The letters sounded like one of John “Russell” Bolton’s darkest prophecies come true. For years, Bolton had warned his right-wing militia that drug cartels would soon come to conquer rural Washington state. Now a man with a Hispanic-sounding name and possible cartel ties was sending Bolton’s friends letters extorting them for up to $250,000.
But the letters weren’t from the cartel, authorities say. They were part of an alleged scheme that saw Bolton blackmail, assault, and fake a kidnapping against members of his militia, the Stevens County Assembly. After going on the run, Bolton was captured in West Virginia this week on five counts of extortion and one count of attempted theft.
Bolton launched the Stevens County Assembly in 2010, the same year he finished last in a county sheriff’s election. (He campaigned alongside a prominent member of the fringe-right “constitutional sheriffs” movement, the Spokesman-Review reported.)
With his law enforcement dreams on the rocks, Bolton built up the Stevens County Assembly and used its website to rail against Muslims, immigration, and the left.
“BEING A CONSERVATIVE JUST DOESN'T CUT IT ANY LONGER!” Bolton wrote on the group’s site. “YOU ARE EITHER A TRUE GOD FEARING PATRIOT OR YOU ARE THE ENEMY!”
Many of his writings promoted debunked conspiracy theories, or bashed law enforcement as ill-equipped to fight the immigrants and Muslims he said were coming to take over his rural county.
“Do you believe that our Commissioners and Sheriff's Departments are trained in Counter Insurgency, Political and Social Insurgency?” he wrote in one online missive. “Of course, they aren't. So how will they deal with the spill over effects that are certain to occur in the rural areas? Cartels and petty drug gangs will move out into the surrounding areas as the Islamics dominate the human terrain in the cities, as documented in FBI studies.”
On February 26, the threat appeared to come true for two of Bolton’s associates. One found a letter taped to a gate outside his girlfriend’s house, according to court documents reviewed by the Spokesman-Review. The other found a copy taped to a tree on her nearby property. Both letters were signed by “Alessio Don De Grande,” who suggested he was connected to cartels. “De Grande” demanded $10,000, or he would hurt the targets’ families.
Two days later, another couple found an envelope on their windshield, threatening to kill them and their families if they didn’t pay $250,000.
Both couples devised plots of their own before going to the police. One, who had been instructed to leave $10,000 in an envelope in their mailbox, put an envelope full of purple dye in the mailbox and hid a camera nearby. The other complied with the writer’s demand that they tie a red ribbon around a tree to show that they’d received the letter.
The couples eventually went to the police, who realized that both were associated with Bolton and the Stevens County Assembly. Detectives scheduled a meeting with Bolton, who reportedly spoke at length about his work in “counter-insurgency training” and accused another man of sending the letters.
On March 28, Bolton called police to report that someone had sent him threatening emails. When police asked for the emails, Bolton told them he could no longer access them because his computer had been hacked. He told officers that threats were “common in his work,” and also claimed a red pickup truck was following him.
But the next attack came at Bolton’s hands, authorities allege. On April 3, he allegedly visited an associate at his home, and shoved the man down the stairs. Bolton allegedly put a bag over the man’s bleeding head and punched him, before backing off. Bolton allegedly chained tactics and claimed someone had kidnapped his wife, and that he needed $100,000 to pay off the ransom.
The associate believed him. At the hospital, the victim allegedly lied to clear Bolton’s name, then sold off his stock portfolio so he could present Bolton with a $100,000 check. The payout was most of the victim’s life savings, he told police, but he wanted the alleged kidnappers to release Bolton’s wife.
In an email to the Stevens County Assembly shortly thereafter, Bolton allegedly told followers that three men were following them, and that he was relocating. “WA state is being over-run by socialist/liberals and there doesn’t seem to be any organized force who will stop them,” he wrote.
A local judge issued an arrest warrant for him on April 22. He was eventually captured Monday night in West Virginia, and is in the process of being extradited to Washington.
Some of his group still supports him.
Tami Burns, a member of the Stevens County Assembly said she didn’t believe the allegations against Bolton.
“He’s not a threat,” she told The Daily Beast. “He’s not a threat and any accusations that he harmed anyone in our group is a lie.”
Asked what actually happened with Bolton, Burns said she didn’t know.