VALLEJO – Solano County Sheriff Tom Ferrara announced on Friday that he would run for reelection in 2022, seeking another four-year term after 10 years in the position.
Ferrara has faced recent controversy after it was revealed that several deputies posted symbols of the Three Percenter anti-government militia on social media. Ferrara declined to investigate the extent of extremism in his department, falsely said the FBI cleared the deputies of association with extremist groups, and has faced calls for new oversight of his office.
In a video message posted on Facebook Friday morning, Ferrara touted the support of the deputies’ union and the correctional officers’ union. “Now more than ever Solano County needs proven leadership,” Ferrara said. “I have shown this type of leadership through multiple disasters, civil unrest and the pandemic, which we’ve all experienced in the last few years.”
Ferrara was appointed sheriff in 2012 after his predecessor retired. He won his first election unopposed in 2014 and fended off challenges from sheriff’s Deputy Daryl Snedeker and Fairfield police Lt. Dan Marshall in 2018.
But Ferrara has faced political controversy and protest in recent months after an investigative report revealed that three high-profile members of his staff had openly displayed Three Percenter emblems on social media pages.
They included Sgt. Roy Stockton, a Vacaville councilmember who was endorsed by Ferrara, Sgt. Cully Pratt, the department’s former public information officer, SWAT team member Sgt. Ty Pierce, and Deputy Dale Matsuoka, the department’s homeless outreach coordinator.
In response to the revelations, Ferrara said in a statement that the employees named “all serve this agency and this community with passion and dedication.”
Ferrara argued that the deputies had intended to show support for the 2nd Amendment, but Three Percenter groups often call for violent resistance to the federal government if they interpret restrictions on gun possession as against their interpretation of the Constitution. Three Percenter groups have been implicated in bombing and kidnapping plots and the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
The sheriff later defended the deputies by writing in letters to Benicia Black Lives Matter and the Solano County Democratic Central Committee that he “consulted with the FBI, who confirmed none of my employees are members of any extremist organizations.”
But the FBI disputed Ferrara’s statement, saying that it did not track participation in extremist groups nor is it “sufficient basis for an FBI investigation.”
Unsatisfied by the sheriff’s response, members of Benicia Black Lives Matter have called for the Solano County Board of Supervisors to create an oversight board of the sheriff’s office.
But only Supervisor Monica Brown supported even discussing the suggestion. Meanwhile, the Solano County Republicans have organized in opposition to any new oversight.
Benicia Black Lives Matter has continued to protest the sheriff’s office, including staging a rally outside the sheriff’s office on the anniversary of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Scott Morris is an independent journalist in Oakland covering policing, protest and civil rights. If you appreciate his work please consider making a contribution.
The FBI called into question Solano Sheriff Tom Ferrara’s claim that agents cleared members of his department of links to a far-right extremist group as the sheriff seeks to minimize fallout from revelations that several deputies promoted imagery associated with the Three Percenter movement on social media.
There is no indication the deputies committed a crime through their posts. However, federal prosecutors have linked Three Percenters, a loose-knit anti-government militia, to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and other acts of domestic terrorism across the country. Following publication of the article, local, state and federal officials called for an investigation into the extent of extremist support in the sheriff’s office.
Ferrara indicated he would not formally investigate the deputies’ conduct. He instead has launched what appears to be a political defense in recent weeks, sending letters to progressive organizations suggesting federal investigators had done so for him.
“I have consulted with the FBI, who confirmed none of my employees are members of any extremist organizations,” Ferrara wrote in a March 22 letter to the Solano County Democratic Central Committee. He repeated the claim in an April 12 letter to Benicia Black Lives Matter. The sheriff’s office employs more than 500 people.
According to emails obtained by Open Vallejo, on Feb. 17, Ferrara forwarded a request for comment from Open Vallejo to Sean Ragan, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Sacramento field office, who called Ferrara to discuss the situation. Ferrara did not respond to questions about the substance of his call with Ragan.
The FBI appeared to cast doubt on Ferrara’s version of events. Reached for comment about the claims contained in Ferrara’s letters, FBI spokesperson Gina Swankie said the agency does not investigate or track membership in domestic political groups.
“Investigations by the [FBI] focus solely on alleged criminal activity of individuals,” Swankie said in a statement to Open Vallejo. “A group which may espouse domestic extremist ideology is not illegal in and of itself, no matter how offensive their views may be, and membership in any group is neither tracked nor is sufficient basis for an FBI investigation,” she said.
Veterans of the FBI cast further doubt on Ferrara’s claims, saying it is unlikely the agency would have told the sheriff that his employees are not members of extremist organizations.
Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and former FBI agent who studies domestic terrorism, said the agency’s focus is on investigating violations of federal law.
“It would not be proper for the FBI to provide the information to a local law enforcement officer simply so that it can be passed on to the media for public release,” German said.
John Bennett, former Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s San Francisco field office, said the FBI would not investigate members of the sheriff’s office unless it believed that there had been a violation of federal law. While the FBI might not alert department leadership to such an investigation under certain circumstances, it is likely the head of an agency would know if the FBI had an open inquiry into anyone in their department, he said.
“A disciplined and honorable leader of an agency would not make a public statement contrary to what they know is the truth about the status of an FBI inquiry,” Bennett said. “If the Bureau comes out later with contrary statements, that department and its leadership will lose credibility.”
In his letter to Benicia Black Lives Matter Ferrara also said photographs referenced in Open Vallejo’s report that depicted firearms and Three Percenter symbolism were “taken over four years ago.”
But many of the posts were much more recent than that. Sgt. Roy Stockton, now a Vacaville City Councilmember, shared Three Percenter posts on Instagram as recently as 2019 and had Three Percenter items on his online leatherwork store through mid-April. Deputy Dale Matsuoka, the sheriff’s homeless outreach coordinator, changed his Facebook profile picture to a Three Percenter emblem just after the 2020 election. It remained on his public profile after the article was published.
Journalist Katie Way discovered this month that a fourth sheriff’s employee, SWAT team member Sgt. Ty Pierce, also displayed Three Percenter symbols on his Instagram page. Pierce, who has since made his Instagram private, did not respond to detailed written questions about his posts.
Ferrara’s letter went on to say that since the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, he has educated himself on Three Percenter ideology and trained his staff in extremism, claiming without evidence that the movement has evolved. “We learned that the ideology of the III percenters has changed since the posts were first made,” Ferrara wrote.
Three Percenters have called for violent resistance to the federal government and anticipated a second civil war since the movement’s inception. Researchers have tracked the group’s origins to the Sipsey Streets Irregulars blog. In its second post in 2008, author Mike Vanderboegh, a longtime militia member from Alabama, referred to the recent election of President Barack Obama and anticipated he would enact tougher gun control laws.
“There are American gun owners, the Three Percent, who will resist these laws,” Vanderboegh wrote. “Three Percenters’ resistance will provoke government violence to compel their obeisance. The administration will kick in the doors of American gun owners to achieve this allegedly ‘reasonable’ objective. Shots will be fired, and the next American civil war will be off and running.”
Since then, Three Percenter groups have splintered into a network of loosely affiliated individuals and organizations across the country. Some Three Percenter groups claim to be represented in every state. They have ties to other far right movements like the Oath Keepers and Boogaloo and have provided security for white nationalists, such as during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017 where a counter-protester was killed.
Months before Sgt. Cully Pratt posted a photo of a rifle rack with the Three Percenter logo he made for Stockton in 2016, Three Percenter groups were involved in an armed standoff with federal authorities in Oregon that left a man dead.
Benicia Black Lives Matter co-founder Brandon Greene said in an interview that if the FBI investigated and found the deputies had no involvement in extremist groups, then that investigation should be made public. “We don’t know what it entails, what the methodology was,” Greene said.
“It would be strange to me if any sort of FBI investigation happened so rapidly,” Greene said.
Greene and other activists have pushed for the county Board of Supervisors to discuss the possibility of extremist ideologies in the sheriff’s office and for the board to exercise its authority under AB 1185, a new law that took effect this year, to establish a community oversight board with the power to oversee the sheriff’s office.
“The only person we have heard from is [Supervisor] Monica Brown and only to say they have no power,” Greene said. “We asked for very specific demands in our letter and there has been silence.”
Brown, who represents Benicia and part of Vallejo, said last month that she found the extremist groups described in Open Vallejo’s original investigation “deeply disturbing.” But she told Bay City News last week that she trusts the FBI. “I also trust Tom, he keeps tight reins on his employees,” she said.
In a statement to Open Vallejo, Brown reiterated that she could not comment on specific county employees and that the sheriff is an independent elected official.
She said her statement to Bay City News “was based on the understanding that the FBI investigated and found nothing” but that the FBI’s statement in response “calls that into question.”
“I will have to evaluate what options are available,” Brown said.
Scott Morris is an independent journalist in Oakland and San Francisco covering police use of force, civil rights, protest and neighborhood news. In 2020 he was a reporter with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network based at the Bay City News Foundation.
Solano County Sheriff Thomas Ferrara has come under fire from critics claiming he hasn’t been completely transparent when he said federal law enforcement cleared several of his deputies of being members of an extremist organization.
Ferrara told Benicia Black Lives Matter (BBLM) in a letter this week that the FBI “confirmed none of my employees are members of any extremist organizations.”
This includes the Three Percenters militia group, which advocates for the Second Amendment and the right for private gun ownership, along with active resistance toward the U.S. government.
Ferrara and the Sheriff’s Office have not released any official reports or documents supporting Ferrara’s claim that his deputies were absolved of being part of an extremist organization.
“I’m not comfortable with the sheriff’s response,” said Nimat Shakoor-Grantham, co-founder of BBLM, on Thursday. “(Ferrara) has proof that deputies in his office supported these groups in the past. You can take off the uniform but you can’t take off the bias.”
Three Percenters are an anti-government militia named after the mistaken idea that only 3 percent of the American colonists fought in the revolution against Great Britain.
Shakoor-Grantham pointed to the firing of a Fresno police officer after he allegedly participated in a rally held by the far-right extremist group Proud Boys in mid-March. The officer was placed on leave the following day and then subsequently terminated.
“What other proof does this sheriff need?” she added. “The FBI has deemed militia organizations like this as terrorist groups.”
In its letter, which was also directed at the Benicia City Council, BBLM demanded that Ferrara and the council “not only visibly and vocally condemn right wing extremism, but also pledge to conduct afull investigation both at the County level and at the City level to ensure that policies and procedures – including those focused on recruitment and disciplinary actions – are in place to actively expel these extremists from the ranks of law enforcement and to prevent their recruitment in the first place.”
Brandon Greene, co-founder of BBLM, said Ferrara’s letter showed his unwillingness to weed out extremists in his office and be transparent about his investigation.
“Where is this FBI report?” asked Greene on Thursday. “Put it out to the public and community for scrutiny.”
The county did not respond to a request from this news organization to see the FBI report.
Both Greene and Shakoor-Grantham said the Solano County Board of Supervisors’ decision not to get involved is frustrating.
“The sheriff is almost emboldened by the lack of Board of Supervisor action,” Greene added.
Greene said BBLM sent a letter asking the board to do something, with Supervisor Monica Brown the only one to respond.
“(Supervisor) Monica Brown said the board didn’t have the power to investigate,” Greene said.
Greene says that isn’t true, as a newly enacted law, Assembly Bill 1185, allows the board to create a civilian sheriff oversight board and inspector general position. The board and inspector general would have subpoena power to investigate issues within the sheriff’s office.
Shakoor-Grantham and Greene said they have approached the board to have an item placed on the agenda to discuss the issues raised by the Open Vallejo investigation.
“So far, it’s been crickets,” Shakoor-Grantham said. “They won’t talk about it.”
A request for comment sent to the clerk of the Solano County Board of Supervisors wasn’t immediately returned on Thursday.
Ferrara continues to reject the findings from Open Vallejo’s investigation, claiming he found “no merit” in the allegations made in the report.
Open Vallejo originally reported that members of Ferrara’s office displayed imagery and support to the Three Percenters over social media during the past few years. Former Solano County sheriff’s Public Information Officer Daniel “Cully” Pratt, who owns a wood-working business, made a gun display rack for his colleague Sgt. Roy Stockton in 2016. Cully Pratt’s brother is well-known actor Chris Pratt.
The piece includes Three Percenter imagery, like 13 shotgun shells arranged in a circle around the Roman numeral III. It also has “WILL NOT COMPLY,” at the bottom of the display. Cully Pratt used the hashtag “#3percenter,” and “blackgunsmatter,” among others in the Instagram post.
Cully Pratt told The Vacaville Reporter in response to the Open Vallejo article that the symbols in the post were “believed to be strictly in support of the 2nd Amendment and Pro-America — not in any way extremist anti-government views.”
However, in the same year Cully Pratt unveiled his art on Instagram, Three Percenters from Idaho sent some of its members over to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon during an armed standoff with federal officials.
Stockton, who was recently elected to the Vacaville City Council, also sold leather products under the name High Brass Leather and another business. As of Thursday evening, the High Brass Leather website had been taken down. For a time, a product was displayed on the site showing a coiled snake and a Roman numeral three surrounded by 13 stars.
Open Vallejo also uncovered that Ferrara’s office homeless outreach coordinator, Deputy Dale Matsuoka, under the name Matt Daley posted Three Percenter imagery over his social media.
With the lack of information coming from the Board of Supervisors and Ferrara’s office, Shakoor-Grantham says she is fearful interacting with sheriff’s deputies.
“I can’t call the sheriff’s office for support,” she said. “I don’t want them coming to my house. I’m a Black woman. It scares me.”
Repost from DeSmogBlog [Editor: DeSmog refers here to an October 2014 article by Curtis Tate of McClatchy News that first broke this story. I regret that the Benicia Independent failed to take note of this important article back then. I will add that I have mixed feelings about this report. Folks my age are aware of a long history of rogue investigations by the FBI, and we’ve become understandably wary of government agencies that serve the needs of corporate interests. Nonetheless, I fear that there are in fact real and horrendous risks of security attacks by unbalanced individuals on the left and the right – and abroad. For me, this is only one more reason to ban oil trains. – RS]
FBI Advisory: Oil Trains At Risk of “Extremist” Attack, But Lacks “Specific Information” To Verify
Rail industry lobbying groupspublished the one-page FBI Private Sector Advisory as an exhibit to a jointly-submitted August 2014 comment sent to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT), which has proposed “bomb trains” regulations currently under review by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
In August 2014, DeSmog also reported that in Maryland, rail company Norfolk Southern submitted a July 23, 2014 legal filing to the Maryland Department of the Environment citing Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in its attempt to justify keeping oil-by-rail routes a trade secret. Norfolk submitted that filing merely five days after the FBI published its Private Sector Advisory.
While Norfolk Southern cited Biden Laden and Al Qaeda in its affidavit, the FBI honed in on the Islamic State (IS), also sometimes referred to as the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL). It also mentioned Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — and Osama Bin Laden.
Like Maryland, the rail industry lobbying groups cited the FBI Advisory as a way to argue against disclosing oil-by-rail routes to the public.
“It is not just environmental extremists who pose a threat to the transportation of crude by rail. Foreign terrorists are also a risk,” wrote the industry lobbying groups. “Two publications reportedly by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula contain threats against crude oil trains…Furthermore, information from Osama Bin Laden’s compound indicates that Al-Qaeda has contemplated attacks on trains.”
Louis Warchot, an attorney for the Association of American Railroads, co-authored the comment submitted to DOT.
Before working for the association, Warchot “served in the United States Armed Forces and retired in the rank of Colonel in the United States Army Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps.” On top of his law, business masters and undergraduate degrees from University of California-Berkeley, Warchot also has a masters from the U.S. Army War College in Strategic Studies.
“Extremism” or Peaceful Activism?
In the FBI‘s advisory, it never uses the term “activist” or “advocate,” opting instead for the term “extremist.” So what does an “extremist” do and what exactly constitutes an extremist?
“Environmental extremists,” explains the Bureau, “believe the use of fossil fuels contributes to the destruction of our environment and may believe that transport of crude oil creates the potential for environmental hazardous train derailments and oil spills.”
It’s a definition that almost anyone who understands the science of climate change or is concerned about oil train explosions could fall under. The FBI then lays out what these “extremists” do.
According to the FBI, they use social media to spread awareness of oil-by-rail routes (like sharing a link to the ForestEthics website “Oil Train Blast Zone”) and make or send “threatening” phone calls or emails to industry, contractors or others associated with moving crude by rail.
“The FBI should be looking carefully at the imminent threat oil trains pose to millions of Americans living in the blast zone, but they should then turn their attention to the lax rules from the Department of Transportation and the oil and rail industry who fight common sense safety steps and hide train routes from emergency responders,” Ross Hammond, US Campaigns Director for ForestEthics, told DeSmog.
Speaking of threats, perhaps the FBI should concern itself with the explosive oil-by-rail trains that pass underneath West Point and right next to nuclear missile launch sites, rather than things that fall under the purview of First Amendment-protected speech threatening to industry profits.
*An earlier version of this article cited Chemical Security News as the first website to report on the FBI document. McClatchy DC was actually the first news outlet to report on the document’s existence as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation oil-by-rail rulemaking docket back in October 2014. We regret the error.
Photo Credit: First responders in Lac Megantic via Transportation Board of Canada.