It’s easy to be a fugitive from the law when you think all laws are fake.
Winston Shrout is a leader in the so-called “sovereign citizen” movement, a loosely organized conspiracy scene whose adherents claim to be independent of the government. Their claims are completely bunk. But leaders like Shrout have used the movement to sell false hope to the destitute and the desperate. Last fall, Shrout was sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving followers fake bills he claimed were worth more than $100 trillion, total.
Shrout was supposed to report to federal prison on March 4, to begin his prison sentence, OregonLive first reported. But he didn’t show. Instead, the 70-year-old conspiracy king is on the lam.
He may have been a fugitive for weeks, but Shrout has openly flouted the law for years. It was his business plan. Shrout’s company, Solutions in Commerce, sold expensive courses, supposedly on how to avoid paying taxes based on a completely made-up set of financial rules. The sovereign citizen movement treats these rules as gospel. Members often believe that they can opt out of citizenship, that they don’t have to pay taxes if they misspell their names on documents, and that they each have $630,000 waiting for them in a secret federal bank account.
The conspiracy theory often appeals to people in deep debt. And grifters like Shrout are ready to cash in on new converts.
One of Shrout’s would-be victims was Mark Morini, an undercover agent with the Treasury's Inspector General's Office. Posing as a landscaper with $25,000 in tax debt, Morini paid nearly $1,000 to attend one of Shrout’s seminars and buy one of his pricey DVDs in 2009. At the seminar, Shrout showed Morini how to use a fraudulent bank account to wipe out his debt, Morini testified during Shrout’s trial in 2017.
Shrout wasn’t just fraudulently erasing debt—he was making fake money. The conspiracy theorist distributed fake international bills that he claimed were worth more than $100 trillion. But some of his income was real. He asked customers like Morini to pay him in U.S. dollars, which added up to more than $500,000 over five years, prosecutors argued.
By his own admission in court, Shrout hadn’t filed income tax returns in more than 20 years.
Despite his admitted evasion, Shrout has maintained a fanbase in the conspiracy community, a movement that has only grown under the Trump presidency.
Sovereign citizens used to attract mostly anti-government types, many of them vehemently opposed to the Obama administration. But for a group that claims to want nothing to do with the government, a significant number of sovereigns are vocal Trump supporters, or parrot Infowars-style talking points from the fringe right.
Other, newer right-wing conspiracy theories have also breathed life into the movement. Multiple sovereign citizen figures and social media accounts, including at least one that made videos with Shrout while his trial was ongoing, have adopted the QAnon conspiracy theory. A favorite of diehard Trumpists, QAnon falsely accuses Trump’s enemies of being involved in child sex-trafficking and murder.
After Shrout’s conviction in October, his conspiracy theorist allies flocked to his defense, with one conspiracy outlet alleging a plot to “silence” Shrout, and a prominent QAnon peddler urging his followers to look up Shrout’s theories.
But offline, Shrout faces less friendly circumstances. Instead of showing up to prison as scheduled in March, he went missing and filed a brief for an appeal in his case. An exasperated federal attorney moved to dismiss his appeal, on the grounds that he was on the run.
“As the district court found, defendant has repeatedly attempted to delay serving his sentence. Having exhausted those efforts, defendant has now chosen to defy the court,” the attorney wrote. “This is precisely the kind of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ gaming of the system that the fugitive disentitlement doctrine is intended to prevent.”
Since Shrout went missing, his movement’s least favorite day—Tax Day—has come and gone. Without Shrout to provide advice, at least one sovereign citizen wondered whether or not to keep practicing Shrout’s “Accepted for Value” (A4V) tax-evasion method.
“is there any information on A4V?” the person wrote on a sovereign Facebook page weeks before taxes were due. “Is it recommended for paying taxes in light of Winston Shrouts imprisonment? Thanks”