Controversial Gilberton chief back in the news
Times News file photo Former Gilberton Police Chief Mark Kessler
In videos gone viral, former Gilberton police Chief Mark Kessler lets loose with a stream of profanity, punctuated by bursts from a variety of automatic weapons, daring authorities to come and confiscate his guns.
Turns out those videos, released in the summer of 2013, were aimed at luring extremists out from under cover and into the sights of federal law enforcement agencies.
"I didn't get the blessing to do it. I got the idea, on my own, to release the videos, and they were over-the-top," Kessler said in an interview Friday.
Over-the-top indeed. In one video, Kessler rants against "libtards" as he fires a machine gun at a target he calls Nancy Pelosi.
"The more I put out there, the more over-the-top the video, the more extremists came to me," he says. "Unfortunately, my videos portrayed me as a psychopath, but it was the best way to attract these people who need to be monitored. It's something that had to be done."
Kessler says he did not seek out extremists, nor did he spy on people or infiltrate groups.
"I was helping the agencies purely through intelligence. If I received information about a threat to the country, I would pass that along," he says.
Kessler says he can't reveal what agencies he was working with.
"The reason I assisted these agencies and put my neck on the line is that I have a duty and responsibility to protect life and to serve my country. I took this opportunity to do good," he says. "Unfortunately, I had to retire from my job as police chief, that was part of the deal. I couldn't tell anyone."
Kessler believes he saved many lives by passing along information on extremists.
"Several attacks were thwarted. I'm proud to have been a part of it, to serve my country and to assist these agencies," he says. "I would do it again in a heartbeat. I had 16 years on the job as a police officer. This cost me my employment, but I know in my heart I did the right thing. The extremists are playing for keeps."
As the videos became more aggressive and obscene, they drew more negative attention to the Schuylkill County borough of Gilberton, a hardscrabble, coal region town of some 800 souls.
Its council on July 31, 2013, suspended Kessler without pay and moved to fire him on Sept. 19, 2013.
On Feb. 20, he settled with the borough for $30,000, agreeing to leave his post as police chief and stay away from public borough meetings.
Why is he revealing this now?
"It's time I move forward with life. It was a lot of stress. But I feel it was important that people understood there was a reason for everything," he says. "Lives were saved, and I feel I did a great service to society."
But while the video strategy drew out the fanatics, it also triggered a 180-degree turnabout in some of his supporters.
Following an interview with Fox News radio host Alan Colmes on Dec. 2, in which he revealed the reason for the videos, some of Kessler's supporters turned against him, posting furious, often obscene comments on his Facebook page.
Richard Dykes called him a snitch; Tizsa Mink posted a picture of Benedict Arnold with the word "traitor." Keith F. Smith posted a picture of Kessler printed with the words coward, snitch and pig. Some implied threats.
Is he afraid?
"I'm always concerned. As a police officer, I was always concerned. I have the agencies that I was assisting keeping an eye on me. They won't leave me hanging," he says. "You've got to do what you've got to do."
How it all started
Kessler says he came up with the idea for the videos some months after a disturbing encounter with an extremist.
Kessler is staunchly pro-gun, and actively pushed for gun ownership rights after a wave of calls for restrictive gun laws swept the nation in the wake of the mass shooting of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012.
"I came out with proposed Second Amendment legislation. I don't believe in firearm restrictions. I was able to push it through in Gilberton in January 2013. Afterward, the legislation went viral, and a lot of places adopted it," he says.
Kessler's Second Amendment Preservation Resolution states that Gilberton won't recognize federal and state firearms restrictions. Council adopted the resolution on Jan. 24, 2013.
"In March 2013, I was approached by an individual who identified himself as a militia member. I was standing there, in full uniform. The individual told me he and his militia were going to have to start killing police officers. It took me back that he said that," Kessler says.
"After he left, I contacted the appropriate authorities. I knew then I had stumbled on something that was bigger than me. I couldn't turn a blind eye. Nobody in their right mind would," he says.
Kessler formed a pro-gun group called the Constitutional Security Force.
"It was a group of good people," he says. "But the militia individual kept showing up at meetings, yelling out 'militia, militia, militia.' I spoke to the appropriate authorities (Kessler said he cannot say specifically who). I knew there were going to be some crazy, dangerous people who were going to come out."
The videos begin
In mid-July, 2013, Kessler pondered how to better draw out the dangerous extremists, and came up with the idea of making the YouTube videos. They went viral.
"I didn't expect the response the way it happened. There was a massive amount of response, from all over the country and internationally," he says.
But Kessler says the federal agencies he was alerting to the extremists disagreed with his approach.
That landed him in trouble. "I didn't get permission from anybody to do that. The agencies I was helping, they got mad. They got upset. They just kind of put me on the spot and said knock it off," he says.
"I was getting contacted by some of the most extreme people in the country, and that's exactly what I wanted," he says.
"This was the opportunity to get out there and catch the really bad guys. I didn't spy on anybody or infiltrate any groups. The information came to me. I felt them out and passed along the information as necessary."
But, he says, there's balance between being pro-gun and being an extremist ready and willing to kill people for the cause.
"It's a fine line we have to walk," he says.
Extremists come forth
The videos drew various extremists, including a group of people who do not recognize any form of government.
"I was contacted by sovereign citizens. Several flew in from out-of-state to meet with me in November 2013. They truly believe the government of the United States is responsible for 9/11, Katrina and that they are altering the weather. They came armed," he says.
"They showed me paperwork they were going to send to the Pentagon, the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, putting them on notice that they are reinstating the U.S. Constitution and are not recognizing the U.S. government," Kessler says.
Several militia groups approached him after seeing the videos. One invited him to their encampment in Texas, on the Mexican border.
"I cleared it with the agencies I was helping out. I went and met a leader. It was not a militia. It's best to classify them as domestic terrorists," Kessler says. "They truly despise the government and law enforcement. Their plan was to enter Mexico and start killing Mexican military personnel and take their vehicles and weapons and start a U.S./Mexican war along the border."
The group crafted the plan because they were angry about the influx of illegal immigrants.
"But it didn't work out the way they wanted," he says.
Kessler had alerted the local sheriff, who thwarted the attack.
Now, Kessler lives a private life on a small retirement stipend.
"Hopefully now that people can understand what that was all about, I can move forward," he says.