Time Travel, Brain Scans, and FBI Drop-Ins: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of a QAnon Commune
Kasey watched as her sister, now living just a few blocks from where they had grown up, tried to put a girl-power branding on QAnon. When I talked to Kasey in July 2020, a month after she had first asked me for help, she was losing hope that her sister would ever leave Steinbart’s group. Mutual friends who saw Kiley’s increasingly QAnon-focused posts asked Kasey if her sister had lost her mind.
“She’s more into it than even before,” she said.
I never heard from Kasey again. After we spoke in July, she stopped responding to my calls and text messages. But in videos posted by Steinbart’s group, Kiley addressed her sister’s recent death. Kasey died of a heart attack at twenty-seven years old.
With Kasey gone, I lost my closest connection to Steinbart’s group, right as he drew in more followers and became a more vocal figure in QAnon. But internally, Steinbart’s compound had already started to collapse.
The Ranch crew projected a cheerful image online, coming off like a season of The Real World with a time-traveler for a roommate. Steinbart’s videos garnered tens of thousands of views, filled with responses from QAnon believers convinced he was Q.
It seemed like there was nothing those closest to Steinbart wouldn’t accept. They didn’t seem to mind that there was no evidence that he had billions of dollars. At times, it seemed like Steinbart had set up a force field outside the Ranch that no sense of reality could penetrate.
The fun-loving portrayal of life at the Ranch belied the fact that Steinbart faced a mountain of legal problems that could send him to prison for years. Steinbart’s bail conditions prohibited him from drinking alcohol or using drugs, rules he freely flouted in the company of his followers. Tellingly, visitors were required to sign non-disclosure agreements prohibiting them from discussing any such drinking or smoking “habits” they witnessed at the Ranch. But Steinbart’s drug and alcohol use became a vulnerability as some of his followers started to become suspicious about his claims.
A follower named Mike became disaffected. Instead of working to carry out “Operation QAnon,” Mike noticed, residents at the Ranch just drank all night and slept the day away. And while Steinbart claimed that he had enough money to fund the entire Space Force, he asked his followers to pay whenever he wanted a six-pack of beer.
“He never paid for a single thing there,” Mike said in a video posted online, urging other Steinbart followers to abandon their leader.
The Ranch purge began. He began to suspect that his once-loyal aides had installed hidden cameras around the house to catch him breaking his bail conditions.
Somehow, whether from one of Steinbart’s defectors or some other means, court officials discovered that Steinbart had violated his bail restrictions. He was arrested again in September 2020, and admitted to drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. When police searched his house, they found a “Whizzinator,” a prosthetic penis meant to cheat drug tests. A judge ruled him held until trial.
Steinbart’s imprisonment shattered the Ranch. With their charismatic leader now in only sporadic contact via a jailhouse telephone, some of Steinbart’s remaining followers began to wonder what they were doing with their lives.
Steinbart was out of jail by the summer of 2021, after pleading guilty in April 2021 to the extortion charge and being sentenced to eight months time-served. But his path back to QAnon greatness had vanished. The Ranch collective dissolved in his absence. The post-riot social media crack-down on QAnon followers obliterated his YouTube and Twitter accounts. And while Steinbart claimed he had won new adherents in jail, many of his genuine followers had returned to their pre-Steinbart lives.
Michael Rae Khoury, a Steinbart follower who had put $40,000 of his own money into the group invited me to Phoenix to see Steinbart give a speech at the premiere of an election fraud documentary. Other QAnon believers treated Steinbart’s flock like “lepers,” Khoury complained, but they didn’t know what was really going on since Steinbart’s release. I should come see it for myself.
I couldn’t turn down the chance. Steinbart’s QAnon experiment had burned itself out, but it was still one of the strangest ways that QAnon had played out in the real world. And I wanted to find out what had happened to Kiley Mayer.
Steinbart had somehow snagged a speaking spot at the premiere of a conspiracy-theory film about election fraud.
Steinbart helped secure a church on the outskirts of Phoenix for the premiere, and his remaining followers passed out flyers to drum up interest. The premiere coincided with the end of Arizona Republicans’ controversial inspection of millions of votes—an attempt to find any scrap of evidence to dispute the fact that Biden had won the state—and the premiere doubled as a party for the audit team. It had drawn some boldface names on the right, including Michael Flynn’s brother and some state lawmakers.
Steinbart struggled to get invited to conferences for mainline QAnon believers, who still saw him as, at best, a crank. But he had no problem getting a booth at the premiere, where his roughly dozen remaining supporters advertised a club service called “Q Meetups”—Steinbart’s latest attempt to take his version of QAnon nationwide.