Jailhouse Confession: How the right-wing media and Glenn Beck's chalkboard drove Byron Williams to plot assassination
Research ››› ››› JOHN HAMILTON
"I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn't for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind." - Byron Williams
Byron Williams, a 45-year-old ex-felon, exploded onto the national stage in the early morning hours of July 18.
According to a police investigation, Williams opened fire on California Highway Patrol officers who had stopped him on an Oakland freeway for driving erratically. For 12 frantic minutes, Williams traded shots with the police, employing three firearms and a small arsenal of ammunition, including armor-piercing rounds fired from a .308-caliber rifle.
When the smoke cleared, Williams surrendered; the ballistic body armor he was wearing had saved his life. Miraculously, only two of the 10 CHP officers involved in the shootout were injured.
In an affidavit, an Oakland police investigator reported that during an interview at the hospital, Williams "stated that his intention was to start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU."
Fifteen years after militia-movement-inspired bombers killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City federal building, right-wing domestic terror plots are a fact of life in America. Since 2008, violent extremists -- many of whom subscribe to the hate speech and conspiratorial fantasies of the conservative media -- have murdered churchgoers in Knoxville, police officers in Pittsburgh, and an abortion provider in Wichita.
Conspiracy theory-fueled extremism has long been a reaction to progressive government in the United States. Half a century ago, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that right-wing thought had come to be dominated by the belief that Communist agents had infiltrated all levels of American government and society. The right, he explained, had identified a "sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt's New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism."
In a 2009 report, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the anti-government militia movement -- which had risen to prominence during the Clinton administration and faded away during the Bush years -- has returned. According to the SPLC, the anti-government resurgence has been buttressed by paranoid rhetoric from public officials like Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and media figures like Fox News' Glenn Beck.
Just last month, Gregory Giusti pleaded guilty to repeatedly threatening House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- including threatening to destroy her California home -- because he was "upset with her passing the health care law." His mother told a local news station that he "frequently gets in with a group of people that have really radical ideas," adding, "I'd say Fox News or all of those that are really radical, and he -- that's where he comes from."
After the 2008 election, Fox News personalities filled the airwaves with increasingly violent rhetoric and apocalyptic language. On his Fox News show, Beck talked about "put[ting] poison" in Pelosi's wine.
Observers of this most recent act were mystified by one of Byron Williams' reported targets: the Tides Foundation, a low-profile charitable organization known for funding environmentalists, community groups, and other organizations.
Beck, it turned out, had attacked Tides 29 times on his Fox News show in the year-and-a-half leading up to the shooting.
Now, in exclusive interviews and written correspondence with journalist John Hamilton, Williams speaks for himself. He asks Hamilton to be his "media advocate" and repeatedly instructs him to watch specific broadcasts of Beck's show for information on the conspiracy theory that drove him over the edge: an intricate plot involving Barack Obama, philanthropist George Soros, a Brazilian oil company, and the BP disaster.
Williams also points to other media figures -- right-wing propagandist David Horowitz, and Internet conspiracist and repeated Fox News guest Alex Jones -- as key sources of information to inspire his "revolution."
In a separate exchange with Examiner.com's Ed Walsh, Williams sought to defend Beck from "Obama and the liberals," whom he said are afraid of Beck "because he often exposes things that are simply forbidden in news." Williams said that Beck advocates non-violence and that he had already researched the conspiracy theories that informed his alleged plot -- before seeing them "confirm[ed]" on Beck's show.
Similarly, Williams tells Hamilton that "Beck would never say anything about a conspiracy, would never advocate violence. He'll never do anything ... of this nature. But he'll give you every ounce of evidence that you could possibly need."
From the Santa Rita Jail, Williams opens up about the websites he frequented, the broadcasts he listened to, and the "evidence" of "sabotage" he "uncovered" that eventually led him to target Tides.
He asks Hamilton to help "make people realize that corrupt killers are in power, and want re-election!" Williams wants to make sure that the ideas that inspired him aren't "buried" from the public.
"I collect information on corruption," Williams says, "I've been at it for some time."
Beck, in particular, he says, is "like a schoolteacher on TV." Williams tells Hamilton, "You need to go back to June -- June of this year, 2010 -- and look at all his programs from June, and you'll see he's been breaking open some of the most hideous corruption."
Byron Williams' alleged domestic terror plot began in Groveland, a tiny Gold Rush town nestled high in the Sierras, three hours east of San Francisco.
Unemployed and on parole, Byron returned here, his childhood home, after serving time for a 2001 bank robbery -- reportedly the second such heist of an extensive criminal career marked by convictions for assault, property destruction, hit and run, and drunken driving.
I drive to Groveland on a Saturday in August, four weeks after the shootout. Despite the scorching heat, the small commercial district is packed with tourists headed for nearby Yosemite National Park.
Ten miles up the road, I park at the foot of the Williams' property and greet neighbor Tom Funk, an affable 55-year-old, tinkering with a car in his garage.
Funk does say that his wife heard a man shouting racist, violent threats from the Williams' property on the night of November 4, 2008, immediately after Barack Obama's presidential victory. It got so loud and offensive, he says, she had to shut the door.
"We have a 15-year-old son, and he doesn't need to hear stuff like that," Funk says.
"He was up there cussing and saying that America is not going right by having a black president," Funk says. "He was using words he shouldn't be saying after 9-11, because it would have put him in jail." "Threatening words towards the president," he adds.
Gesturing across the road, toward the Williams' property, Funk explains, "When people talk up here, you can hear it. ... I'm down low, so the sound just comes down to the valley."
"He was yelling at the top of his lungs, just mad. And then he would turn on Michael Savage," Funk says.
Surprised, I ask, "Michael Savage, the radio host?"
"You would hear it echoing through here." Funk says it happened the day after the election and "maybe a few days building up to it, and then maybe a week afterwards."
"I don't know what kind of speaker system he had, but AM radios don't really go that loud," Funk says.
Savage, whose syndicated radio show is among the most popular in the nation, was fired from MSNBC in 2003 after he infamously told a gay caller to "get AIDS and die." In the early days of November 2008 -- when Funk says the show was being blared from across the road -- Savage was predicting doomsday scenarios.
The day before the election, Savage said he would like to talk with his listeners "about the next phase of this bloodbath coming to America should your worst fears be realized."
Savage also said, "I am telling you, right now, before you -- you are on the verge of a Marxist revolution in the United States of America. You have a naked Marxist, America-hating, white-hating party -- wing of the party -- about to seize power. And you don't even know it."
Across the road from the Funks' home, a gravel driveway runs through a thicket of trees that conceals the Williams' property. A few hundred feet up the drive, the trees give way to a parched clearing and the two-story home that until recently was occupied by Byron Williams.
Farther up, past an impressive greenhouse, stands a battery of solar panels that feed the narrow ranch home of Byron's mother, Janice Williams.
I park next to an SUV emblazoned with conservative bumper stickers -- "Palin 2012" and "Big Government" circled and crossed out -- and meet Janice in the yard.
I've come unannounced, and quickly introduce myself as a reporter. Though she's shunned interview requests since her widely publicized comments immediately following her son's shootout -- Janice had told the San Francisco Chronicle that Byron was upset by "the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items" -- she agrees to speak with me. She says people don't know the real facts of the situation and are jumping to conclusions.
She says she's spoken with Byron twice since his arrest and received one letter. "He basically said, 'I'm sorry, I never intended to hurt anyone. I got really angry and lost my head.' "
Janice is convinced her son had acted in haste and never would have carried out what police say was his stated goal of killing leaders of the ACLU and the Tides Foundation.
"He left the refrigerator full of food. He wasn't finished recording his CD," she says.
Byron, it turns out, is an amateur heavy metal musician, and left behind on his computer an album of half-finished tracks.
I ask Janice what Byron thought of Barack Obama and about how Byron reacted on Election Day.
"I read one account that he used the n-word. I don't believe that," she protests. "The neighbors told that to the media, but they just wove that out of whole cloth. I don't care how loud anyone here gets, there's no way anyone over there could have heard anything that far away. It's just someone seeking publicity."
I ask her what she thinks of the president.
"I personally didn't vote for Obama," Janice explains. She says she thought the Obamas looked like a nice family. "I don't care that he's half-black. He's half-white."
She tells me that her son is half-white, too. "He's half-Hawaiian, Chinese, and Portuguese." She's very emphatic about this point. "And American Indian. That's why he can't drink."
She's upset, remembering the day of the shooting. "He said to me later that he wasn't drinking, but I found 18 or 20 beer bottles by the sink."
I ask Janice why Byron was so angry.
"He is angry at the federal government," Janice says. "And the shadow government that operates behind the scenes, manipulating things."
Does she share those views?
"I believe in limited government. The government should be there solely for the purpose of protecting our borders. All the other stuff is add-ons," she says. "This whole Obamacare thing has everything to do with consolidating government. There's no concern about the little people. Having said that, my hope was to retake the country peacefully, through the ballot box."
I notice a pair of satellite dishes mounted to the roof of her home -- one for television, another for high-speed Internet.
"It's unfortunate that so many people don't watch the real news," Janice tells me. "They should do a little of their own research. I listen to the radio, watch TV, go on the Internet, read books."
I ask Janice about Byron's favorite TV and radio shows. She immediately bristles at the question.
"I'm not going to get into that. All the reporters who came out here last month were blaming what he did on Rush, Glenn Beck, and the tea party," Janice says. "Why would you blame the messenger? If Glenn Beck tells us something, and everyone gets upset about it, why blame him?"
Janice says that FBI agents came to inspect Byron's home and took with them a stack of notes Byron had collected. "He's been doing a lot of research. He had several binders," she says.
I talk with Janice about how Byron told police he was heading to San Francisco to "start a revolution" and ask her why she thinks Byron would have targeted Tides.
"I had never heard of the Tides Foundation before all of this," Janice says. "But he researched it and realized it was a money laundering scheme for the radical left that didn't want their names attributed to what they were doing."
I ask Janice if Byron was a fan of Glenn Beck.
"Yes, he liked Glenn Beck, but he didn't feel he went far enough," she says. "He'd take it only so far, but stopped short."
Again, Janice bristles at this line of questioning.
"I had only one hate call out of all the thousands of people who heard about this case," she says. "Most people have expressed support -- not for the act, but for the frustration behind it."
Janice says that Byron had struggled to find work after his release from prison -- he was a carpenter -- and was "beaten down and depressed." With no prospects in sight, Byron whiled away the hours watching the news on television and researching the "shadow government" online.
"Life in a small town can be very cruel," Janice says, fighting back tears as she recalls her son's failure to find a job.
"This economy, the way that it is, if people are going to hire somebody, they probably won't hire an ex-felon," she says. "If it was boom times, things would have been different."
The following Saturday I arrive at Byron Williams' new home in the Bay Area suburb of Dublin: the Santa Rita Jail. It's a sprawling collection of low-slung concrete housing units with only vertical slits for windows, set on a vast, gravel lot.
Visitors to Santa Rita must drive past hundreds of feet of double-row fence topped with concertina wire and line up outside the jail's only entrance -- sometimes for hours -- for a 30-minute face-to-face meeting through a glass partition.
I pass through a metal detector and find the jail's visiting area at the end of a long hallway. After a lengthy wait, prisoners in red jumpsuits begin trickling into the 11 booths lining the visiting room, and I recognize Byron from his most recent mug shot. He's a 45-year-old of medium build with dark, slightly thinning hair and a freshly filled-in beard. He enters with a heavy limp, but for someone who sustained five gunshot wounds just weeks ago, he seems surprisingly well recovered.
All of the other prisoners in Housing Unit 8 have come to greet friends and family, but Byron is not expecting any visitors today. He greets me with a quizzical expression as I lift a telephone headset from its hook and introduce myself as a reporter, telling Byron that I visited his home in Groveland the previous Saturday.
"People are probably interested in me because of my 'extremist' views," Byron says self-consciously. He says that since he has a criminal case pending, he shouldn't discuss the details of "that incident."
"That's OK," I tell him. "I had a very interesting political discussion with Janice last weekend, and I'm here to talk politics."
"Well, it's hard to talk to a news journalist about the news," he says. But he quickly shows no sign of difficulty, and it's not long before he describes what put him over the top a month earlier.
"My big thing was the oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon," he explains. His gaze is intense, and though his voice is level, I can tell he's choking back anger.
"I've uncovered enough evidence to -- I think in a court of law it could bring Tony Hayward, Barack Obama, George Soros, and members of Halliburton indicted for treason," Byron adds.
Byron tells me that he believes the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was deliberate and that George Soros, the billionaire financier and philanthropist, was behind the plot.
"It was a sabotage," Byron says. "Hayward and Goldman Sachs sold their stock, which was depreciating, two weeks before the spill. Soros invested $1 billion of his own money into Petrobras. Soros has the Tides Foundation and the Tides fund. He funnels billions of donated dollars into the fund, which he uses for all kinds of nefarious activities."
Byron continues discussing Petrobras, the giant Brazilian oil company.
"Obama sent 2 billion of taxpayer dollars to Petrobras for deep water oil exploration, while holding a moratorium on deepwater exploration in the U.S.," he says. "Once you see this pattern -- it's fishy stuff."
Byron continues, "Halliburton, whose job was to seal the well -- two days before the explosion, they bought an oil spill clean-up company."
"When I saw the news was dropping the issue like a hot potato, I became infuriated," he adds.
"The bottom line," Byron tells me, "is that George Soros is the financier of Obama. And Obama has a clear agenda: First he did the health care reform. After that, it was all about energy. He wants to impose the worst tax ever conceived: a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions."
Byron is clearly upset by the idea. "Think of it. Even your breathing could be taxed, because you give off greenhouse gases," he says.
"That's why I did what I did," he explains. "There are not a lot of people fighting back. I don't see a response."
Byron says that Gulf Coast residents should be up in arms about the conspiracy to destroy their shorelines for the profit of George Soros. "What ever happened to the spirit of the South, of the Confederacy in the Civil War?" he asks.
He blames Obama for deliberately destroying American jobs in the oil industry.
"We have a moratorium on drilling below 5,000 feet here," Byron says. "None of the other countries have that." He contends that this gives other countries an economic advantage, because they can drill far deeper.
"What I see here is a plan to bring the country down," Byron states.
I tell Byron that I haven't heard any of this and ask him where he got his information. He leans back in his chair and thinks a moment.
"Alex Jones. PrisonPlanet.com is his website. Also, DiscoverTheNetworks."
Jones is a conspiracist and repeat Fox News guest who mingles dire warnings of the "New World Order" with stories of government complicity in the 9-11 attacks. DiscoverTheNetworks is a website claiming to track "the individuals and organizations that make up the left." It's run by David Horowitz, a former leftist who has reinvented himself as a right-wing propagandist.
He gives me another -- more familiar -- source: "Glenn Beck."
Byron tells me the media is failing in its job. "I collect information on corruption. I've been at it for some time," he explains.
"Our media accepts the false reports and downplays the conspiracy theories," he says, arguing that they should be called "conspiracy truths."
"A public that is aware of corruption can oppose the corruption," Byron says. "A public kept in the dark simply passes it by."
Soon, a two-minute warning blares over the PA system.
I ask Byron if I can follow up with more questions later. He agrees.
Two weeks later, I'm back at the Santa Rita Jail, speaking with Byron Williams through the reinforced glass window that separates Housing Unit 8 from the outside world. This time, I press Byron on his media influences.
"I considered all of the news agencies to be censored," Byron says. "So perhaps Fox has broken away from the mold."
"There's only one conservative channel," he adds. "That's Fox. All the other ones are all liberal channels."
At one point, I ask Byron if he thinks Fox is worthwhile.
"I'm not gonna say anyone is worthwhile," he replies. "I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn't for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind. I said, well, nobody does this."
Throughout the interview -- and in a letter I would receive later -- Byron tells me I need to watch Beck's programs from June. He says that's where I can learn about the Soros-Obama-Petrobras conspiracy he heatedly described in our earlier conversation.
"You need to go back to June -- June of this year, 2010 -- and look at all his programs from June. And you'll see he's been breaking open some of the most hideous corruption," Byron says. "A year ago, I was watching him, and it was OK, he was all right, you know? ... But now he's getting it."
Byron runs through the Deepwater Horizon "sabotage" with me again.
"Yeah, it's like Obama on this oil spill," he says. "He causes the oil spill, right? Contracts it -- contracts Halliburton, where either Soros, or him, or BP -- have said it themselves -- contracted Halliburton to sabotage the oil well field. Kills 11 people, destroys the entire Gulf, wildlife, to pass the cap-and-trade legislation."
"You'll never hear it," he says. "It'll never surface. It'll never come to the public knowledge."
I ask him if he thinks Glenn Beck is the exception to the rule, then.
"I think, absolutely," Byron responds, though he adds a caveat about Beck.
Referring again to the "sabotage" of the Deepwater Horizon, Byron says: "This is what he won't do, Beck will not say it was a contracted hit. But he'll give you every ounce of evidence you can possibly need to make that assumption yourself." "You see what I mean?" Byron says, "That's why he downplays the 9-11 truthers. He talks bad about them."
It's clear that there are some theories Byron subscribes to that Beck does not. For example, Byron endorses the claim that "the U.S. government contracted its own destruction of the twin towers." On this issue, Byron cites Alex Jones and other websites.
But Byron repeatedly cites Beck when discussing the Soros-Obama-Petrobras story and insists I check out Beck's "June" shows.
In his letter to me, Byron writes: "I have been praying for a media advocate; one, to make people aware of why I'm in here (public opinion could help me), and two, to make people realize that corrupt killers are in power, and want re-election! I was also fearful that this issue would be 'burried.' "
Byron writes, "You want to know about Soros and Tides, yes, Glenn Beck is doing very well uncovering his wickedness, check his 'June' programs for 'Petrobraz', also look into 'DiscoverTheNetworks.com.' "
Byron also writes that "very good information regarding 'Petrobraz' can be found in Glenn Beck's 'June' shows, where he accurately covered the Obama-Soros-Petrobraz-Chicago (Crime Inc.) connections for several days. It's all true."
Byron adds that he "found allusions to the Horizon disaster as a 'false-flag' operation in Alex Jones 'Info.Wars.com' and 'PrisonPlanet.com.' "
"Think like a conspiracy theorist," Byron tells me during the interview. "Except don't use the word 'theory.' Because the conspiracies are not theories. The official report is the lie; the conspiracy is the truth."
Byron says he thinks Beck has improved in recent months. "I don't think he's a natural newscaster, you know what I mean?" he says. "I look at it more like a schoolteacher on TV, you know? He's got that big chalkboard and those little stickers, the decals. I like the way he does it."
"I like radio a lot," Beck once said, "but you lose the chalkboard. The chalkboard ... that's the real star of the show."
When he brought his chalkboard onstage during a keynote address at a conservative conference earlier this year, the crowd erupted into thunderous applause. He scrawled "Progressivism" on it and said that "progressivism is the cancer in America."
Beck says that his mission is to "expose" the progressives who "have done this to our ... country," because "our Constitution, our republic" are in danger.
The chalkboard is where Beck exposes the Obama administration's efforts to implement the so-called "Cloward and Piven strategy," which Beck says was the 1960s-era plan of two obscure academics to "intentionally collapse our economic system." It's where he weaves elaborate conspiracy theories incorporating former SEIU President Andy Stern, White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright, ACORN, the NAACP, and the New Black Panther Party.
Many of Beck's charts prominently feature Soros, whom Beck once described as a "man with one goal, many puppet organizations, and unlimited financial resources."
But one target has a special place on the chalkboard: Tides.
According to Beck, "The chalkboard was brought up ... for the Tides Foundation. I think that might have been the first time we used it." Whether or not that's true, Beck explains his effort to expose Tides "was the first time that I really realized its success -- Tides Foundation and ACORN. Because you can map it all out. And I know that they make fun of me for it, but that's -- that's the difference."
"Tides," Beck says, "was one of the hardest things that we ever tried to explain. And everyone told us that we couldn't. It is the reason why the blackboard really became what the blackboard is. It is because I was trying to explain Tides and how all of this worked."
Since his arrival at Fox in early 2009, Beck has vilified what he refers to -- falsely -- as "George Soros' Tides Foundation." Beck suggests that Tides is part of a progressive plot to "create mass organizations to seize power." Tides, he says, is a "shady organization" that funnels money to "some of the most extreme groups on the left." Beck asserts that Tides is "involved in some of the nastiest of the nasty."
In all, Beck attacked Tides 29 times on his Fox show in the year-and-a-half leading up to Byron's alleged shooting spree.
Beck, of course, isn't alone in his war against Tides. As Byron told me, those interested in "Soros and Tides" can visit DiscoverTheNetworks, a website run by David Horowitz.
Horowitz, a conservative ideologue, is a frequent guest on Beck's broadcasts. Discussing Beck's tirades against organized labor, for example, Horowitz said that teachers' unions, the SEIU, and AFSCME are "communist unions."
In 2006, Horowitz co-wrote The Shadow Party: How George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Sixties Radicals Seized Control of the Democratic Party, a book that claimed -- among its numerous falsehoods and distortions -- that Soros was a Nazi "collaborator."
DiscoverTheNetworks is a forerunner to Beck's chalkboard. Launched in 2005 and billed as a "Guide to the Political Left," it not only claims to identify "the individuals and organizations that make up the left" and "the institutions that fund and sustain it," but also "defines" the left's supposedly "hidden" agendas and "maps the paths through which the left exerts its influence."
Horowitz once claimed that DTN shows that "there are only a couple of degrees of separation between anybody on the left and the terrorists."
The website features a video of Beck declaring DTN a "fantastic" resource for anyone who wants to "find out who's connected to who and what is going on."
The site calls Tides "a major funder of the Shadow Party, a George Soros-conceived nationwide network of several dozen unions, non-profit activist groups, and think tanks whose agendas are ideologically to the left, and which are engaged in campaigning for the Democrats."
One article on the site accuses Tides of "funnel[ing] money ... to the New Left's matrix of communist front groups." The "New Left" is described as "the 'hired assassins' doing the dirty work for wealthy progressives who want America destroyed and don't care about the criminal methods employed, but who don't want to dirty their hands."
And DTN wades into the same conspiracy theory that apparently drove Byron to target Tides, claiming that "Obama agreed to lend $2 billion" to Petrobras and that Soros' hedge fund "dramatically increased its holdings in Petrobras just prior to Obama's loan announcement."
Citing Beck's violent rhetoric and repeated vilification of Tides in the months leading up to the shootout, critics such as The Washington Post's Dana Milbank issued a warning: "Stop encouraging them."
Milbank wrote: "It's not fair to blame Beck for violence committed by people who watch his show. Yet Williams isn't the only such character with a seeming affinity for the Fox News host." He added:
Beck has at times spoken against violence, but he more often forecasts it, warning that "it is only a matter of time before an actual crazy person really does something stupid." Most every broadcast has some violent imagery: "The clock is ticking. . . . The war is just beginning. . . . Shoot me in the head if you try to change our government. . . . You have to be prepared to take rocks to the head. . . . The other side is attacking. . . . There is a coup going on. . . . Grab a torch! . . . Drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers. . . . They are taking you to a place to be slaughtered. . . . They are putting a gun to America's head. . . . Hold these people responsible."
Beck denied any culpability.
"I expose the Tides Foundation and show you what it is, and I am now responsible for terrorist attacks?" asked an incredulous Beck on his radio program, 11 days after the shootout. Co-host Pat Gray called such charges "unbelievable," and Beck said: "If you don't think that they will use anything, they will. They absolutely will."
But my interviews show how Byron was motivated by his belief in a grand conspiracy involving George Soros, Barack Obama, Petrobras, and the Gulf oil spill -- a theory for which he frequently cites Beck and Alex Jones.
Like Beck, Byron insists -- falsely -- that Tides is a front group for Soros to fund radical activities.
Byron says that he had researched Tides on his own before seeing Beck attack the foundation on television. In his letter to me, he singled out Beck and DiscoverTheNetworks as key sources of information on Soros and Tides.
At one point Byron told me, "I haven't seen any programs with Tides and Beck," before reconsidering a moment later. "He mentions it, you know, just as a footnote or a side note in his programs."
Indeed, I hunted down the June shows on the Soros-Obama-Petrobras conspiracy that Byron insisted I watch and found Beck attacking Soros and the Tides Foundation.
Having seen Beck raise the conspiracy, Williams says he became enraged when Fox News didn't pursue it further. Asked by Examiner.com's Walsh if he still would have concocted the plot "if it hadn't been for Fox News," Byron said: "I'm actually mad at Fox. I'm mad at them because they go on to something else. It's like they drop the issue, and it lands on a shelf somewhere to collect dust, and that's what's happening to the truth, it's going out and collecting dust. And I'm saying you're not going to let these people get away with this stuff. You can't let them get away with it. So this is my action because of Fox's neglect."
Beck first discussed the Soros-Obama-Petrobras conspiracy that had so incensed Byron on June 17, devoted his entire program to it the following Monday, June 21, and brought it up again on June 22.
"Now, why am I telling you about this?" Beck said on June 21. "Have you heard of another word? Soros. George Soros."
Beck continued: "I'm going to spend an hour on this. I want you to DVD, write down, take notes, look into this."
Turning to the camera to address the billionaire investor, Beck implied that Soros might attempt to have him killed for uncovering the facts he was about to reveal. "I do have a bulletproof car, George. I just want you to know."
But before launching into his detailed account of the Soros-Obama-Petrobras conspiracy, Beck described -- falsely -- Soros' apparent misdeeds, including "help[ing] start the Tides Foundation," which was responsible for an "indoctrination video" that was "shown in schools all across America to warp your children's brains and make sure they know how evil capitalism is."
Beck soon moved to a circular diagram on his chalkboard that outlined the complex tale involving Soros, the Center for American Progress, Obama's transition team, and the U.S. moratorium on deepwater oil drilling. At the center of the circle, Beck scrawled the phrase he uses to describe Soros' malfeasance, "Crime Inc."
"Crime Inc." Byron used the term, too, and it's one with which any regular Beck viewer would be familiar. It's Beck's complex theory of how cap-and-trade is actually a money-making scam perpetrated by progressive organizations collaborating with investment firms.
"Billionaire investor dumps money into a state-controlled Brazilian oil company," said an apoplectic Beck, pointing to the flow chart. "Days later the American administration dumps $2 billion into the exact same company. What are the odds, Gilligan?"
Beck continued to trace the "circle of crime," implying that Soros had advance knowledge of the BP oil disaster to come. "SOROS BUYS $900 M in PETROBRAS" read one bubble on the chalkboard, which directed to a "BP SPILL" bubble. "Then, in a completely unrelated story, BP has their oil spill," said Beck, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Continuing along the flow chart, Beck surmised that Soros used his influence over the liberal think tank Center for American Progress to dictate the Obama administration's response to the spill. Beck suggested that the administration's moratorium on deepwater drilling in the U.S. was a scheme to increase the value of Soros' investments in Petrobras, whose Brazilian operations are not bound by the same restrictions on drilling depth. "Petrobras shareholders get rich," Beck concluded, while American workers left idle by the president's offshore drilling moratorium are "getting screwed."
Beck's conspiracy is false. The Export-Import Bank of the United States did agree in April 2009 to loan up to $2 billion to "finance purchase by Petrobras of U.S.-made oilfield equipment and services," but according to FactCheck.org, the decision was not "due to an 'executive order' by the president." FactCheck.org reported: "No presidential order was required. Furthermore, none of President Obama's appointees had joined the Ex-Im board at the time of the vote, which was unanimous, and bipartisan."
Soros Fund Management LLC actually decreased its stake in Petrobras in the first half of 2009 -- before the Export-Import bank had dispensed any money from the loan.
As for Beck's charge that Soros enriched himself as a result of the BP oil disaster and subsequent drilling moratorium?
Bloomberg's Alexander Cuadros reported that Soros' investment firm sold all of its shares in Brazilian oil during the second quarter of 2010 and noted that "Petrobras, 90 percent of whose domestic production comes from offshore wells, also suffered after BP Plc's Gulf of Mexico spill raised safety concerns."
But by then, Beck's theory had reverberated throughout the echo chamber of America's right-wing media.
A pair of Republican lawmakers -- Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas -- would repeat Beck's talking points from the House floor.
"We don't need to be sending Mr. Soros money in Brazil," Burton said, "so he can make more money by doing offshore drilling with our taxpayers' money."
The next day, June 23, Michael Savage would run with Beck's story and take it a step further, in language remarkably similar to Byron's:
The people who are running Obama are thinking three to five steps ahead of everything that you see going on. George Soros, George Soros, George Soros. You think the Gulf oil spill happened by accident? That Goldman Sachs sold their shares in BP a few days before the spill? That Halliburton was involved directly in some nefarious dealings right after the spill?
You don't know any of this, do you? You don't know that Soros invested billions of dollars in a Brazilian energy company. You don't know that he wants to get his money, his pound of flesh. Old Soros specializes in pounds and pounds of flesh. You think that Obama became president because he's such a genius? You think he wasn't handpicked by these money managers? You think he wasn't picked by these money changers in the temple of democracy? And let me tell you something else, you've only seen the beginning of what's coming in this country.
It was the issue that pushed Byron Williams over the edge. In his interview with Walsh, Byron described his intentions at the Tides Foundation: "Retribution was called for with the Tides or anybody working for George Soros by taking out 11 people."
Eleven murders to equal the number killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.
The Tides Foundation and Tides Center occupy a pair of three-story buildings in San Francisco's Presidio neighborhood. It's a pleasant location for an office, among the eucalyptus trees and winding streets of the former military base-turned-national park, with the southern span of the Golden Gate Bridge towering in the distance.
Inside, I meet Tides CEO Drummond Pike, who is in his early 60s and has since announced his retirement. Pike is magnanimous in his descriptions of the projects Tides has funded since he founded it in 1976.
"Very simply put, Tides helps people help people," Pike explains. "We're definitely in the progressive community, and we right now are very interested in social justice and human rights issues, environmental issues."
But six weeks after becoming the alleged target of Williams' guns, Pike is still clearly rattled.
"We learned that Mr. Williams had been headed to our offices with the intention of doing terrible things -- shooting us or attacking us in some fashion, doing violence. After we heard that it rocked us," Pike says.
I share with Pike the transcript of my jailhouse interview with Byron, noting how Byron echoed the theory advanced on Beck's chalkboard when he said that "Soros has the Tides Foundation and the Tides fund. He funnels billions of donated dollars into the fund, which he uses for all kinds of nefarious activities."
Pike is incredulous. "Where does that come from? I mean, what evidence is there?"
George Soros, Pike tells me, has only provided funding to the Tides Foundation relatively recently.
"I finally met him maybe three years ago for the first time," Pike explains. "Tides is 35 years old."
Pike says Soros' philanthropic groups may have given a comparatively small amount of support to Tides but that "George Soros doesn't own us. He's not on our board. He's not a major donor to us. We have hundreds of foundations and many corporations that have supported our projects."
Spokeswoman Christine Coleman would later tell me that only a small fraction of the Tides Foundation's funding came from Soros' charitable organization, the Open Society Institute. "The percentage of funds that have come to Tides from OSI," she wrote, "is well under five percent of our total contributions."
I ask Pike about the most visible proponent of the Tides-Soros conspiracy theory.
"I wish Glenn Beck would grow up and learn that he has real responsibilities," Pike says. "He has a very magnified voice in the media landscape of the U.S., and Fox -- the network that carries his show -- bears responsibility as well."
Pike says that Byron's turn toward violence reflects a lack of civil discourse in the country.
"We have become so polarized, and portions of the population so fearful, that we are risking our American tradition of openness and tolerance in very scary ways," Pike says.
In January, Beck announced he was going to be a "progressive hunter."
Beck said that he was "going to be like ... the Israeli Nazi hunters," adding, "I'm going to find these big progressives and, to the day I die, I'm going to be a progressive hunter." Beck continued: "I'm going to find these people that have done this to our -- you know, to our country, and expose them. I don't care where -- I don't care if they're in nursing homes. I'm going to expose what they have done and make sure that the people understand, because our Constitution, our republic -- if it survives -- it will only survive because the people are waking up and through the grace of God, because we are that close to losing our republic."
In August of 2009, he called supporters of health care reform "traitor[s]" and said that "the American way of life is being systematically dismantled and destroyed," that "the republic is in danger," and that "we are entering the most dangerous time in American history." He quickly clarified: "My fellow American, it is not time to pick up guns. It is not time. It is not time to blow anything up."
But a month later, he was saying: "You can try to put the lid on this group of people, but you will never silence us. You will never -- you can shoot me in the head, you can shoot the next guy in the head, but there will be 10 others that line up. And it may not happen today, it may not happen next week, but freedom will be restored in this land. Period."
And just last month on his radio show, after Byron's alleged assassination plot, Beck continued to demonize Tides. Saying he had a "message" for the "people at the Tides Foundation," Beck warned: "I'm coming for you. Oh, I'm coming for you. Oh, no, not in a -- Glenn Beck making threats, no, nope -- I'm just gonna reverse all the things that you have done. ... I'm coming for you, on the battlefield of ideas."
Back at the Santa Rita Jail, Byron again weighs in on Beck. "You know, I'll tell you," he says, "Beck is gonna deny everything about violent approach and deny everything about conspiracies, but he'll give you every reason to believe it. He's protecting himself, and you can't blame him for that. So, I understand what he's doing."
I ask Byron if he thinks Beck has a political movement. After all, I say, hundreds of thousands of people came out to hear him speak at his "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, D.C.
"I think so," says Byron. "If there's hundreds of thousands of us, yes. Yeah, it's coming down to the line, you know, and these controllers are not backing off. They want total control, and they're gonna try to get it. And more and more people are waking up."
I ask Byron, are you a revolutionary, a criminal, a terrorist, a patriot?
"I'm a revolutionary," he responds. "I believe in the Constitution. I do not like crime."
"You have to have a society that is pure and clean," he says. "And you have to keep it that way. We have to go back to our original principles."
Byron tells me his name came up on Beck's show.
Yeah, I heard that, I say.
Byron says: "Yeah, I didn't know it went that far. I thought maybe, OK, I hit the local news, that's great. You know, not something I really wanted to happen. But I didn't know it all went all the way across the country. They were trying to -- I guess -- it wasn't good, you know? They were trying to say that it was a thing that now that the left would use it against us, right? And an act of violence."
"And I'd say, well, you know, that's the thing. It's that anything you do is going to be considered promoting terror attacks or promoting violence. So now they've got Beck labeled as this guy that is trying to incite violence. And what I say is that if the truth incites violence, it means that we've been living too long in the lies.
"Because it's gonna be too many -- it's gonna be more and more people that are, you know -- when you become unemployed, desperate, you can no longer pay your bills, when your society has come to a standstill, and cannot grow anymore, you're becoming socialized, everything, you know -- companies are moving overseas, what do you think is gonna happen? You know, for crying out loud. It's gonna get worse. And more and more people are gonna get desperate."
John Hamilton anchors the Evening News on Pacifica Radio, an hour-long newscast heard on KPFA-Berkeley, KFCF-Fresno and KPFK-Los Angeles. He's also a producer with the national satellite channel Link TV, where he has produced programs including "Torture on Trial," which explored the growing movement calling for accountability for those who authorized and participated in torture. Additionally, John is a contributor to the national television and radio program Democracy Now!, where he worked as a producer from 2004 to 2007.