When Georgia gubernatorial candidate Vernon Jones appeared last month on an internet show hosted by right-wing personality Stew Peters, Jones could have reasonably expected a softball interview.
Jones, a former Democratic state representative, became a darling on the right after he endorsed Donald Trump’s re-election bid. Now he’s the leading primary challenger to Gov. Brian Kemp (R), with endorsements from Michael Flynn and Rudy Giuliani.
But Peters tore into Jones, citing a 2010 discrimination judgment against a Georgia county Jones once ran to accuse the candidate, who is Black, of discriminating against white employees. The interview grew heated. After Peters muted Jones, Jones quit the call.
“That’s what bullies do,” Peters thundered to his audience. “They gaslight, shout you down, lie incessantly, to avoid the light of truth from being shined on their dark corruption.”
Arizona state Rep. Wendy Rogers (R), a leading backer of the controversial Arizona “audit,” withdrew her endorsement of Jones after the Peters interview. Jones has been dogged by questions about the lawsuit on the campaign trail. But Peters wasn’t done. He followed up on the confrontation with a segment on a 2005 rape allegation against Jones, in which charges weren’t filed after the alleged victim decided she couldn’t withstand the publicity a trial would bring. The Jones campaign did not return a request for comment.
Peters has risen on the far right over the past few months as a sort of slightly less unhinged version of Alex Jones, pumping out coronavirus disinformation and other conspiracy theories while allying himself with Trumpworld figures like lawyer Lin Wood. Amid his calls for Anthony Fauci’s execution, Peters amassed a sizable audience of nearly 300,000 followers on social media app Telegram, and played host on his show to figures as prominent as Arizona GOP chair Kelli Ward.
The Jones fracas represented a new high point for Peters’ influence. But unlike his competitors, Peters hasn’t always been climbing the right-wing media ladder. As recently as a few months ago, Peters was tackling and tasing suspects as a bounty hunter.
Peters’ rise reflects the tumultuous environment of digital right-wing media, where a previously little-known bounty hunter can emerge out of practically nowhere to become a power player. Along the way, Peters has had plenty of his own run-ins with the law.
Around 1 a.m. on Feb. 19, Peters’ wife called the police in Red Wing, Minnesota, claiming Peters was in a drunken rage after getting home from his bowling league. In an angry scramble to find his phone, according to an account from Peters’ wife recorded in a police report, he had allegedly started to berate her and thrown household items, including boots and pillows, at her.
Arriving on the scene, police officers found Peters, who appeared to be intoxicated. His wife showed officers video she had recorded of her husband yelling at her and throwing objects at her, according to the report. Asked whether she was concerned Peters would attack her, she said, “That’s the reason that I had to call you guys,” and nodded yes, according to the report.
His wife told officers that her husband regularly became belligerently drunk, saying incidents like the one that night were, in the words of one officer on the scene, “happening too frequently.” According to the report, his wife said she would normally lay low and wait until Peters passed out, saying she was afraid to call the police. She told police that on a recent trip to Florida, Peters had grown furious because he couldn’t find his wallet, taking her own wallet and identification and making her feel “trapped.”
“I don’t know what he’s capable of doing when he’s drinking,” she said, according to the report.
Peters gave police shifting explanations for how he had gotten so drunk, as well as how the altercation began.
“I know how this goes, so I’m the guy that goes bowling and gets drunk, I come home, the wife is pissed that I’m drunk,” Peters told officers, according to the report.
This wasn’t Peters' first encounter with police. He was convicted of theft as a teenager for stealing stereo equipment from a Radio Shack where he worked. Peters was arrested in Florida in 2006 for falsely impersonating an officer, unlawful use of a blue light, and robbery of less than $300 while using a weapon. Those charges were later dropped.
But the February arrest might have been the most serious for his bounty-hunting career. As the officers handcuffed Peters, he complained that the arrest would destroy his bounty-hunting job.
“You are ruining my kids’ lives, I’ll never earn a goddamn dime!” Peters said, according to the report.
After his arrest, Peters stuck by his hostility to coronavirus measures, refusing to be swabbed to test for the virus.
“If someone sticks something up my nose while I’m in handcuffs you will be arresting me for something a lot more serious,” he said, according to the police report. “I will physically resist anybody trying to do anything to my body.”
Peters was charged with domestic assault, assault, and disorderly conduct, all misdemeanors. But in an email asking for a restriction that prevented Peters from living with his family to be lifted, his wife wrote that he had never hurt her physically and that she wasn’t worried about her safety. Peters eventually pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge and was sentenced to probation.
The Daily Beast sent Peters a series of questions via email, including questions about his February arrest and whether he is still working as a bounty hunter. Peters replied with a statement that ignored those topics, instead accusing The Daily Beast of working as a “PR arm for terrorists and Nazis at BLM and Antifa.”
After stints as a radio DJ and a rapper using the name “Fokiss,” Peters got his first taste of internet infamy working as a bounty hunter, contracting with bail bond companies in Florida and then Minnesota to catch defendants who skipped bail.
But Peters’s bounty-hunting work hasn’t been without controversy. His police-like uniform inspired a change to Minnesota law in 2015, restricting how much bounty hunters could dress like law enforcement.
The provision’s supporters said it was explicitly aimed at Peters, saying his clothes and car, reminiscent of a police cruiser, misled defendants about whether they were being arrested by police or a bounty hunter. Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin complained to the Associated Press that the publicity-hungry Peters seemed out to compete with celebrity bail bondsman Dog the Bounty Hunter.
“Anybody would think this guy is a cop,” McNurlin told the paper.
Peters launched a YouTube channel recording his bounty-hunting victories, with the most-viewed video showing him tasing a suspect. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune dubbed him “Minnesota’s best-known bounty hunter.”
Peters’s bounty hunting turned tragic in 2017, when Peters tried to catch a fugitive who had absconded to Texas. At a Texas car dealership, two bounty hunters working for Peters located the suspect, who was wanted on charges of DUI, assaulting a police officer, and possession of cocaine. As they attempted to detain the man, he pulled a gun, prompting a shootout in a dealership crowded with customers and employees.
At the end of the gunfight, the suspect and the two bounty hunters had all been fatally shot. Later, the dealership’s owner claimed the bounty hunters had falsely identified themselves as federal agents.
This year, Peters emerged from obscurity as the face of “Red Voice Media,” an online video company based around promoting professionally produced “The Stew Peters Show.”
Peters quickly became a leading voice on the far-right, especially after his early October attacks on Jordan. Former NYPD commissioner Bernie Kerik, a Rudy Giuliani associate and Jones supporter, suggested in a tweet that shadowy forces paid for Peters to attack Jones.
“The real question is who was Stew Peters working for,” Kerik wrote.
Jones’s campaign has also attacked Peters over his earlier career as the rapper “Fokiss,” citing a vulgar Fokiss rap to accuse Peters of hypocrisy. For his part, Peters responded that the rap didn’t represent his new Christian persona, saying it was recorded “‘before I knew Christ.”
Red Voice Media’s founders, Ray Dietrich and Zach Heilman, declined to comment.
The show quickly became a hub for conspiracy theories, with guests claiming that the Florida condo building collapse was caused by the “deep state,” and promoting false claims about vaccine deaths. Peters claimed in June that humanity would face an “extinction-level event” if Trump didn’t retake office within 60 days, a prediction that failed to come true.