On the evening of Sept. 25, between 100-150 people gathered at the Albany County Fairgrounds for an event that called on “ALL PATRIOTS” to “take back OUR town.” Current and aspiring local elected officials — including the chair of the Albany County Commission — spoke in advance of the headliner, John “Tig” Tiegen, who had come to educate the crowd on how to “help defend against domestic terrorists.”
Tiegen was billed as a “hero from the Battle of Benghazi,” referring to his role in defending a United States diplomatic compound in Libya during the 2012 attack that left four Americans dead.
A member of the Annex Security Team, Tiegen’s exploits were recounted in the book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi.” Michael Bay directed the movie version.
Tiegen had come to Wyoming to share a different story, WyoFile’s account of which is drawn from an audio recording made by an event attendee.
As marches against police brutality, and for racial justice, swept the nation this summer, Tiegen grew concerned about the potential for rioting and looting in his home state of Colorado. So he said he put out a call to action and gathered some “80 guys” in Denver to make sure everything “stayed peaceful.”
“That night, it did,” Tiegen told the crowd.
Antifa — shorthand for “anti-fascist action” and a broad label used to describe a wide range of left-leaning groups and individuals — was present, he said.
“We had an infiltrator from ourselves go within the group,” Tiegen told his audience. “We’re dressed like them because we’re smart.”
Tiegen said he and his allies started talking with a group of five antifa activists, learning that all of them were from outside Colorado.
“They opened up their backpacks, they had nothing but frozen water bottles and rocks — not small rocks, like river rocks,” Tiegen said. “And they’re sitting there talking with a bunch of us, about ‘Yeah, we’re supposed to be down there destroying things, but these guys showed up.’”
Tiegen paused briefly for effect.
“Well, I was ‘these guys,’” he said to thunderous applause.
Tiegen was in Albany County to promote his group, the United American Defense Force, a branch of the Colorado-based organization Faith, Education, Commerce United.
While FEC United seeks to “Defend the American way of life,” according to its website, Tiegen’s UADF division is focused on preparing its members to “protect our communities” by providing “training, equipment, communications, leadership, personnel and resources.”
“The enemies are promising to come to your neighborhood,” the website states. “We can no longer afford to remain complacent.”
National divides, Wyoming rifts
The event and its rhetoric alarmed some locals who worried about the conflation of “domestic terrorism” with the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations that have taken place in nearby Laramie and elsewhere in the state.
Timberly Vogel, who helps organize the semi-regular marches and protest events that have taken place in Laramie for months, said Tiegen’s rhetoric makes conversation and compromise less likely.
“It legitimizes their idea that what is happening in Laramie and across the nation in terms of peaceful protest can be categorized as domestic terrorism,” Vogel said. “We’re not domestic terrorists. We’re standing for community investment and diminishing the war on drugs and the war on poverty.”
Throughout the summer masses of protestors against police brutality and racial injustice have marched in American cities, in some communities day after day for months since the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd.
Those protests have reached Wyoming as well, from Cody to Gillette to Jackson to Laramie, as demonstrators marched in solidarity with those elsewhere. Many Wyoming demonstrations added local concerns to the chants and rally calls from major American cities.
Opposition to those demonstrations has also been omnipresent.
In Cody, an armed group of locals whose leaders say they would prefer not to be called a militia formed in anticipation of a June 7 protest against racism.
The 60-member group, some of whom were on horseback, patrolled the perimeter of the park, monitored the courthouse and surveilled the city limits, watching out for buses they suggested would shuttle rioters or looters into Cody.
Concerns about outside agitators have cropped up nearly everywhere there have been protests in the West. In Denver, Tiegen was concerned about people coming from outside the city. In Laramie, rumors circulated before and after Tiegen’s appearance that a bus of potentially violent rioters was inbound from Denver or Fort Collins. A Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation intelligence analyst circulated unfounded reports of antifa protestors traveling the state en route to the Sturgis motorcycle rally.
Such fears were echoed by event speakers who preceded Tiegen’s talk. An announcer endorsed Republicans in nearly every local race. At least two such candidates addressed the crowd — Wyoming House District 46 hopeful Ocean Andrew and Albany County Commission Chair Terri Jones.
Jones told WyoFile a week later she believed looting connected to protests could happen in Wyoming.
“The average citizens are going about their lives, then we have people coming from other places to demonstrate,” she said. “And it’s a well known fact that when people come to demonstrate, other groups often hijack and cause the problem.”
There is no evidence a significant number of the people marching in Laramie have come in from elsewhere. The first marches saw crowds estimated at 1,000 or more some days and included wide swathes of Albany County residents, from college students to families to UW football coach Craig Bohl. The more regular marchers that have persisted into October are generally a group of Laramie residents.
Jones said her hope is that law enforcement could handle any problem, but a group like UADF could be necessary if enough people were bused into Albany County.
“It depends on how many people are a problem,” Jones said. “If you had 10,000 people show up here, we’d be in deep shit. They could easily overwhelm law enforcement.”
Jones also called the COVID-19 pandemic “totally politically motivated.” The political “left” in fact, “wants the pandemic because they want to socially divide everyone,” the county commission chair said.
As of Oct. 5, Albany County had the highest number of active lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state.
Recurring rumors about outside agitators attending Laramie marches are unfounded, Vogel said.
“Tig’s thing had happened and then we started getting all these random messages like: ‘Do you all have an antifa u-haul coming to help you out?’” she said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t think so. We have no interest and have heard no word of that happening.’”
But the rumors themselves caused issues for Vogel and the demonstrators when they gathered for a small event the next day in Laramie’s First Street Plaza.
“There were three or four trucks that passed us maybe five times each,” Vogel said. “Sometimes they were recording us, sometimes they weren’t.”
She said there were also two young men on a roof across from the plaza, armed with a bow.
“They were just watching us the entire time,” Vogel said. “I definitely think, if Tig didn’t do it, or start those rumors, his talk definitely put some fear into people’s minds and maybe they were confused.”
Us vs. them
At the Fairgrounds, Tiegen said he wanted to prepare people to combat the rioting, looting and killing that an undefined “they” sought to commit.
“We’re about 12 years, 20 years behind the power curve,” he said. “They are very well organized. They’ve got the communication down. They have the money, and they have the attorneys, and they have the celebrities. They have all the funding that they’re ever going to need.”
Though Tiegen said the UADF is not a militia, he was motivated to start it because of his disappointment with current militia groups.
“I just saw more and more things,” he said. “I’m saying, ‘Isn’t somebody going to do something?’ I’m waiting for these 3% groups, these Oath Keepers, these militias that have been around decades to actually stand up and do something. You would think they would.”
Tiegen said those militia groups let him down, notably by staying out of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone — a section of Seattle, Washington that was claimed by protestors and devoid of police for three weeks in June.
He says the UADF could have helped in that instance.
“They abandoned everybody in that city that day, in my opinion,” Tiegen said. “Every American that was there, they got abandoned. That pissed me the hell off. And if I had had this thing going, I’d have took everybody across this country and we all would have went to Seattle.”
What exactly the UADF would have done there he did not say.
“I’m not going to just sit at home and let the nation be destroyed by a bunch of over privileged punk-ass kids,” Tiegen told WyoFile in a recent interview. “Because that’s what they are — I’m not saying the protesters. I’m saying the rioters and looters and stuff like that — they’re the punk asses. They just want nothing but destruction.”
The line between protester and troublemaker is semantic and subjective, Vogel said, and Tiegen’s message serves to blur that line even more.
“This figure coming out, and being sponsored by local businesses, legitimizes the idea that any form of civil disobedience or demonstration in Laramie or Albany County that doesn’t follow the status quo — there’s reason to react to those things with extreme force, with lethal force,” Vogel said. “This militarized ideology is us vs. them, and not a community that just needs to have a dialogue.”
Among the businesses that sponsored the event was Roxie’s, a local bar, restaurant and nightclub owned by Roxie Hensley, the current Republican candidate for House District 45.
Tiegen said his group, which has “thousands” of members across the country and includes some recent signups from the event at the Albany County Fairgrounds, are not looking for a fight.
“As long as they stay peaceful, we stay peaceful,” Tiegen said. “If they get violent, we’ll get violent.”
But that view and Tiegen’s posturing is a “militarized response,” Vogel said.
“There’s no lack of armed individuals in Wyoming, and that’s totally fine,” she said. “But it is a little scary when those armed individuals are being targeted against what someone outside the community is framing as domestic terrorism.”
There have already been tense interactions between Laramie protestors and armed individuals. In June, a man took a holstered pistol from his truck and held it against his chest in a confrontation with protestors in the street, telling protesters to get away from his pickup, saying he was scared for his life.
Despite the increased attention, Vogel said the by-now seasoned demonstrators know how to stay safe.
“I think most of our organization knows that they’re coming out during our demonstration to get a reaction out of us so they can have an excuse to paint us as the bad guys or have an excuse to use their weapons on us,” Vogel said. “We’re not going to give them the reaction they’re looking for.”