What Led A Police Chief Turned Yoga Instructor To The Capitol Riot?
In 2019, Alan Hostetter posted a 20-minute "sunset gong meditation" on his YouTube channel.
In the video, he stands on a Southern California cliffside in a white tunic, wearing a turquoise bandana over long hair and a full salt-and-pepper beard. He speaks of "peace and tranquility," over an image of himself hitting a gong in front of a golden sun.
Less than a year later, he was fantasizing aloud about the Founding Fathers hanging California Gov. Gavin Newsom and stating that traitors to the country "need to be executed as an example."
Now, Hostetter is facing a criminal indictment alleging that he conspired with anti-government, extremist militiamen to bring chaos to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and obstruct Congress from conducting the peaceful transfer of power.
More than 500 people are now facing criminal charges related to the attack on the Capitol six months ago. And the case of Alan Hostetter reveals how the 2020 protests that began as a response to coronavirus-related lockdowns helped fuel a far-right movement supported by Republican political figures and may have contributed to the Capitol riot.
From police chief, to yogi, to protest leader
Before Hostetter found himself pleading not guilty in a federal courtroom, his life had already taken several turns.
After graduating from high school in the 1980s, he joined the U.S. Army and deployed to West Germany. He returned to California, applied for a job with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, and served in law enforcement throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In 2009, he was named police chief of La Habra, Calif. Less than a year into the job, he retired because of spinal problems.
During his retirement in the quiet, beachside city of San Clemente, the Army veteran and former police chief took a turn: He found yoga, meditation and sound healing.
He was a good fit for San Clemente, where benches dot the beachside engraved with sayings like "may every sunset bring you peace." An attendee of one of Hostetter's sound healing classes described him to NPR as "pure love."
That person asked not to be named in a news story due to fear of backlash, because, soon after, Alan Hostetter transformed.
When COVID-19 broke out, Orange County saw a surge of protests against state and local lockdown policies meant to slow the pandemic. Hostetter was part of those protests from the beginning.
"I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would actually be in a position to have to defend my fellow countrymen and women from domestic enemies," Hostetter said at a May 2020 protest in Huntington Beach, Calif. "But, damn it, I am doing it now."
At those protests, he ditched the white tunics and Buddha-themed T-shirts, opting instead for a fedora and shorts, both emblazoned with the American flag.
Residents on both the left and right of the political spectrum agree that the moment in which Hostetter became a leader of the movement came later that month, in an incident locals refer to as "Fence-gate."
San Clemente had put up chain-link fencing by the city's pier to discourage people from parking and congregating.
Hostetter viewed it as tyrannical government overreach. So he grabbed a piece of the chain-link fence and held on, even after police declared an unlawful assembly. Sheriff's deputies eventually had to cut hand-shaped holes in the fence so they could handcuff and arrest Hostetter, while protesters cheered him on.
The Orange County district attorney charged Hostetter with resisting and obstructing an officer, refusal to disperse and trespassing — all misdemeanors. (He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and the case remains pending.)
Seven other people were also arrested that day, including Kenneth Collins.
Collins is in his 70s and told NPR that he went to the pier just to observe the protest.
"I thought it was one of the most peaceful and patriotic protests that I'd ever seen," Collins said in an interview. He said he was so "moved" by Hostetter's protest that when law enforcement said they would arrest Hostetter, "I said, 'Well, you might as well take me with you.'"
Collins said he now views Hostetter as a "hero."
Locals said that Hostetter was uniquely positioned to help grow this protest movement. COVID-19 revealed how the worlds of wellness and new age spirituality could be susceptible to conspiracy theories, including the pro-Trump QAnon movement. Hostetter, through his work in sound healing, yoga, and meditation, had a foot in that world and even spoke at a QAnon conference.
At the same time, Hostetter could also impress more traditional pro-police conservatives, because of his decades-long career in law enforcement.
But to those on the other side, Hostetter's protest was a reckless act during a deadly pandemic. As of July 2021, more than 5,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Orange County.
And some rejected the whole protest as absurd.
"The whole idea is just comical," said a San Clemente resident named Bill, who describes himself as a former Republican. (Bill requested that NPR withhold his last name due to fear of harassment.) "There was not a majority of residents that were sympathetic to the anti-lockdown stuff," Bill told NPR. "But as is often the case, a loud minority can appear like a majority."
How Hostetter built connections with Republican leaders
Around the time of his arrest, in the spring of 2020, Hostetter created a nonprofit called the American Phoenix Project. Public records show the nonprofit spent $50,000 on a lawsuit fighting California state lockdown policies.
The source of those funds is not precisely clear, though California state records show that Hostetter began receiving more than $130,000 annually since 2012 as part of a pension plan from his time in law enforcement. The most recent figures indicate he received nearly $156,000 in 2020.
The lawsuit was filed by the Dhillon Law Group and the Center for American Liberty, two organizations run by Harmeet K. Dhillon, a prominent California Republican who has served as national committeewoman for the Republican National Committee, or RNC.
In a statement announcing the lawsuit online, Dhillon's Center for American Liberty said it was the result of "collaboration" with Hostetter's American Phoenix Project.
A spokesperson for the Dhillon Law Group, Matthew Shupe, downplayed the relationship with Hostetter. "The American Phoenix Project made a single donation to support one of the many civil rights lawsuits filed by Center-supported attorneys last year," Shupe wrote to NPR in an email. "The Dhillon Law Group has no connection to or representation of either Mr. Hostetter or the American Phoenix Project."
The online announcement describing the "collaboration" with Hostetter's organization was removed on Jan. 12, because, Shupe said, the case was no longer current.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, but Hostetter's activism continued.
One of the targets of anti-lockdown protests was Katrina Foley. At the time, she was the mayor of Costa Mesa, Calif.
Due to the pandemic, Foley, a Democrat, was leading city council meetings over Zoom from home. At one point, Hostetter and other protesters gathered outside her house to protest what Hostetter called a "dictatorship" and an "unlawful, unscientific, ineffective and dangerous mask mandate."
"You could hear them yelling 'fire Foley' and 'no mask mandates,' 'masks kill people,' 'COVID isn't real,'" Foley told NPR in an interview.
Hostetter posted a clip of the council meeting's official video feed on his YouTube page, where protest chants can be heard in the background.
Far-right activism has long played a role in Orange County politics. The far-right anti-communist group the John Birch Society built a following in the area in the 1960s, and one of the group's officials represented an Orange County district in Congress. But in her decades in elected office, Foley said she had "never" seen anything like this.
At another protest outside her home, Foley said demonstrators harassed her son. They weren't the only targets. Orange County's health officer resigned in the middle of the pandemic after receiving threats.
Foley said she welcomes feedback from the public, but major protests outside officials' homes had "a chilling effect," and discouraged people from working in government, because they did not want "to put themselves or their families at risk."
Throughout 2020, Hostetter's rhetoric appeared to become increasingly violent, especially toward California's governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, whom he called a "tyrant" and "killer."
At a July 2020 rally, he said if the Founding Fathers were alive, they would violently overthrow Newsom.
"They would drag that bastard out by his hair, they would drag him into the town square," Hostetter told the cheering crowd.
Hostetter said the country's founders would have offered Newsom a choice: "'Gavin, you can be hung, or you can be tarred, feathered and banished.'"
"Hang him!" one audience member yelled in response.
"I would never encourage an act of violence against any member of our political class," Hostetter added. "So I'm not encouraging that. But that's what would have happened."
After Jan. 6, this kind of language got the attention of federal prosecutors. But at the time, some Orange County political leaders embraced him. Hostetter campaigned alongside and introduced major candidates and office-holders for city council, school board, state assembly and U.S. Congress.
Laura Ferguson, a current San Clemente City Council member, was among the officials who appeared with Hostetter at rallies. In an interview, Ferguson said she did not "condone" Hostetter's words but said she believed Hostetter was exercising his First Amendment rights.
"That's not my style," Ferguson told NPR. "I certainly wouldn't do that. But I think he's a patriot. I do."
California State Assemblywoman Laurie Davies and former U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who both spoke alongside Hostetter at events, did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.
"Traitors need to be executed"
After Joe Biden won the November 2020 presidential election, Hostetter's focus turned from COVID-19 to overturning what he viewed, against all evidence, as a stolen election.
"Some people at the highest levels need to be made an example of with an execution or two or three," said Hostetter in one video he posted to YouTube. "Tyrants and traitors need to be executed as an example."
Prosecutors allege that, around this time, Hostetter and a director of the American Phoenix Project named Russ Taylor were in communication with California-based members of an extremist anti-government militia group known as the Three Percenters. (Taylor is also charged with conspiracy alongside Hostetter for his alleged role in the Capitol riot.)
In these discussions, the group allegedly messaged about plans to bring body armor, hatchets and guns to Washington, D.C., for the pro-Trump rally planned on Jan. 6.
Taylor, prosecutors allege, said to the group in one message, "I personally want to be on the front steps and be one of the first ones to breach the doors!"
On Dec. 29, 2020, according to federal prosecutors, Taylor sent Hostetter a message asking whether he was "bringing firearms" on the trip.
Hostetter then allegedly replied: "NO NEVER (Instagram now monitors all text messages ... this has been a public service announcement)" and added three crying, laughing emoji.
The criminal indictment of Hostetter does not include specific allegations that Hostetter did, in fact, bring guns to Washington, D.C., and he has not been charged with any firearms offenses.
The alleged members of the Three Percenters more explicitly discussed bringing shotguns with them to Washington, D.C., according to court documents.
"We are at war in this country"
On Jan. 5, the day before the insurrection, Hostetter spoke at the Rally To Save America in front of the Supreme Court, wearing a fedora with an American flag on it. Infowars host Alex Jones and Trump adviser Roger Stone, two key leaders of the so-called "Stop The Steal" movement, also spoke at the event. One organizer, Alice Butler-Short of Virginia Women For Trump, called Hostetter a "sponsor" and said "without them, we would not have this" — gesturing to the speaker setup.
"We are at war in this country, we are at war tomorrow," Hostetter told the crowd.
Then came Jan. 6.
In an Instagram video Hostetter posted, he described walking to the Ellipse near the White House to hear former President Donald Trump's speech. But, he added, "we are not actually going into the Ellipse, because we have some personal protective gear and backpacks and things of that nature that they won't allow in, so we're going to get as close as we can."
After watching Trump's speech, Hostetter walked to the Capitol.
During the riot, Hostetter allegedly pushed along with the mob into restricted areas on the West Terrace of the Capitol. That's where he took a photo of himself with Russ Taylor, who was wearing body armor and a knife. On Instagram, Hostetter called the insurrection "the shot heard round the world" and said, "we are just getting started."
Still, there's no evidence Hostetter or Taylor breached the Capitol building, nor have prosecutors alleged that they did.
Five months later, Hostetter was arrested by the FBI. He has pleaded not guilty to four charges, including conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, and remains free pending trial.
Since his arrest, Hostetter has claimed in videos and interviews that he is the victim of a vast conspiracy by the so-called "Deep State," which supposedly staged the insurrection to bring about "a reign of terror" against Trump supporters.
At a public town hall event held on Zoom, Hostetter said prosecutors "connected me to Three Percenters in the indictment that I don't believe I've ever even met or had any contact with whatsoever."
Hostetter declined an interview request, calling NPR "fake news."
When approached outside his apartment in San Clemente, Hostetter said cryptically: "The whole world's about to change, my friend. Watch the news. Things are about to get real interesting."
He drove off in an SUV.
Later, Hostetter sent NPR a message with a clip from the 2009 movie Law Abiding Citizen, which is popular among followers of the pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon.
The movie depicts a character who goes on a violent rampage against everyone in the criminal justice system he believes wronged him. The character tortures and kills police, prosecutors and even a judge.
When asked what he was trying to say by sending the clip, Hostetter did not reply.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the online announcement describing a "collaboration" between the Dhillon Law Group, the Center for American Liberty, and the American Phoenix Project was removed after NPR's inquiries. In fact, the announcement was removed on Jan. 12, prior to NPR contacting the Dhillon Law Group.