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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The case of the stolen ammunition began with online extremism

May 4, 2022 Updated Wed., May 4, 2022 at 7:01 p.m.

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

On a pleasant Saturday in early March, a group of seven people headed to a shooting range at Fishtrap Lake.

The group brought a variety of firearms, including an unmarked firearm suppressor. They brought thousands of rounds of military-grade ammunition.

According to court records, their numbers included Air Force Staff Sgt. John I. Sanger; Staff Sgt. Eric Eagleton; Eagleton’s civilian roommate, John Matthew Dorman; senior Airman Jason Chaffey and his wife, Madison; Staff Sgt. Nathan Richards; an unknown white man; and an undercover Air Force agent, who was wearing a recording device.

On that day, they fired thousands of rounds – and spoke openly about how the ammo had been stolen from a Fairchild Air Force Base combat training program.

A couple of weeks later, Sanger texted the undercover officer that more ammo was available.

“Eagle can hook us up with some rounds. Dude’s awesome,” he wrote, according to an FBI affidavit.

“Really?” the undercover officer replied. “How much does he want for them?”

“Nothing. It’s stolen.”

The incautious texts, as well as the conversations at the shooting range, helped the FBI build a case for arresting Sanger and Eagleton on charges of stealing government property and possession of stolen ammunition.

What makes the allegations even more disturbing was what Sanger had posted on social media – racist, anti-Semitic and extremist posts, including calls for killing people over the lie of the stolen election. This lie, as we all know, animated the crowds that tried to stop the election certification at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and continues to poison our politics to this day.

The case against Sanger and Eagleton highlights the uncomfortable problem with extremism in the ranks of the military and law enforcement. Of the roughly 800 people charged criminally in the Jan. 6 insurrection, 70 had military backgrounds. At least 19 current or former law enforcement officers have been charged, as well, with crimes including assaulting a law enforcement officer, according to a report this week in USA Today.

As the Jan. 6 investigations have amply shown, many of the people who besieged the Capitol – who regard themselves absurdly as patriots – were so oblivious to the criminal reality of what they were doing that day that they telegraphed their activities beforehand and bragged about it during and after the riots.

In an attempt to root out extremism in the ranks, the Pentagon has adopted new rules that allow commanders to punish service members for supporting extremists or extremism – including posting, sharing and even liking extremist content online.

In the ammunition case, it was online activity that sparked the investigation.

According to an affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent David White in federal court, the probe began because Sanger was posting about “committing acts of violence to further his political agenda.” The investigation was opened in August , in response to Sanger’s online activity under two social media accounts.

This included Sanger posting on Dec. 2, 2020, about what he thought it meant to “take our government back”: “I think the capital (sic) needs to be seized … No trial or chance to escape.”

A couple of days later, he again called for the violent seizure of the Capitol: “They defrauded our election system and are still getting away with it. That means this system has run it’s (sic) course. People have to die.”

An undercover agent of the Air Force buddied up to Sanger, who made it clear that he believed America’s problems came from Jews and African Americans. Sanger encouraged the agent to read “The Turner Diaries,” a novel which has become a kind of scripture for violent white supremacists, and said he was trying to form “a local cell of like-minded individuals.”

A cell of like-minded racists who think “The Turner Diaries” is good stuff?

How often will this particular loop of ignorance and hatred play out in our history?

In September , the undercover agent met with Sanger and others in downtown Spokane. “This group discussed several topics, including Sanger’s dislike of minorities and his vehement opposition to vaccines,” the affidavit reads.

There were subsequent meetings that are not detailed, and in March of this year, Sanger told the agent that several members of the 92nd Security Forces Squadron Combat Arms Training Management section, including Eagleton, were regularly stealing ammunition.

This, the affidavit says, was the source of thousands of rounds of ammo fired at the Fistrap range on March 12 – the rounds had been stolen and recorded as having been fired during training.

There would be subsequent shootings at the firing range, and investigators obtained more evidence, including video of Eagleton passing along cans of stolen ammo to Sanger in the parking lot of Northern Quest Resort & Casino. The affidavit calling for warrants against the two men was filed in federal court on April 25.

At one point during the investigation, Sanger gave some ammunition to the undercover agent, including “green-tip” rounds – which can penetrate ballistic armor and protective shields meant to block or deflect bullets.

These green-tips, Sanger told him, were the ones he wanted if the feds showed up.

“After providing the (undercover agent) with the stolen munitions, Sanger stated if the ATF knocked on his door, he knew which rounds to load up first,” the affidavit read, “since they were armor-piercing.”

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