It was just another Monday for Principal Scott Maddock when he arrived at his office in the Grass Valley Charter School last week. He was checking his voicemail as usual when a strange message brought him up short: a dire warning left by someone who identified himself only as “the patriot.”
The patriot told Maddock that he had it from a “reliable source” that “something is going to happen” at the Blue Marble Jubilee, the sleepy California mountain town’s annual Earth Day celebration set for May 11.
Maddock immediately called the police.
That was the beginning of what Maddock told TPM was his “most frustrating week as an administrator,” as he spent sleepless nights trying to determine if a flurry of warnings related to a crazy QAnon conspiracy theory was meaningless online chatter or a bona fide threat to the children and families in his care.
Believers of the conspiracy theory, which is based on the convoluted notion that a “deep state” within the government is trying to bring down President Donald Trump and his followers, latched onto an innocuous tweet from former FBI Director James Comey sent on Saturday, April 27.
The conspiracists dissected the tweet, which was part of the hashtag trend #FiveJobsIveHad, somehow extracting “five Jihad(s)” and circling the first initial of every job Comey had listed: GVCSF — aka the Grass Valley Charter School Foundation.
The president of the foundation, Wendy Willoughby, was putting the finishing touches on the Blue Marble Jubilee after months of work and thousands of dollars spent when a QAnon follower speculated online that Comey was pointing in code to a “false flag attack,” an impending Jihad planned for the Earth Day celebration.
“Talk about things you never thought you’d be part of,” Willoughby told TPM with a chuckle. “Principal Maddock described it so well — it’s like a lightning strike, so completely random, no way to avoid it when it’s pointed at you, and the fallout is disastrous.”
The QAnon follower set off an internet firestorm, spiraling into wilder threats and forced coincidences, finding significance in random facts like that Comey sent out his tweet at the same time of day that the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11.
“We started to receive emails from several people not from the area,” Maddock said. “Things like ‘hey I kind of follow the Q, I’m not one of them, but your school’s foundation keeps getting mentioned in their conversations.’ We probably got I don’t know how many emails, but they came from people inside our area and outside — from as far away as Washington, we got one from Canada and one from the Midwest even. That’s when it really started.”
Local law enforcement teamed up with the sheriff’s office to assess the validity of the threats. Per Maddock, they came up empty, calling the theory of the impending attack “very loosely construed.” But by that point, things had snowballed.
“By Wednesday, there were people in our community that had caught wind of something, though they weren’t sure what,” Maddock said.
“If you have an aunt from Ohio saying, ‘I saw this and it looks really scary to me,’ even if you take time to dig in and try to understand something so nonsensical and nonlogical, it’s hard to understand,” Willoughby added. “What people take away is hearing the words ‘threat target festival’ — I mean, as a parent, what are you gonna do with that?”
As parents and community members flooded Maddock’s office and Willoughby’s email with their concerns, the two were faced with an impossible task: to explain the QAnon conspiracy theory to a bunch of scared families.
“I had never heard the phrase,” Willoughby said. “I was familiar with the term ‘deep state.’ I’m an NPR listener so I had heard story about the gunman at the pizza place but not any followup,” she added, referring to a QAnon follower’s armed threat against the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in 2016 motivated by his belief that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were holding child sex slaves in the basement.
“It realIy was interesting,” Maddock said. “There was such a disparity — some people had gone down the rabbit hole, who had heard a little and built their own background knowledge. Some people had no idea.”
“As many times as I had to explain this to law enforcement, district leadership, the school board: ‘So, last weekend the former director of the FBI sent out a tweet’… People were looking at me like ‘Scott’s lost it now’,” he added, laughing.
In the end, as ludicrous as the QAnon’s beliefs seemed and as improbable as the possibility was that the fairground’s sack races and egg carton painting would become a battlefield, the idea of carrying on with the festival became too fraught.
“These people were using words like massacre, bloodbath, not saying they’re gonna come do this but that’s what’s out there,” Willoughby said. “We know from recent events that these theories, though they can be proven false, with no factual or logical evidence to back them up, can motivate and mobilize unstable people to do dangerous things.”
The Blue Marble Jubilee was cancelled. Thousands of dollars were lost on event planning with none recouped from the festival itself, leaving the small school in the red. Willoughby said that her group will try to spin out some of the events planned for the festival to make up the losses — one plan is to hold the children’s art auction at Back to School night.
But on top of the financial loss is the utter shock the two feel from finding themselves, tucked away in a quiet and slow-moving community nestled in the Sierra Mountain foothills, at the center of an incomprehensible internet conspiracy theory cesspool.
“It just continues to baffle me that these folks think they did some sort of good here. It’s not only horrendously sad but equally disturbing and frustrating,” Willoughby said of the QAnon believers who are celebrating their role in averting disaster. “You can’t speak to them in a logical, factual way, so how can you combat this? What they actually did was destructive and divisive and filled with fear and hate.”
“It really was a lightning strike,” Maddock added. “This was something that happened that was in no way connected to us that drew us in. We couldn’t have prepared for it, there was no contingency plan. We can’t sit down and figure out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
He sighed. “I mean, how do you plan for something like this?”