When a retired Wisconsin judge was murdered in his home in the town of New Lisbon last Friday by a Trump supporter who shot himself but survived, police found a “hit list” on his person indicating he intended to target a number of prominent politicians. A Milwaukee radio station, WTMJ, reported that “sources close to the investigation” had identified the killer as a member of a militia group.
These reports set off a wave of concerns that the killing heralded a wave of militia-organized assassinations looming on the national landscape. Many of those concerns now appear somewhat overblown: The killer appears to have primarily targeted the judge because the latter sentenced him to six years in prison in 2005, and he doesn’t appear to have been active in any militia groups or even advocated for them. However, the more we learn about 56-year-old Douglas K. Uhde, the clearer it becomes that his act was both personal retribution and deeply political—and emblematic of a more general and widespread threat: that of radicalized antigovernment extremism.
The retired judge, 68-year-old John Roemer, was at his home when Uhde arrived, gun in hand, on Friday morning. Roemer’s son was asleep in a second bedroom when he saw Uhde through a window approach the house with his gun, though Uhde didn’t see him; the son then climbed out the window and ran to a neighbor’s house, where he called a 911 dispatcher.
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When police arrived and were at the door, they spoke with Uhde while he was still inside and tried to negotiate with him. After Uhde fell silent, they rushed inside and found him in the basement with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, but still alive; they summoned medical help, and he was transported to a local hospital, where he remains in custody.
There was no reason to summon help for Judge Roemer, who police found in the kitchen, shot in the head. He had been zip tied to a dining-room chair.
As Uhde was being transported to the hospital, police went through his clothing and found a political “hit list,” whose full contents have not been disclosed. Among the people on it, according to police sources, were Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Roemer was first elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2010 and 2016. He retired in 2017.
Evers angrily denounced Roemer’s killing. “I mean, the idea that, as I said before, a judge from a rural county is targeted and murdered, it’s just abhorrent to our judiciary and to leadership in our state and our county,” he said. “It’s a horrible situation. I grieve for him. I grieve for his family. And God, we can do better than this in Wisconsin."
Whitmer, as it happens, had already been targeted by a Michigan militia group that plotted to kidnap and execute her—although a jury acquitted two of the men accused in the plot. Combined with the report that Uhde was connected to militias, the judge’s murder raised immediate concerns of a broader, perhaps organized, plan by the extremist right to assassinate public officials.
“In a country as divided and angry as the United States is today, it’s surprising that more assassinations haven’t occurred,” wrote David Graham in The Atlantic. “Perhaps this one is a sign of what’s to come.”
However, a number of details have subsequently emerged that at least ameliorate these concerns. Notably, it turned out that Roemer, a longtime Juneau County Circuit Court jurist, had sentenced Uhde to six years in prison in 2005 as the culmination of a complicated series of appeals involving Uhde’s long criminal record, which included armed burglary with a dangerous weapon, possessing a short-barreled shotgun, and carrying a concealed weapon. Uhde later escaped custody briefly and was charged with felony escape, and then was charged with eluding an officer in a vehicle in 2007.
Moreover, journalists who spoke with Uhde’s friends and neighbors uniformly reported that, while Uhde was a flaming antigovernment extremist, none of them were aware of any connection to a militia group. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that most people acquainted with Uhde said he “bristled at any kind of authority” and was “antigovernment,” but none knew of any militia associations.
Likewise, Heavy interviewed a man at Uhde’s last listed address who said he knew him well. Asked about Uhde’s relation to militias, the man answered that Uhde “knew how to hunt, fish, make a fire,” but he never saw him do anything “really militia-related.”
“He’s a Trump supporter. He was an obvious Republican,” the man said.
Heavy also surveyed Uhde’s social-media output and similarly found that, while he regularly posted far-right memes and directed violent rhetoric at Democratic politicians, he never promoted militias or “Patriot” movement ideology, or indicated any kind of affiliation with such ideologies. He did sometimes dabble in Patriot conspiracism, including posts about “FEMA camps” and looming martial law.
There was no shortage of extremism. “Make America great again, duct tape this lying b****’s mouth shut,” read a meme Uhde that shared in October 2016 showing Hillary Clinton with her mouth duct-taped.
He also promoted Trumpist “Stop the Steal” lies, including those with antisemitic undertones. “We the People demand George Soros to remove his voting machines from all states!” read one of the memes he posted. Others expressed fears about gun confiscation. In another Facebook post, Uhde urged people to vote for Trump because he is not controlled by government. “Trump is my president,” read another meme.
So while it is unlikely that Roemer’s assassination heralds a wave of organized militia-based killings—a very specific but narrow kind of threat—it is certainly reflective of a threat that arises from a much broader bandwidth of right-wing extremism: The likelihood that antigovernment conspiracism can and will unleash unpredictable violence at nearly anyone in public service, and the public as well.
We already have seen the power of Trumpism to compel its adherents into acts of violence. This is not a phenomenon that has receded since his presidency, but indeed seems to be intensifying.