If the “Open Carry March” on July 4 had gone off as Adam Kokesh originally planned, he would have led an army of 10,000 peaceful (but armed) gun-rights protesters through Washington DC in what he called “the final American revolution.”
But when it came time to march, Adam was an army of one. So he loaded his shotgun just blocks away from the White House in defiance of local laws. Five days later, he was arrested when police seized marijuana and a cache of unregistered guns and ammunition from his apartment. He would have to continue producing podcasts for his website from a pay phone inside the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.
Adam, who called himself “a political prisoner” on a “government induced taxpayer-funded spiritual retreat,” was imprisoned for four months without bond or bail, and nearly half the time, he tells SFR, was spent in solitary confinement. He’s out of jail now after striking a plea deal with prosecutors, but is banned from entering Washington DC, and could be heading to prison for years pending the outcome of a January sentencing.
The 31-year-old ex-Marine who called Santa Fe home during his teenage years has been somewhat of a local celebrity wherever he goes, promoting an aggressive libertarian agenda and often paying the price for his subversiveness.
Bucking the system appears to be a family trait. Adam’s father Charles Kokesh says he doesn’t share Adam’s politics. Yet, like Adam, he has a knack for running afoul of the law. Lately, Charles is reveling in his Nov. 12 acquittal on charges that he illegally bartered elephant tusks. But the 65-year-old is still facing prosecution by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly defrauding 21,000 investors in four business development companies.
These run-ins, along with Adam’s failed bid for a New Mexico Congress seat in 2010, have given both men their fair share of lumps in the press and in the public eye — setting them up as arguably one of the most controversial father-son pairings to come from Santa Fe.
The men, neither of whom call the City Different home today, have different ways of handling notoriety. While Charles shies away from attention, his son Adam relishes it.
Charles, the one-time owner of the Santa Fe Horse Park, has maintained a low profile while weathering an intense cycle of court battles that cover a spectrum from alleged mortgage default to accused violations of the Endangered Species Act.
Adam, meanwhile, is a firebrand Iraq War veteran who delivers a breathless message that the government as we know it is beyond repair, and it is up to the people to change or destroy it by “whatever means necessary.”
His demonstrations of civil disobedience don’t lack spectacle. Adam coordinated a dance party inside the Jefferson Memorial and got himself body slammed by a US Park Police officer. Adam has confronted so many Transportation Security Administration workers in airports across the country that some guards recognize him on the spot. Each act of defiance is captured on video and posted on AdamVsTheMan.com, along with blog entries and podcasts that he produces at a furious clip.
But Charles just scored a victory against the government and could be on the way to emerging a victor in other challenges. He beat the elephant-tusk charges in a Florida federal court. He is in settlement negotiations with the SEC. He lost a former home on Santa Fe’s east side, but he was able to keep his family in the house virtually rent-free for years as he fought its foreclosure in court.
Both men say that these experiences have helped foster a resolve in father and son to fight any charge that they face, no matter how negative the backlash may be.
“It’s just an attitude of what’s right and wrong,” Charles tells SFR in an exclusive interview. “Just because it’s the federal government doesn’t mean that they are right. Just because they have the power to ruin you, as the SEC did, doesn’t mean you have to give in.”
“You could call it a family value, if you will,” Adam says, “but we don’t tolerate bullies in any form.”
Nine years have passed since Charles shot an elephant on the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. At the time, he was the CEO and an equity owner of Dakota Arms, a South Dakota arms manufacturer that specializes in professional hunting rifles. He was an experienced hunter and had shot his fair amount of big game including cape buffalos, gemsboks and springboks. He had even killed a charging lion just feet away from him. But he had never hunted a pachyderm until the trip to the West African nation.
In an article he wrote for the summer 2004 issue of Dakota, the house publication for Dakota Arms, Charles says that the experience made a person feel “that you have earned your trophy.” Today, Charles says that he wasn’t proud of his kill.
“Even though I understand sport hunting and really strongly endorse it—I understand the role that it plays in conservation—after I shot the elephant, I didn’t feel good about it,” he says.
According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), African elephants are considered an Appendix I species, animals that are on the verge of extinction. However, Namibia is among the four countries in Africa—including Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe—with more sustainable elephant populations. These elephants are considered under the international treaty as Appendix II species, with the caveat that all trade involving their populations is only permitted for noncommercial purposes.
Two years after the kill, in 2006, Charles legally shipped the tusks to the United States as trophies. But between then and this spring, he got in hot water. In May, the US Department of Justice issued an indictment charging him of using false documentation to disguise the sale of the tusks as a charitable donation.
According to the indictment, Charles had contacted Duke McCaa, the owner of Gulf Breeze Firearms in Florida, about divesting himself of a few hunting trophies in 2011. He wanted McCaa, whom Charles had done business with during his days with Dakota Arms, to appraise the elephant tusks. McCaa privately reached out to a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and tipped him off to Charles’ intentions of selling the tusks.
The ATF agent then reported the tip to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Both agencies enlisted McCaa, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, as a confidential informant and had him record several phone calls with Charles.
In one recorded telephone conversation that took place on Dec. 2, 2011 and is transcribed in part of the indictment, McCaa suggests to Charles that if the tusks were to be shipped to McCaa for appraisal that they “need to have a story as to why you are sending them to me, you know what I mean, if they were inspected or whatever.”
In the recorded conversation, which was played in the Northern District of Florida court during the three-day trial, Kokesh says “that’s easy ... for evaluation purposes, because I am going to donate them.”
Authorities allege that Charles struck a deal: McCaa would pay him $3,600 in cash, and give him five guns valued at $4,500 in exchange for the tusks.
Charles says that’s not what happened.
“The reason for sending the tusks to Duke in the first place was to have an appraisal to support a donation to the Rosenbruch Wildlife Museum,” wrote Charles in an email to SFR.
Prosecutors say Charles also sent a package containing three documents that laid out how the pair planned to disguise the transaction as a charitable donation. They presented as evidence letters Charles drafted to the USFWS and to the director of the museum in Utah, and also say Charles returned $3,600 to McCaa when he realized the sale was under scrutiny.
Charles’ attorney David McGee says the circumstance amounts to “an Orwellian nightmare.”
“My guy [Charles] is dealing with McCaa, he’s done business with McCaa for years. McCaa has given him gifts in the past. He has no idea that McCaa is trying to manipulate this,” he tells SFR.
Senior US District Judge Roger Vinson acquitted Charles of the charges, adding that even if the drafted letters and documents used as evidence contained falsehoods regarding the sale of the tusks, the proposed sale had been aborted at the time these documents were drafted and the prosecution’s evidence did not refute Charles’ claim that he intended to donate them to a museum. In his written ruling on the case, Vinson also ruled that Charles was not violating any CITES regulations and “the attempted sale of the defendant’s [Charles’] hunting trophy was not a crime.” The Justice Department still considers the case a warning for the ivory trade.
“Trade in elephant ivory—like trade in every endangered species—is closely controlled by the laws and regulations of the United States. Any person who is thinking of buying or selling endangered species parts in bad faith needs to know that he or she may face criminal prosecution,” reads a statement from Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle. “In this case, the court read a section of the regulations covering such trade differently than we did, and found an exception for this defendant.”
Charles says the court “made it clear that the charges should have never been brought, but since they were,” he had to “deal with consequences.”
“I didn’t have to go quietly,” he says, “I guess in that sense Adam and I are similar.”
Adam, the oldest of five siblings, moved to Santa Fe with the family when he was 14 years old, although he spent his formative years in boarding schools. After Adam was kicked out of The Fountain Valley School of Colorado for possession of alcohol, Charles used his connection with school founder Richard Ettinger to get his son enrolled at the Native American Preparatory School in Rowe. There, Adam played on the basketball team and represented the school in a state math competition.
As one of the few Anglo students in the predominantly Native American student body, Adam says being outnumbered was an indelible experience.
“[The school] gave me a unique appreciation for those groups and individuals that are downtrodden by the system or by society in general, for no fault of their own, and especially for the role of government as a bully in society,” says Adam.
Surprisingly, Adam did not demonstrate the anti-authority fervor that has come to define him.
“He was just a wise ass,” says Charles.
Today, Adam embraces that quality as intrinsic for being an activist and a libertarian.
“I was always taught to not accept insufficient answers,” he says. “That’s what got me to this point of understanding and that’s what’s motivated me.”
Adam enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves at the age of 17. He believed that the Marine Corps “had a net effect on the peace in the world,” but says he soon changed his perspective.
“The military service is a mechanism of perverting a lot of peoples’ noble intent about service, about taking care of their fellow Americans,” he says, “but [also] serving the military-industrial complex, all the other beneficiaries of war and everybody who profits from militarism.”
While he did not favor the invasion of Iraq, he was deployed to the country in 2004 and served as a sergeant in civil affairs. He admitted in a podcast published on April 27 for Adam vs. The Man that he never killed anyone or fired his weapon in combat, yet he came close to Iraqi insurgents.
“I tortured Iraqis,” he says in the podcast. “Yeah, there were a couple of incidents where I did, when guarding detainees, cross the line.”
In 2004, Adam returned home from the war a changed man, says Charles. He has a 75 percent permanent disability from his service that his doctors say is the result of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He had trouble sleeping. [Adam would hear] loud noises, like engines backfiring and that sort, and he’d reach for his M4 even though he had been out for a year,” says Charles.
Adam was prescribed a cocktail of drugs to treat his PTSD, which Charles saw as largely ineffective and unsafe.
Years later, Charles applied for a license from the New Mexico Department of Health to be a non-profit producer in the Medical Cannabis Program as a means to help Adam and other veterans, but he didn’t get the permit. He was one of five applicants who sued the Department of Health for failing to approve qualified applications in time.
Adam received an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in 2006 and became a member of the Marine Corps Individual Ready Reserve. He finished his college degree at Claremont McKenna College in California and left for Washington to study for a master’s degree in Political Management from George Washington University. There, Adam became increasingly involved in protesting with groups like the Iraq Veterans Against the War and the End Racism Coalition.
But he left the school before completing his master’s degree and returned to New Mexico to launch his ambitious campaign for the Republican ticket in the 2010 race for the 3rd Congressional District.
While Adam received an endorsement from Ron Paul, the campaign turned out to be a highly publicized yet ultimately improbable affair. Adam says the loss to Tom Mullens (who went on to lose to incumbent Rep. Ben Ray Lujan) wasn’t his last political ambition. He intends to run in the 2020 presidential election.
Charles voted for Adam in the primary and even ran for precinct representative to bolster the campaign. He still says Adam’s views are “not my politics, but he’s my son.”
Adam envisioned his plan for the Open Carry March in Washington DC as his boldest act of advocacy yet.
By May, he told Vice.com that he had signed up 4,000 people for the event. On Independence Day, he marched onto Freedom Plaza alone. With the dome of the US Capitol Building as a backdrop, he loaded four shells into a 12-gauge shotgun, chambered a round, and proudly declared to the camera, “We are the final American Revolution.”
After the video of his locked and loaded one-man protest went viral on YouTube, a US Park Police SWAT team raided his home in Herndon, Va. They seized a Maverick Arms shotgun and several other firearms from his apartment along with ammunition, marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms, and Adam landed behind bars.
“My recent experience in jail was very humbling to see that there were people going through things way worse than me, and probably at random,” he tells SFR. “[Being imprisoned] has given me a certain humility about my experience. Whatever it is me and my father suffered, because there are so many more victims of government, it’s really insignificant.”
Adam first entered a not guilty plea to charges that he illegally carried a shotgun in violation of local weapons laws, had an unregistered firearm and illegal ammunition and possessed marijuana. After his attorney Peter Cooper stepped down, Adam reversed course and took a plea deal. A sentencing hearing in January could send him to prison for up to seven years.
Adam remains confident, however, that this latest act of civil disobedience was a success.
“I would like to think that I accomplished the general goal of my activism, which is making people think,” he says.
Charles remains supportive of his son despite disagreement about how Adam carried out his gun-rights demonstration.
“I figured it was just a prop,” says Charles of Adam’s shotgun. “I think he could have chosen a better way to make the protest against [Washington DC’s] gun law, but I have to support him for the courage of his convictions.”
Charles is now living somewhere north of Denver with his wife and his youngest daughter. He would not disclose his location, but told SFR in a series of telephone interviews that he was definitively done with Santa Fe, leaving behind decades of community involvement as the organizer of events like an annual pumpkin festival and a horse show, and walking from a sordid history of lititgation.
He moved his family and his Technology Funding company to the city from the San Francisco area in 1996 because of its cheaper rent and labor costs compared to California during the dot-com era.
Before Charles left for Colorado, his family home on Camino Corrales was the site of a years-long battle with a number of banks that successively controlled its $4.3 million mortgage. As the mortgage bounced around, the Kokesh family continued living there, filing motions to dismiss attempts to foreclose on the property. The family finally vacated the six-bedroom house on May 31 at the order of District Judge Sarah Singleton—managing to stay for five years without paying for it.
Charles did not always score a sneaky victory. His luxury motor home was repossessed and he lost control of the Santa Fe Horse Park, a club he launched with friends in 1998 as a place to play polo. By 2007, the $2.25 million note on the property just west of the airport was in default. A court battle proceeded over the property’s water rights, although the Horse Park eventually closed. (It is now listed as the Santa Fe Equestrian Center and is on the market for sale just below $4 million).
The SEC case is still hanging over Charles, who holds the dubious honor of being the first man in New Mexico to be charged by the agency. Investigators allege Charles misappropriated $45 million from four business development companies that his investment advisory firm, Kokesh Advisors, had contracts with. The SEC accused Kokesh Advisers of charging illegal performance fees and expense reimbursements, and of taking illegal distributions from the companies.
Charles would not comment on the case except to say his attorneys are negotiating a settlement with the SEC. This summer, a judge rejected summary-judgment motions from both sides. The case will be tried May 2014 if they don’t reach agreement, according to a government official who did not want to be identified.
Meanwhile, Charles is working on several new business ventures in Colorado.
“Me and my business partner consciously chose not to pursue [the business ventures] in New Mexico,” he says, adding that staying in New Mexico would not make “good economic sense.”
Adam is in the process of sorting out his possessions and putting his life back together before his sentencing. He is not allowed to set foot in Washington DC. Instead, he will be spending time with his mother (Charles’ ex-wife) in California and with his father in Colorado.
Adam believes his career as an activist has played a role in Charles receiving “undue prosecution” by the feds.
“I know he [Charles] is not going to resent me for it, because he supports me in what I do,” says Adam. “If he gets pulled into this as another victim of the bully, then he’s going to join me in standing up.”
He feels emboldened by his father’s recent court victory in Florida, and although his prison sentencing looms, he says he will continue to embrace his notoriety and continue to be a very vocal wise-ass.
“Better,” he says, “than being a dumb-ass.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story used a wrong word in the quote from Adam, "There were a couple of incidents where I did, when guarding detainees, cross the line.”