Biamila objected. “We are not respondents,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “We are only men.” He threatened to “bill you $10 per second” if the judge used the term.
He later told press that the restraining order ruling was “wicked” but not unexpected. Attempts to reach the two charged men via phone prior to publication were unsuccessful.
Speaking to the Press-Gazette after the Tuesday court appearance, Gbaja-Biamila clarified a broader mistrust of the court system, claiming it only had power over legal titles like “defendant” and not over actual men and women.
Wittingly or not, those views align with sovereign citizen ideology.
"We don't plea to man. They are not our judge," Gbaja-Biamila said. "Where in the Constitution does it say you have to plead?"