To the FBI, they were part of a Minnesota militia group possibly gearing up for a violent showdown with the government.
Members of the group, called United Patriots of Minnesota 3%, say they're nothing more than patriots defending hard-won liberties secured by a handful of forefathers who stood against tyranny.
No one has been charged in the investigation, which spilled into public view recently when a federal judge unsealed search warrants in the case. But the probe underscores the complexity of balancing protected speech with trying to root out domestic terror.
Soon after agents kicked in the door to his Red Wing home last December, Jason Thomas documented the aftermath of the raid on Facebook: photos of belongings strewn across his kitchen and a copy of the search warrant, signed by a federal judge, alleging that Thomas and his fellow United Patriots members schemed to illegally obtain and use powerful weapons.
The raid of Thomas' home followed months of infiltration by a paid FBI informant who documented what agents said was firearms training in Stillwater and Albert Lea and chatter on a secret Facebook page that Thomas helped run. Another man under investigation allegedly built AR-15 assault rifles out of unfinished rifle kits for members whose criminal backgrounds prevented them from legally acquiring firearms.
In court documents, the FBI described the "3 percenters" as a militia that "believes in the violent resistance to, or intended overthrow" of the government. The group formed after Barack Obama's 2008 election to the presidency. Its name derives from the belief that the American Revolution was waged by just 3 percent of the population.
In applying for warrants, federal agents noted multiple Facebook posts by Thomas, including a March 2016 guarantee that he would "be one of the first to start killing Feds."
"I'll openly say that like I always have," Thomas wrote. "And [I] am actually trying to build up our capacity to challenge them."
Thomas said in an interview that the remarks cited in the search warrant application were taken out of context. He described United Patriots as a "civil defense" unit and said he was concerned that the Obama administration would confiscate privately owned firearms.
"They find a message like that but they won't read the 50 other ones that say [we are] strictly defensive," said Thomas, who works as a landscaper. "I'm sure that's not going to show up in any court records."
Thomas said the group's activities also involved humanitarian relief, such as shipping pallets of clean drinking water to Flint, Mich., during its water crisis.
Now, he said, he and other current and former United Patriots members are girding for "a full legal courtroom battle. We have a pretty good legal team standing by for that eventuality."
Minnesota has a history of militia activity. In the 1990s, four members of the Minnesota Patriots Council were convicted of plotting to kill a federal marshal with ricin. In 2013, the FBI arrested two men in separate militia cases, one involving firearms and the other centered around stealing confidential military personnel information.
Unlike federal charges criminalizing support of an international terror group, there are no statutes specific to suspected domestic terrorism, nor is there a federal registry of groups deemed to be domestic terrorists. Craig Lisher, an FBI spokesman, said the agency could not comment on the United Patriots investigation, citing Justice Department policy, but he said agents try to look for crimes committed by individuals rather than target group affiliation or ideology.
"The FBI is focused on investigating whether someone is looking to do something violent or looking to harm our national security," Lisher said.
Agents also targeted Logan Charles Mattila, of Dassel, who could not be reached for comment. Mattila allegedly put together AR-15 rifles for Thomas and other United Patriot members. Unfinished rifle kits can be bought without needing to pass a background check, according to court records. Court filings also detail allegations against at least two other Twin Cities men who illegally possessed assault rifles at the group's training events.
According to a sworn statement by an FBI agent, one of the men told the informant after a training in October last year, "Need to get you on my crew. … We love guns, the Constitution and [expletive] hate the government."
The FBI also cited Facebook photos of Thomas and his two young children, one pictured holding an "assault-style rifle."
"Bumping them both up to a .22 finally," Thomas wrote in one 2016 post. "[Name deleted] is only 7, not sure what the legality of that is but I don't really give two [expletives] lol."
After the December raid, Thomas wrote on Facebook that the FBI's informant "destroyed our group from the inside."
The informant spent months recording conversations with United Patriots members and took photos of members with assault rifles who are prohibited from owning them. That included Thomas, who was convicted in New York in 2002 for burglary and "criminal mischief."
Court records show that federal agents seized a 9mm Beretta handgun from his home in Red Wing, and various calibers of ammunition.
A Facebook page for United Patriots of Minnesota 3% indicates it has 111 members; a national umbrella organization claims about 17,300 members. The Minnesota group's page promises its members will "rise against any assault on the unalienable rights granted by our Creator."
Sam Jackson, a University of Syracuse doctoral candidate who studies patriot and militia movements, said most people affiliated with such groups stick to fiery rhetoric or preparing for a perceived breakdown in society. But others argue for taking the fight to the government on their own terms, he said.
"It's highly likely that someone with some attachment to the movement will commit crimes and will commit acts of violence based on ideas motivated by the movement," Jackson said.
But Eric Dahlen, a Twin Cities man who describes himself as a libertarian political activist, says being a "3 percenter" is a lifestyle choice.
"It's people willing to stand up for rights in general and not back down from tyrannical government," he said.
Dahlen said authorities prevented him from boarding a plane last June, asking about his contacts with "3 percent" groups and statements made to state authorities about Second Amendment rights. Dahlen, who has also not been charged with a crime, said he warned Thomas that mobilizing an organized group would attract unwanted attention. Still, he described the Minnesota group's trainings as a coterie of like-minded people swapping campfire talk and shooting in the woods.
Thomas said he distanced himself from the United Patriots group after the FBI searched his home, partly because he noticed a shift by some members toward more hate speech and what he called "radical anti-liberal and anti-Muslim hysteria." Photos of family outings have largely replaced the long political commentary he spearheaded last fall on Facebook.
"Every single level of government is infected," Thomas wrote in one post last year, insisting that "every single last one of them is in on the scheme to enslave you."
He called a relatively quiet spell in the news "the calm before a big storm hits."
"My bet is that they are consolidating all of their pawns and planning for one final push to destabilize America. Most patriots have been caught up in the smoke and mirrors of it all, but not this guy."
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755