A sheriff in northwest Illinois says his chief deputy once joined the Oath Keepers, thinking it was just an organization that backed police and the military — but now renounces any ties to the anti-government extremist group.
The name of Andrew Schroeder, the chief deputy sheriff for Stephenson County, popped up on leaked membership data analyzed by WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
An investigation published earlier this week found Schroeder was among dozens of law-enforcement officers across Illinois who had supported the Oath Keepers, according to the leaked data, which stretches from 2009 until 2018.
Schroeder was working for the police department in Freeport, the Stephenson County seat, when he signed up for the Oath Keepers. The group would go on to play a key role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Schroeder’s current boss, Sheriff Steve Stovall, defended him in a statement Thursday, amid growing bipartisan criticism in the county of 44,000 people, located about 115 miles from downtown Chicago.
“I denounce the Oath Keepers and all they represent, as does Chief Deputy Andrew Schroeder,” Stovall said.
Stovall said he had conducted a “thorough investigation,” and Schroeder told him he signed up after learning of the Oath Keepers in 2010 from a fellow Illinois Army National Guard member.
“This group was reported to Andrew Schroeder to be pro-law enforcement, pro-military, and a way to interact with fellow law enforcement officers and military personnel,” Stovall said. “Andrew Schroeder received a link to join the group and did so.”
But Stovall added, “During his brief membership Andrew Schroeder never attended any meetings and did not knowingly have any contact with any members.”
Stovall said Schroeder cut ties to the group in 2011, has not been part of the Oath Keepers since then and boasted an “exemplary” record of public service, having worked more than 25 years in local law enforcement.
The leaked data from the Oath Keepers indicates Schroeder became a member in November 2010 and submitted his home address, phone number, email and a payment of $30 for an annual membership. He also identified himself to the Oath Keepers as an active law enforcement officer since October 1998 — which matches up with his start date at the Freeport police, records show.
He was listed in an Oath Keepers list of “dues paying members” as recently as January 2015, according to the leaked data.
“It’s alarming to know he was an Oath Keeper”
The explanation from the Republican sheriff did not convince civil rights activists, Democrats and one other GOP elected official in Stephenson County.
Karl Bronn, a board member with the NAACP chapter in Freeport, said he knew Schroeder personally and was alarmed to learn of his connection to the Oath Keepers.
“Is he working for our citizenry or are they working to advance their own agenda?” Bronn said.
Schroeder was a Republican county board member and continues to serve as the county GOP’s vice chair for Freeport.
Longtime Republican county board member Bill Hadley said he personally never had any issues with Schoeder while they were on the county board together, but added, “It’s alarming to know that he was an Oath Keeper.”
The leader of the county Republicans, Illinois Sen. Andrew Chesney, also issued a statement defending Schroeder.
“I have conferred with Andrew Schroeder, and he is not a member of the Oath Keepers,” Chesney said. “He disavows them, as do I, in the strongest terms.
“Chief Deputy Schroeder has an impeccable record of service that spans more than 25 years, and any suggestion that he would knowingly become a member of an anti-government militia is untrue and unfounded.”
Stovall, the sheriff, also took umbrage at WBEZ and the Sun-Times reporting that Schroeder had changed his Facebook profile photo to the mugshot of former President Donald Trump from Georgia, where Trump faces pending criminal charges for allegedly plotting to “unlawfully change the outcome” of the 2020 election in that state.
“Chief Deputy Andrew Schroeder was wrongfully accused of wrongdoing,” Stovall wrote in an email Thursday to WBEZ. “Changing his profile picture to Donald Trump is not an extremist act.”
Ronnie Bush, a Democratic county board member from Freeport, said he asked for a meeting with Stovall to discuss Schroeder’s ties to the Oath Keepers, got the same statement reporters had received, and was not swayed by the sheriff’s protests.
“I don’t think he was that naive not to know what [the Oath Keepers] about,” Bush said of Schroeder.
Jody Coss, the leader of the Stephenson County Democrats, called for an independent investigation and also scoffed at the official explanation from Stovall.
“This group had a pretty strong record even then of being anti-government, racist, being involved in things that were against the laws being handed down by our court system,” Coss said. “All you had to do was Google the name and you could have found out the things that they were involved in.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.