The Edmonds, Washington, man had only just moved into his home when a stranger appeared in his driveway. A nice-looking stranger, the man later told police, although oddly dressed. The visitor wore a tall red fez cap. The homeowner stepped outside and asked if he could help him.
"Yes,” the visitor said, according to a police report. “I am here to let you know that I am the legal owner of the property and today is the day."
What? the homeowner asked.
"Today is the day!" the visitor repeated.
The back-and-forth went on for some time, with the visitor repeating “today is the day” and insisting the homeowner had no right to be there. Eventually, the stranger handed over some official-looking paperwork and drove off.
The weird encounter was one of four such incidents to take place in a pair of Seattle suburbs in recent weeks. Someone knocks on a door, claims to be the legal owner of the house, and tells the current occupant to clear out. But these aren’t the evictions that have swept the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re hoaxes perpetrated by the Moorish sovereign citizen movement, a conspiratorial group that claims its members are the rightful owners of virtually all property in America.
Police have not accused anyone of a crime related to the incidents. But the incident reports implicate a specific Moorish sovereign citizen group and one of its leaders.
Sovereign citizens falsely believe themselves to be emancipated from U.S. citizenship, and therefore immune to most or all laws. Contained within this sprawling alt-legal movement are Moorish sovereign citizens, who believe Black people are indigenous Americans and are therefore not bound by the same laws as the rest of the country.
“They’re sort of a subgroup of sovereigns,” said Christine Sarteschi, an associate professor of criminology and author of a book on sovereign citizens. Even this subgroup has different sects, Sarteschi told The Daily Beast. “Some believe they have diplomatic immunity because they’re members of these North American fictitious tribes, that they’re descended from them. They believe they were the first inhabitants of the Americas, and that therefore they own everything.”
The Edmonds, Washington, homeowner (unnamed in police reports) appears to have landed on the receiving end of that ideology. After his visitor drove off, the man “looked at the paperwork he had been handed and saw it was from the ‘Moorish National Republic Federal Government,’” a police report reads. “The paperwork went on with rambling somewhat nonsensical statements,” claiming to own the man’s property. The paperwork contained a map with the man’s house marked with a pin.
The Moorish National Republic, which did not return a request for comment, bills itself as the true government of the United States, and purports to own all the land in North America. Like other sovereign citizens, the group routinely files massively long lawsuits full of faux-legal jargon (in this group’s case, claiming to seize land by eminent domain and declaring themselves the rightful owners of $666 trillion).
When the Edmonds man searched for the group online, he found a picture of his visitor (red fez and all) on a webpage for the group’s “supreme judiciaries.” The man called himself Marcel Maddox Bey, his last name a common appendage that connotes noble heritage in Moorish circles. (He could not be reached for comment.)
While the Edmonds man was researching Maddox Bey, a woman in nearby Woodway received a similar visit approximately an hour later. Like the Edmonds man, the woman had recently moved into the ritzy home, and was surprised to see a visitor outside her front gate. She used an intercom system to ask the man what he wanted. According to a police report, he replied that he was there to repossess her home.
“She told him this was ridiculous, and told the male to leave. He said he was from ‘some sort of government organization or something,’” the report reads. “At that time [she] accidentally pressed the wrong button on her phone’s security gate interface and opened the gate. The car proceeded to drive in,” but left when the woman came outside and said she was calling the police. (The driver briefly returned soon after and paused outside the gate before driving off again.)
Police told The Daily Beast that a third home had also received a visit, and one of the houses had been visited twice.
For attempted home takeovers, the incidents have been remarkably mild, resulting in no criminal charges so far, police noted. “They’ve been cooperative and compliant and even, in some cases, respectful to our officers,” an officer told Washington’s KIRO radio station, “but we don’t think they’re going to go away any time soon in terms of their attempt to do this.”
He had good reason to expect a long campaign. The Moorish National Republic, which styles itself as its own distinct government, has spent years filing strange legal actions. (At present, the group appears to be undergoing internal turmoil, recently ousting its “Chief Justice” after she allegedly “usurped authority” by appointing herself to that role, according to their website.)
Marcel Maddox Bey, the man described in a police report as visiting one of the Edmonds homes, has even attempted such legal maneuvers during the seizure of his own home by lenders. In a 2016 lawsuit against the mortgage company that foreclosed on him, Maddox Bey unsuccessfully argued that he disowned his debt and that as a Moorish sovereign citizen, he was immune to taxation.
He and the group have not been accused of violence. But as COVID-related conspiracies and desperation spike, other members of the sovereign citizen movement (Moorish and non-) have made headlines for arrests. On Sunday, police arrested a Connecticut man who allegedly declared himself a sovereign during a dispute about face masks.
More ominously, federal agents busted a self-described sovereign citizen in Boston on weapons charges in late November, allegedly revealing bomb-making materials in his home. The man used the surname “El,” another common Moorish sovereign citizen styling.