SPECIAL REPORT-How a former leftie fell into the pro-Trump conspiracy rabbit hole

Credit: REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

By Linda So and Jason Szep

POWNAL, Vermont, July 22 (Reuters) - Before Harry Anzbock started threatening to kill election workers, he did his own research.

The Vermont barn restorer went online after the 2020 presidential vote and watched a stream of videos. He saw plenty of evidence of voter fraud, he later recalled, including footage of people “obviously doing shady things” at polling places. He said he learned that balloting machines switched votes from Republican Donald Trump to Democrat Joe Biden – and that Biden took money from China to manipulate the U.S. election.

All of these claims were bogus conspiracy theories, promoted by Trump’s political allies and attorneys as they sought to overturn Biden’s victory. Anzbock embraced them as fact. The videos enraged him. He believed Trump’s voters had been robbed. Democracy was on the line. Someone needed to save America. So, a few weeks after the election, Anzbock picked up a hard-to-trace prepaid mobile phone and started making anonymous calls.

He called Vermont’s election-administration office and left a message telling officials their days were numbered: “This might be a good time to put a fucking pistol in your fucking mouth and pull the trigger.” In another message, he shouted at workers at Dominion Voting Systems, the ballot-machine maker falsely accused by Trump of fraud: “We’re going to fucking kill you all, you motherfuckers.” Nearly a year later, he threatened Vermont election workers again, along with two Reuters reporters looking into his threats.

Harry Anzbock’s spree of political intimidation is part of the pro-Trump right’s embrace of violence, rhetorical and real, ranging from the U.S. Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, to a campaign of fear waged against election administrators. His threats against voting officials are among more than 900 Reuters has identified since the 2020 election.

The news organization first reported the anonymous threats last year. Around that time, according to local law enforcement sources, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began examining the messages.

Until now, Anzbock’s identity, and his story, have remained a mystery. Reuters recently identified the 60-year-old, tracing him to a motorhome and trailers he owns on a swampy property behind a veil of trees in Pownal, a town of 3,260 people. The lot was strewn one recent day with more than a dozen decaying cars, motorbikes, old boats, propane tanks, scrap tires, a mattress and dirty dishes.

In long exchanges with the two Reuters reporters – eight hours of phone interviews and more than 200 text messages – Anzbock described how he came to act on Trump’s claims of a stolen election and confirmed making the hostile calls. He said he did nothing wrong. “Nobody can touch me,” he said.

Anzbock’s journey into American political extremism is in some ways distinctive. Born in Austria, he was a member of the renowned Vienna Boys Choir before emigrating to the United States as an adolescent. Remarkably, though he views himself as a defender of democracy, he’s never voted, not even for Trump, he said.

Other aspects of his journey are emblematic. Like some blue-collar Trump supporters, he once leaned left. In his twenties, friends from that period said, he had an anti-government streak shared by many leftists. In his forties, Anzbock said, he liked the Democratic politics of Barack Obama but grew disillusioned.

Seven people who know him say Anzbock has long been irascible and prone to conspiracy theories, such as those surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In recent years, he embraced a fast-growing universe of alternative media, including the video sites BitChute and Rumble, that claim to champion unfettered free speech and are filled with pro-Trump conspiracy narratives. He said he came away convinced that Trump was a victim, unfairly maligned by the media as racist and corrupt, and later cheated of victory.

Those ideas and dozens of other falsehoods permeated his exchanges with us. In conversations, Anzbock repeatedly urged Reuters to look into the claims and theories he espoused. So we analyzed his texts and conversations with us, and found that he cited 112 conspiracy theories or statements that were either untrue, misleading or unsupported by evidence.

“I just go on the Internet,” Anzbock said. “It’s right there at your fingertips.”

Conservative media have amplified such conspiracy theories. And Trump and his associates wielded them after the election, helping spark the U.S. Capitol riot. These false narratives remain just as potent, some misinformation researchers say.

“It’s a cultural and political moment,” said Kate Starbird, co-founder of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. “Many of us have family members who are just so profoundly disoriented down these rabbit holes.”

Misinformation underpinned Anzbock’s threats. His abuse disturbed one Vermont election staffer so deeply that the man took three months off and underwent counseling for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos. This January, spurred by the Reuters report that first featured Anzbock’s threats, Vermont lawmakers introduced legislation that would make it easier to charge suspects for intimidation and toughen penalties when they target public officials. The bill was signed into law in May. At least nine other states and the U.S. Congress have passed or drafted similar statutes.

As Anzbock’s grievances began to echo Trump’s, his own life – which included a broken marriage, repeated run-ins with police, menacing encounters with strangers and friends, and a tragedy involving his only son – was growing darker.

It hadn’t always been that way.

'CRAZY, FUN-LOVING GUY'

When he was 12, Harald “Harry” Anzbock emigrated with his grandmother to the United States from Austria, where he once sang in the Vienna Boys Choir, he and two family members said.

Anzbock’s mother had emigrated several years before. His father remained in Vienna, remarried and had another son – whom he also named Harald. The older Harry rarely speaks to his father and says he doesn’t know why his half-brother was given the same name. “You’re going to have to ask my father that,” he said. Anzbock’s father and half-brother declined to comment.

In the 1970s, as Trump was making his name in New York real estate, Anzbock moved in a counterculture crowd that rejected mainstream mores and institutions. In his early adulthood, Anzbock – then a tall, muscular, blue-eyed man with dirty blonde hair – was carefree and rebellious, three people who knew him said.

“We smoked a lot of pot. We were just looking to live and let live,” said Silke Wedding, who met Anzbock when she was in college. “Politics was the last thing we ever spoke about.”

In their early twenties, Wedding said, she and Anzbock lived out of a friend’s van in Queens, the New York City borough where Trump grew up, cruising local highways and earning cash by helping people whose cars had broken down. “That’s how we got our pizza money,” said Wedding.

Victor Maineri, who met Anzbock after graduating from high school, remembers bonding over their shared love of cars. “We’d just get together and look at cars and talk about cars, stuff like that,” Maineri said. “He was just a crazy, fun-loving guy."

Anzbock married in June 1983, at age 21. He had a son five months later in New York. The couple split a few months later and eventually divorced, according to public records and interviews with family members. From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, Anzbock told us, he lived on a 40-foot boat, the “Cheerio,” in a Long Island marina. He worked as an automotive mechanic and an offshore fisherman before he began repairing barns, which is how he makes a living today.

Both Wedding and Maineri eventually lost touch with Anzbock but occasionally heard about his increasingly isolated life. “Harry dropped off the radar,” Wedding said. “He was just completely off grid.”

Both said they were stunned to hear of his lurch into right-wing extremism.

“I’m really blown away by hearing this,” said Wedding. “I would imagine he would be something like a democratic socialist, at most.”

A decade ago, that would have been close. Although Anzbock has never voted, he liked Obama during his 2008 barrier-breaking campaign to transform Washington, he said. But the Obama presidency disappointed him. The U.S. military remained entangled in overseas conflicts, he said, and life seemed no better after eight years of Obama’s administration.

Over the next four years of Trump’s presidency, Anzbock said he lost faith in the media, which he accused of overblowing Trump's ties to Russia. Then came the pandemic.

Like millions worldwide, Anzbock was deeply skeptical of vaccines and immersed himself in COVID-related conspiracy theories. In his interviews and texts with us, he cited 44 false or unproven claims about COVID-19. They included the claims that vaccines are toxic and that they contain “quantum nanotech injectable self assembling computing systems.”

'BLOOD EVERYWHERE'

Anzbock’s tangles with the law began well before the election.

In October 2010, Emil Vlassopoulos sued Anzbock after he was bitten in the leg by Anzbock’s unleashed dog, a rottweiler, while walking his own dog in Flushing, New York. “There was blood everywhere,” Vlassopoulos said in an interview.

Vlassopoulos said that after the dog attack, Anzbock fled on his bicycle. Vlassapoulos chased him for five blocks, eventually catching up behind an apartment building, where he saw Anzbock trying to throw the rottweiler over a fence. Police responded, took a report and let Anzbock go, according to Vlassopoulos, who said he was taken to the hospital and received rabies shots. A judge ordered Anzbock to pay $25,000 to Vlassopoulos, according to court records. Vlassopoulos said he never received the money.

“I’m not going to pay him a fucking cent,” Anzbock said. “My dog got off the leash. His dog ran in between his legs and chafed his inner thigh.” He added: “If you think that’s worth $25,000, then I don’t know what planet you’re on.”

Anzbock’s outbursts ruptured friendships as well. Dana Cole owned Vern’s Fish Fry, a restaurant that Anzbock frequented in Bennington, a college town not far from his property. Both car enthusiasts, they attended auto shows together and rode their motorcycles around town, Cole said in an interview. One day in November 2014, Cole called police after discovering his tires had been slashed, according to a Vermont State Police report. Two days later, Anzbock called police and accused Cole of stealing his dirt bike.

Anzbock became “extremely upset,” leaving several messages at Cole’s home and workplace, the report said. Anzbock told the investigating officer that he felt like he was “going to explode and kill” his friend, the report said.

Anzbock acknowledged leaving the messages but denied they constituted threats. “They were nice, screaming messages at 4 o’clock in the morning,” he said.

Cole denied stealing the bike. Fearing for his family’s safety, he filed a no-stalking order in Vermont Superior Court. A judge ordered Anzbock to stay away from Cole for a year, according to court records. Anzbock would neither confirm or deny he slashed Cole’s tires, saying only: “That was the claim, wasn’t it?”

In July 2019, Anzbock pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of sheltering a 15-year-old runaway child and was fined $100, according to court records. The teen, said a police report, had escaped from the Vermont School for Girls, a residential treatment program in Bennington that provides care for girls who have experienced trauma. The school, citing privacy laws, declined to comment.

The girl told police that, after fleeing the school in February 2018, she began walking until she was picked up by a man several miles away. Anzbock said he was driving with his girlfriend to the supermarket when they saw the girl on the side of the road and picked her up.

“It’s raining, it’s cold, she’s wearing a sweatshirt,” said Anzbock. “I asked her, ‘Listen, what the hell is going on?’”

Anzbock said that out of concern for her safety, he allowed the girl to stay for more than a week in a motorhome on his property in Pownal, about eight miles from the school. This is where Bennington police officers found the teen nine days later.

When officers confronted Anzbock, he admitted to knowing the girl was a runaway juvenile and said “he would have picked her up again if he had the chance,” according to a Bennington police affidavit.

“It was purely a parental sort of thing,” he said.

In August 2020, police warned Anzbock to stay away from Paulson Wood Products, a sawmill in Petersburgh, New York, after he verbally abused a worker there, according to a police report and a witness. Anzbock had been complaining about the quality of the lumber and disparaging the business because workers wore masks during the pandemic, said the witness, who declined to be identified.

Later, Anzbock called the business and cursed in a threatening manner at an employee who answered the phone, the witness said. The employee was worried Anzbock would return with a gun, the witness added.

Anzbock said he doesn’t own a firearm. When asked about the incident, he scoffed at the employee’s claim that he had acted in a threatening way. “If I tell somebody, ‘go fuck yourself,’” he said, “It’s not a fucking crime.”

'YOU ARE ALL GOING TO FUCKING BURN'

Relatives give conflicting views of Anzbock. Some describe him as quick to anger, abusive and threatening; some became estranged from him for years after bitter falling-outs.

One of the five family members who spoke to us described a gentler side, a man who loves animals, looks after aging relatives and has always had strong views. “Harry is very passionate about the way he feels with things,” the family member said. “But that’s just because he’s trying to get people to open up their eyes.”

Those people eventually included election officials who Anzbock concluded should face “consequences” for “fraud.”

In November 2020, shortly after Joe Biden declared victory in the election, Anzbock grew convinced the vote was rigged. Trump had declared that poll workers had stuffed ballot boxes. His lawyers, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, spread the wild false claim that Dominion machines switched ballots to Biden in an elaborate plot.

Anzbock bought it. He told us of his concerns over Dominion machines that were used in Vermont’s election, saying he heard from “local people” who said “weird stuff was going on” with them. He cited debunked videos that purportedly showed voters in different states pushing a Dominion button for one candidate, and “then a few seconds later, it switched” to the other candidate.

Dominion has repeatedly denied that its machines were involved in any fraud.

Anzbock began lashing out. On Nov. 26, he left his voicemail death threat for workers at the Colorado headquarters of Dominion. Five days later, he phoned in his “put a fucking pistol in your fucking mouth” message to the Vermont secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections. On Dec. 16, he called Vermont officials again, telling them “all you traitors are going to fucking hang” and to “kill yourself now.”

Official call logs recorded his phone number. But he didn’t leave his name, and his identity wasn’t traceable because he used two prepaid phone numbers. Reverse-lookup services provided clues, though, locating the numbers in Bennington, a town of some 15,000 people near Pownal in southwest Vermont.

When we called those numbers last September, he picked up on one. Over three days of interviews, at times tense and confrontational, he refused to identify himself except as a man “in the woods.” Anzbock explained why he made the calls, citing the videos and other information he gleaned online, and cast his messages as an act of patriotism: “It was my duty to call them up and tell them to do their fucking job and investigate this.”

Anzbock said he’s ambivalent about Trump. “Kind of a dick, really,” he said of the ex-president. He had almost nothing to say about Trump’s policies or views, but expressed admiration for his attitude. “He was trying to stand up for the American people.”

Anzbock also said that he has little interest in politics. When asked why, if so, he made menacing calls to election officials, he said he was compelled by his “sense of fair play.” He said he would’ve done the same had another candidate been robbed of votes.

Soon after we started asking Anzbock about his threats, he turned on us. Between October and November 2021, he sent 137 texts and voicemails, some accusing us of impersonating Secret Service agents, others threatening violence.

In another message left with the secretary of state’s office on Oct. 17, he threatened the two reporters by name, along with election staffers: “All you dirty cocksuckers are about to get fucking popped,” he said. “I fucking guarantee it.”

Later, he said he wasn’t going to follow through and inflict actual violence, but needed to make clear the consequences of spreading lies. We could be hanged like the Nazi leaders after the Nuremberg trials in the 1940s, he said, because “thousands of lawyers” were calling for “Nuremberg 2.0.”

The far-fetched idea of a second Nuremberg is a meme on far-right sites. Videos discussing the idea – framed as mass trials of “elites” – have received hundreds of thousands of views on BitChute, Rumble and Odysee, booming video-sharing sites that provide right-wing alternatives to YouTube.

After listening to Anzbock’s anonymous threats last year, Bennington’s town manager, Stuart Hurd, said he believed the caller should be prosecuted. State authorities didn’t identify Anzbock as the caller and opted not to investigate, deciding his words didn’t constitute a criminal threat under Vermont law at the time. The FBI’s investigation of the threats continues, a Vermont state official said. The bureau would not confirm or deny the existence of an inquiry.

There’s a fine line between constitutionally protected political speech and potentially criminal threats, legal scholars say. Anzbock said he understands the law. “I know where that legal line is,” he said, “and I would never cross that line.”

He explained that he always qualified his statements that people would face violence by saying that punishment would come only after a legal process. Many of his messages, however, contained no such qualifiers. Some did. For instance, his 174-word diatribe left on a voicemail to Dominion – telling workers “we’re going to fucking kill you all” – included the words “after a fair trial.”

Four scholars who reviewed his messages told Reuters such hedges wouldn’t shield him from criminal charges. Laurence Tribe, professor emeritus of constitutional law at Harvard University, said Anzbock is clearly just “throwing that in” to avoid prosecution.

“The real question is: Is this intended to, and likely to, induce genuine fear of bodily harm?” he said. “The fear is not reduced by the fact that the speaker says: ‘I’m clever enough to know how I can get away with these threats without being prosecuted.’” Tribe said he believed Anzbock’s messages were “prosecutable, real threats.”

Anzbock insisted he didn’t break any laws. “There’s not one legally actionable fucking word in there,” he said.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Anzbock turned down several requests to meet in person. Today, he splits his time between Vermont and Pennsylvania, he said. He’s building a workshop at his property in Pownal, where he said he plans to restore the old vehicles he has collected there, which have prompted complaints from neighbors. “They’re not junk cars,” he said.

Last fall, around the time Anzbock was threatening Vermont officials again, his son, Jason, came to stay with him, two people who know the Anzbocks said.

Jason was a talented artist, Anzbock told us, and they shared a passion for researching politics, the pandemic and other subjects. But Jason was struggling: He was released from prison in June 2021 after serving more than two years on a conviction for sexually exploiting a vulnerable adult, according to court records in his case. Jason had denied the allegation as a misunderstanding that arose from a consensual romantic relationship, according to a Vermont parole officer.

Jason’s relationship with his father was difficult, said a friend and a former parole officer of the son. People close to Jason said he was displaying increasingly erratic behavior that would include bouts of paranoia and diatribes full of vague conspiracy theories.

“When he was ranting, it was all about politics,” said Natalie Ryals, a close friend. “It was how they’re watching. You can’t trust anyone anymore. You can’t trust the government.”

Anzbock said Jason left Pownal after they had an argument. He said Jason was “careless,” recalling a time he left his father’s tools out in the rain and ruined them.

On Nov. 19, a month after Anzbock’s second round of threats to Vermont election officials, Jason checked into a budget motel in Rutland, about an hour’s drive from his father’s home. A homeless agency paid for his room, said a front desk clerk. Jason kept to himself, didn’t cause trouble and had no visitors, the clerk said. Most days, Jason would drive off in the morning and return at night.

On Dec. 28, he was found dead in his room. According to the death certificate, he had stabbed himself in the neck, chest and wrists with a boxcutter. He was 38.

“It was a terrible thing,” Anzbock said. “The kid was absolutely incredible.” He recalled how the two had bonded over their research, and how it had opened their eyes. “We’re being fed lies,” said Anzbock. “I want to see the truth.”

SPECIAL REPORT-How a former leftie fell into the pro-Trump conspiracy rabbit holehttps://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-election-threats-vermont/

Campaign of Fear: Trump world's assault on U.S. election workershttps://www.reuters.com/investigates/section/campaign-of-fear/

SPECIAL REPORT-Trump allies breach U.S. voting systems in search of 2020 fraud ‘evidence’https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-election-breaches/

(Reporting by Linda So and Jason Szep; editing by Brian Thevenot and Michael Williams)

((linda.so@thomsonreuters.com; jason.szep@thomsonreuters.com))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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