Many Proud Boys attended the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. They’ve been designated a terrorist organization by the governments of Canada and New Zealand and labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group.
Hoel and other Sarasota Proud Boys have taken Flynn’s presence and words as a rallying cry, echoing them in public Telegram chat groups they use to organize their political activities. They have often shared messages from Flynn as a way to encourage each other to get involved in local politics.
In October 2021, Flynn was the featured guest for a family event at the Hollow, “Halloween with General Flynn.” Messages from a public chat on Telegram show Proud Boys and their wives organized to volunteer.
On Oct. 19, Proud Boy Nick Radovich suggested a person whose username is “MilkshakePB” could volunteer for the event. “I can try and take Halloween off to help. Is there a job list and time slot,” MilkshakePB replied. A Proud Boy who goes by the nickname Milkshake has been charged and pleaded not guilty for his alleged actions on Jan. 6.
“Interested in seeing General Flynn and (state GOP Rep. Anthony) Sabatini at the Hollow at no cost? Can you help volunteer for 3 hours at the Halloween event?” Radovich’s wife, Melissa, wrote Oct. 23, one of several posts she made about the event.
A cross stands near a pond at The Hollow. (Richard Rowley/Frontline via AP)
The event promised a “haunted hike” and trick-or-treating for kids, but it also included political speeches by a number of far-right activists, including Flynn and Kimberly Fletcher of Moms for America, one of the groups that organized the rallies in Washington on Jan. 5 and 6, 2021. Organizers said 1,000 people came. A video shows that during the event, Flynn got a standing ovation before telling the crowd that Republicans need to improve their election tactics.
“I can tell you exactly how the Democratic Party does precinct training and then who they put in charge,” Flynn said. “They know exactly where to put people, where to put the thugs.”
He suggested those in the audience should register to be precinct volunteers and poll watchers.
Later that night, Nick Radovich posted a video in a public Telegram chat saying he had met Flynn, and the general had congratulated him for being part of a group that protested outside the school board chair’s house, calling for her to come outdoors for a “ redress of grievances.” Local media had reported on Proud Boys’ involvement in the protest.
“He said good, keep it up,” Radovich said in the video. “So, anybody seeing this should know that we have his approval.”
Two weeks later, Hoel posted a photo he took with Flynn at the Hollow: Hoel wears a Proud Boys shirt, and next to him, Flynn holds up for the camera a Proud Boys emblem.
Mellor told “Frontline” that some Proud Boys had volunteered at the Hollow before he knew they were members of the extremist group.
“They’re just dads and husbands and their kids come out here, OK? You know, they’re part of the society,” he said and added that the Proud Boys are “just another organization that just like any organization is welcomed here.”
It is not clear whether Flynn has a formal relationship with the Hollow, and he and Mellor declined to answer questions on the subject.
Mellor said in a written statement that one of Flynn’s nonprofits, America’s Future Inc., had recently donated $25,000 to purchase an observation dome for a 14.5-inch telescope for the Hollow’s new science and nature program. Flynn has also been soliciting money for the Hollow through a crowdfunding campaign for The America Project, a group he started last year and that AP and “Frontline” previously reported has been spending millions on efforts to advance its agenda, including by undermining trust in elections.
Some Sarasota residents told AP and “Frontline” that Proud Boys have tried to intimidate people at school board meetings — labeling those who supported masks or sympathized with gay children as “perverts.”
Angela Wynn said she was harassed by a group of Proud Boys when she attended a women’s rights rally with her 10-year-old. She believes Flynn’s outspoken presence in Sarasota has given members of the group confidence and validation.
“Maybe back in the day they would have tried to hide who they are,” Wynn said. “But now they’re just so emboldened and they have this sense of empowerment.”
At one protest, children were photographed hoisting Proud Boys flags.
Carol Lerner, a public education activist and retiree in Sarasota County who is opposed to Flynn’s politics, has visited The Hollow twice and tracked the Proud Boys activities in Sarasota and at The Hollow.
She says Flynn, with the help of Mellor and the Proud Boys, is building an infrastructure to further the attack on American democracy that came to a head on Jan. 6 and using The Hollow to build a community and teach children anti-democratic values.
“It’s pretty. It’s nice. It fills a need. Then you look at what their worldview is, what they’re fighting for. It’s scary. It’s quite frightening,” Lerner said. “It’s kind of like a socialization of insurrection.”
Flynn has said in public speeches that he and his supporters have “flipped” 250 school boards across the country to people who agree with his views. He declined to provide a list of the communities he was referring to. But it’s certain that he counts Sarasota County as one of his success stories.
Flynn, Mellor and the Proud Boys supported candidates in Sarasota that they believed would stand against mask and vaccine mandates, ban books they see as objectionable and stop any talk of sexual orientation.
Campaign finance records show that Mellor, his business and The Hollow together donated more than half the money raised by a political action committee that backed those candidates. The PAC paid for a mobile billboard calling one Jewish school board candidate a liar and “baby killer,” drawing condemnation from people who noted the term’s history as an antisemitic slur. Flynn’s The America Project kicked in $5,000 to the PAC in the days after the uproar.
As the school board campaign raged, Flynn and his supporters branched out beyond schools. “General Flynn is submitting his application to the Republican Executive committee on Monday,” Nick Radovich wrote on Telegram July 9. “Patriots need to control the Republican party, my wife will bring you an application to join so we can take over the republican party and get rid of the RINOS. Send me date and time where she can meet you.”
In the following weeks, dozens of people submitted paperwork to join the executive committee of the Sarasota County Republican Party, including Flynn, several Flynn family members, Hoel and his wife. The Herald-Tribune newspaper was first to report Flynn’s application to the committee.
On Sept. 8, Hoel and Flynn were sworn in to the party’s executive committee. Flynn signed up to be a poll watcher.
A Sarasota Republican Party spokesman, Rod Thomson, would not comment on whether the party endorses the views Flynn espouses. He said the party was just following its rules when it approved Flynn and Hoel to the 270-member executive committee.
Kutner and others who study extremism see a mutually beneficial relationship between Flynn and Proud Boys, likening it to when then-President Donald Trump called for the Proud Boys to “ stand back and stand by ” ahead of the 2020 election. Flynn is working to consolidate various factions within the GOP, while Proud Boys are trying to gain visibility and legitimacy while deflecting from their actions and involvement during Jan. 6, Kutner said.
“They are trying to engage in local politics,” she said, “because that’s where the fight is now.”
Mellor told AP in a written statement that he and Flynn are “experiencing and nurturing a true grassroots movement in its purest form.”
“I assure you; this is only the beginning.”
Flynn has not answered several questions sent to him since August, both before and after AP and “Frontline” published the article about his political movement on Sept. 7. But a few days after it ran, he held a 90-minute live-streamed response without providing any substantive rebuttal to the article’s findings.
He did, however, reiterate his commitment to local action. “We’re on the battlefield that I believe is the most important battlefield, which is the local battlefield,” he said. “The terrain that I have chosen to fight on is the local battlefield, the local terrain. And I think that that’s the terrain that will win the day.”
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