The following story was funded by support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and was reported by the Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with the Deseret News.
SALT LAKE CITY — It started with a call on social media to "back the blue" in the summer of 2020, urging Utahns to stand together in support of police to intimidate potentially violent protesters and deter them from looting and pillaging. Soon 20,000 members online were cheering on Utah Citizens Alarm, a group referred to as a militia by local police, which a year later continues to evolve and thrive.
Group founder Casey Robertson says from the beginning he decided to organize the group just like his former business, a multilevel marketing company, where he says he and his ex-wife had 35,000 distributors working under them.
"The thing with network marketing is we are working with volunteers," Robertson said, noting the model was easy to reestablish with a volunteer army of citizens supporting law enforcement.
Robertson fits the mold of a Utah County entrepreneur, looking more like a clean-cut salesman than any stereotype of a militia member sporting a long beard and long rifle. He's proud of the discipline his organization brings and the role he says it had in preventing protests in Utah from devolving into violence and looting, though some in law enforcement dispute that claim. It's an organization he says focused on rule of law and not on racism.
He also said he personally agrees with the outcome of the trial against Derek Chauvin, the Minnesota officer who killed George Floyd while kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes.
"That was a bad cop!" Robertson said.
Still, critics worry that the organization's relationships with police may make it something more dangerous than a typical militia: a paramilitary that operates outside the law and without the same rules of accountability as the police, potentially undermining law enforcement's credibility and ability to do its job.
Carolyn Gallaher is a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who has studied paramilitary organizations in the United States, as well as Colombia and Northern Ireland. She says the domestic variety of these groups aren't as dangerous as international ones but pose the same problems of self-styled citizen soldiers allied with the state.
"It's not just cosplay," she said of American militia members and their tactical gear and assault rifles. "Maybe we need to realize that we're not any different than these other places that have had paramilitaries."
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center there were 169 militias active in 2020. These groups, heavily concentrated in the Intermountain West, run the gamut from loud but peaceful protesters to the more organized and dangerous. Some groups marched and shouted against mask mandates and pandemic responses, while some, like members of Wolverine Watchmen, are accused further in plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The Southern Poverty Law Center does not currently include Robertson's organization, now called United Citizens Alarm, on the list of groups it follows.
'You know we are hiring …'
United Citizens Alarm was founded under the name Utah Citizens Alarm after a June 29, 2020, protest in Provo turned violent when one participant shot a driver he feared was threatening to plow through a group of demonstrators similar to what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Within days, Robertson's ad hoc organization was showing up fully armed and decked out in bulletproof vests at protests, eventually reaching from Salt Lake City to Payson and even the small town of Monroe, in Sevier County, where residents claimed antifa activists drove by in blacked-out SUV's but then cleared out.
Besides showing up as a counter to would-be agitators, Robertson says the group has always maintained close relationships with law enforcement.
So close that a few months after starting, Provo Police Sgt. Nisha King talked to Robertson about a job.
"Just a thought … you know we are hiring. You could apply and come tryout?" King texted on Aug. 13, 2020, according to electronic messages obtained through an open-records request.
Robertson laughed it off but did ask if she would put in a good word for him.
"Certainly, it would help that you have already met our command staff," King replied.
The Provo Police Department did not respond to requests for comment when asked about United Citizens Alarm.
Ultimately, Robertson declined the invitation to apply, saying he was "too far gone to be a cop."
He's not shy about his close relationships with police, given the organization is built around support for law enforcement. His father is a former Provo police officer and his mother worked for decades as a police dispatcher. His organization has also raised money for police causes, such as the $4,200 recently donated to two Salt Lake County sheriff's deputies injured in a shootout outside the county jail.
"You know, we really do want to serve our community," Robertson said. "That doesn't get any media attention. But we do it anyway."
He's even planning on a new line of work separate from United Citizens Alarm, or UCA for short, selling ballistic armor products to local law enforcement.
The group has also shared information closely with law enforcement. In the same text thread as the job offer from Provo police, he passed on information about someone at a state Capitol rally, advising King that "We will only have five or six undercover blending into the crowd."
Robertson says he has contacts with multiple police agencies, Taylorsville, Salt Lake City and West Valley City among them. At a Cottonwood Heights protest he says his group stepped in at one point and formed a perimeter around an officer arresting a protester to prevent anyone from interfering, though Cottonwood Heights Police Lt. Dan Bartlett says he's not aware of anything like that happening.
"We had plenty of staffing and manpower. The UCA people were very polite and kind to us but we weren't asking for their help and weren't needing any help," Bartlett said. However, the group's presence did result in complaints from citizens about the heavily armed group that the department had to investigate. "It wasn't all rainbows and unicorns."
At a Black Lives Matter protest in April 2021, Robertson says his members even took photos of would-be agitators' license plates and had police run them. Salt Lake Police Sgt. Keith Horrocks said he wasn't aware of that happening.
"That wouldn't happen because it's illegal and against policy to run information on plates and give it to unaffiliated third parties," Horrocks said.
But Robertson maintains, "The closer citizens can work with law enforcement, the better," he said. "They appreciate it."
Appreciation, however, isn't found among the protesters who find themselves facing off with gun-toting strangers in body armor and dark sunglasses.
Carl Moore joined activists in a memorial for Zane James in the summer of 2020 outside of the Cottonwood Heights Police Department. He says UCA's heavily armed presence there forced his group to leave the police station where they had rallied and move down to a nearby school park.
"They were totally intimidating," Moore says of UCA, noting the police, who had clashed with protesters last August, were entirely hands off with the UCA members.
"Talk about a double standard," Moore says.
Keeping the peace?
For Gallaher, however, the lesson of paramilitary groups across the globe is that they undermine the credibility of law enforcement by being seen as attack dogs let off the leash to do the state's dirty work, without any of the accountability.
"The danger at the local level is that (paramilitary groups) undermine the legitimacy of the police," she said. "There's already a lot of communities that don't view the police as legitimate."
If police seem to favor one side, it erodes that trust further.
"The rule of law depends on the police acting impartially," she said.
But whether or not law enforcement agrees with him, Robertson credits his group with helping uphold the rule of law, stating there has been no serious violence or looting at demonstrations where his group has come to back up police.
The closer citizens can work with law enforcement, the better. They appreciate it.
And yet the demonstrations have not always been peaceful. One UCA member, Landon Buttars, is accused of pepper-spraying an opposing protester at an event in Cottonwood Heights. Another member, Randall Craig Schroerlucke, left UCA and showed up later at a protest in West Valley City where charges say he shocked and pepper-sprayed demonstrators and brandished a weapon. Robertson says Schroerlucke had to be restrained by other UCA members. Both are now facing criminal charges.
"They wanted to go up and get in the mix and that's why they're not part of our organization anymore," he said.
He stresses that the organization has evolved. Members receive tactical and self-defense training and now undergo rigorous vetting. He says UCA currently has roughly 200 dues-paying members who have to provide driver's licenses and submit to scrutiny of their social media feeds to help weed out the "wackadoos." They are now leaving their long rifles at home and carrying only sidearms, and they plan on getting uniforms.
"We're getting pretty, pretty close to being like the real deal," he said.
On Jan. 6, as the nation's Capitol was engulfed in chaos, members who Robertson says have been well-vetted by himself and his leadership team also were in force at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. While Robertson says the group is not political they nevertheless were providing security on a volunteer basis for the pro-Trump "Stop the Steal" rally and have done security for other "patriot" rallies.
Robertson says he oversaw more than 70 members at the event. Salt Lake Tribune photographer Rick Egan was pepper-sprayed in the face at the event, but Robertson stressed he does not believe it was a UCA member that attacked Egan and he didn't see the assault as a lapse in his organization's security work.
"Where are the police?" Robertson said. "We can't be everywhere."
In a March legislative committee hearing on SB138, meant to enhance penalties against violent protest, there was a packed house — of United Citizens Alarm members. One of them told the committee about a lawmaker's comment that if people cared about a bill they would attend a hearing to show their support.
"Everyone who cares, please stand up for this bill," the commenter said, at which point every UCA member in the audience — almost the entire audience — got to their feet.
Robertson personally brought SB138 to the bill's sponsor, Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, as part of the group's new efforts on the political front. He was disappointed it didn't pass (it cleared the Senate but never got a House hearing) yet plans on more political activism in the future.
That the bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee and then passed the full Senate is astounding to Mary McCord, a former Department of Justice lawyer and current director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center.
She points out that these armed right-wing police-support groups don't have local or federal standing. And while she notes that when founding father James Madison articulated the need for militias in The Federalist Papers, they had to be called up by the state.
"There is no statute in the country to allow private militias to summon themselves," she said.
Robertson scoffs at this idea.
"Show me the rule that we can't exercise our First and Second Amendment rights," he said. "Show me a rule that citizens can't unite to protect their community."
McCord says it goes back to an 1886 case from Illinois. The state outlawed militias because disputes between labor and big business resulted in both sides creating their own private armies going to war with each other.
"We had these armed private armies engaging in violence and the state said 'we can't be having that,'" she said of the 1886 case.
She notes that even as recently as 2008 in the Heller case, the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia affirmed that the Second Amendment did not prohibit a ban on "private paramilitary organizations."
The presence of armed groups tolerated by the state in Utah has certainly caused confusion.
I think we need a more clear and unambiguous message that armed militia are not needed or welcomed ever in Provo to help with law enforcement in our city.
–Provo City Councilman George Handley
Ty Bellamy, founder of Black Lives for Humanity, says the success of United Citizens Alarm opened the door for myriad groups, including the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, to start joining in exercises of armed intimidation at protests.
"(United Citizens Alarm) were treated like ... celebrities and then all the other yahoos joined the bandwagon," Bellamy said.
Provo City Councilman George Handley also worried about the confusion over who was keeping law and order in a July 2, 2020, email he wrote to the mayor and police chief. In it he described talking with a group of heavily armed individuals at a protest, even meeting some who said they were part of a "snatch team" who would pull out and restrain demonstrators they saw as dangerous.
Handley asked a resident who the group was and the resident figured that it was National Guard because of the gear members carried.
He asked a member of the group, "Do the police want you here? Did they indicate your help was needed? He claimed they did and that (Sgt.) King was very supportive."
Handley noted some residents had trouble discerning who was who among heavily armed participants in such a charged atmosphere. He also remarked how some residents were alarmed in their mistaken belief that militia members were stationed as snipers on nearby roofs, instead of the police.
"I think we need a more clear and unambiguous message that armed militia are not needed or welcomed ever in Provo to help with law enforcement in our city," he wrote.
Robertson, however, sees the group only increasing in influence. After the group was kicked off Facebook last fall for violating the platform's rules, Robertson rebranded the group United Citizens Alarm to give it a broader reach.
"Our focus is Utah, but we're creating a blueprint that could be used in other states," he said.