LOUISVILLE—On Wednesday night, at least 20 members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, were observed guarding storefronts in downtown Louisville amid sometimes violent unrest over the lack of charges in the police killing of Breonna Taylor. The businesses included Bader’s Food Mart—which is also a Shell gas station—Stewart’s Pawn Shop, and Hampton Inn Downtown Louisville, all at or near the intersection of Jefferson and South 1st Street. All of the businesses, besides the hotel, appeared to be closed at the time.
The heavily armed men—many bearing rifles, night-vision goggles, and wearing camouflage—were seen on the roof of Stewart’s Pawn Shop, the perimeter of the Shell station, and in the Hampton Inn parking lot. When asked why they were present, one militia member, who gave his name only as Angry Spongebob, said the owner of the Shell had received threats against the business.
“She was told that people wanted to burn it down to the ground,” he told The Daily Beast. “We know her and so we came out to help protect it, because if it goes up, then it takes a significant portion of this block with it.”
He didn’t clarify who “she” referred to, but records filed with the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office list Paula T. Bader as the president, secretary, and treasurer of Bader’s Food Mart, and she has been identified as the owner in local media reports. In a telephone conversation Thursday, a purported leader of the Oath Keepers on the ground in Louisville, who gave his name as Mike Whipp, said they had been invited by Bader to keep tabs on her business, as well as the pawn shop.
According to Whipp, “[Bader] told us she was targeted by activists.”
Bader could not immediately be reached for comment, but the food mart does have a history of violence—and of drawing activist ire.
In July, an employee was reportedly shot during an armed robbery attempt. And early this month, an employee reportedly shot a customer after a verbal altercation, according to local police. The individual was fired and later charged with assault.
On Sept. 4, a day after the employee allegedly shot a customer, activists with megaphones entered the store, leading Bader to close the place for several days.
“He was wrong,” she told local outlet WDRB of her fired employee. But she also seemed to take umbrage at the prospect of being targeted by local activists.
“They were waiting on customers,” she said. “The next thing they know, the store is full of people with the megaphones.”
That day, an account listed under Bader’s name posted on Facebook, “This is the damage, looting and peaceful protesting that occurred at my store. Bader’s Food Mart last night. Do you notice the small children. SMH.”
When asked Thursday about the presence of a far-right militia group, a man who identified himself as the manager of Stewart’s Pawn Shop and gave only the first name Jeremy told The Daily Beast, “I just work during the day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and have no idea if our owners made a deal with those guys.”
When asked about the Shell station, he added, “I do know if it burns, it will harm a lot of people in the city.” Shell corporate did n0t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reached for comment Thursday, Stuart Stein, who is listed in state records as an incorporator of the pawn shop, confirmed he was an owner, but told The Daily Beast, “No comment, talk to someone at the store.” Attempts to reach other individuals listed on incorporation paperwork were unsuccessful.
For her part, Mindy Wilson, general manager of Hampton Inn Downtown, told The Daily Beast of the militia, “We don’t know anything about them, so you can stop calling.” Hilton Corporate did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Oath Keepers are a virulently anti-government group founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, a former Ron Paul aide. They have been a fixture at protests and political hot spots in recent years, from Ferguson to Trump rallies, and have been banned from Twitter after peddling conspiracy theories expressing thirst for Civil War.
Followers have also been implicated in a slew of violent crimes in recent years, from bomb scares to threats against the government to rape, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Members of the Oath Keepers group in Louisville claimed they were made up of patriots, Kentuckians, Louisville residents, former and retired members of the military, firefighters, and law enforcement who were merely trying to protect their community. The member who identified himself as Angry Spongebob expressed condolences to the family of Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician who was fatally shot during a botched attempt to serve a warrant on her home.
Spongebob said burning the city down was misguided and unfair to the public. There was no evidence of this taking place, despite sporadic small fires in garbage cans on Wednesday.
“Go to Frankfort, go to City Hall, don’t take out frustrations on private business owners,” Spongebob told The Daily Beast, blaming the lawlessness on elected officials like Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who declined to charge any cop for killing Taylor.
As they often have at protests in recent weeks, the militiamen seemed to operate without harassment from local law enforcement, at least in the hours The Daily Beast observed them after the 9 p.m. curfew on Wednesday. Louisville Metro Police and the Kentucky National Guard did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, police said they made 123 arrests, mostly for unlawful assembly and curfew violations, on Wednesday. At least three journalists were reported to be among them. At least two officers were also shot during the chaos.
Whipp, the Oath Keeper spokesperson, suggested there was no reason for his group to catch flak for being out past curfew. This despite increased scrutiny of the seemingly cozy ties between armed vigilantes and police after 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse—who allegedly shot and killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August—walked by cops unbothered shortly afterward. On the streets that night, Rittenhouse had attached himself to what amounted to an armed gang of militiamen.
“We generally don’t have trouble from the police,” Whipp told The Daily Beast. “Police did perceive one of our members as a threat, but we calmed them down, and stated our purpose.”