GRANBURY, Texas — In late August, the constable in a small county outside Fort Worth logged on to his Facebook account and called for the execution of a mayor nearly 2,000 miles away.
“Ted Wheeler needs to be tried, convicted and executed posthaste,” John D. Shirley wrote on Aug. 31. “He has blood on his hands, and it’s time for justice.”
What precipitated Shirley’s outburst against the mayor of Portland, Ore., was the shooting death on Aug. 29 of a member of a right-wing group called Patriot Prayer by an antifa activist. The killing was a violent escalation of clashes that had roiled Portland in the weeks since George Floyd was suffocated to death by police. Shirley said “patriots” in “socialist-controlled cities” needed to protect themselves. As the presidential election approached, he warned of “open conflict.” Twitter suspended his account shortly after, but he continued to post about violent disputes on Facebook with crescendoing alarmism.
“If you doubt these lefties won’t put you and your family against a wall and pull the trigger, then you aren’t paying attention,” Shirley said on Oct. 10. “Their hatred for you is palpable. We dare never let them regain power again.”
Since 2018, Shirley has been the constable of Hood County, a conservative, mostly white community outside of Fort Worth popular among retirees. As constable, Shirley is empowered to serve warrants and subpoenas and make arrests. It might seem odd that an elected member of law enforcement would incite violence against another democratically elected official in one of the nation’s largest cities. But Shirley was also a sworn member of Oath Keepers, which in recent months has been warning of a civil war.
Depending on whom you ask, Oath Keepers is either “the last line of defense against tyranny” or an extremist militia. They describe themselves as a nonpartisan association of tens of thousands of current and former military, police and first responders who pledge to defend the Constitution and refuse to obey orders they consider unconstitutional. The Southern Poverty Law Center on the other hand lists Oath Keepers as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today” and has kept tabs on incidents involving members that may betray the idea that the group is just about defending the Constitution. In 2010, for example, a man in Tennessee driving a truck with an Oath Keepers logo was accused in a plot to arrest two dozen local officials.
By the time he was posting about Wheeler, Shirley had been an Oath Keeper for more than a decade, serving on the organization’s board of directors, as its national peace officer liaison, and as the Texas chapter president. But he isn’t the only elected official in Hood County affiliated with the group. One member, a newly elected justice of the peace, said in February that Oath Keepers was having a “surgence” there. Shirley has described an incoming county commissioner as an Oath Keeper.