By Isaac Stone Simonelli | Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting
SEDONA—Natural light filtered through New Age tapestries covering skylights at the Ultimate Light Mission community center on the outskirts of Sedona, softening the afternoon sun as the woody fragrance of burning palo santo hung in the air.
Inside the two-day Wellness Wave Expo, visitors could choose from products like crystal necklaces or stem-cell activation patches. One vendor offered a product she claimed could protect people from magnetic fields and 5G radiation.
It was an event not uncommon in the affluent area, known for its iconic sandstone towers and mythic status as an anchor point of spiritual energy that draws a global audience of wellness practitioners, yogis and other New Age pilgrims.
But mixed within the Ultimate Light Mission’s schedule of drum circles and full moon ceremonies are trainings that weave together improbable conspiracy theories and promote anti-government ideologies.
By blending alternative wellness offerings with events more traditionally aligned with the far right, experts say such shared spaces have become a pathway to radicalization among populations already predisposed to conspiratorial thinking.
Events like the Freedom Wave, hosted just two weeks after the wellness expo and billed as a “must-see powerhouse presentation where the puzzle comes together,” introduce sometimes unsuspecting adherents of alternative health to conspiracy-laden ideologies like those of sovereign citizens—a resurging movement law enforcement officers once considered the greatest threat to communities in the nation.
“The danger really is that people that are non-extreme are invited into a space that has both non-extreme and extremist content and activities,” said Rachel Goldwasser, a senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a left-leaning activist organization that tracks, labels and exposes hate groups and other domestic extremists.
“They may think that they’re just learning a new financial tip or technique or skill,” she said of such trainings. “The danger lies in the radicalization aspect.”
The connection between the Ultimate Light Mission and sovereign citizen speakers is no coincidence.
Court documents obtained by AZCIR claim that Shelley Evans, who founded the community space, is a member of the so-called sovereign citizen movement. She also instigated a protracted legal fight with the city of Sedona over false, multimillion-dollar liens she and others filed against public officials, a common sovereign tactic prosecutors described as “paper terrorism.”
Her community center has also hosted groups such as the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which promotes a controversial belief that a sheriff’s authority supersedes that of the state or federal government.
Experts said the sheriffs group gained momentum in wellness communities during the COVID-19 pandemic after it backed sheriffs who refused to enforce mask mandates or vaccine requirements.
“There is this pretty strong radicalization pipeline that has been significantly increased because of the pandemic,” said Devin Burghart, president and executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, an advocacy group that combats white nationalism and other forms of bigotry.
Mr. Burghart cited constitutional sheriff groups as a critical bridge that linked those in the wellness community to more extreme ideologies.
“A lot of anti-vaxxers adopted the idea that the sheriff could intervene and prevent public health officials and others from enforcing mandates, enforcing vaccine requirements,” he said.
The common ground, which overlaps in shared spaces like the Ultimate Light Mission, is a growing distrust of institutions fueled further by pandemic-era policies that members of both communities said went too far.
“There was the sense that that government was infringing on their rights and their lives that hadn’t happened previously from their perspective,” said Noah Bookbinder, president and CEO of the left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It really increased the anti-government feeling on the right, but I think more broadly across the board.”
Traditionally, the two main drivers for people in alternative wellness communities to adopt anti-government movements are self-reliance and anti-establishment ideologies, explained Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism and a leading expert on the sovereign citizen movement.
But experts contend that conspiracy theories are starting to play a more significant role in wellness communities’ embrace of these ideas.
In early 2020, authors of the recently published “Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat” noticed the initial phases of pandemic-centered conspiracy theories filling their social media feeds.
The posts started as COVID-19 denialism, then evolved into conversations about the virus being a “nefarious plot to take away” freedoms, “depopulate the globe” or gain control over “our minds,” according to co-author Julian Walker.
The pushback expanded to include sentiments about the government being too big and too invasive. It flowed into an anti-government attitude that put more emphasis on an individual’s beliefs and willingness to take risks, Mr. Walker explained.
As the pandemic raged on, ideas characteristic of QAnon—conspiratorial tropes about the existence of a global cabal of satanic pedophiles and deep-state elites who control world events and actively undermine democracy—seeped into the yoga and alternative wellness worlds. Influencers in the space began using QAnon references and hashtags, ultimately creating what experts call a pipeline to the far right.
“Suddenly, [they were] talking about Adrenochrome and the pedophile cabal and how actually, Donald Trump is a lightworker,” Mr. Walker said of those in the yoga and alternative-wellness communities. “What QAnon really did, is it created a kind of sense of meaning and purpose and a prophetic, conspiratorial narrative about the times.”
The conspiracy theory also attracted people from across the political spectrum who were otherwise not politically engaged or informed, teaching them how to engage in conspiratorial thinking on a broader scale. Ultimately, experts told AZCIR, it created a large, well-primed recruiting field for those in anti-government, anti-establishment spaces.
Sovereign citizen teachers, incorporating their own conspiracy theories about an illegitimate government infringing on individual freedoms, seized the opportunity. They claimed on websites and in online videos to have hacked the system, promising to guide those in this newly minted market to freedom from the de facto government—all for a price.
The flexibility of the sovereign citizen ideology “is one of the things that has allowed it to spread so far, despite being such an extreme belief system,” Mr. Pitcavage said.
Paul Kappel, better known as “Tall Paul,” was one of two speakers at the Freedom Wave event at the Ultimate Light Mission in February.
The lanky man had neatly combed gray and white hair that matched his drooping mustache. With his flannel shirt tucked into a pair of jeans held up by a large silver belt buckle, Mr. Kappel would have looked more at home at a local rodeo than preaching the basics of the sovereign citizen movement to a few dozen people.
Mr. Kappel didn’t speak of a spiritual awakening. He spoke of waking up to reality. A reality where the current U.S. government has been subverted. A reality where people’s identities as they know them are just trusts created in their names by the federal government.
Speaking quickly with a preacher’s cadence, Mr. Kappel outlined the steps he said were necessary for people to remove themselves from the system and stop doing things like paying taxes or their mortgages.
“It feels very convenient for somebody to say that the laws don’t apply to them, when on some level, they are benefiting from the protection of those laws,” said Daniel Medwed, a distinguished professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University. “They’ve constructed a theory that is not legally sound, but by drawing on antiquated or obsolete or dated legal concepts, they try to give it the appearance of legitimacy.”
Robin Haywood, a middle-aged woman with blonde-streaked hair and a moldavite ring, was among those attending Mr. Kappel’s talk.
The founder of Haywakeup, Ms. Haywood offers services based on a variety of alternative wellness practices, including reiki. While the sovereign “seed” was planted for her in New Hampshire, Ms. Haywood was first introduced to Mr. Kappel and the details of the sovereign citizen movement through a contact in Prescott.
As of March, she was completing a so-called status correction, paperwork sovereign citizens believe begins the process of disentangling an individual from the U.S. government when filed with county recorders. Ms. Haywood said her primary focus was finishing status correction so she would “be walking outside” current legal regulations, such as needing a driver’s license or paying taxes.
She said the four-hour presentation was “meaty in terms of the content,” while the space itself was comfortable. She didn’t balk at the myriad conspiracy theories shared that day.
During the question-and-answer section at the end of the seminar, Mr. Kappel told the crowd that he was interested in cultivating an army of teachers, not just individual practitioners. Those teachers, in turn, would train more teachers, spreading his truth of sovereignty—a vision that resonated with Ms. Haywood.
“I’ve always known I’ve been here for a higher purpose,” she said.
Mr. Kappel’s voice became agitated as he made it clear that all teachings had to be done in person, however. No Skype. No Zoom. He didn’t want what they were doing to “get out.”
AZCIR’s Brendon Derr contributed reporting to this story.