CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. — The question posed at the Cape May County commissioners meeting Jan. 12 over Zoom by a lone member of the public took Commissioner Gerald Thornton by surprise.

Was the Jersey Shore county allowing a local chapter of the extremist group the Oath Keepers, a group whose members from Ohio and Virginia have been tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, to meet at its historic Court House on Route 9?

“Can you say for certain the acts of terrorism that took place in Capitol Hill were not partially planned in our own County Court House by the Oath Keepers?” read the question posed via email by Benjamin Saracco, a Cape May native who now lives in Camden.

The insurrection has made it tougher to dismiss these sorts of questions, even in the heart of Cape May County — a swath of conservative New Jersey both small town and Shore, with Second Amendment enthusiasts and second-home owners, and now home to one of the first people arrested on Jan. 6: Leonard Guthrie Jr., 48, a self-described chaplain with a group known as the Light Foot Militia. Officials found themselves backtracking.

“The only response I can give right now is we have many, many groups we allow to use the county facilities when they want to hold a public meeting,” said Thornton, head of what used to be called the Board of Chosen Freeholders, a term the state tossed aside this year as being racist in origin.

“I am not familiar with this group and quite frankly have never heard of them until I got an email from this individual,” Thornton said. He said the county would look into it.

‘First attempt at recruiting’

A week later, Thornton was more familiar with the Oath Keepers, as the FBI charged the three members from Ohio and Virginia with conspiring to storm the Capitol. Thornton said Thursday the Cape May chapter’s last meeting at the Court House was in December 2018.

In 2016, the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness classified the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters as extremist militia groups, “actively recruiting in New Jersey” since 2012. The group, which rejects the extremist, antigovernment label, claims tens of thousands of members nationwide, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The New Jersey Oath Keepers website lists coordinators in six counties, including Burlington and Cape May.

A recurring monthly meeting listed for Jan. 21 at the Court House on the New Jersey chapter’s website had not actually been scheduled, Thornton said. The union representing county employees, he said, had reserved the space.

At the commissioners meeting, Thornton promised: “We’ll look into it and check this group and see what their philosophy is.”

“I don’t know who attended these things, I know I never did,” he added.

But one person who did attend a meeting was also at the Jan. 12 commissioners meeting: Michael John Donohue, a former Superior Court judge and acting county administrator now advising the county on reopening. Donohue is head of Cape GOP.

A 2014 Cape May County Herald story reported that Donohue and Michael Clark, a Middle Township Democratic committeeman, attended the first meeting of the Oath Keepers chapter.

“This was the first attempt at recruiting in Cape May County,” the Herald reporter wrote. “About two dozen, mostly men, sat for two hours, listened and discussed the most pressing issues facing the country.”

Donohue rejects any insinuation that he, or the county, is somehow extremist-group adjacent, or tolerant.

In an interview, Donohue said he barely remembered the meeting, was not an Oath Keeper, and had been asked to speak about the Constitution. He bristled at the idea that attending one meeting was now being brought up in connection with Jan. 6, which he condemned as “a black day in our history” and “disgusting.”

“I think it’s legitimate to say, hey this guy was at a meeting,” he said. “It was seven years ago. It was me and a Democratic colleague. It was a productive discussion about the Constitution. … It’s an extraordinarily tenuous connection, not a connection at all.”

Still, Donohue says he’s reflected on language he’s used, how heated rhetoric “on the left and right” builds to “this unfortunate moment in our history.” The morning of Jan. 6, he posted on the Cape GOP Facebook page “#RESISTANCE” with a link to the Beatles’ Revolution.

Asked about the post, Donohue noted the hashtag was a reference to Left slogans, and Revolution’s lyrics, “But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.” The post was since deleted.

“I’m trying to after this horrible day assess the language that we use and how we move forward,” Donohue said. “ On the morning of the 6th, my thing was, we should be able to protest, and voice our opinions. Those people following the Constitution should be able to object.”

Alexander Bland, former head of the Cape May NAACP, said the reaction from the commissioners left him cold. “They do these soft disapprovals,” he said. “If it was Black Lives Matter, and if they formed a chapter in Cape May County, they would finesse a way to say, hell no you cannot have a meeting at our county building. They act so oblivious.”

Thornton said the county would continue examining its policy for vetting groups using the Court House, a white clapboard building dating to 1850. It’s mostly a legal issue, he said.

‘Top notch medical training, bushcraft, firearms, hand to hand, comms...’

As for Guthrie, the arrested preacher, he was listed as participating on a social media/You Tube commentator team for a state Oath Keepers tour in 2018, “On Fire,” aimed at “fellow Black American citizens who have been kept in bondage by progressive politics.”

Guthrie was representing the “Lightfoot Militia,” which he describes elsewhere as “middle extreme,” dedicated to the Constitution. In an Oct. 2018 post on “mymilitia,” he reported: “We’ve grown in a very secure and healthy way with some of the most amazing Patriots! At present we have a private range/training and meeting place that we’ve had some excellent meets at. Top notch medical training, bushcraft, firearms, hand to hand, comms....”

Also listed for the tour’s social media was attorney Seth Grossman, head of “Liberty and Prosperity,” a former Republican congressional candidate who lost to then-Democrat Jeff Van Drew, whose district includes Cape May County. Van Drew voted against accepting Pennsylvania and Arizona’s electoral results.

Grossman said the mission of groups like Oath Keepers has been distorted. Members are current and former first responders or military dedicated to the Constitution, not plotting insurrections, he said.

”The feeling of the Oath Keepers is a very positive one,” Grossman said. “They were reminding officers and people who serve on jury duty to understand the fundamental rights of Americans, and if they were ordered to violate those rights, their duty to the Constitution came first.”

In 17 years of Liberty and Prosperity breakfasts, he said, “almost every Conservative, right-leaning activist,” has shown up, and “only one or two were dangerous, fit the right wing extremist or bigot definition.”

“They were not welcome,” he said.

Guthrie’s father, Leonard Guthrie Sr., a local taxidermist and former county health inspector (whose union meets at the Court House), said his son’s mission in D.C. was simply to pray.

Guthrie Jr. has acknowledged crossing a police line behind the Capitol, before anyone had entered. He spent hours in lockup, then drove home. Ten miles from home, he hit a deer and totaled his car. He has condemned the violence.

On Twitter, Guthrie calls himself “threeperLen: Living a life that requires the Whole Armor of God. CO of NewJerseyLightFootMilitia.” His first tweet linked to a video of Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers.

While officials, from the commissioners to Rep. Van Drew, say they did not know the younger Guthrie, his father is a familiar figure in county government (and taxidermy) circles. Guthrie Sr. said he too would have gone to D.C., but it’s his busy season.