Photograph by Michael Amsler
Highway Politics: John Jenkel’s signs have become commonplace around Sonoma County, especially on his ranch in Sebastopol.
Conspiracy theorist John Jenkel isn’t subtle in his antiestablishment activism, and he’s not making many friends (unless he’s paying them)
By Joy Lanzendorfer
I don’t need directions to John Jenkel’s ranch. I, like many in Sonoma County, know exactly where he lives. All I have to do is look for the signs and the pile of manure.
John Jenkel has earned the nickname “The Sign Guy” for the controversial signs he posts outside his home along Highway 116 near Graton. The signs say things like “Honk for Bush Behind Bars” with an anti-Nazi symbol or “Graton Keep Us Out of Iraq” or “Secret Service Investigated Double Agent.”
There is another sign stuck in a giant manure pile that says, “Save Sebastopol from Brown Fascism.” The signs have provoked so much honking that Jenkel’s neighbor put up a sign across the street that says, “Please Don’t Honk!”
But when I drive up to the ranch, scraps of paper are the only indications the signs ever existed; vandals have had their way. Jenkel’s ranch is dotted with several buildings–a barn, a house, and a water tower, among others. Each building is spackled with a layer of dust. A man with strawberry blonde hair tells me that Jenkel is in his office at the back of the property.
At the office, Jenkel’s easily recognizable signs–clean black text printed on white backgrounds–lie in a pile on the ground, indicating this is the right place. Several horse carriages are parked to the side. Next door, acres of grasshopper-green vineyards stretch and roll away from the eye. Through some trees, construction workers are seen building a new winery.
Jenkel’s office has low ceilings and smells like leather and horses. Saddles line one wall, and signs with Jenkel’s cryptic political slogans are posted everywhere. The furniture consists of a couch, several grandfather clocks, mismatched desks, and a cabinet of white binders with labels like “SOB” and “Lies.” In the center of the room, a table is covered with so many sheets of paper that it looks like one more will send it all tumbling onto the floor in a tangled white mess.
Jenkel is a thin, balding man with a prominent nose and bright blue eyes. He shuffles around the room in untied moccasins and sits on a padded study desk, leaning forward when he talks. Though he is abrupt, he is not unfriendly. And he warms up when he tells me his theories.
The Truth Is Out There
On the surface, John Jenkel subscribes to the same theories that a lot of progressive liberals have about the Bush administration, theories that sound entirely possible. He believes the 2000 elections in Florida were rigged. He believes that Bush knows more about 9-11 than he’s letting on. He believes that the War in Iraq is more about oil than terrorism.
But Jenkel goes a few steps further. He believes that an elaborate conspiracy ties the Enron scandal, the war in Iraq, 9-11, the 2000 election, and the California energy debacle together. And, most importantly, Jenkel puts San Francisco mayor Willie Brown close to the top of the conspiracy pyramid.
Jenkel believes that Brown controls California–Governor Gray Davis is “just a puppet”–as well as the Democratic Party. Until the November 2002 elections, Jenkel says, Brown controlled the United States Senate as well. He believes Bush, Brown, and Enron executive Ken Lay were co-conspirators in 9-11.
“Brown has controlled every detail of this state since 1980,” says Jenkel. “The guy’s a micromanager. He works about 20 hours a day. Nothing of any significance in this state has happened that hasn’t crossed his desk first.”
Jenkel believes he is the only one who sees the truth, and that if Brown and Bush are not stopped, we will be facing World War III. To prove his point, he has created a book of printouts from websites and newspapers as evidence. On the front page, which is a copy of an article from a newspaper, he wrote the words “Impeach Him” in black marker. Throughout our conversation, he points to different articles in his book to bolster his argument, though they are usually pages from conspiracy web sites or articles that Jenkel is reading into.
“You see the word ‘they’ in this headline?” he says, pointing to an article about Cheney discussing the California energy crisis. “‘They knew over a year ago they had a problem.’ Do you know who the ‘they’ is there? Ken Lay and Willie Brown.”
Jenkel has sent his book out to everyone he can think of, including all members of Congress. He has also created a website (nineelevenbountyhunter.com) that explains his theory. And he has filed a suit against 70 members of Congress for endorsing the war in Iraq. It’s all part of his mission.
“I’m going to get rid of Willie Brown,” he says. “I’m going to get rid of George Bush. And when I do, there will be no more secret operations of government anywhere in this country.”
John Jenkel’s plan to save the world from Willie Brown and George Bush has taken some strange turns. He has become a regular fixture at the Sebastopol City Council, the Santa Rosa City Council, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, among others. He has haunted the offices of Lynn Woolsey, Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, and, of course, Willie Brown. He’s demanded repeatedly that they stand up against the war.
One might wonder what exactly the Sebastopol City Council could do to stop the war in Iraq, but to Jenkel the answer is obvious. He wants them to endorse House Joint Resolution 20, a little-known resolution that seeks to repeal the authorization for use of military force against Iraq. He has also attended San Francisco Board of Supervisors meetings to push the bill.
The response he’s gotten so far?
“Zero,” he admits. In fact, the Sebastopol City Council rejected a proposal to support the resolution out of fear of being connected in some way with Jenkel.
But Jenkel believes the low response is not a reflection on him but a sign that the various organizations have been “bought out” by Willie Brown. Thus, signs stuck in manure piles reading “Sebastopol’s Dirty Business” are references to their participation in the conspiracy.
“I don’t know if people understand my signs,” he says. “I’ll try anything. I’m just trying to get people to raise their consciousness level in this town.”
Earlier this year, while trying to stage a protest outside Lynn Woolsey’s office, Jenkel realized he needed some help. One man parading up and down in front of a building, even when he has attention-grabbing signs and a horse and buggy, is not as effective as a crowd of people protesting together.
“All the protesters were in front of the court house,” he says. “And I’m walking up and down with my sign thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do? I need some help here.'”
So Jenkel hired some protesters. At this point, he has hired 35 to 45 people, ranging from homeless people to teenagers to migrant workers. He pays them $12 per hour to hold signs and hand out fliers, something he says is funded out of an inheritance. None of his employees I talked to filled out social security forms.
Jenkel has had a hard time keeping employees. Several workers have simply stopped talking to him.
“Most of my employees will be bought out at some point by Willie Brown,” he says. “Everywhere I go, there are efforts to sabotage me.”
One employee, a young man named Cody, came to Jenkel earlier this month and said that before the Fourth of July, two men in a black van pulled him and another one of Jenkel’s workers over. Jenkel asked Cody to relate his experience on tape. On it, Cody says that though the unidentified men initially asked about illegal fireworks, they knew about Jenkel and asked questions regarding his operation.
“They said I can get in trouble for working with people like you,” he said to Jenkel on the tape. “I’m not about to get into trouble. I was scared shitless.”
But later, Cody left me a voicemail saying that he was angry at Jenkel because Jenkel hadn’t paid him. (Jenkel says he’s paid Cody over $11,000.)
“I don’t like the way Mr. Jenkel does business,” Cody says.
Jenkel’s next step is to start a school called Natura, where students will learn Jenkel’s beliefs and practice standing up to the system. Paradoxically, the school will also teach a system of “no beliefs,” where students will shun traditional belief systems and get back to nature.
“I’m not sure what form the school will take, exactly,” says Jenkel. “We have a building to do it in on the ranch. It’s up on stilts right now.”
Some have questioned whether Jenkel is starting a cult, something Jenkel scoffs at. Still, a man with extreme views developing an unorthodox school on a ranch in California conjures unpleasant images, and it is easy to see why people might be wary.
But both a school and a cult need believers to be successful. Does Jenkel really have them?
Working for Change
It’s July 19, the day of the Bohemian Grove Protest in Monte Rio. John Jenkel sits outside the protest on his horse and buggy like an 18th-century gentleman, while his kids wander around inside handing out fliers.
The kids stand in a cluster in the middle of the protest, young, pierced, and tattooed. One, wearing a sleeveless black sweatshirt and combat boots, breaks away from the group. He waves a piece of paper with his tattooed arm and mumbles “Flier?” when he passes, being careful not to meet anyone’s eyes. He does this so quickly that he covers the entire protest in about two minutes. Then he rejoins the group and they all leave together. It’s not exactly the behavior of potential cult members.
Later, a girl with a rust-colored ponytail and a blue baseball hat named Ruby walks around in the same way only slower, offering fliers. She is able to sum up Jenkel’s beliefs, but when asked if she believes what Jenkel says, she shrugs.
“I don’t agree or disagree,” she says. “I’m neutral.”
In fact, very few of Jenkel’s people seem to actually believe his theory, if they have even heard it all. While some may support ending the war in Iraq, they aren’t as sure about the connections to Brown.
“I strongly believe we shouldn’t be in Iraq, but I’m not as clear about the connection to Brown, though he is probably corrupt,” says Kris Recend, who works for Jenkel. “I believe that John Jenkel is a passionate man, and though he has some kind of flamboyant or artistic way of getting his message out, I believe his heart is in the right place.”
Others are working off intuition about Jenkel.
“I felt strongly that John was probably correct in his theories,” says Jenkel employee Elizabeth Neylon. “When I tell people about his theories and say that I’m not sure if it’s correct, they usually nod and say that it is correct. So I feel that it is.”
Jenkel explains that though many of his workers don’t believe him when they start out, they often begin to believe as time goes on.
Experts say that Jenkel’s school sounds far from cultlike.
“What makes something a cult is if members are given instructions to participate in an agenda,” says Ari Harrison, M.D., staff psychiatrist for the Sonoma County Mental Health Division. “When they are asked to give up their old contacts or change their life in some extreme way, the belief of the group starts to become dangerous.”
Though it’s not likely to be a cult, knowing Jenkel, if Natura ever gets underway, there’s a good chance everyone will know about it.
“I’m not looking forward to it,” says Jenkel’s neighbor Kate Burroughs.
Earlier this year, Jenkel’s “Honk for Bush Behind Bars” sign got quite a response. The traffic on Highway 116 combined with the liberal politics of local residents led to constant honking, much to the annoyance of his neighbors.
“I try to take it all with a sense of humor, but it is just too much,” says Peter Wurtz, whose daughter put up the “Please Don’t Honk” sign. “He refuses to stop the noise pollution. The fact that he’s trying to somehow promote peace with a campaign that brings noise to the neighborhood is dismaying.”
His neighbors have contacted the police to take the signs down and enforce the litter laws. The police, however, can do nothing.
“There could have been a section of the vehicle code that applied to the Jenkel case, but the district is of the opinion that this is a free-speech situation,” says Lieutenant Matt McCaffrey of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s one of those borderline free-speech issues.”
The neighbors have since filed a group lawsuit against Jenkel for disturbing the peace.
Jenkel says that annoying his neighbors is a “small price to pay” for his ultimate purpose. At the height of the chaos, his protesters were crowding the driveway of Burrough’s Harmony Farm Supply and Nursery. However, lately things have died down, partly because Caltrans stepped in and removed some of the signs and partly because the rest of Jenkel’s signs have been repeatedly vandalized.
Jenkel has called the police over 20 times for stolen signs. He blames his neighbors for the vandalism, both because he admits they are annoyed with him and because he believes Brown has bought them out.
Jenkel claims the Secret Service has visited his ranch and that his phone lines are tapped. He believes that quite a few of his neighbors are connected to Brown, including the Paul Hobbs Winery next door.
“They are building a winery right when all the other wineries are going broke,” Jenkel says. “Isn’t that unusual? And it happens to be next door to the office of the guy who has the goods on the most powerful man in the world, Willie Brown.”
The neighbors, of course, claim no such involvement and say such statements just prove Jenkel’s mental state.
“Personally, I believe he is mentally ill,” says Burroughs.
Interest in conspiracy theories has grown exponentially since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Some people are attracted to conspiracy theories because they want to understand the truth behind a government they suspect is lying to them. But some people take it too far. Sometimes conspiracies turn from an intellectual exercise to sickness.
“We say something is a mental problem when it begins to interfere with a person’s life and affects their social situation or comes to the attention of the community,” says Dr. Harrison. “When an individual has an unorthodox belief that doesn’t jibe with reality, he could have a delusional disorder.”
People with delusional disorders often focus on highly unlikely but physically possible scenarios (“Michael Jackson is following me”) compared to psychotic disorders, which usually involve impossible beliefs (“Aliens take me aboard their spacecraft every night”). People with delusional disorders can often be highly functioning in other areas of their lives, explains Dr. Harrison.
Mark of the Beast
Jenkel invites me to see his horses. He keeps American Saddlebreds. We walk to his barn, and he stops outside to tell me that the barn is over 100 years old and to show me the square nails used when it was built.
Inside, about five bay horses stick their heads out of their stalls. They are pictures of health–glowing skin, bright eyes, and flowing manes–and friendly.
“This horse farm is about preserving horses,” he says. “I teach driving and riding skills. That’s how I teach people, especially women, to deal with the beast. All institutions are beasts, and you can’t reason with them. I encourage women who have a problem with fear to learn how to manage the beast, whether it be the beast in men, in institutions, or the beast out in the barn.”
Jenkel says he came to Sebastopol in 1964 after graduating from Stanford with a degree in engineering. For years, he ran a horse-and-carriage service for tourists in San Francisco.
Then in 1996, he lost his permit to operate a carriage in San Francisco to Gray Line Tours.
“He was never politically oriented, and then all of a sudden he lost his carriage-ride franchise and believed Willie Brown was connected,” says Wurtz. “That’s what started his political rantings.”
After losing his permit, Jenkel seemed to alter his beliefs about Brown. In seven years, he’s changed from believing Brown was involved in the lost permit to believing Brown was partially involved in 9-11.
But if nothing else, Jenkel is a man of his convictions.
“I have all my theories about why we invaded Iraq, but the fact is, I don’t want to be striking first,” he says. “I’ve never met an American who does. Any six-year-old knows it’s immoral to strike first. That’s just not something that the land of the free and the home of the brave does. This country’s in deep trouble, and people need to stand up and fight back.”
Which sounds particularly sane.
From the July 31-August 6, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.