By Isaac Stone Simonelli Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting //September 15, 2023
By Isaac Stone Simonelli Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting //September 15, 2023
This story was originally published by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.
SEDONA—Sedona Police Officer Steven Willadsen dragged a salt-and-pepper-haired man in his thirties out of a blue SUV, forcing him to the pavement of an Arizona roadway flanked by strips of the area’s iconic red soil.
Minutes earlier, Willadsen had stopped Tucciarone for driving with a fictitious license plate featuring a version of the U.S. flag on one side and a bald eagle clutching arrows and olive branches on the other. Tucciarone failed to provide a legal driver’s license, registration or insurance, and ignored the officer’s orders to leave the car.
“I’ve asked you 10 times to get out. Get out on your own then,” Willadsen told him after backup arrived. In total, he warned Tucciarone nearly 20 times that he could either get out or be forced out before pulling him from the car, according to body camera footage obtained by AZCIR.
Tucciarone is one of a growing number of people in the U.S. whose distrust of government and other mainstream institutions has led them to embrace the conspiracy-laden, anti-government ideology of the sovereign citizen movement. That growth has become increasingly evident in Arizona, as adherents often put themselves in direct conflict with law enforcement and the courts.
In Tucson, a surge of sovereign filings has inundated staff at the Pima County Recorder’s Office. But it’s among Sedona’s iconic sandstone towers where the movement’s more aggressive tactics have led to bogus legal filings designed to intimidate and harass public officials, requests by court officials to increase building security and increasing tensions with local police.
Though Sedona officials have publicly downplayed the growth of the movement, an AZCIR review of internal communications found the Sedona Police Department has issued internal bulletins highlighting individual members, alerting officers to common sovereign tactics and warning of threatening rhetoric targeting public officials. Several members of the force also completed a training on “Sovereign Citizen Extremists” offered by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board in 2021.
“The sovereign citizen stuff leads people in a much more dangerous and desperate direction,” said Devin Burghart, president and executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, an advocacy group that combats white nationalism and other forms of bigotry. “Their lives suddenly become much more volatile—a simple traffic stop could become a shootout.”
Whether sovereigns act independently or identify with one of its many loose-knit groups, their ideology is based on a conspiracy theory that the U.S. was subverted by an illegitimate government more than 100 years ago, and as a result, its laws have no real authority over them.
This perceived independence leads followers to do things like renounce their U.S. citizenship or stop paying taxes. In more extreme scenarios, sovereigns have armed themselves to defend their beliefs — as in 2014, when the Arizona Department of Public Safety stopped a sovereign who had a loaded AK-47, pipe bombs and other explosive components in his vehicle.
Police interactions with sovereigns in other states have turned deadly. In March of this year, for instance, police shot and killed 25-year-old sovereign citizen Chase Allan in Farmington, Utah.
Like Tucciarone, Allan was pulled over for driving with a fictitious license plate and refused to leave his car when an officer ordered him to get out.
But unlike Tucciarone, who kept a gun in his glove compartment, Allan had a holster under his coat. As the arresting officer went to remove Allan from the car, a supporting officer spotted the holster, calling out “gun, gun, gun!” Officers opened fire.
Tucciarone’s 2021 traffic stop was not his first run-in with Sedona police. In late 2020, during the height of the Covid pandemic, he was arrested for trespassing at a Natural Grocers after he and others refused to wear masks while inside.
“The moment that I got arrested for a mask was it for me,” Tucciarone said, acknowledging that the incident was a tipping point for what he viewed as a series of government failures.
It wasn’t long after that incident when Tucciarone attended his first sovereign citizen meeting. He moved between different local and national sovereign groups, each with their own flavor and process for becoming free from what they view as an illegitimate government. He eventually soured on their approach, believing some of the self-described teachers were scamming followers.
By April 2021, he was one of several sovereigns on the Sedona Police Department’s radar.
Then-Sedona Police Chief Charles Husted called for an internal bulletin to alert officers to threats allegedly made against city officials by Tucciarone and another Sedona-based sovereign citizen.
“When out and about, maintain situational awareness and remain particularly mindful of the potential officer safety threat” posed by Tucciarone and others, Lt. Stephanie Foley wrote in an email to staff the following day. “Record and document encounters with these individuals and any associated instances. Be vigilant and stay safe.”
Other Sedona Police communications obtained by AZCIR revealed a familiarity with sovereign tactics and ideologies, often focused on issues around fictitious license plates.
In one exchange, Sedona Magistrate Judge Paul Schlegel asked the department to step up hours for a court security guard, voicing his concern about an “increased influx of sovereign citizens and First Amendment auditors.”
“Sovereign citizens have been overheard commenting about their knowledge of when our court security officer is working and they come in when he’s gone,” Schlegel wrote. He mentioned that one court clerk had already left because the employee no longer felt safe working there.
In 2022, Schlegel was one of several city employees targeted in what court documents described as a “paper terrorism” attack by a group of sovereign citizens. The group was led by Shelley Evans, who hosts a mix of alternative wellness programs and lectures with sovereign citizen-type training at the Ultimate Light Mission in Sedona.
The group is facing criminal charges after filing a series of bogus liens alleging that city officials committed 391 violations of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and demanding payment of more than $12 million.
Publicly, the city of Sedona maintains that sovereign citizen activity in the community has not significantly changed. In an email to AZCIR, spokeswoman Lauren Browne indicated the police department “does not believe there is heightened awareness of the movement.”
“As has been for quite some time, the police department encounters people who say they are sovereign citizens,” Browne wrote. “They do not feel there has been an uptick in these interactions.”
Department emails, however, show the agency has leaned on an Arizona Peace Officer Standard and Training Board-certified training on “Sovereign Citizen Extremists” to prepare its officers.
The course, created in 2015, was designed to “provide peace officers the information to help them understand the sovereign citizen movement and the extremist faction of it.” It outlines ways to identify sovereign citizens, the types of encounters officers might have when engaging with them and safety tips, as well as retaliation methods typically used by sovereigns and countermeasures law enforcement may take.
A Sedona Police Department email sent on Feb. 14, 2021, asked officers in training to watch the course within five days of receipt, indicating the agency would soon be conducting its own “Reality Based Training … involving a traffic stop on a Sovereign.”
The script for the AZPOST training video emphasizes the need for peace officers and public officials to better understand the movement as it “grows in Arizona.”
The Arizona Department of Public Safety issued a similar bulletin about sovereign citizens in 2008 through its Counter Terrorism Information Center. AZCIR contacted the department seeking any updates on the movement’s presence in the state, but a spokesman declined to comment, citing the age of the bulletin and staff turnover.
Tucciarone was ultimately charged for resisting arrest and creating a “substantial risk of causing physical injury to the peace officer,” displaying a fictitious license plate, and failing to provide evidence of identity after the June 2021 incident in Sedona.
Like many sovereigns, he represented himself in Yavapai Superior Court.
Though he was unsure of how the judge would rule, Tucciarone said he was confident in what he learned through his sovereign studies. Ultimately, the state moved to dismiss the case and refile it as a misdemeanor at the Justice Court.
Records show Tucciarone also filed a 77-page notice of claim against Sedona, alleging damages and harm during the traffic stop and subsequent arrest. Naming then-Police Chief Husted and four other officers, including Willadsen, in the claim, he indicated he was “willing to settle” for $20 million.
The judge presiding over Tucciarone’s case dismissed it without prejudice and ordered that the Sedona Police return Tucciarone’s handgun, which was confiscated after his arrest. The case was refiled in Sedona Court as a misdemeanor, but Tucciarone failed to appear in court.
Officials issued an arrest warrant in response. And on May 13, 2023, as he returned from an event by bicycle, Tucciarone again found himself being dragged to the ground by Officer Willadsen after failing to comply with an order to put away his phone during the arrest, according to bodycam footage obtained by AZCIR.
“The reason I can’t allow you to call somebody is because if somebody shows up to the stop and shoots me in the head while trying to arrest you,” Willadsen said before getting cut-off.
“No one is going to shoot you,” Tucciarone said.
“I don’t know that, that’s why I said to stop,” Willadsen replied.
Tucciarone faces a new charge of resisting arrest. This time around, though, he said he plans to follow former President Donald Trump’s lead by using an attorney. He believes that far too many sovereigns go into courtrooms and are belligerent and disrespectful of judges, harming the image of the movement.
Even before his most recent arrest, Tucciarone said he was changing his tactics when dealing with police, citing the fatal sovereign citizen shooting in Utah as a cautionary tale.
“Do I want to sit on the side of the road and argue with a police officer? No, I don’t—not anymore,” Tucciarone said at the time.
AZCIR’s Brendon Derr contributed reporting to this story.