Within months, he realized something was off about his mother. It didn't take long for every conversation they had to become an argument, including "things about Bill Gates, all of these different conspiracies," he said.
"She’s always been into, you know, natural remedies, getting aluminum out of deodorant, things like that,” he recalled. “But that led to anti-vaxxing, and anti-vaxxing led to QAnon."
Now, she's in Dallas with a fringe group of QAnon believers who are waiting for John F. Kennedy, the president who was assassinated in 1963, and JFK Jr., who died in 1999, to reappear in Dealey Plaza.
Mike Rothschild, whose new book The Storm Is Upon Us delves into the rise of the QAnon movement, says this gradual progression from one conspiracy to the next is a common way people end up believing in QAnon.
"Most of the followers were already conspiracy theorists. They didn't wake up one day and say, 'Hey, it'd be fun to join a gematria cult'," said Rothschild. (Gematria is a system assigning numbers to letters of the English alphabet often used by QAnoners.)
In 2017, QAnon had first bubbled up in remote corners of the internet, on online forums like 4chan, but it spread quickly. By 2018, the conspiracy theory had taken root among some mainstream right-wing media figures and politicians.
The way followers see it, former President Donald Trump was waging a secret war against a powerful, shadowy group of Democrats, Hollywood elites and the deep state, all of whom were operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.
In October 2020, The Guardian published a list of a dozen violent incidents, some of them fatal, reportedly linked to QAnon. Earlier this year, the FBI warned U.S. lawmakers that the movement could become more violent.
But in early November, an even more fringe group of QAnon supporters traveled from all over to Dallas at the command of Michael Protzman, who once ran a Washington-based demolition company and has now built an impressive following trafficking conspiracy theories on his Telegram channel, Negative48.
In recent weeks, Protzman and his followers have claimed that President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence have been dead for years. In one Telegram post, Protzman promoted the conspiracy theory that Biden had orchestrated a fatal car ramming at a holiday parade in Wisconsin (apparently despite Biden being dead).
Meanwhile, Sean's mother is one of the dozens who have been in town waiting for Protzman's predictions to come true: when Kennedy and his son reappear in Dealey Plaza, they will quickly reinstate former Trump as president and begin executing en masse everyone involved in the supposed secret cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophile elites that QAnoners believe run the world.
Hundreds of people like Sean’s mom were convinced by Protzman’s predictions and felt compelled to follow his instructions to travel to Dallas early last month. They’ve sacrificed their businesses, properties – and, in many cases, family ties – to make the journey.
Now, more than a month since the date Kennedy was supposed to show up at Dealey Plaza, Sean’s mother and dozens of fellow believers remain in downtown Dallas, at Protzman’s instruction.
What they’re waiting for, or what Protzman has planned for his followers, remains unclear. Experts and family members of Protzman’s followers emphasized that the seeds for Protzman’s cult following in Dallas were planted long before the Telegram star came on the QAnon scene.
“I’ve had this discourse with my sister for four years concerning this QAnon shit show,” said Bill Leek, a retired Marine Corps colonel and Sean's uncle. He suspects that his sister is the Delaware woman described in the Observer’s last dispatch on Protzman’s Dallas cult.
Bill worries for his sister’s wellbeing. He's been concerned for a while. In 2017, three year before she uprooted her life in Delaware to follow Protzman to Dallas, Bill felt he had to confront his sister and tell her that her belief system was false. He tried to explain that as a veteran of the Marine Corps, and a colonel with a high-level intelligence clearance, he knew the core tenets of the QAnon canon to be false.
His sister was too far gone, though. She said he was obligated to use his high-level clearance to confirm those beliefs. “I’m the brother of someone who has fallen for lies and disinformation that not only hurt her, but hurts the country as well," Bill said. "And it will eventually hurt other people and other families unless we get a handle on it."
“We need to get this snake to crawl back under the rock from which he slithered out from." - Bill Leek
The Leek family isn’t alone. Rothschild has seen it happen to others. "They alienate anybody who might care about them, and then they find themselves where often they can’t go back, where nobody wants to be around you at a certain point," he said.
Dallas wasn't a surprising choice. On top of being the city where Kennedy was shot and killed, it's also become a QAnon hotbed in recent months.
In May, John Sabal, known as "QAnon John," and his partner, Amy, held the "For God & County Patriot Roundup" downtown. The event was attended by retired Gen. Michael Flynn, former Texas Republican Party chairman Allen West and East Texas U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, among others.
Meanwhile, the Leeks know how complicated their situation is.
Sean Leek’s sibling, who chose to remain anonymous to protect his own children, said that while they hope their mother returns home safe to Delaware, their relationship is irreparably damaged. “How can I trust anything she says ever again?” he asked.
“Overall, we want you home,” Sean said, addressing his mother directly. “Basically your family loves you and when you’re ready to come back we’re here for you.”
Bill Leek said he’s not focused on Protzman himself, but on the threat that disinformation presents moving forward. "If it’s not Protzman, then it’ll be someone else in a couple years,” he said.
Still, he wants a stop put to Protzman’s movement in Dallas. “We need to get this snake to crawl back under the rock from which he slithered out from,” he said.