SARASOTA — Last spring a respected detective for this city's police department went to the local courthouse and did something stupid.
At the time, Tom Laughlin, a twice-married 41-year-old father of four, was worried about the unstable economy. He found unsettling politicians' talk about cutting the pensions of public employees, and he didn't like President Barack Obama's health care plan. He had some vague notion of wanting to get back to this country's "roots."
Following the advice of his older brother, he filed a set of strange documents, declaring himself "a flesh and blood, living, breathing, biological man," and an "American National Sovereign." The documents seemed to say he was no longer a citizen and didn't have to follow any laws. "I, one Thomas Michael Laughlin Senior, Free man ... "
What he thought he was doing, he has insisted ever since, was making a simple political statement.
What he actually was doing was affiliating with an estimated 300,000 disgruntled Americans who believe the government is illegitimate. Not all "sovereigns" are the same. Some file documents and do nothing else. Some don't pay their taxes. Some don't think they have to have plates on their cars. And some murder police officers.
That is what happened last May, in West Memphis, Ark., two weeks after Laughlin finished filing his documents. The FBI was asking questions about the larger "sovereign" movement. In Sarasota, at the police station, people began asking questions about Tom Laughlin.
He was a government employee proclaiming an antigovernment ideology. He was an enforcer of laws who had affiliated with people who break them. He was trained to spot bunk but in this instance had not. He was fired, and this month, his appeal failed. The unraveling was complete.
"I sit here," he said not long ago, "and I say, 'How in God's name did I get here?' "
• • •
He's Sarasota born and raised, the youngest of the three Laughlin boys, Jimmy, Timmy and Tommy.
Jimmy is a natural salesman, family members say, for better or for worse.
Timmy started with drinks and drugs as a teenager and never changed. He's in prison because of a rape charge that got dropped to battery.
He liked football and BMX bikes. He once set off fireworks in the woods and started a fire. He drove underage. He got speeding tickets. He sniffed "rush," a crude upper, he said on a job application, but "one time only." He was a disinterested student at Sarasota High School, flunking Spanish, English, algebra and American history twice. He got his GED. He worked at the gas station his father owned, not far from the police station, and he met lots of cops. He pumped their gas. He sold them dip. He married his first wife when he was barely 18. Their first child came not long after that.
He decided he wanted to become a police officer.
He got hired by the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office as a guard at the county jail. He did that for six years. He worked second jobs at a 7-Eleven and a mental hospital. His evaluations were good. "A model for others to follow," his boss at the jail once wrote. He got hired by the Bradenton Police Department as a patrol officer. He kept applying to become an officer back where he grew up.
Sarasota police interviewers asked him how he goes about making important decisions. "Have all the facts," he said. "Don't jump in." They cited his "good common sense."
Compared with his brothers, his uncle John Laughlin said, he was "the best of the lot."
The Sarasota police hired him in 1996. He signed an oath: "I will at all times maintain and conduct myself in a manner befitting a police officer of the City of Sarasota."
• • •
Laughlin in 1998 got suspended for five days for hitting in the head a drunk, handcuffed inmate who spit on him. He got suspended three years later for two days for fighting with a fellow officer.
But for the most part, according to his evaluations and his co-workers, he was a good cop. He helped disarm a man who shot some people in a crowd. He saved a man who drove his car into Sarasota Bay. He solved some high-profile cold cases. "Among the top producers on the squad," his supervisors said.
He got divorced. He got remarried. He had another kid. He lost both his parents. Timmy went to prison. Just Jimmy and Tommy now.
Then, early last year, Jimmy watched a video on YouTube. It was called "Meet Your Strawman." A woman said in a singsong voice: "There's a human you and a paper you." And: "The government doesn't want you to know." The video led him to information about a man named Tim Turner, a self-described "guru" of "sovereigns," who charges people hundreds of dollars to hear his ideas in hotel seminars called "America Can Be Free." Jimmy signed up for a seminar in Jacksonville. He came home and told his younger brother about what he had learned.
His older brother, Laughlin said, has this knack: "He gets a pile of dog poop and shapes it up into something that you will beg for." Laughlin watched him start a window-tinting business when he was still a teenager. Cars lined up at their parents' house. Hundred bucks a pop. All his life, he has flipped real estate, refurbished junk cars, made money.
Laughlin said his brother told him to sell his rental homes at the height of the market. That worked out.
Laughlin said his brother told him to invest in gold. That also, he says, has worked out.
Now here he was talking about some documents he had gotten at the Tim Turner seminar, and how he was going to sign them, and how Laughlin should sign them, too.
Consider Tom Laughlin: He believes it's only a matter of time before the dollar collapses. He believes something called the Amero is going to take over. This makes him not a pessimist, he says, but a realist. He has no guns except the one work gives him. He mows his lawn twice a week because he likes it neat. He packs bag lunches. He prays before he eats. He believes the Bible is the absolute truth. He doesn't try to interpret it because there's no interpretation necessary.
He signed the papers.
• • •
The documents were filed. He talked about them at work and his colleagues rolled their eyes and poked some fun. Shortly thereafter, though, three things happened that made the situation much worse.
The first was that a man got pulled over in West Memphis and his 16-year-old son got out of their minivan with an AK-47 and killed two police officers. This prompted the FBI to send to law enforcement agencies all around the country an intelligence bulletin about "sovereign citizens."
It's hard to describe the "movement" because people who call themselves "sovereigns" assert their individuality in different ways. But they all agree that government is an adversary. By filing these documents, "sovereigns" think they can "reclaim" something called their "strawman," an account with maybe millions of dollars in it that they say the government has hidden from its rightful owners.
Of greater concern to law enforcement, though, is when "sovereigns" use their beliefs to justify criminal activity. Like last May in West Memphis.
In Sarasota, when the FBI's intelligence bulletin arrived in e-mail inboxes at the police station, detectives peered over their cubicles and looked at Laughlin.
"No," he said, "that's not what I'm involved in at all."
The second thing that happened was another traffic stop, this time in St. Augustine, in June. Laughlin and his brother were driving their cars on the way to a vacation and got pulled over for speeding. Jimmy told the Florida Highway Patrol trooper he didn't have to show his license or get out of his cream-colored Lexus SUV because he had "sovereign immunity." Laughlin told his brother he had to cooperate with the trooper. The episode rattled Laughlin so much he turned around and went home.
Jimmy didn't just ignore the ticket. He also sent the trooper documents saying that the charges had to be dropped and that he was suing him for $150,000. He was charged with extortion. Then he sent the trooper yet more documents, demanding $8,064,000,000 in "penalties." The extortion charges eventually were dropped only because the State Attorney's Office decided the documents were so much mumbo jumbo.
The third thing that happened was Jimmy tried to pay a nearly $26,000 balance on his Visa card using his "strawman" account. This led to his arrest on a fraud charge.
Laughlin told his older brother that he was "pushing a hornet's nest" and to pay the bank the money he owed, which he did. The case is pending. Jimmy filed a "Notice of Withdraw" to try to nullify all his "sovereign"-related documents. Laughlin, meanwhile, did the same, saying in an affidavit: "I hereby withdraw … and furthermore disavow, reject, deny and repudiate any and all statements, assertions, demands, claims and all content therein … "
His bosses called him in for a "counseling session." He told them that he filed the original documents "at the urging of his brother" and that he was "in the process of terminating his application."
The department opened an investigation in internal affairs.
• • •
Laughlin's colleagues had a lot to say about all this. His views, they told the IA investigators, were "wacky," "very asinine" and "absolutely ridiculous."
"I think our concern," Detective Patrick Robinson said, "was whether or not, you know, Tom was, I guess, stupid enough to post this thing."
"How," Detective Charles Riffe asked, "can you be affiliated with this organization but yet be a police officer?"
A few critical things stood out in what they said:
Laughlin didn't try to hide the fact that he filed these documents. He seemed to know a lot about the ideology. He seemed to really believe in it. And almost all of them said his motivation for doing this was financial and not political.
"To me," one detective said, "he was going with it for greed, you know, to make money."
Laughlin denies this vehemently. In his almost three-hour interview with investigators, he insisted he just wanted to protect his pension, not tap into some other source of money.
"My brother showed me his paperwork," he said. "I briefed it, and when I say I briefed it, it means I didn't read the whole thing.
"What the paperwork was done for was basically to get back to the roots basically. The, the Constitution, you know, and under God, and — and back to the meat of what it really is.
"Basically the strawman is, is owned by the government, and through the corporation of the government, and you're trying to separate yourself from that.
"By doing this paperwork, you're pulling yourself back, saying, 'No, I don't want to be a part of that.' "
The investigator asked: Part of what?
"The, the corporation," Laughlin said, "the strawman, and all that kind of stuff."
In his predetermination hearing with the chief, Laughlin sounded desperate: "I don't know what to do, sir. My intentions were not to offend anyone. … I'm ignorant. I'm stupid. I'm whatever you want to say because I didn't read it. And it's my own stupidity. My own fault."
The department's disciplinary board's recommendation was a suspension and a demotion. The chief decided that wasn't enough. His verdict: dismissal.
• • •
Jimmy Laughlin lives on a Siesta Key cul-de-sac. His is the biggest house on Peaceable Way. It sits behind a tall stucco fence and a taller iron gate.
One recent afternoon, he stood behind the gate, without ever opening it, and said he was just trying to do what is "right."
"If you thought you found some treasure," he said, "wouldn't you tell your family about it?
"I went to a seminar and was told this was lawful and right," he said. "Obviously I was lied to."
So he doesn't believe it anymore?
"It doesn't work," he said.
"I still believe it's lawful," he said. "The higher-ups don't want that out."
He then started to talk about something he called "chemtrails." People who believe in the chemtrail conspiracy theory think some of the white streaks left by planes in the sky are actually chemicals used for sinister purposes in a secret government program.
"Go online," Jimmy said. "You'll see thousands of videos."
• • •
"I trusted him," Laughlin said.
His older brother, he said this spring at his Manatee County home, has apologized to him, but their relationship still isn't what it was. "Fragile," he said. "That's the best way I can put it to you."
He sat on the porch by his pool and listed some of the things he says he's not. An anarchist. A terrorist. A liar.
And he listed some of the things he says he is. A "regular guy." A born-again Christian. A cop who liked being a cop and who was good at it. A dad.
His 3-year-old son stopped bouncing a ball.
"Daddy," the boy said, "I'm going inside."
"Okay," Laughlin said. "I love you."
The screen door slid shut. He sat there.
"I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am," he said. "How could I be so stupid? I ask myself that all the time. I should've read it. I'm better than that. I let myself down. I let my family down. My kids.
"I made a mistake," he said. "I'm sorry."
• • •
Laughlin's attorney wants people to think about something: What did Tom Laughlin do?
Not what he might have done. Not what other people who call themselves "sovereign" have done. Not what his brother did.
What did Tom Laughlin do?
"He filed a statement," Andrea Mogensen said. "His understanding of what that statement reflected was a mistake.
"The sanction is way too high."
This month, he sat in a suit and tie at his appeal hearing, in front of Sarasota's Civil Service Board, in a plain room in a corner of the Federal Building downtown, not even a mile from where his father's old gas station was, where he worked before he was a cop, where he first met many of the men who later would be colleagues, including Mikel Holloway, who now is the chief, and who now was sitting in this room calling Laughlin a liar.
"Ultimately," the chief said, "I felt that Detective Laughlin was not being truthful. I felt he knew what he was getting into all along." If Laughlin's version of his motivation had matched what his colleagues had said, the chief said, it would've made a difference in his decision. "That's what it boiled down to. He wasn't being truthful to me."
After the chief's testimony, walking to lunch, Laughlin told his attorney he no longer wanted his job back. If the chief could question his credibility like that, he said, then he didn't want to work for him any more.
The board didn't have to make a determination. It was an anticlimactic and unsatisfying end to a 23-year career.
Laughlin stood up from his seat. The chief walked to him and extended his hand. Laughlin stayed still as the chief's hand hung in the air.
"You lied," the ex-detective told his former chief.
Here, finally, and really for the first time, he was exactly what he said he wanted to be when he first filed those documents. Separated. Out on his own, one Tom Laughlin, one free man.
Times news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751.