But Griggers’ involvement shines a light on the growing concern inside the intelligence community about the far-right radicalization of service members and law enforcement officers.
“They have valuable skills that extremists want,” said Seth Jones, senior vice president at the non-partisan think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Most of them have experiences with small unit tactics, operational security.”
Rooting out extremism within the military is one of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s expressed priorities. In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, the Georgia native and retired four-star general said he was “deeply alarmed ... by the rise of white supremacists and extremist ideology in the military.”
“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies, but we cannot do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks,” he said.
In February, Austin issued a one-day “stand down” order and instructed commanders to lead discussions about extremism with service members in the ranks.
According to a newly released study by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, of the more than 450 people arrested in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, 12% are current or former members of the armed services, a greater percentage than in the general population.
And the Defense Department has acknowledged that the FBI had open investigations on 143 current or former service members in 2020, half of which were for domestic extremist activity.
Armed forces connection
The relationship between Griggers and Zamudio traces back to the Georgia native’s time serving as an MP at MCAS Miramar, an air base in San Diego.
Gray Zamudio’s grandfather, Bob Zamudio, said his grandson met Griggers through their shared interest in Airsoft guns; replica firearms that shoot plastic pellets with compressed air. He said his grandson would shoot the guns with two or three friends who were in the military.
“There were several service guys my grandson hung out with who he would go shoot with,” he said. “I didn’t know (Griggers) was an MP until this happened. I just knew he was a Marine and he was getting out. I only met him once or twice.”
According to court records, the two men kept in touch after Griggers returned to Georgia, sharing their efforts to build illegal silencers and plotting violence.
“I’m the guy on the inside,” Griggers bragged, and he said he could get law enforcement items, like stun grenades known as “flashbangs” and explosive charges used to breach doorways.
“Yeah, I’ll pay big money for bang an (sic) boom,” Zamudio replied. “I’m ready to terrorize LA.”
The FBI described “Shadow Moses,” an apparent reference to the setting of the 1998 video game Metal Gear Solid, as a “prepper” group where Griggers, Zamudio and possibly others discussed building illegal weapons, acquiring explosives, and plotting potential attacks. It was also where they expressed their white supremacist and anti-Semitic beliefs.
“[Service members and law enforcement officers] have valuable skills that extremists want. Most of them have experiences with small unit tactics, operational security."
- Seth Jones, senior vice president at the non-partisan think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies
In one exchange, Griggers wrote about getting police equipment and explosives in preparation for what he expected would be the racial and political violence to come. Other law enforcement officers could be brought to his side or attacked for “siding with the enemy.”
“I’m either positioned to maximize damage by attacking from the inside or coordinate efforts to safely identify ourselves as patriots in order to maximize weapons pointed towards the enemy and minimize friendly fire,” he wrote.
The FBI said Griggers spoke approvingly of the Holocaust, and when they raided Zamudio’s home, they found an anti-Semitic and racist novel well known among the radical right for its depiction of an apocalyptic race war. Griggers indulged in such fantasies where the assassination of “famous liberals” could be blamed on Muslims.
A broader conspiracy
Griggers may not have been in the only Georgia member of the cell. In a message sent in April 2019 he wrote, “We made a .3000AAC suppressor the other day that I’m quite proud of.”
The message referred to making a silencer to suppress the noise made by a common military bullet, but the FBI noted the use of “we” in the text suggested a larger conspiracy. In the same message, he bragged he had recruited four people to the cell, which he called “shadmo east.”
Melissa Hodges, spokeswoman of the Middle Georgia United States Attorney’s Office, said she could not comment on any potential investigation into other members of the cell, but she said her office takes such threats seriously, especially where law enforcement is involved.
On Nov. 19, the FBI raided Griggers’ home on rural highway on the south end of Wilkinson County, seizing 11 firearms, including an “M-16 type” machine gun with “an obliterated serial number.” Agents also seized a sawed-off shotgun, seven homemade silencers, and other weapons and ammunition.
Griggers was charged and has pleaded guilty to one count of possessing an illegal firearm — the shotgun — which carries a possible 10-year federal prison sentence.
Hodges said Griggers was charged with just one count because the shotgun “was the easiest to quickly identify as being illegal” because of its sawed-off barrel. But she said he has admitted to possessing the silencers and other illegal firearms, which will be taken into account in his sentencing.
“He will now face the same sentencing guideline as he would have if he had been initially charged with possessing all 11 firearms,” she said.
Boasts of violence
In his texts, Griggers boasted of using his law enforcement position to carry out attacks. In one exchange in August 2019, he described an alleged beating of a Black suspect as “sweet stress relief” and claimed he planned to charge other Black people with felonies to keep them from voting.
“It’s a sign of beautiful things to come,” he wrote, according court records. “Also I’m going to charge them with whatever felonies I can to take away their ability to vote.”
In a message in October 2019, he put it more succinctly: “Castrate, kill, remove voting rights,” Griggers wrote. “The only problem is you can’t expect to get them all that way.”
While the messages are disturbing, they also are most likely baseless bragging. According to his personnel file with the Wilkinson County Sheriff’s Office, Griggers wasn’t hired until November 2019 and spent months in training after that.
Keith Fitzgerald, Griggers’ attorney, said his client was just trying to “sound tough” on a text chain with a friend thousands of miles away.
“He didn’t really believe these things,” he said.
Sheriff Richard Chatman said there appears to be no correlation between Griggers’ claims of violence against minorities and time he spent as a sworn officer before being his arrest.
“He liked to talk a lot — a lot,” he said. “But nobody came up to me and said, ‘Sheriff, Griggers ain’t right.’”
The sheriff said Griggers gave no indication of his extremist views prior to his arrest. But Griggers wasn’t asked.
Griggers’ record under review
Prior to being hired, Griggers submitted to a lengthy questionnaire and polygraph examination, but the consent form for the examination assured him he would not be asked questions about his “beliefs or opinions regarding racial matters” — or his views on politics.
In the questionnaire, Griggers also wrote he was in possession of “an unknown amount of USMC issued items,” but records indicate no follow up questions about what military gear he had. By comparison, he was asked extensively about a single instance of marijuana use.
Questions about racial attitudes or political ideologies are explicitly prohibited by the American Polygraph Associations’ code of conduct, along with questions about sexual preferences or support of labor unions. Griggers was asked if he belonged to any group “which advocated the overthrow in the United States Government.” Griggers marked “no” on the form.
“He liked to talk a lot — a lot. But nobody came up to me and said, ‘Sheriff, Griggers ain't right.'"
- Wilkinson County Sheriff Richard Chatman
Chatman said the questions were developed by the contractor who performed the polygraph. Since Griggers’ arrest, Chatman said he has asked that questions be added to the exam to make sure future employees are not members of extremist groups or harbor racist ideas.
”People have their political views, but ideologies that are extreme toward one race or another … they have to be excluded from what we do,” he said.
Screening for white supremacist or other ideologically extreme beliefs is a hit-or-miss proposition when it comes to the recruits for local law enforcement. Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the problem is that policing is a local government function, with each agency operating how they see fit when it come to screening applicants.
“You’ve got almost 20,000 separate police forces and no national police force,” he said.
Wilkinson County, a rural county east of Macon, has a population around 9,000, and Chatman, who has been sheriff for 24 years, knows most of them. If Griggers had acted on his hateful ideology, Chatman said his constituents “would’ve been beating my door down.”
Just the same, Chatman turned Griggers’ body camera footage over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to make sure. He said the GBI found nothing to indicate Griggers acted on on his fantasies expressed to Zamudio. Chatman, who is Black, said there is no place for hateful ideology in his small department.
“Any time somebody falls into the ideology he did, they can’t work here,” he said. “We take pride in the badge that we wear and the service we give to our community.”
Marines decline investigation
While Chatman said he is reviewing Griggers’ conduct as a deputy, the Marines have not launched their own investigation into his time in the service.
Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Andrew Wood said the Corps have a zero-tolerance policy toward racial hatred and extremism in the ranks.
“Bigotry and racial extremism run contrary to our core values,” he said.
But Wood said he was unaware of the FBI investigation.
“I am similarly not aware of any current review of his time at MCAS Miramar,” he said.
Capt. Matthew Gregory, a Marine spokesman at Miramar, said such a review was “unlikely.”
“It sounds like the majority of offenses were committed after he left the base,” he said.
Veterans overlooked, expert says
The Marines have investigated other incidents at bases in San Diego. In 2019, a Snapchat post showing two Marines stationed at Miramar in blackface prompted an investigation. And last year a Marine at Camp Pendleton was discharged after an investigation by the San Diego Union-Tribune into his membership in a white nationalist organization.
Zamudio’s grandfather said he saw his grandson and Griggers with several other service members during the time they socialized in San Diego, raising the possibility that other members of Shadow Moses could still be on active duty.
Retired Marine Adam Troutman served with Griggers for six months in 2014 in Okinawa, Japan, and had not heard of his legal troubles when contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He said he never heard Griggers express the kind of violent, racist bigotry found in the Shadow Moses text messages, but he was not surprised the former Marine was in trouble for something.
At 5-feet, 11-inches and 250 pounds, Griggers was a bully who would take things too far when interacting with other Marines, he said.
“He was a big guy,” he said. “He’d jump on people.”
Jones said he believes the military branches are serious about eliminating extremist elements from the service, but he said the process tends to break down when it comes to veterans.
“There is a very specific challenge on how to deal with veterans,” he said. “It’s a problem because they have radicalized in part while they are in the military. These kinds of issues should be looked at.”