CINCINNATI — Hamilton County Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey said her office is investigating one of her deputies after he used the flag of the Three Percenters as the public cover photo on his personal Facebook page.
Deputy Michael Stemmerding's Facebook page posted the flag on Dec. 26, 2020. It was his cover photo for nearly six weeks.
The FBI has described the "3%" group as "a radical militia" involved in an anti-government movement and that its members “ascribe to extreme anti-government, pro-gun beliefs," according to affidavits filed by federal agents in criminal cases that include the Jan. 6 riot at the United States Capitol.
The group's name comes from their belief that only 3% of Americans took up arms to fight the British during the American Revolution, according to the website of Kentucky 3Percenters.
The WCPO 9 I-Team discovered Stemmerding's militia flag photo on Jan. 15. We saved a dated screenshot of it and other posts on Stemmerding's publicly accessible Facebook page.
"Sir, I'm not allowed to talk to you," Stemmerding told the I-Team last Friday during a brief phone conversation. "You can talk to my internal affairs."
The I-Team shared screenshots of Stemmerding's Facebook posts with McGuffey's office and asked for her response.
"Yeah, it's very concerning, very serious," said McGuffey, who was sworn in as sheriff on Jan. 4. "We began an inquiry right away."
The I-Team wanted to know more about Three Percenters, their mission, activities and the concerns and risks associated with law enforcement officers who may support them. We spoke with some of the nation's leading experts on far-right extremism and dug deeper into Deputy Stemmerding's background to see what may have prompted him to show the Three Percenter flag on his public Facebook page.
"I asked the professional standards division (of the sheriff's office) to make this a priority so that we can get the information as quickly as we can," McGuffey said.
The I-Team also asked McGuffey to comment on Stemmerding's prior conduct documented in his personnel file.
On March 15, 2015, the Sheriff's Office took away Stemmerding's policing powers for an undisclosed period because he had made "comments that have caused others to believe that you may be a danger to yourself or others," wrote then-Chief Deputy Mark Schoonover in a letter to Stemmerding.
There was no additional information in Stemmerding's file about what prompted the Sheriff's Office to take away Stemmerding's gun and badge.
In a Dec. 8, 2015, Instagram post documented in Stemmerding's personnel file, Stemmerding issued a threat to Muslims: "Allah SUCKS Mohammed SUCKS Islam SUCKS Any of you Haji's have an issue with me saying this, PM me and I'll gladly give You my address. You can come visit me, where I promise I will KILL YOU In my front yard!!"
Stemmerding apologized if he had upset anyone, according to the memo, and said he was “only intending of expressing his views about Muslim’s (sic) and Isis,” and he “was unaware we employed someone of the Muslim religion but did not feel that this situation should rise to the level of discipline.”
Records in Stemmerding's file show then-Sheriff Jim Neil suspended Stemmerding for one day without pay following an internal investigation. Neil let him use vacation time so Stemmerding wouldn’t lose any pay.
The I-Team first reported on Stemmerding's threats against Muslims in 2017. At the time, Neil's office did not respond to our requests for comment on Stemmerding's post or how Neil had responded to it.
"To say 'concerning' is an understatement when you read something like that," McGuffey said. "Particularly as it's posted by someone who's in uniform, who's certified as a police officer in the state of Ohio."
Sheriff McGuffey said she didn't know about Stemmerding temporarily losing his policing powers or his anti-Muslim Instagram post until the I-Team requested his personnel file and she reviewed it.
A red flag?
The I-Team also shared Stemmerding's posts with Daryl Johnson, the Department of Homeland Security's senior analyst for domestic terrorism from 2004-2010.
Johnson wrote the book "Right Wing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat is Being Ignored" based on his knowledge and experiences with Homeland Security.
"It's a red flag," said Johnson, referring to Stemmerding's public posting of the Three Percenter symbol. "These groups do believe in a different interpretation of the world, conspiracy theories that have repeatedly been proven false, and it really calls into question their ability to have sound judgment, to be objective in their policing activities."
Police departments across the country are responding to reports that some of their officers are "pro-militia."
Officials with the Jersey City Police Department in New Jersey said they identified a "clique" of officers who called themselves Three Percenters, according to the website nj.com. Jersey City Deputy Police Chief Peter Nalbach said some of the officers were disciplined.
News reports show officers with departments in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Chicago, New York, Pacific Grove, California, Solano County, California, and Audubon Park, Kentucky have been investigated for displaying Three Percenter symbols, including decals on police cars and patches on their uniforms.
Three Percenter groups showed support for police during Black Lives Matter protests across the country.
Some individuals who identified as Three Percenters have been prosecuted in a series of plots and attacks in recent years.
In 2019, three members of a militia group were sentenced to a combined 81 years in federal prison for plotting to bomb Somali and Muslim communities in Kansas. Prosecutors said the men were tied to the Three Percenter movement.
Three former militia members each face more than 35 years in federal prison following their convictions in the 2017 bombing of a Minnesota mosque. Two of the men were members of a Three Percenter group, according to court records in the case.
Federal prosecutors have also charged alleged members of the Three Percenters and other far-right extremist groups in connection with the Jan. 6 riot at the capitol.
The defendants include Robert Gieswein, a 24-year-old Colorado man, who is charged with assaulting a federal officer, violent entry and other charges resulting from the insurrection at the capitol.
According to an FBI Agent's affidavit, "Gieswein appears to be affiliated with the radical militia group known as the Three Percenters. The Three Percenters (also referred to as 3 Percenters or III%ers) is a domestic militia that advocates for resistance to the U.S. federal government policies it considers to infringe on personal, local and gun ownership rights."
During the Jan. 6 riot at the capitol, hundreds of protesters, including some wearing Three Percenter patches, stormed through police lines and attacked officers.
Five people, including United States Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, died as a result of injuries suffered during the riot.
On Jan. 9, Stemmerding's page posted a statistical comparison that claimed to show the difference between the riot at the capitol and "BLM riots" during the summer of 2020.
Stemmerding's post listed far more damage and deaths resulting from the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. It claimed there was "nationwide outrage" over the Capitol riot, but "no outrage" due to losses of life and property related to some BLM protests.
At the top of Stemmerding's post were the words "YOUR OUTRAGE IS MANUFACTURED."
McGuffey said Stemmerding has the right to free speech as a government employee. However, McGuffey said, all Sheriff's Office deputies took an oath to follow "good conduct" on the job, and to abide by the office's social media policy, which she said restricts how employees are supposed to use online platforms.
On Nov. 4, 2020, Stemmerding posted a series of debunked statements alleging widespread voter fraud that threatened to steal the presidential election from Donald Trump.
One of Stemmerding's Facebook friends commented on the Nov. 4 post.
"Prepare for war my friend..... I'm no stranger to it, but there are too many coincidences that just aren't adding up to me.....," wrote Stemmerding's friend. "I took an oath to protect this country from all enemies, foreign AND domestic..... That oath never expires..... Bout time to strap it up and get it on........ Completely sick and f****** tired of it...... Semper Fi! Let's Roll!!....."
In response to that comment, Stemmerding wrote, "lll%."
The symbol lll or III is seen on Three Percenter websites and merchandise.
"We are everywhere. We are the lll%!!!" read a post on the Kentucky 3Percenters website by Terry Bush, the group's president. "These are the true facts of the Three Percenters. They are not violent, unruly, anti-government extremists. They are your neighbor and your friend."
Bush claimed police officers are members of their group.
On May 25, 2020, Bush helped hang an effigy of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear from a tree near the govenor's mansion in Frankfort, according to the Courier Journal. The Louisville newspaper published a photo showing Bush hanging it.
News reports show it was one of several publicized armed protests last year involving Bush and other Three Percenters.
The I-Team emailed the Kentucky 3Percenters requesting an interview for this story. We have not received a response.
Tracking far-right extremist groups
Hampton Stall tracks dozens of American militia groups by monitoring their chat rooms and researching news reports documenting their activities.
"In reality, these groups are everywhere," said Stall, a senior researcher for the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). "The suburban areas are where there's the most activity as far as recruitment events and training events."
ACLED collects data internationally, analyzes it and creates mapping and reports to document conflicts around the world, according to its website.
In a report by Stall posted on ACLED's website, he described the Three Percenters as a "mainstream militia."
Stall and other militia experts interviewed by the I-Team said the Three Percenters were formed in 2008 based partly on their belief that liberals would try to destroy their way of life and infringe on their gun rights.
"After Barack Obama was elected president, there was a major change in the militia movement in the United States," Stall said.
Stall said the internet, especially social media, helped militias connect and become more active.
"The Three Percenter movement is a brand at this point," Stall said.
Militia online activity also made it easier for Stall and other researchers to track their plans and movements. Stall has published reports showing locations and events — including BLM protests — facing a "heightened risk of militia activity."
"They're getting more savvy on where the line is and not to cross it," said Dr. Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program, and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "I think this does create some challenges for law enforcement."
The Three Percenters Original describes itself as a "national organization made up of patriotic citizens who love their country, their freedoms, and their liberty," according to the group's website. "There have been news articles in the past that portray people claiming they are a Three Percenter who have committed horrific acts of violence. We have denounced each of these people and their actions."
The Three Percenters Original website has links to membership applications for every state that require applicants to provide their names, addresses, and get a criminal background check.
"People (in these groups) are getting smarter," Jones said. "They're getting smarter in how they try to recruit individuals."
Jones said some extremist groups are unfairly branded as terrorists.
"They may have extremist views, but they don't all subscribe to violent activity to pursue their objectives," Jones said.
Still, Jones and other national experts on terrorism, said far-right extremists are responsible for most terrorist activity in the U.S. He's concerned it could get worse following the bitter presidential election and Capitol riot.
"I think we're entering a dangerous period," Jones said.
It's an opinion shared by Johnson, the former Homeland Security analyst.
"From my perspective, the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6 were not the culmination of these years of growth and the last dying breath of a movement that's on the decline," Johnson said. "It is the ushering in of a new era or a new phase of far-right violence and extremism."
Impact of the Stemmerding case?
Deputy Stemmerding's personnel file did not reveal key details about why former Sheriff Jim Neil took away Stemmerding's policing powers in 2015, how long Stemmerding had to relinquish his gun and badge, and how Neil addressed the issues that prompted that drastic action.
"It's alarming," said McGuffey. "But it doesn't surprise me."
McGuffey, a former Hamilton County major who ran the sheriff's jail and court services, defeated Neil in the 2020 Democratic Primary for Hamilton County Sheriff. Then, she beat Republican Bruce Hoffbauer in the General Election in November.
Now, sheriff for only one month, the Stemmerding case is one of McGuffey's first public challenges for how her administration investigates and disciplines staff.
"I believe in accountability," McGuffey said.
McGuffey insisted that under her administration internal affairs investigations will be thorough and fair. She said employees' personnel files will include all documentation needed to disclose details of what happened, how the Sheriff's Office addressed each incident, and why her administration took those actions.
Former Hamilton County Municipal Judge Fanon Rucker believes the county also faces potential liability if Stemmerding remains a patrol deputy and is accused of mistreating people, especially if they're Muslim.
"That's scary," Rucker said. "This is a person who's in a public position, a person who has the authority, who has the power, literally, of life and death in his fingertips every day that he comes in contact with citizens, some of whom he has verbally and openly expressed hostility toward."
Stemmerding's personal Facebook page is now private and the militia flag is no longer his cover photo.
The I-Team has requested a copy of the Sheriff's Office's internal administrative investigation of Stemmerding's actions when those records become public.