Jason Lee Van Dyke sat at a table next to his defense lawyer in a Denton County courtroom, listening as an attorney for the Texas State Bar spoke about how fearful she was when she received his email message threatening her life.
At 38, Van Dyke is stocky like a pit bull yet mild-mannered like Clark Kent — in person, that is. Online, he has a habit of exploding with anger, and as the former attorney for the far-right, all-male organization Proud Boys, he has plenty to be angry at. As a proud, straight white man, he’s angry at the liberal activists who he believes are shaming guys like them for just existing. He’s pissed at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which calls the Proud Boys a hate group, though they say that’s not true. The State Bar is on the list, too.
Then there’s the media. When he was the Proud Boys’ lawyer, Van Dyke’s mission was to sue or threaten to sue journalists who called his client a hate group. Meanwhile, he had been picking up his own bad headlines: “Prominent Lawyer Jumps Bail And Becomes A Fugitive,” “Former Proud Boy's trial canceled after witness disappears,” “Proud Boys Lawyer Jason Lee Van Dyke Suspended by Texas Bar.”
Perhaps greatest of all is his fury at Thomas Retzlaff, the Phoenix man who has dogged Van Dyke’s heels, costing him jobs and filing professional grievances aimed at ending Van Dyke's legal career.
On this afternoon in early January, Kristin Brady, assistant disciplinary counsel for the State Bar, told the court that she'd been investigating a grievance filed by Retzlaff, whom Van Dyke sued for defamation in March 2018, a day after he lost another job. Van Dyke blames Retzlaff for torpedoing the job with a Plano law firm. He claims Retzlaff used the pseudonym “Dean Anderson” when he sent the firm a poisonous email that read:
“To whom can I report an employee who is responsible for creating a very hostile work environment with regards to open racism, posting death threats on social media, and claims to be a Nazi. The guy is literally threatening to MURDER people who get into disagreements with him!!! This absolutely no joke and when I say the dude is a white supremacist/Nazi, that is what he really is. Plus, he has a criminal record for assaulting women! I thought that I would contact management before I go to Facebook and Twitter and blast this out all over the world. This guy has been working for you for a very long time and I am shocked that nothing has been done. #Timesup. #MeToo.”
Van Dyke sought $100 million in damages. Retzlaff denies writing the letter and says Van Dyke was fired for violating the law firm’s social media policy.
Retzlaff has tangled with law enforcement himself. He spent six years in a Texas prison for carrying a prohibited weapon on elementary school grounds. One Texas court labeled him a “vexatious litigant” for filing numerous frivolous lawsuits, though that didn’t stop him from filing an anti-SLAPP motion in response to Van Dyke's defamation lawsuit. SLAPP suits — an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — are meritless lawsuits individuals and corporations file to silence critics by tying them up with costly litigation. Under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, targets of a SLAPP suit can file a motion to quickly dismiss the suit and recover legal fees from their opponent.
Retzlaff's motion to dismiss Van Dyke’s defamation claim under the act was denied in U.S. District Court in Sherman and is on appeal.
Van Dyke's defamation case pits himself, a lawyer with a history of threatening media outlets for reporting about the Proud Boys, against Retzlaff, a guy with an independent income, a lawyer on retainer and a willingness to sue anyone who crosses him. Both men have weaponized the courts, but their fight is more than just troll versus troll; it has wider implications for everyone's First Amendment rights.
Because Retzlaff lives in Arizona and Van Dyke in Texas, the latter’s defamation case is being heard in federal court, but under Texas law.
When the trial court judge ruled that Texas’ anti-SLAPP law doesn’t apply to cases in federal courts, 40 media companies joined forces to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, supporting Retzlaff’s anti-SLAPP claim. The New York Times, The Washington Post and others argue that applying Texas’ anti-SLAPP to libel cases in federal court would stop unhappy targets of truthful reporting from filing frivolous defamation cases whose only real purpose is to saddle their opponents with large legal bills. The threat alone of a potential SLAPP suit is enough to chill free speech, they argue.
Van Dyke says Retzlaff is using the First Amendment and Texas’ anti-SLAPP law to provide cover for a campaign of harassment simply because he doesn’t approve of some things the ex-Proud Boy lawyer has said.
More than 30 states have some kind of anti-SLAPP law, and Texas’ is considered one of the strongest, though perhaps not for long, regardless of how the appeals court rules. Bills pending in the Texas Legislature could critically weaken Texas' anti-SLAPP law. House Bill 2730 and Senate Bill 2162 would “allow the entity accused of filing the lawsuit to drop their case just days before a hearing,” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported in a March 11 article. “This effectively allows an entity to sue a media company for defamation, receive a hearing date, and then drop the lawsuit days before a hearing to avoid a bad ruling and the cost of the defendant's legal fees.”
A White Man
Van Dyke's first brush with the Southern Poverty Law Center occurred in December 2007 shortly after he graduated from law school in Florida. It arose out of his time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He'd grown up about 90 miles southeast of the college town in an upper-middle class suburb of Detroit. Like many other people accused of being white racists, Van Dyke says he grew up with friends who were Asian, black, Indian and Jewish. He didn't know any Hispanics because not many lived in his neighborhood; he did have some gay friends, though they were closeted.
In the late '90s, Van Dyke sought a major in political theory and constitutional democracy at MSU. He planned to go to law school and become a prosecutor. Then he came face-to-face with liberal activism.
It started with segregation week in his residence hall dorm. Signs began appearing on bathroom and elevator doors. Some read, “Women only,” “Gays only,” “Blacks only.” Liberal activists on campus were attempting to make white students aware of what it felt like to be marginalized. Van Dyke didn't like the feeling. “Michigan State was a culture shock,” he says. “It was the first time I had been asked to apologize for being a straight white male. Racism wasn't a thing where I grew up, and there was none of this black or Indian friend. It was just friends. (Then I) get to college.”
He resented student organizations geared toward women, people of color and homosexuals “who expected an apology from me that I did not think they deserved (and which I still do not think they deserve),” he wrote in an early April email. “The school did whatever it could to suppress conservative viewpoints. I want to make it clear that I do not harbor any ill will or resentment toward anyone on account of race, gender or sexual orientation. I do resent anyone — regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation — who thinks they are entitled to something because of those characteristics or who thinks I owe them some sort of apology for being white, straight and male.”
A lifelong member of the National Rifle Association, he joined the campus newspaper, The State News, as a conservative columnist. He didn't last long. In April 2000, he claims, he was fired from the newspaper because of outrage over an article he'd written. “I criticized the gay rights movement for teaching tolerance hypocritically.” (One of the keynote speakers during gay pride week was a professor named Mary Daly from Boston who gained notoriety by excluding men from her classroom.)
He started an underground newspaper, The Spartan Spectator, after he spoke against anti-conservative bias on campus at a conference held by Accuracy in Academia, a conservative organization that seeks to eliminate liberal bias in colleges. The Spectator showcased conservative views and offered a liberal-of-the-month spotlight. They would write stories such as “The Plight of Lesbian Martians in America.”
Michigan State suspended Van Dyke for several semesters. He'd been arrested for domestic violence, possession of a banned weapon and firearms safety violations. Searching his room, campus police discovered extremist literature, including The Turner Diaries, a 1978 racist novel by William Luther Pierce, and Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 1903 fabricated anti-Semitic text.
Van Dyke claims the domestic violence charge was in connection to a loud argument with his roommate. Campus police arrived and asked if they could search his room. He agreed. They found the books, which he says came from a class on radical challenges to democratic regimes. Then they asked him if he had any firearms. He told them about a hunting rifle locked in a case in his pickup on campus. It was the night before deer season began. “The charges were dismissed, and the whole thing was trumped up,” he says. “The campus wanted to get rid of someone they had determined was a troublemaker, and they succeeded.”
“As I stated before, MSU was a cesspool where dissent from leftist ideology was simply not tolerated,” he says. “The only mistake I made there was underestimating just how far an institution like that would go to stamp out conservative viewpoints.”
A Proud Boy
Van Dyke was tired of the liberal “cesspool” at his home state campus and decided to find the reddest state in the union. He settled on Texas and finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Dallas and law school at Stetson University College of Law in Florida. But he wasn't finished with Michigan State.
About six years after he left MSU, The Spartan Spectator was reborn as a blog for the chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, the only university student organization designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Kyle Bristow, now a Michigan attorney, was its leader. Van Dyke met Bristow on Facebook, discovered that he was experiencing the same reaction to his extreme conservative views and offered to help him “navigate the cesspool in East Lansing.” He began contributing articles to the blog. “It was one of the reasons I wanted to help (Bristow) and MSU-YAF,” he says. “I did not want that school getting away with the same misconduct twice.”
MSU's chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom had been roiling “their campus and the surrounding community by hosting (racist and bigoted speakers), issuing vicious homophobic and racist insults, and staging publicity stunts masked as political demonstrations that seemed inspired in equal parts by the movie Animal House and the Hitler Youth,” the Southern Poverty Law Center reported in a Dec. 1, 2007, article.
Bristow ran unopposed to represent James Madison College, which all international relations majors attended, on MSU's student government. He was recalled after he posted his 13-point agenda that highlighted hunting illegal immigrants, creating a Caucasian Caucus and ending representation for practically all nonwhite, nonheterosexual or non-Christian student groups on campus. The SPLC reported that his Young Americans demonstrations included protests such as “Straight Power” with members carrying signs that read “End Faggotry” and “Go Back in the Closet.” They also sponsored a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day,” jokingly threatened to distribute small-pox infected blankets to American Indian students and posted flyers that read “Gays spread AIDS” on campus.
Van Dyke's involvement with Bristow and the Young Americans led to his first of many appearances in an SPLC article. He was quoted as telling a group of Latino students on campus, “Remember, the First Amendment gives you the right to use four-letter words. So I have two words for you: 'work' and 'soap.'” His penchant for violent, if childish, outbursts was also quoted: “I would catch Osama bin Laden and then take a power drill and hollow out a section of the Koran as he was forced to watch. After doing this, I would cut Osama bin Laden's genitals off with a rusty hacksaw, place them in the hollowed-out Koran, wrap it in an American flag infected with smallpox and send the whole package directly to Mecca.”
Van Dyke, of course, took to Twitter to share some of his views. In 2014, he was in a feud with a black man who Van Dyke says had tweeted his and his parents' Social Security numbers, so he tweeted a picture of a hangman's noose and wrote, “Look good and hard at this picture you fucking nigger. It's where I'm going to put your neck.”
Asked why he resorted to racism, since he staunchly denies being a racist, Van Dyke claimed, “I was incredibly pissed off and lost my temper. I regret my choice of words in hindsight.”
A few years after his noose tweet, Van Dyke's Twitter feud with a black activist and hip-hop artist Talib Kweli garnered media attention and a suspension of their Twitter accounts. Van Dyke's was suspended for using racist and homophobic language. Twitter locked Kweli's account because he had violated community rules when he tweeted Van Dyke's business address to his followers.
“It is a duty of mine to protect myself and the community I represent,” Kweli told Fast Company in a Nov. 14, 2017, article. “If someone worked for an airline like American or United, and was harassing people like this, I would post the United phone number and encourage people to demand accountability from this company. And so that's essentially what I did.”
A Trump Supporter
Van Dyke was labeled a “neo-Confederate” by the SPLC, and his next appearance in one of its articles occurred after he joined the Proud Boys in May 2017. He'd been a fan of Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes' YouTube show and writings. He was vetted online and then joined other soon-to-be brothers at an initiation meeting. Rising to the rank of sergeant-at-arms, he became part of the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter, but he says the Proud Boys has chapters in San Antonio, Austin, New York, Los Angeles, even Anchorage, Alaska. “People underestimate its size,” he says.
At that time, Van Dyke was dealing with what he called “the Victoria County fiasco.” The Cliffs Notes version: He'd been a fairly successful attorney in the Dallas area, handling criminal defense and consumer debt collection cases, but longed to become a prosecutor. He applied for various prosecutor positions around the state. Then the Victoria County District Attorney's Office offered him a job as a felony prosecutor. He accepted, sold his house and bought one in Victoria County. Twelve days before his start date, Victoria County DA Stephen Tyler rescinded the job offer.
“I smelled a rat, and I was pissed,” Van Dyke says.
Van Dyke sued Tyler to find out what happened. “I think someone ran their mouth,” he told the Victoria County Advocate in 2017. “What I am trying to find out is who it was and what they said.”
Tyler didn't tell the reporter why he had rescinded Van Dyke's offer.
A former Willacy County district attorney, Steve Fischer, told the local newspaper that he had met Van Dyke, whom he described as a Dr. Jekyll in person but a Mr. Hyde online. “He had an awful hate streak in him, and it's sad because I think he is a decent lawyer,” Fischer said. “I don't know how he'd act professionally when his own beliefs come in conflict with the law. Just the things that he might say could embarrass the office.”
Fischer was a prophet. Van Dyke began posting death threats against the anonymous person who cost him his job. On Facebook, he posted a picture of himself in camouflaged paramilitary SWAT gear. An AR-15 assault rifle rested in his arms. The caption: “If you mess with my career (the one that requires me to wear a suit), I might be dressed like this the next time you see me!”
When he received notice of a professional grievance filed against him at the State Bar, Van Dyke says he figured out who had contacted the Victoria County district attorney: Thomas Retzlaff.
“When I found out that Van Dyke had got the job there, I had some communications with the district attorney and said, 'This guy is a crazy person, why would you hire him? Didn't you use Google?’” Retzlaff told The Daily Beast in 2018. “This isn't about politics. I've been a lifelong member of the Republican Party ever since Ronald Reagan. I've been a Trump supporter from the very beginning. Van Dyke was just inches from being an assistant district attorney in Texas where they have the death penalty.”
Van Dyke claims Retzlaff had known about him since 2014 when the lawyer represented a University of North Texas student whose pictures had been posted on Pink Meth, a revenge porn website that Van Dyke claims he shut down. At the time, Retzlaff was battling James McGibney, a self-appointed crusader against revenge porn websites, online and in court. McGibney is the founder of Bullyville.com and Cheaterville.com. He had created a website in Retzlaff's name where he posted Retzlaff's criminal history, court documents and emails and other information that Retzlaff claims was defamatory.
McGibney's attorney Evan Stone says his client and a couple of other people have experienced the same online attacks that Van Dyke says he has suffered for two years now. Some of this torment includes personal information shared online, taunting and appearances in a blog that supports Retzlaff's views: “And now we add Nazi attorney Van Dyke to the mix of idiots who thought it would be a good idea to poke a bear with a stick — American Hero & Honorary Admin of the BV Files Thomas Retzlaff!”
Soon, Van Dyke's threats began arriving in Retzlaff's in-box. Van Dyke repeatedly told him “to kill himself and made multiple threats of physical violence,” according to Texas State Bar, which listed 13 alleged threats against Retzlaff. The first mentioned a possible murder weapon: “No more lawsuit, I will see you this weekend with my rifle.” The second was more of warning: “If you do not stop calling my clients, I will make you suffer. Better watch your back, Tom.”
The third one sounded like it would hurt: “Did you know that, when I strangle you, that you could be conscious to feel all that pain for up to three minutes before brain death occurs? What kind of vegetable would you like to be for the rest of your life? How about a turnip?” Each one that followed grew more explicit: “I can't wait to see your fat ass on the other end of my scope. Did you know that a 190 gram 300 Winchester Magnum round travels at approximately 2,800 feet per second?”
Van Dyke's death threats led Brady, the Texas Bar lawyer, to testify at his bond hearing in early January. Van Dyke had tagged her in one of the threatening emails he had sent to Retzlaff in early December, a couple of months after Retzlaff filed a response to Van Dyke's defamation suit. “I felt concerned,” Brady testified. “The reason I felt concerned is this whole grievance is based on a death threat.”
A Lawyer Loses His Gun
On Thursday night in early September, Van Dyke heard his pickup's alarm screaming, looked out the window and saw a thief rifling through his pickup. He grabbed a shotgun from his bedroom and walked out the front door with it raised and pointed at the thief.
He was too late. The thief jumped into a waiting car and drove away.
An Oak Point police officer responded to the call and learned that two handguns, a Glock 29 10mm and Sig Sauer P320 9mm; a camo Beretta A400 12-gauge shotgun; camo backpack with multiple items; and a black bag that contained his roommate's camera equipment had been taken from Van Dyke's vehicle. He observed pieces of a broken brick on the ground and marks on Van Dyke's truck, which appeared to be from the brick.
When he spoke with Van Dyke's roommate, the officer heard a different story. The roommate told police he was unaware Van Dyke owned a camo Beretta shotgun and that earlier that day Van Dyke had told him that he couldn't find his Glock. They began searching Van Dyke's house for it. Then he told the officer that Van Dyke said he couldn't find his Sig P320 either. That was when the roommate said he realized that his camera bag was missing from the house.
“This was also factually accurate,” Van Dyke says. “I owned about 40 guns at the time and my garage was a mess from recent hunts and a trip to the range.”
The officer asked Van Dyke about the roommate's statement and, according to the officer's arrest warrant affidavit, Van Dyke claimed they had found the items and he placed them in his pickup. He was arrested for filing a false police report and taken to Denton County Jail. A story in The Daily Beast soon followed: “Exclusive: Lawyer for Ultranationalist 'Proud Boys' Arrested for Allegedly Faking Gun Theft.” “I completely deny these allegations, and I look forward to being exonerated, and I've got no further comment,” Van Dyke told The Daily Beast in the Sept. 18 report.
Van Dyke went into more depth with the Observer: “Oak Point decided to completely believe his story and not believe mine,” he says, “so they arrested me without what I would consider probable cause.”
In early October, Van Dyke received a call from Denton police about the stolen Sig Sauer. Police had picked it up off a suspect they believed was involved in a drive-by shooting. The man was arrested on Nov. 15 for theft of a firearm. Van Dyke was listed as the victim.
“I think that the case would have turned out quite different if it had been handled by an office that didn't have pre-existing bias against me (one that was probably based upon untrue statements about me in the press),” Van Dyke says. “Retzlaff had been singing to that office about me for some time, and frankly, Retzlaff played that DA like a violin.”
Proud Boy No Longer
A few weeks later, the Proud Boys announced that Van Dyke, a fourth-degree brother and sergeant-at-arms, had been elected as chairman of the Proud Boys Elders Chapter after founder Gavin McInnes disassociated himself from the brotherhood. The Proud Boys had been embroiled in controversy after some of its members were linked to the Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right rally that left one person dead and 19 others injured.
In their press release, the Proud Boys denied it was a gang or associated with the alt-right or white nationalism: “In light of the departure of our founder, the local and regional leadership of our fraternity convened an emergency meeting on the evening of Nov. 21. At this meeting, they debated and voted on new bylaws to govern our fraternity. These bylaws also, for the first time in the history of our organization, establish an Elders Chapter for the purpose of providing international leadership. Following the adoption of our new bylaws, eight good and honorable men were duly elected to this Elders Chapter. We intend to make our new bylaws — with the name of our Elders redacted for their own safety — available to the public next week.”
Van Dyke was ousted from the Proud Boys after only two days as chairman when he failed to redact the “Elders” names when he posted the new bylaws online.
Shortly afterward, an English professor and Denton City Council member, Deb Armintor, spearheaded a movement to remove Van Dyke from the University of North Texas campus. Van Dyke had been mentoring the Texas Marksmen student gun club. "I helped ensure students wouldn't have their 2nd Amendment rights violated on campus and aided hundreds (if not thousands) in getting their license to carry," he wrote in a Facebook post.
Armintor was surprised that gun training was occurring on campus but not surprised that a "Nazi" was leading it. "As much as I hate guns, it was the white supremacist teaching the class that upset me," she says.
The UNT fiasco ended with Van Dyke posting not so-subtle threats on social media and the White Information Network, a news blog for white people. Armintor claimed in her Jan. 11 affidavit that she felt he was attacking her Jewish heritage and stated that Van Dyke's most threatening post was a meme of a bloodied movie character, John Wick, that read, "People will provoke you until they bring out your ugly side, then play victim when you go there."
Armintor began calling for an outside agency such as the Southern Poverty Law Center to investigate whether white supremacists had infiltrated the university, according to a Dec. 16 article by the Denton Record-Chronicle.
Attorney Seeks Justice
A month has passed since Van Dyke pleaded guilty to falsifying a police report. We meet at a coffee bar near the old Denton courthouse where a Confederate soldier monument stands. Sitting at an outdoor table on this late March morning, he comes prepared, armed with three large white folders he calls the “highlight reel” of his war with Retzlaff.
Van Dyke looks tormented, but he should be in good spirits. In late January, the lead witness in his false police report trial — his ex-roommate — mysteriously disappeared. “We don't believe any foul play took place,” Denton County First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck told Law & Crime. “We just can't find him.”
The DA's Office offered a plea deal, which Van Dyke accepted. He received deferred adjudication and 60 hours community service. “It turned my stomach to take a plea deal to an offense that I did not commit, but I did not see any real path to victory and the decision became more about avoiding homelessness more than anything else,” he says. “I think more needs to be done to hold prosecutors to account for charging decisions based upon factors other than the facts of the case, and I do think there should be a criminal penalty for people like Retzlaff who interfere in cases like this.”
Then, in early February, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes filed a defamation lawsuit against the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Of course, Van Dyke still faced a felony obstruction charge for threatening Retzlaff again in December, but Oak Point police kicked the charge over to the Plano police to investigate because of jurisdiction issues. Plano police spokesperson David Tilley said a detective is still investigating.
About a month ago, the State Bar suspended his license for a year instead of disbarring him, fined him $7,500 and requested mental health treatment. Retzlaff wasn't satisfied and filed four more grievances against him: two in Texas and the others in Colorado and Georgia. “It is important that not only is justice done, but that that justice is seen to be done,” he says. “And nothing less than permanent disbarment is acceptable.”
Van Dyke claims Retzlaff has been contacting clients and harassing them until they fire him. He combs documents, highlighting Retzlaff's criminal history, which includes prison time for carrying a weapon in a prohibited place, harassment and tampering with evidence.
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“It doesn't matter how shitty of a person you think Tom Retzlaff may or may not be,” Retzlaff says. “Van Dyke's emails are what they are, and the evidence is irrefutable. He sent the damn things to not only me but the State Bar prosecutor and the chief disciplinary counsel for the Bar, for God's sake!”
Van Dyke tried settling his lawsuit against Retzlaff, who responded through his Houston attorney: “The only settlement I'm interested in involves sticking both your bar card and law degree into a shredder and bending over and dropping your pants and grabbing your ankles as (the judge) reads off the judgment. Go fuck yourself. Go fuck yourself long and hard.”
Now Van Dyke is going on the attack, but law enforcement officials have been ignoring his requests to investigate Retzlaff. “What he is doing is the legal definition of stalking,” Van Dyke says. “This is a failure by law enforcement to protect me and a number of other people.
“I'm not asking people to agree with me, but people like Retzlaff need to be stopped.”