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Thursday, September 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Lawyer: Stevens County militia leader fled to West Virginia to escape threats, not authorities

UPDATED: Thu., June 27, 2019, 11:40 a.m.

James “Russell” Bolton, 51, is seen in an undated booking photo from a jail in West Virginia. U.S. marshals arrested Bolton on May 6, 2019, after Stevens County detectives determined he was responsible for a series of anonymous threatening letters delivered to members of his own right-wing militia group. (West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority)
James “Russell” Bolton, 51, is seen in an undated booking photo from a jail in West Virginia. U.S. marshals arrested Bolton on May 6, 2019, after Stevens County detectives determined he was responsible for a series of anonymous threatening letters delivered to members of his own right-wing militia group. (West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority)

A lawyer for James “Russell” Bolton, a Stevens County man accused of extorting members of his own right-wing militia group, says Bolton was not trying to hide from authorities when he fled to his father’s house in West Virginia.

Bolton, 51, was actually running from other right-wing activists who had threatened him, according to his attorney, Steve Graham. In an email, Graham said Bolton’s case “will bring to light some of the rivalries among right-leaning political groups around here.”

Bolton, who mounted an unsuccessful campaign to lead the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office in 2010, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to five counts of extortion and one count of attempted theft.

Stevens County detectives determined Bolton was responsible for a series of anonymous threatening letters that were delivered in late February to members of his militia group, the Stevens County Assembly. The letters purported to have come from a Mexican cartel and demanded large sums of cash in exchange for protection.

Bolton also is accused of pushing an associate down a flight of stairs and trying to suffocate him with a plastic bag in Spokane. In an attempt to extract more money from that man, Bolton allegedly claimed his own wife had been kidnapped and was being held for a $100,000 ransom.

A nationwide arrest warrant was issued on April 22, and U.S. marshals apprehended Bolton on the night of May 6 while raiding his father’s house in Princeton, West Virginia.

Bolton was held in multiple detention facilities en route back to Washington. Last week, he was transferred from the Spokane County Jail to Stevens County, where he posted bail after Superior Court Judge Patrick Monasmith set his bond at $30,000.

Graham argued Bolton was not a flight risk but feared reprisals from other right-wing figures. In court, Graham filed several exhibits, including what he said is a transcription of a phone message that Bolton received from a man named John Valle.

Valle, 42, is a precinct committee officer for the Stevens County Republican Party and a member of the Three Percenters, a wing of the militia movement that has urged sheriffs and county commissioners across Washington to oppose or ignore Initiative 1639, the gun control law that voters passed in November.

According to the transcription of Valle’s message, he told Bolton: “We have a team of investigators, both in military intelligence, retired and current law enforcement that are investigating you, OK? You need to stop your shenanigans. You need to stop your crap. … You will be liable, OK? We know where you’re at, we know where you live, we know where your son lives. We know everything, OK?”

In a court declaration, Bolton’s attorney cited the words “we will find you” and “we will come for you” as evidence that Valle was threatening to harm Bolton.

In a phone call Wednesday, Valle did not dispute the contents of the transcribed message but said he had only threatened to take legal action against Bolton. He said Bolton had claimed to be an attorney and had spread false information about the campaign against I-1639.

“Basically, what it was was me blowing a bunch of smoke, trying to get him to stop scamming people,” Valle said. “He’s a total scam artist.”

In court, Graham also filed a handwritten statement by Bolton’s father, who described the raid at his home in West Virginia.

“On May 6, 2019, around 10 p.m., I was in my kitchen fixing a snack before Russell and I watched ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’ I heard a loud bang come from the living room and thought my TV had blown up,” Bolton’s father wrote. “I put down my plate and started towards the living room to see what had happened. As I started to turn the corner by my fridge, a marshal was suddenly in my face shining a bright light and pointing a riot gun at me.”

Bolton’s father also complained that authorities had broken open his front door and torn down curtains and a closet door in an upstairs bedroom. “This was the worst experience of my life,” he wrote.

A spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service has said that Bolton was arrested without incident.

Graham wrote in his declaration: “It is clear that Mr. Bolton did not attempt to flee and was fully cooperative with the officers. Had the authorities simply appeared at the door and knocked (or telephoned him), Mr. Bolton would have peacefully left with the agents.”

Meanwhile, the Stevens County Assembly has fallen apart in Bolton’s absence. Timothy Schwantz, who briefly led the group after Bolton left the area, said a shouting match erupted at a June 10 meeting in which the group elected Ken Barker as its new leader. Barker ran unsuccessfully for Stevens County sheriff in 2014.

Schwantz, 62, said about 15 members of the Assembly agreed to disband and regroup sometime next year.

“I really thought we would have a shootout by now,” he said. “And thank God it hasn’t come to that.”

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