Maricopa City Hall recreated a scene from the original Batman movie on that balmy mid-August afternoon.

But hold Bruce Wayne’s awkward dinner with Vicky Vale at a gapingly long banquet table — here’s Police Chief Mark Goodman and Assistant City Manager Jennifer Brown locked in a yet more uncomfortable standoff with perhaps one of Maricopa’s most fascinating characters.

There’s no meeting scheduled inside that conference room, unmeant for such drama. Yet there the dignitaries sit as the dull glow of fluorescent bulbs bounces off the table’s glass expanse.

Tension widens the yawning gulf between the bureaucrats and Zane Kane, who perches himself — and his video camera — at the far end of the sprawling table. He doesn’t remove his signature mirrored sunglasses.

“This is the worst town,” he says. “The worst town with the worst police force I’ve ever seen.”

It’s a fall from grace for the world-record holder who says his life and dreams were marred by Maricopa’s power-drunk police cadre. But he perseveres.

“The whole thing seems very Nazi Germany.”

The man behind the sunglasses
On a self-guided tour of City Hall Aug. 14, Kane confronted and lobbed insults at a half-dozen city staffers. He posted the video to his YouTube channel a day later.

Kane takes credit for starting the trend of First Amendment auditing. It’s the practice of filming public officials at work — with varied levels of antagonism — in search of a “gotcha” moment. These moments can quickly go viral.

Maricopa Assistant City Manager Jennifer Brown and Police Chief Mark Goodman are confronted by First Amendment auditor Zane Kane at City Hall Aug. 14. [Zane Kane]
“I could make money all day,” Kane told InMaricopa. He dreams of being like Christopher Ruff, the cop watcher based in nearby Gilbert who experts say can generate more than $150,000 per month broadcasting to his 65 million viewers.


But Kane’s recent encounter doesn’t get any views on his YouTube channel named “Overturn Terry v. Ohio.”

The channel’s name is a hallmark of sovereign citizen ideology as described by the Arizona Counter-Terrorism Information Center. It’s a callback to the 1968 Supreme Court decision deeming it constitutional for cops to stop and frisk people.

Kane doesn’t consider himself a sovereign citizen, but he bears its calling cards. Sovereign citizens almost never consider themselves as such, experts say. The loose ideology centers around one core belief: Laws challenged in cases like Terry v. Ohio don’t apply to them.

It’s an anti-government brand of restorationism that metastasized online and grasped the nation. A Connecticut man who decapitated his landlord with a sword declared himself sovereign Aug. 8 — the same day a woman claiming sovereignty in North Carolina was charged with terrorizing a neighborhood and burning disturbing items in a “witch’s cauldron.”

But experts tell InMaricopa modern sovereign citizen ideology has strong roots in Pinal County. InMaricopa staff spotted at least three counterfeit license plates in town one recent weekend, each displaying sovereign citizen slogans like “NOT FOR HIRE.”

The seed is first planted when frustration boils over speeding tickets or lofty child support payments, experts say. Such disregard for the law can quickly spiral toward life behind bars.

Just ask Kane, whose girlfriend faces more than a century in prison.

Facing serious time
Tunnisia Nelson, 45, had no criminal record before she and Kane were arrested at their home on West Cahill Drive in April. Charges of burglary, resisting arrest, trespass and disorderly conduct lodged against Kane were later dropped. But not before he was tortured and maimed, he says.

Nelson wasn’t so lucky. This month, she’ll face 10 felony charges of child abuse, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, recklessly handling deadly weapons and assault with intent to injure in Pinal County Superior Court. Under Arizona law, she could be sentenced to as many as 168 years in prison.

“They kidnapped me,” Nelson told InMaricopa of her arrest.

Her choice of words is another telltale sign of the sovereign citizen mind. Similarly, Kane called the jail a “dungeon” and referred to cops as “some strangers wearing police badges.”

Sovereign citizen ideology battens on the altruism of police — anything to undermine the legitimacy of the law.

Nelson, a behavioral health worker from Harlem in New York City, says she was falsely arrested in a racist campaign by Maricopa police “because I’m a Black woman.”

She’s accused of threatening to shoot her children.

“Only thing they was telling me is, ‘You should have died, Black lady with locks. Die, b*tch,’” Nelson said.

“My life doesn’t matter,” she said through tears. “Thank you, Maricopa, for letting me know that. I know if I was a White woman, it would not have went down the way it was. All they see is my little Black ass.”

Nelson spent her life savings on her Rancho El Dorado home and closed in January. It’s the worst decision she ever made, she said.

Wood splinters slashed Kane’s eye into four pieces. The world-record-setter-turned-police-agitator never takes off his signature mirrored sunglasses. [Bryan Mordt]
Dire accusations
Kane’s version of events is somehow more harrowing.
When Maricopa police officers found him in the Bashas’ parking lot on John Wayne Parkway, he allegedly refused their orders. Nothing new — he bragged about refusing to pull over for Phoenix police in a 2014 arrest, saying he “never signed a contract with them.” More sovereign citizen fodder.

But in the Bashas’ parking lot, Kane said he feared for his life.

“I literally thought this guy was going to kill me,” he said of the arresting officer. “I thought he was going to pull over and shoot me.”

Kane says the officer tortured him.

“The guy was beating me with a baton,” he said. “I’m burning, I’m screaming, I’m crying. I’m crying, and crying, and crying, and kicking and screaming.”

When he arrived at the Pinal County jail in Florence, corrections officers continued to torture him, he claims.

“They violently ripped my clothes off. I was naked, peeing on the floor. I was sitting in my own pee, standing in my own pee.”

He said his hands and arms were permanently crippled during the beating.

Criminal kneads
That’s a problem for Kane, who’s a licensed massage therapist. In 2007, he appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records after performing the longest massage ever in Scottsdale at six hours straight.

In 2015, the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy placed Kane on probation for two years after his anti-government antics led to arrests for endangerment and resisting arrest, state records show.

The city of Maricopa denies ending his massage career. It denies all other allegations related to the April episode.

“Both Nelson and Kane were lawfully arrested,” city spokesperson Brandon LaVorgna said. “No evidence exists of excessive force being used in those arrests.”

Goodman, the police chief, said his officers sometimes “have contact with individuals who identify themselves as sovereign citizens.” But, he told InMaricopa, “It is our policy and my expectation that everyone we come in contact with will be treated with dignity and respect.”

Respect is something Kane says was never extended. Maricopa cops booked him under his birth name, Steven Kanowsky. The 52-year-old legally changed his name back in 1997. He said he associates the name with childhood abuse he suffered.

“I’ve never seen a more ‘F*ck you’ attitude to a civilian,” he said.

But that’s coming from the man who, in the same interview, said registering his car with the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division and paying for a driver’s license is an illegal “extortion fee.”

“Like Nazi Germany, it’s still papers,” he said. “It’s a plastic rectangular card, but does that change it? It’s the same premise.”

That warped worldview led to multiple arrests for failing to carry a license and registration, court records show.

Kane said he has been arrested 26 times in Maricopa, Sun Lakes, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Glendale. Some were drugs charges, according to Maricopa County Superior Court records.

Ground zero
There was no license plate on Kane’s car when he came to the InMaricopa office for an interview Aug. 14. Maricopa Police Department has notes in its system Kane is anti-police, a First Amendment auditor and a sovereign citizen.

The sovereign citizen movement is on the rise in Arizona and nationally, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its disciples only recognize the county sheriff as a law enforcement authority and expert observers say Pinal County is “ground zero” for the ideology.

“When you run into these SovCit guys, they might not recognize the authority of police,” Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb told InMaricopa. “But they recognize the authority of the sheriff.”

Sovereigns may be empowered to vaunt their iconoclasm in Maricopa. Perhaps because Lamb, the current Republican frontrunner for U.S. Senate in Arizona next year, is a self-styled “constitutional sheriff,” some speculate.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, a national civil rights group, the constitutional sheriff’s central tenet is “borrowed from the anti-government extremist sovereign citizen movement.”

Lamb refutes this, however.

“I never heard of that coming from the SovCit movement,” he said. “Our allegiance comes from the oath we take, not the sovereign citizens.”

But he gave the movement’s acolytes a subtle nod.

“Everybody has a little truth,” the sheriff said. “Some more than others. Sometimes, people go overboard.”

Jessica Pishko, a senior counsel at the Justice Collaborative in Dallas who researches constitutional sheriffs, met Lamb on a shooting range near Maricopa several years ago.

When the twosome made a pit stop at a convenience store, it was like a paparazzi swarm, she said.

“Mark Lamb wields an extraordinary amount of influence,” Pishko told InMaricopa.

“Pinal County doesn’t set policy for Arizona. Sovereign citizens are this angry, righteous, dissatisfied minority that uses the sheriff to gain a disproportionate voice.”

Deep roots
It’s no wonder some posit the constitutional sheriff dogma borrows from sovereign citizen tenets. The entire movement has roots here.

“There’s a core in Pinal County that’s deeply rooted in sovereign citizen stuff,” Pishko said. “Right-wing ideology about abolishing the CIA, the constitution hanging by a thread and defunding the federal government, it all comes from the sovereign citizen movement.”

Lamb has curried favor over such propositions. And when she ran a failed GOP bid for governor last year, former Phoenix newscaster Kari Lake even said “Arizona is a sovereign state.”

But expert observers say the roots go much deeper — back to when a territorial Arizona flirted with becoming the last contiguous state to enter the union.

“This ideology is very prevalent here,” local extremism researcher Haley Orion told InMaricopa. “Arizona is unique from other states due to its history and location.”

The last mainland state to be incorporated, Arizona also cedes its southern border to the federal government and nearly one-fourth of its land to tribal governments. It pushes many in the state to reject federalism, Orion said.

Pishko agrees.

“Arizona always had this image of cowboy sheriffs on horseback,” she said. “They transformed it from part of Mexico into an anti-federal impulse of western expansion.”

Sovereign citizens act throughout the state. In 2020, Tucson passed a law to deter First Amendment auditors, like Kane, in the city.

In Phoenix, police arrested known sovereign citizen Michael Crane in connection with the murder of an elderly Paradise Valley couple. And in Seligman, sovereign citizen “guru” Shawn Talbott Rice was arrested in a money laundering scheme after a day-long, heavily armed standoff with the FBI.

Here in Pinal County, look beyond the license plates and you’ll find their declarative statements filed with the county recorder’s office. Such statements are meaningless, according to legal experts.

A review of records found one of these bizarre filings from Phyllis Clardy Fox, who claims to be “a temporary inhabitant living in Arizona State/Republic, thankfully endowed by our Creator God with Unalienable Rights partially enumerated in America’s founding organic documents.”

A slippery slope
Arizona laws, naturally, are not among America’s founding documents. And therein lies the problem for so many like Kane.

Court records show his daughter’s mother filed an aggressive injunction of harassment against him in Maricopa County Superior Court in 2002. What followed was a brutal custody battle where Kane was subject to mental health evaluations and nearly 60 drug tests.

The family court case dragged on for nearly a decade. Shortly after, a Maricopa County judge ordered Kane to pay thousands in a civil lawsuit.

All the while, he racked up arrests around greater Phoenix.

With each bite of a steel handcuff and every shuddering stroke of the gavel, he became more traumatized, he said. More paranoid to leave his house, and more afraid of the justice system from top to bottom.

And likely, he inched closer to sovereign citizen ideas every time — the ideas that may put his partner in prison for the rest of her life.

Experts say sovereign citizen ideology starts as a seed. Some flowers ought not to bloom.


This story was first published in the September edition of InMaricopa Magazine.


  1. Kari Lake ran a great GOP bid for Governor against the basement dweller who was given the Governor position.

    Just a matter of time before the fake state and federal residents are prosecuted.

  2. I have lived a few places, many with bad police departments that often justify some of the concerns of these SovCits. However, Maricopa has one of the BEST police departments I have ever dealt with. I have taken the time to speak to a few officers when the opportunity arose, and they are certainly the most rights oriented I have ever met. I had done some 2A activism years ago when I flirted with the SovCit movement, and I discovered that they fail to strike a practical balance when it comes to rights versus the law. We have to have law, as flawed as the justice system is, and it needs ALOT of fixing. But the SovCits do serve a purpose in their extremes by pointing out some truths about our system. Sheriff Lamb strikes the best balance I have ever seen in a police officer, because he recognizes the valid roots of their concerns. The biggest failure of this article is not exploring those valid concerns and falling simply to the side of “normal” and the law, as if the law is always right. The writer would no doubt have criticized the founders of America for the treason. “Some flowers ought not to bloom” is a quote from the voice of someone who probably lives in the bubble and comfort of white privilege and never experienced the abuses of “the law”. I support good police, but this article merely smacks of bootlicking, and the SovCits have some good insight on that. Bad actors in any authority over members of our society deserve harsh scrutiny at all times BECAUSE of their authority. The founders knew this when they drafted the amendments. Auditors, some good, some bad, make sure that these important ideals don’t disappear under the guise of “law”. SovCits merely live on the edge of an important spectrum, regular reminders and action on our God given, Constitutionally protected rights. If the writer cannot recognize these obvious facts, or won’t, perhaps they need to try living somewhere where these rights have no protection at all for awhile, and then revisit their obvious bias against people who just want to live free.