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Sovereign Ex: Participant Tells His Story

David Kanz, imprisoned for 'paper terrorism,' describes how he got into — and out of — the 'sovereign citizens' movement.

David Kanz
David Kanz

At the start of 1995, David Kanz was just another guy in Milwaukee who believed in Jesus, celibacy and dawn-to-dusk, seven-day workweeks at Voice of Christian Youth America (VCYA), a fervently anti-abortion, Christian media operation made up of several publications, 13 radio stations and a television outlet. But by the end of the year, Kanz, then 35, had been transformed from a mild-mannered pastor-in-training to a "paper terrorist" who went to prison for filing a $100 million bogus lien against a Planned Parenthood attorney.

Guiding this metamorphosis, Kanz says now, was Kanz's supervisor at VCYA, Gene Zimmerman, who Kanz revered as a surrogate father. Zimmerman spent part of the summer of 1995 at Justus Township, the armed compound of the Montana Freemen, an antigovernment "Christian Patriot" group based near Jordan, Mont. The Montana Freemen rejected the authority of the U.S. government, declaring themselves "sovereign citizens," and attempted to set up their own government. Zimmerman attended a school run by the group where a mix of anti-abortion extremists, tax protesters, Christian Patriots and other antigovernment types learned how to manufacture and file bogus property liens, bank drafts, arrest warrants and other phony documents commonly deployed by sovereign-citizen true believers.

When Zimmerman returned to Milwaukee, he formed the National Civil Liberties Research Foundation (NCLRF), a legal advocacy group that espouses and offers seminars in sovereign-citizen tactics. He made Kanz its chief officer. VCYA at the time was being sued for defamation by Planned Parenthood attorney Catherine Doyle, the sister of current Milwaukee Gov. Jim Doyle, who was then Wisconsin's attorney general.

According to Kanz, Zimmerman directed him to launch a sovereign-citizen counterattack on Catherine Doyle that included drafting and filing a bogus lien against her for $100 million.

Eventually, Kanz was convicted of forgery and criminal slander of title and served two years in prison. Now, he's speaking out against the resurgent sovereign citizens movement and living openly as a gay man. Both actions put him in the crosshairs of his former allies, some of whom are literally praying for his death. Their wrath is further inflamed by the ongoing legal battle between Kanz and Zimmerman's other former acolytes over control of the National Civil Liberties Research Foundation and the approximately $200,000 in its coffers. That battle erupted after Zimmerman died in 2007 and it turned out that Kanz was never officially removed as an NCLRF corporate officer.

How did the conflict between Catherine Doyle and the Voice of Christian Youth America begin?
A couple of years prior to my arrival at VCYA, she had started a defamation lawsuit because VCYA had reported that she had kicked an 8-year-old girl in the face outside an abortion clinic where the girl and her parents were part of a protest blockade. It wasn't true. Even so, they talked about it [on the air] for weeks and weeks. From what I gathered, Cathy Doyle warned them if they didn't stop she was going to sue them. Well, they didn't stop because they believed that Cathy Doyle, and more particularly her brother, were literally the devil incarnate.

Because they [the Doyles] were accessories to murder as far as Vic Eliason [VCYA's founder and leader] and VCYA were concerned. They were advocates of a woman's right to choose, so they were murderers, killers, baby killers.

Matthew Trewhella with Missionaries to the Preborn was close to Vic, and Trewhella had a large hand in keeping that mindset stimulated. [Editor's note: In 1994, Trewhella called on anti-abortion churches to form armed militias]. Trewhella went full-bore in defending [anti-abortion double murderer] Paul Hill right after Hill shot a doctor in the face with a shotgun in Pensacola [Fla.]. Trewhella believed what Paul Hill did is what everyone should do. His involvement with VCYA points to how it was a haven for the extreme right, politically. And he's still on their radio programs.

After Gene Zimmerman returned from the Montana Freemen compound, how did he and Vic Eliason describe the sovereign-citizen "true bill" strategy to you?
They told me it was a non-judicial procedure that anyone could use to tie up people's assets and neutralize a political opponent of any kind. They said, "Dave, it's a civil process. There's nothing criminal about it." I was a believer. Fully persuaded. Plus they were bemoaning the fact that if they didn't stop Cathy Doyle and her lawsuit, which was going badly for them, she was going to wind up owning their operation.

So when they portrayed what they wanted me to do as being something so high and meritorious as saving VCYA, that was it for me. We were taught to sacrifice our life for the truth if need be, so I was in. They said I was ideal for the situation because I didn't have a house or a family or a lot of money, so there wasn't much for anyone to come after in a civil lawsuit. They repeatedly dismissed the notion that I could ever be prosecuted criminally. Even after criminal charges were filed, I was continuously told by [Vic and Gene], "Oh, it's a bluff, it's a scare tactic, don't worry about it." [Editor's note: Contacted by the Intelligence Report, Eliason categorically denied any involvement in Kanz's sovereign-citizen activities. "That is an absolute lie," he said. "According to what we found, David has a real problem with truth."]

What advice did Zimmerman have for you once you were indicted for forgery?
Zimmerman was a believer in representing yourself pro se [without a lawyer in court proceedings]. It's what he taught in his seminars: The court is your enemy. The judge is your enemy. So you have to represent yourself. This is the Christian Patriot teaching, an inversion of the way things are supposed to be, because the government is [said to be] corrupt and anti-Christian and out to get us. This was the mindset taught by Zimmerman and the Christian Patriots, that the only way we're going to take back our country is to fight within the legal system and flip it on its head. That was the whole intent.

After I was charged, it was all I could to even get time with him [Zimmerman]. The advice he did give me, I now know it had nothing to do with criminal procedure, it was all civil law, so it was basically irrelevant to the situation. But it's all that Zimmerman knew. I found myself at the Marquette [University] Law Library [in Milwaukee], trying to understand procedure, trying to understand what to do next. I was pissed off, totally, totally, after criminal charges were filed. I didn't sleep. I didn't work.

Did anyone from VCYA go to court with you?
No. I was alone. All I got from them was, "Good job, David, have faith, keep going. God will save you because you're standing up for what's right and Catherine Doyle is a killer." It was a totally anti-intellectual approach.

Some of your filings during the trial referenced the gold fringe on the American flag in the courtroom as evidence of the court's illegitimacy. What was that all about?
The issue with the flag, according to some of the streams of Patriot thought, is this: An American flag with gold fringe on it is not actually a [national] flag, but military colors. The teaching is that the federal government has flipped the relationship between states and the federal government. The states created the federal government but now the federal government claims authority over the states via martial law, symbolized by the military colors — an American flag with gold fringe — which represents an authority that a true Patriot [or sovereign citizen] refuses to recognize. [Editor's note: Gold-fringed flags, which are present in most American courtrooms, are not in fact military or admiralty flags, as Patriots insist.] So I was probably asking that it be removed from the courtroom or some other nonsense.

How did you respond when the jury found you guilty?
I went into shock. They handcuffed and took me through a tunnel into the Sheriff's Department, where I was processed. And I was numb. Probably not catatonic, not unresponsive, but pretty close. For the first two weeks, I basically took food when they brought food in and I slept. I was in a jail cell made for 12; we had 16 people so I was on the floor on a mattress. I was in personal crisis. It was very difficult.

But then after you got out of prison in 1998, you went back to working for VCYA. Why?
I was desperate, and Vic approached me. It was pure guilt on his part. He always told me, "We'll take care of you, don't worry," and the money I was paid [at VCYA] was not bad. A lot better than I was making as a convicted felon. [Editor's note: Eliason confirmed that he personally rehired Kanz. He did so, he said, "to give somebody a chance to get their life straightened out."]

Did you ever ask for an apology?
A few years down the road, I still had some things I wanted to talk to [Vic] about. I said, "You know, I went to prison for you." He questioned my loyalty at that point. I said, "Question my loyalty? I went to prison for you. I committed perjury for you. How could you question my loyalty?" And that's when he terminated me [a second time]. It would have been in 2002. [Editor's note: Eliason denied this exchange occurred. He said he fired Kanz because he'd come to question Kanz' spiritual values and because other employees reported to him that Kanz was "planning to take over" the VCYA.]

Did you ever seek any kind of revenge?
Well, the Department of Justice approached me in 2003. They wanted me to wear a wire and go talk to Zimmerman. And I refused. I was still trapped in the mindset of defending him.

That same day I refused to wear the wire, I went to his office and told him about the investigation. He said, "Well, you should feel privileged, Dave." I said, "I'm not feeling really privileged right now." He said, "Well, you do realize you are a guinea pig and you should feel privileged to be one?" That about knocked me out of my chair. I said, "Guinea pig?" And I let loose with a tirade of expletives. I said, "You're telling me I'm a guinea pig? All along, you pretended you knew what you were doing but it was actually an experiment!" I said, "I may have been someone's guinea pig but I'm not going to be one anymore."

So was that what finally pushed you out of the Christian Patriot movement?
It probably also had a lot to do with some other realizations I came to about myself. From the time I was 19 until I left Wisconsin, I was basically celibate, and I always had to deal with suspicions [about my sexuality from others in the movement]. I always played it off as I didn't have time for a relationship. That wasn't the truth. The truth was I didn't want a relationship with a woman. And the other option wasn't possible.

When I finally admitted to myself who and what I am, it opened the floodgates. … I had lived my life in craven fear that someone would find out about my sexuality. With good reason, I think, because the people I was involved with prayed for gay people to be killed by God. And I lived in that. I don't know how I did it, honestly or why, but the words that came to my mind that night when I finally just opened the door were, "I can't pretend anymore." I couldn't maintain that charade anymore. I was exhausted and miserable and a felon.

How did your former associates react to you coming out?
When the people in Wisconsin [involved in the NCLRF lawsuit] found out about me in March of this year, they actually conducted a church service at which a friend of mine was in attendance and literally prayed that God would kill me because I was a flaming queer.

Zimmerman was a bridge between the fundamentalist Christian world and the Patriot movement. Now that he's dead, is the Voice of Christian Youth America still involved in antigovernment extremism, as far as you know?
They're out of the Patriot stuff, but they're still involved in the abortion stuff and the attacks against gays. Standard operating procedure when I was there was, whenever donations are down, talk about two subjects: abortion and homosexuals. It still is. Their last fundraiser in May of this year, they talked about nothing but abortion and gays.

What's your advice to those tempted to take on the legal system with sovereign-citizen methods?
Take it from someone who knows and has experienced it. You will go to prison and you will lose your businesses.

Are you willing to risk that to experiment with so-called "legal proceedings" that have proven to be false? When Eugene Zimmerman looked at me and said I was a guinea pig, my world came crashing down. And the first thought that came into my head was what I fool I had been. I thought, "David, you really don't have a grasp on reality. Something is wrong here." It shook me pretty badly. I began to question everything and that probably is a good thing. And then along comes the gay thing. And that's nuclear. Talk about a revamp of my thinking.