An inside look at the workings of the Northern California State Militia
“Militia member fires shots while pursuing car-theft suspect,” reads a recent headline on Redding-based news station KRCR’s website.
The story outlines a bizarre incident in Cottonwood this past October, when a member of the citizen-organized Cottonwood Community Watch and a commander in the Northern California State Militia pursued an alleged car thief in his bright-yellow Hummer, eventually firing “warning shots” into the ground in a residential neighborhood after the chase continued on foot.
The alleged car thief, described as a Hispanic male, escaped, and his pursuer, who holds a county-issued concealed-weapon permit, walked free after being detained for a short while at the scene.
Coverage on KRCR and in the region’s daily paper, the Redding Record Searchlight, incited hundreds of comments, some defending the watch member’s actions, and others condemning him and his cohorts as unregulated, dangerous vigilantes. For some, the incident captured echoes of the Trayvon Martin shooting, in which self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman pursued, and eventually shot and killed, an unarmed black teenager last year in Florida. Martin’s death, and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal, sparked national debates on race relations, gun control and self-defense laws.
More than anything, news accounts spurred more questions than they answered. Is Cottonwood—a rural ranching community of roughly 3,500 residents—really so crime-ridden, and underserved by official law enforcement, as to necessitate armed citizen patrols? And how does a militia—a paramilitary group often associated with right-wing extremism and anti-government activity—fit in? In short, what the hell is going on in Cottonwood?
Cottonwood is halfway between Red Bluff and Redding, with Cottonwood Creek marking the boundary between Shasta and Tehama counties, and the community falling under the former’s jurisdiction. Its main attractions are the Shasta Livestock Auction Yard and a two-block historic district consisting of Old West-style buildings, some dating back to the town’s 1848 founding, now home to a handful of boutiques and a saloon. Main Street is the town’s main artery, the median of which is decorated with rusting metal statues of cowboys and cattle—the plasma-cut silhouettes of actual residents.
Jim Haagenson, the militia and community-watch member cited in the news story, agreed to meet at the Cottonwood Barber Shop on Main Street in early November. As the shop’s owner, Woody Clendenen, is a lieutenant in the militia and active in the community watch, the building serves as the de facto headquarters of the separate-but-overlapping organizations (the watch was started by militia members about 18 months ago, but people needn’t be involved with both, the two men explained).
The barber shop’s front door rarely stayed closed long as a cavalcade of characters—some customers, others on militia or watch business—passed through. A man dressed as a rodeo cowboy (a disguise, he explained) reported some intelligence he’d gathered on a suspicious house; Clendenen congratulated a boy in the barber’s chair on receiving his first .22-caliber rifle; and a half-dozen militia members stopped by en route to the shooting range. Amber Rouse, a home-health-care nurse, said she’d chosen to get her son’s hair cut there to learn more about the watch and the militia, both of which she was interested in joining, her stated motives being a love of her country and the desire to learn to better protect herself and her young child.
Vigilant or vigilante?
The silver-haired Haagenson is charismatic and quick to joke, and possesses a surprisingly easy-going demeanor for a retired parole officer and San Quentin prison guard. He is known to friends and brothers-in-arms alternately as “Captain” (his rank after 14 years of active and reserve Army duty), “Major” or “Commander” (militia rank and title), or just plain Jimmy.
He explained he and his wife were returning home after dining out the evening of Oct. 14, and stopped to visit with Clendenen at a Main Street mini-mart around 8:30 p.m. Clendenen informed Haagenson that a Toyota 4Runner reported to the watch as stolen might’ve just driven past.
“I decided I’d follow and see if he behaves like a car thief, and he did,” Haagenson said, saying three passengers bailed from the vehicle and scattered as soon as he began tailing it. With his wife riding shotgun and on the phone with 9-1-1, Haagenson followed the vehicle west down Gas Point Road to the town’s pastoral outskirts. During a 10-minute chase, he said the alleged thief reached speeds of “at least 95,” turned his lights off and on repeatedly, and drove erratically. Haagenson said he never matched speeds, his slower pace causing him to lose sight of the vehicle at times.
Haagenson followed the 4Runner as it turned onto Frances Street. He said the driver jumped or fell from the vehicle, possibly running himself over. Sans driver, the 4Runner crashed into a resident’s fence, which the alleged thief then jumped over before fleeing. As Haagenson parked his Hummer and followed on foot, he said the man—whom he described as being about 5 feet 8 inches tall and dressed in dark clothing—turned toward him.
“My Hummer is sitting right behind me and the lights are shining toward him, and he’s walking back toward the light, and I’m yelling, ‘Stop, don’t move! Stop, don’t move!” Haagenson said.
Haagenson drew his Smith & Wesson 9mm semiautomatic: “Many times [as an officer], I’ve had to draw my gun on bad guys, and the one universal thing is they always stopped when they got close enough to see the gun, so I never had to shoot anybody,” he said. “But this guy keeps coming toward me and I’m thinking—fast, because I don’t want to shoot the guy—maybe he doesn’t see me because of the Hummer’s lights and he’s dazed.
“Because I don’t have to work for anybody else or conform to any type of departmental policies, I did something that normally I wouldn’t have been allowed to do, which is fire warning shots. I had a lawn next to me, so I fired several rounds into the ground because there was no risk factor of ricochet likely.”
The man “skedaddled into the darkness,” and Haagenson said it took deputies another 10 minutes to arrive, at which time they took his gun and detained him in a cruiser for about an hour. He said they never asked for his concealed-carry permit or driver’s license, but likely knew him by reputation. When he was released, officers returned his gun, and the damaged 4Runner was towed away.
Haagenson and Clendenen were critical of law enforcement’s follow-through: “If the sheriffs had let us [the Cottonwood Community Watch] do the search through the yards, we would’ve had 20 guys doing a much more thorough job than the one deputy and his dog,” Clendenen said.
Both men claim response to the incident has been mostly positive—at least in Cottonwood.
“We don’t care what anyone outside of Cottonwood thinks,” Clendenen said. “We don’t have a police department. It’s easy when you have a police force to say, ‘Hey, those guys should just let somebody else handle it.’ But we had 20 stolen vehicles in 30 days in this little town, and they’re just running around stealing whatever they want, and people are tired of it. They’re crawling in windows while people are sleeping.
“We’re a small, Christian, country town and we have to take care of our neighbors for ourselves.”
Some residents of Frances Street— a short row of houses and mobile homes on half-acre lots near North Cottonwood Elementary School—are critical both of the shooting and of an armed watch.
“I have some misgivings,” said Patrick Martinez Sr., on whose property Haagenson discharged his weapon. “They have guns, and if they catch you, I don’t think they are going to stop and say anything; I think they are going to shoot you.”
“The idea of a community watch is not a bad idea, but I don’t really care for the incident that happened here, because there was gunfire,” another neighbor said. “The bad thing about gunfire is, once you fire those bullets, you don’t know where they’ll go.”
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko also expressed concerns. In a recent phone interview, Bosenko said the shooting incident, as well as other reports of community-watch members following, stopping, questioning and detaining “law-abiding” citizens, are part of an ongoing investigation. “After the investigation is concluded, we’ll have the district attorney review it for criminal charges,” he said.
Bosenko also said the 4Runner was never reported stolen to official law enforcement, stating “there was a question of ownership in the whole matter.”
“It concerns me,” Bosenko responded when asked about the Cottonwood Watch. “You always want people to be involved, like Neighborhood Watch, to be eyes and ears for law enforcement, but it appears that they’re maybe attempting to take the law more into their own hands. It’s good to be vigilant, but I don’t want to see them become vigilantes.”
Bosenko disagrees that Cottonwood is as crime-ridden as Clendenen painted it; he said property crimes and burglaries are a problem, and confirmed there has been a recent rise in vehicle thefts, but said criminal activity there is “no different than any other small Northern California town.”
He also agreed, however, that his department is woefully understaffed, especially following severe budget cuts in 2009. He said the Redding Basin—a 3,700-square-mile area from Cottonwood to Dunsmuir, and Shingletown to Platina—is generally staffed by four on-duty deputies. The nearest sheriff substation to Cottonwood is in south Redding, and the duty of patrolling from Anderson to Cottonwood—roughly 20 miles apart—falls on a single officer.
“Response times can vary from short to long depending on where that officer is, because he might be providing backup for another officer some distance away,” Bosenko said.
Clendenen said law-enforcement officials disavow the watch publicly, but are supportive in private meetings. Bosenko confirmed he’s met with watch members, including Haagenson, but said he conveyed the same cautions and concerns to them in person.
“We don’t think we’re cops, or want to be,” countered Clendenen, who participated in two of the half-dozen citizen’s arrests the watch boasts. “Ninety percent of what we do is eyes-and-ears stuff.”
Of the watch’s organization, Clendenen further explained they have a dispatch number that sends calls to 50 people, who respond if they are available. They run active patrols, mostly at night, sometimes of two vehicles loaded with three or four men each. Clendenen estimates half of the members have concealed-carry permits, and some carry handguns or pepper spray.
Ambush at Paynes Creek
When Tricia Hamelberg, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, volunteered to lead a Sierra Club hike, she expected the morning of Sunday, Nov. 17, would be good time to peacefully enjoy autumn colors at Paynes Creek Recreation Area, located on Bureau of Land Management property east of Red Bluff. Instead, she arrived at the Perry Riffle trailhead—her planned meeting spot—to find an encampment of more than 100 camouflaged men and women, most armed with pistols at their hips, and many carrying assault rifles.
Hamelberg’s hiking group had inadvertently stumbled upon a two-day quarterly field-training exercise, or FTX, of the Northern California State Militia’s Cottonwood Group. The militia is a subdivision of the California State Militia, whose website at Cal-Militia.com explains that militias are not just protected, but prescribed by the Second Amendment, and outlines the group’s mission of upholding and enforcing the laws of the U.S. Constitution. Haagenson and Clendenen provided additional details, crediting their division’s policy of openness as key to its size and success.
In addition to being prepared in times of disaster and foreign invasion, most modern militias—the Northern California division included—are concerned with threats from oppressive government.
“The thing the founders feared most—that nobody likes talking about—was tyranny of government,” Clendenen explained. “A militia’s duty is to help with all those other things, but it’s also one more check and balance against oppressive government. If every citizen is armed, it’s kind of difficult for the government to come step on you too hard.”
Members of the Northern California State Militia’s Sacramento and Redding platoons, Modoc Detachment and Stony Creek Group (from the Chico-Oroville area) also attended the FTX. In total, there were about 50 active members and 80-plus recruits. Some brought families, adding a number of rambunctious children, dogs and cellphone-camera-wielding spouses to the makeshift war-camp’s population.
Haagenson estimated his Cottonwood division, formed in 2009, has more than 50 active members. He estimated there are about 800 active members in the California State Militia, and an equal amount who are semiactive or in the recruiting process. These numbers distinguish the Cottonwood Group as an exceptionally large subset of one of the country’s largest militias.
Active members wore militia, division and name patches on their fatigues, some using real last names, others nicknames like “Black Bart” and “O-POS.” The patches and uniforms comply with state, national and international laws regarding militias. Without them, some militia exercises—for example, practicing ambushes—would be considered guerrilla warfare, and therefore illegal.
A few militia members were reticent, but many were willing to share why they joined. Pvt. Tristan Overgaard, 32, of the Sacramento Platoon, said he joined in June after educating himself about the Second Amendment. He also said he wants to help others in times of emergency, as he does in the “normal world” as a caregiver to people with disabilities.
Rouse, the nurse from the barber shop, was also there. In just two weeks, she’d transitioned from curious civilian to full-blown recruit, dressed head-to-toe in camo, save for bright-orange lettering across her chest reading “Girls With Guns.” At her side, she carried a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, the revolver’s enormity accentuated by her slight frame.
A 13-year-old said he was the second-youngest active member in camp that day; a 12-year-old was also present. D’Ann Moseley, a 75-year-old woman with the Modoc group, boasted she’d just completed a 2-mile morning navigation course and said she and her husband, Dan, joined because, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket.” Moseley is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, though many militia members have no formal military experience.
Several in the camp were upset over a visit the previous night from a sheriff’s deputy and a BLM agent who gave them a citation carrying a $250 fine for not having a use permit for a group of more than 20. They said the citation infringed on their right to assemble, and expressed suspicions that their group was unduly targeted.
Interviews were cut short as the militia was called to formation, presided over by the two present ranking officers, Haagenson and Capt. Roy “Pete” Peters, a lawyer and former Shasta County supervisor who commands the Redding Platoon.
At the assembly, a collection was started to pay the permit fine, and barber Clendenen—now in his role as militia lieutenant—handed out promotions. Members advance through three levels of skill sets, with accompanying ranks from private to sergeant. Skills include knowledge of the Constitution, weapons safety, hand-to-hand combat and first aid. Higher ranks are awarded on merit, with officers voting on promotions.
The militia also received the day’s marching orders—actives would practice strategically advancing on a set location, and recruits would hike 2 miles and attend a navigation class. After an officer warned the group to be wary of spooking horses and their riders, hiker Hamelberg climbed on the back of a pickup truck to announce the militia would also be sharing the trails with the Sierra Club.
Though the day’s training didn’t include live fire, Hamelberg said she still felt “shell-shocked” a week after the experience.
“We all had a nice hike, but there was a lot of concern in the group that a militia, or any group that big, was out there kind of messing it up for everyone,” Hamelberg said. “Everybody knows if you’re having a big group on public land you need a public-use permit.
“People also expressed concerns that there were assault rifles in a recreation area,” she continued, acknowledging that dozens of hunters attended an advertised pheasant shoot near Perry Riffle and several solo turkey hunters stalked the area that day. “Hunters use the area, but they carry shotguns to kill ducks and birds, and I’m confident they have proper safety training. Assault rifles are on the whole other end of the firearms spectrum, and that many people carrying that many assault rifles was just frightening.”
In early November, Haagenson met two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Sacramento office regarding the militia. He said the men were cordial, well-informed about his group, and didn’t seem to consider it a threat.
Gina Swankie, a Sacramento-based FBI public-affairs specialist, said it’s against bureau policy to confirm contacts made by agents. She was unable to find an agent qualified and cleared to speak about militias as of press time, but provided a link to a September 2011 communique on the FBI’s website titled “Domestic Terrorism: Focus on Militia Extremism.”
The article is part of a series that also spotlights eco-terrorists and animal-rights extremists; it presents “militia extremists” in a very negative light, with no reference to more moderate groups. It begins with an account of a 2010 plot in which nine Michigan militia members planned to kill a law-enforcement officer, then bomb the funeral procession, the whole scheme meant to “spark an uprising against the government.” It further states that extremists “stockpile illegal weapons” and “subscribe to various conspiracy theories regarding government.”
Haagenson said the FBI’s main concern was that the local militia could be a beacon for what he called “lone-wolf weirdos,” and requested he report any questionable characters. Haagenson said he recalled only two—one man who couldn’t contain his racist rhetoric and another who was far too eager for explosives training (Haagenson said racism is not tolerated in any California State Militia outfit, and his group doesn’t do bombs). Both were asked to leave the group.
If Haagenson is concerned with scrutiny from the FBI, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, or elsewhere, he doesn’t show it. He stands by his actions, as well as those of the militia and the community watch, and said interest in both is booming, with more new faces at every function. The recent Paynes Creek FTX alone attracted 47 fresh militia recruits.
This growth follows national trends: According to a March 2012 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 321 militias and 1,360 “radical, antigovernment ‘patriot’” groups active in the U.S. today. The SPLC says this number has grown by 813 percent since President Obama’s 2008 election.
And, though the Cottonwood Community Watch’s tactics have garnered headlines and ongoing legal scrutiny, the town’s situation is far from unique as communities nationwide struggle to deal with diminishing public services.
Whatever is happening, it’s not isolated to Cottonwood.