On June 1, Karen Mathews Davis pleaded guilty to composing fake death threats, mailing them to herself, then lying to federal agents. That fakery could land the 68-year-old in prison for five years, possibly longer if prosecutors take a second look at her career as the heroic victim of right-wing terrorists.
Karen Mathews Davis hails from Stockton, California, and was appointed city clerk of Manteca in 1981. In 1984, the mother of two became assistant registrar of voters for Stanislaus County and in 1990 she was elected clerk recorder, the first woman to hold that position.
In 1994, Karen Mathews, as she was then known, claimed that members of the Juris Christian Assembly, based in Modesto, had pressured her to remove a $416,000 IRS property tax lien. When she refused to do so, members of the JCA attacked her in her home on January 30, 1994, allegedly cutting her legs, back and neck, firing an unloaded pistol at her head, and then sodomizing her with the gun.
From a photo lineup, Mathews picked out Roger Steiner of Baker City, Oregon. Police found no evidence that he had been 800 miles away in central California the night before and Steiner duly passed a polygraph test. Even so, he was arrested and along with eight others charged with the attack on Mathews.
She testified against him in the 41-day trial, longest in the history of the federal court in Fresno. According to a recent review of the trial by the Modesto Bee, Mathews Davis offered “at least four versions of the attack in accounts to various officers,” and in one she charged that attackers had called her a “white bitch.”
Judge Oliver Wanger, a nominee of George H.W. Bush, would not allow questions about Mathews’ mental health, and the judge also prevented jurors from hearing that Steiner passed the polygraph test. Steiner proclaimed his innocence but was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Media accounts failed to uncover problems with the trial and inconsistencies in Mathews’ story.
The Los Angeles Times repeated Mathews’ account of a fake pipe bomb and a bullet bearing her name. “It’s not just a crime against me,” she told the Times. “It’s really a much broader crime. It’s an attack on our whole system of government.” It was only a matter of time before Mathews became a celebrity among those who see right-wing terrorists under every rock.
“For Karen Mathews, a California county court recorder viciously attacked by an antigovernment common-law zealot, the fear never ends,” noted the spring 1998 Intelligence Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “She’s been threatened, had bullets fired through her office windows, discovered a fake bomb planted under her car, and opened a package sent to her enclosing a single bullet and a chilling note: ‘The next bullet will be directed to your head.’” Mathews “faces more surgery to repair serious injuries received during the attack four years ago in her Modesto garage. Mathews was severely beaten and stabbed, her legs were slashed with a knife and she was sodomized with a gun.” And the threat had not abated.
“These yahoos still come into my office,” Mathews told the SPLC. “I never know when one of them might decide, ‘Let’s finish her off.’” At no point did the SPLC challenge her story, which attracted notice among politicians.
In April 2000, California Rep. Gary Condit introduced the “Karen Mathews Act of 2000.” The Modesto Democrat’s H.R. 4166 would have amended the law to prohibit the malicious or repeated frivolous filing of legal process or liens against the person or property of a victim. The bill did not make it out of committee but legal scholars took note.
In “Paper Terrorism: The Impact of the ‘Sovereign Citizen’ on Local Government,” a 2004 Public Law Journal article, David Fleishman wrote, “In 1994, members of a group known as the Juris Christian Assembly attacked the Stanislaus County Recorder in her home, repeatedly firing an empty gun at her head, because she refused to file bogus liens against Internal Revenue Service agents.”
In The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (2004), Daniel Levitas wrote, “the near victim was Karen Mathews, a prim attractive woman with dark shoulder-length hair and wire-rimmed glasses.” Leaders of the Juris Christian Assembly recruited Roger Steiner because of his “previous experience with militia groups.” And it was Steiner who knocked her down, slashed her with a knife and put a gun to her head proclaiming “Lady, you would be so easy to kill.” Levitas ignored the many inconsistencies in story of the heroic “near victim,” and in 2014 she authored The Terrorist in My Garage: Fighting Terrorism on the Home Front.
As the book’s website explains, the Juris Christian Assembly was “part of a wave of domestic terrorists that roared into the spotlight in the early nineties with the Waco siege and the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.” Over time, “the mild-mannered 45-year-old mother of two and career public servant became the focus of the group’s ire.” And “when Mathews bravely—and legally—refused to accede to their outrageous demands, she was attacked in her garage, brutally beaten and sexually assaulted.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the author “a hero” who “put a face on the dangers of the anti-government movement.” Brenda Davis, former clerk-recorder of Santa Clara County, wrote “This is a story of facing real terror” and the author “is a true hero.” For Cadee Condit Gray, daughter of Gary Condit, Karen Matthews Davis “is truly a role model to all of us.”
The Terrorist in My Garage emerged as Mathews Davis, now a Republican, was making a run for Congress challenging Democrat Jerry McNerney. Mathews Davis lost, gaining only 6 percent of the primary vote. On June 1, 2017, she pleaded guilty to fabricating the threatening letters and told the court she is seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist.
“This woman is a pathological liar who sent death threats to herself,” reads a review on her book’s website. “Her credibility is completely destroyed and nothing in her book can be taken seriously.” Another reader suggests the book should be re-titled “How I sent an innocent man to jail for 18 years based on a lie.”
The authorities are on record that they will look at the 1997 case but no surprise that nothing emerged in the recent proceedings. Court officials are not eager to admit mistakes that might have sent an innocent man to prison. His accuser turns out to be an addled prevaricator but those who profess concern for those wrongly convicted have kept their distance. Steiner, 79, is old, male and white, hardly the profile of an accredited victim.
Meanwhile, whatever sentence she draws in September, Karen Matthews Davis has already confirmed a key reality. A woman can claim to be a victim of right-wing terror, and even those who should know better will accept her story without question and crown her a true hero.