How William Cooper and his book ‘Behold a Pale Horse’ planted seeds of QAnon conspiracy theory
EAGAR, Ariz. — When authorities killed William Cooper in a burst of gunfire outside his hilltop home in eastern Arizona, he was an author and radio host who had attracted a rabid following among UFO buffs, prisoners and the militia movement.
For them, his book, “Behold a Pale Horse,” and nightly shortwave radio show lifted the veil on how the world actually works.
Through his death in 2001, Cooper’s legacy was cemented. He was seen as a sage and legend. His book would become a defining text for conspiracy-minded people. What might have otherwise been seen as an amateurish hodgepodge of ideas earned gravitas once its author was gunned down.
Though the official story had Cooper killed as deputies tried to arrest him on a local criminal charge, devotees would make him a martyr. Global forces, it was thought, needed him silenced.
Nearly 30 years after its publication, “Behold a Pale Horse” remains a bestseller, finding new audiences for whom Cooper’s warnings — of a cashless society, a socialist order that devalues work, the confiscation of weapons, global leadership usurping the sovereignty of the United States — still resonate.
Though portions of the book are dated, some paragraphs can strike readers as eerily prescient.
Cooper described a CIA plan to induce in people, via drugs and hypnosis, the desire to shoot up schoolyards. Cooper said such incidents would hasten the call for gun control. “This plan is well under way,” he wrote. “The middle class is begging the government to do away with the 2nd Amendment.”
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- → How the Patriot Movement AZ became a political force
- → How Patriot movement’s extreme views took over GOP
- → How 2 women became stars of Arizona’s Patriot movement
- → How Arizona Patriots build community around conspiracies
- → Years before QAnon, Arizona radio host hatched same ideas
Cooper’s work describes a conspiracy that is timeless: Nearly all that has been told to you is illusion. If you think shadowy forces are pulling the strings, it is because they are. Don’t trust anybody and be on guard. Citizens must soon fight for what they hold dear.
Cooper saw his mission as increasingly urgent.
“Unless we can wake the people from their sleep nothing short of civil war will stop the planned outcome,” Cooper wrote in the book’s opening pages.
That Cooper would die in a shootout with authorities seemed fated. And, in his book, he suggested it was an honorable way to die.
“I believe that any man without principles that he is ready and willing to die for at any given moment is already dead and is of no use or consequence whatsoever,” Cooper wrote in the creed that began his book.
The internet was not yet ubiquitous in the mid-1980s when Cooper started spilling what he said was clandestine information from top secret documents he read as a member of a naval intelligence unit.
Cooper used not only his book, but also in-person lectures, mail-order cassette tapes and a show on shortwave radio to share his understanding of a master plan to destroy the world.
Even though many have never heard of Cooper, his dark, conspiratorial thinking has endured and been amplified. He was a forerunner to the conspiracy theorists of today such as Alex Jones — with whom Cooper feuded.
One audience that found “Behold a Pale Horse” is the Patriot wing of the Republican Party. In an invitation-only Facebook group, some members of Patriot Movement AZ, a group of far-right Republicans, traded their thoughts on conspiracy theories and their hatred of Muslims and immigrants. Members of the group have also become influential in the Arizona Republican Party.
The Arizona Republic reviewed thousands of the group’s posts, comments, photos and videos shared between 2016 and 2019.
“I’m almost done with ‘behold a pale horse’ which details deep state control using school shootings etc as political motives to control the USA. Also very scary,” a member commented in May 2018.
The book has also attracted followers of the conspiracy theory known as QAnon, which falsely casts Democrats as doing the bidding of globalists in order to shield their perversions, including devouring babies for their nourishing blood.
QAnon adherents believe an anonymous figure inside government is sporadically posting cryptic clues to corruption and the perpetrators of child-sex crimes using various online bulletin boards — the shortwave radio of modern times. The anonymous source of the information is “Q,” named for the level of top secret clearance he’s purported to have.
One adherent, Jake Angeli, has intentionally made a spectacle of himself by appearing at Arizona protests wearing a fur hat topped with horns and carrying a weathered sign that reads, “Q sent me.” Angeli said he has researched the secretive groups he believes control the world — Illuminati, Trilateral Commission and Bilderberg group, among others — and felt validated by finding Cooper mentioned them in his book.
Angeli said that the government needed to kill Cooper to silence him.
“When you really do enough research, it all ties together,” he said.
Another tie: In “Behold a Pale Horse,” Cooper claimed to have Q-level security clearance.
Milton William Cooper joined the military after high school and served in Vietnam as a Naval patrol boat captain.
In 1972, he was part of the team that briefed the commander of the Navy’s Pacific fleet. It was then that Cooper claimed to have read a trove of secret documents.
Years later, Cooper would use hypnosis to recall the documents in greater detail, he wrote in his book. They showed, according to Cooper, that the government had not only made contact with alien life, but also struck a deal to work with them to turn some portion of earthlings into slave labor. For that plan to work, Cooper said, the public would have to accept a global government.
After he returned to the United States, Cooper, in his book, said he attempted to tell what he knew to a reporter. Around that time, he was riding his motorcycle near Oakland, California, when, in his telling, he collided with a black limousine. As a result, doctors amputated his right leg above the knee.
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Cooper wrote in “Behold a Pale Horse” that two men visited him in the hospital and asked if he had learned his lesson. Cooper told them he would be “a good little boy” but silently vowed to himself that he would release his information.
By 1984, Cooper was living in Fullerton, California, working at a small private technical college and was again ready to share what he knew.
He sent a packet of papers to the publisher of a newsletter that focused on the otherworldly. That publisher, Gray Barker, had published UFO books that popularized the idea of “Men in Black,” government agents who silenced people who had seen UFOs, as well as sightings of the winged creature known as the Mothman.
Barker published a Cooper essay in 1984 that gave the broad outlines of alien outreach and the military’s effort to hide it from the public.
“I wish to make it absolutely clear that I do not consider myself a hero,” Cooper wrote. He was only doing what he swore to as a member of the military. “I gave an oath…and I take that oath very seriously.”
Cooper started giving lectures on what was then a thriving UFO circuit, said Norio Hayakawa, who helped set up Cooper’s first speaking gigs in the Los Angeles area.
“He brought this whole fresh new viewpoint on UFOs,” Hayakawa said in a phone interview from his New Mexico home. “He connected the UFO phenomenon to the secret government and a plan to create a New World Order.”
Cooper’s lectures were dark, Hayakawa said, compared with the relatively lighter fare of abductions and sightings the UFO community was used to.
By the late 1980s, Cooper had moved to Camp Verde, Arizona, and was traveling the country giving lectures. Wherever he appeared, he set up a merchandise table to sell his writings and recordings of his lectures.
In September 1989, Cooper gave a nearly three-hour lecture in Sedona. And that was before he took questions from the audience.
In the crowd was Melody O’Ryin Swanson, who ran Light Technology Publishing. Swanson said in a phone interview that when she met Cooper, he mentioned the possibility of publishing a book.
Swanson said based on his engaging talk, and “at the time, his sincerity,” she agreed.
“Behold a Pale Horse” was published in 1991.
In the opening pages, Cooper wrote, “The ideas and conclusions expressed in this work are mine alone. It is possible that one or more conclusions may be wrong.” His aim, he wrote, was to provide information so readers begin their own “earnest search for the truth.”
Details of what Cooper claimed to have read in the classified documents, including the secret alien outreach that Cooper asserted started with the Eisenhower administration, were sprinkled throughout the book.
Cooper wrote that he knew the government had dossiers on “patriots” who would likely resist the formation of a totalitarian police state under global command. Cooper said the plan would be to round up all patriots when it would cause as little stir as possible. One of those likely times, he wrote, is Thanksgiving, when people would be home, full of food and drink, and sleepy.
He gave his readers a warning: “My recommendation is that no Patriot should ever be at home or at the home of any family member on any holiday again…” The sentence was written in all capital letters.
Less than half the text in “Pale Horse” are Cooper’s words, with the balance being reproductions of documents, in varying typefaces.
One was an anti-Semitic text called the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” The document, a work of fiction, purports to outline a secret plan by Jews to take over the world.
Though, Cooper told readers to mentally edit out the anti-Semitism, saying it was written that way to “deceive people.” He suggested the reader replace “Jews” with “Illuminati” and “goyim” — the term for non-Jews — with “cattle.”
The book’s publisher, Swanson, said she has deleted that chapter in the most recent edition.
Cooper’s book sold slowly at first, Swanson said. But in the years since, it has sold steadily, despite her never putting marketing money behind it. Swanson said she prints a few thousand copies a year to meet demand.
“I have no idea why it’s done so well,” she said.
The book first found an audience among UFO aficionados.
An 11-year-old named Jared Yates Sexton read chunks of it sitting in the aisle of a paranormal bookstore in Indiana. It would stick with him years later as he became a professor researching the popularity of President Donald Trump.
Sexton said the book came across as authoritative, at least back then.
“I thought I had found something,” he said.
Years later, while researching his recently released book, “American Rule,” he found the conspiracies espoused by Cooper hit at something deep in the human condition. Such unifying theories, he said, date back to ancient Rome.
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How William Cooper influenced the Patriot Movement
William Cooper was the long time host of the radio show “The Hour of the Time,” which he broadcast. He died in a shootout with law enforcement in 2001.
The music was fairly popular in Eagar, a town with traffic lights at only one intersection and only a handful of broadcast options. The shortwave show, not so much, said Nolan Udall, who met Cooper when he was hired as a handyman to patch his roof and fix his water heater. Udall later became a devotee.
Udall said he once heard a highway patrolman tuned to the show in his car. But such incidents were rare. Most folks thought Cooper was “the weird guy on the hill,” Udall said.
Cooper’s show opened with the sound of an air raid siren. That was followed, at least in the mid-’90s, by the sounds of barking dogs, marching soldiers and people screaming in anguish.
Once the show started, Cooper came across calm and authoritative. He was a natural behind the microphone, said his biographer Jacobson, who listened to hours of archived shows. “Bill Cooper found his medium in radio,” Jacobson said.
Among fans of Cooper’s shortwave show was a man from Kingman named Timothy McVeigh. According to the FBI, McVeigh owned a videotape about the botched federal raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, called, “Waco, The Big Lie,” that Cooper had promoted. An agent noted that McVeigh’s copy had a Show Low, Arizona, address on it, indicating McVeigh ordered it from Cooper.
McVeigh received the death penalty for the April 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.
As part of the investigation into the bombing, an FBI agent visited Cooper in September 1996. Cooper told the agent that he couldn’t be sure if he had ever talked to McVeigh as he received so many phone calls.
Though he told the agent a tale of two mysterious men, one of whom looked like McVeigh but taller, who visited him several months before the bombing. They told him to watch out for something in Oklahoma City, Cooper said.
Cooper also told the agent, without prompting, that he figured he was the subject of a federal grand jury inquiry because he hadn’t paid his taxes. He said he was willing to fight and die, if needed, “for matters that really count in this country.”
In June 1998, Cooper and his wife were indicted on three counts of attempted tax evasion.
A U.S. marshal attempted to serve Cooper with an order to appear in court. But Cooper chased him off his property, claiming he had no jurisdiction.
Cooper posted a lengthy essay on his website describing how he was under siege by the government. An FBI memo said Cooper “appeared to be relishing the role he has created for himself in defying the IRS and the federal government.”
FBI documents show agents monitored Cooper, including with surveillance cameras. But agents decided to not engage with him, fearing a violent clash, the documents show.
The strategy was instead to let him “stew in his own juice,” one agent wrote in a report.
That effectively placed Cooper under informal house arrest, acquaintances told the FBI. He feared leaving his house lest he be taken into custody.
One friend, whose name was redacted from an FBI report, told an agent he feared that Cooper felt inadequate and sought “to become a martyr so that if he is killed he will end up being somebody important.”
Among Cooper’s friends was Glenn Jacobs, publisher of a weekly newspaper called Round Valley Paper, filled with columns written under pseudonyms to make political points about national events.
Jacobs, in an August interview at his Eagar home, said he and Cooper were kindred spirits hoping to use their respective mediums to educate people about the need to defend the U.S. Constitution.
Jacobs said his worldview wasn’t as dire as Cooper’s. While Jacobs saw dots of conspiracy, he didn’t connect them the way Cooper did.
“He was a voice crying out in the wilderness,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs also said his friend, who favored Chivas Regal, drank heavily, a habit that worsened over the years. Jacobs said Cooper had “crawled into the bottle and pulled the bottle in after him.”
Jacobs and his wife were regular visitors at Cooper’s home. Typically, Jacobs said, Cooper’s children would greet them in the driveway. But one day, Cooper opened the door shirtless, which was uncharacteristic. He also had a large bandage on his side, which Cooper attributed to a gardening accident.
No one else was home. Cooper told Jacobs that he had moved his wife and children to a place where no one could harm them. Jacobs said something seemed off.
After leaving the house, he notified authorities that he suspected his friend might have killed his family.
Cooper hadn’t. Instead, according to the FBI files, his wife had left him and, with their daughters, moved to California.
She spoke with federal agents, according to FBI reports, beginning in the summer of 1999, giving them details of her husband’s daily routine and financial activities. The government dropped its case against her in March 2000.
Cooper, however, was telling his radio audience he had moved his wife and children out of the country for their safety.
He also told them of his newspaper publisher friend Jacobs and the accusation he had made. He called Jacobs a Judas, after the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ by handing him over to authorities. The two men never spoke again.
Cooper’s relationships with his siblings were also fractured, according to heavily redacted FBI reports. In interviews with agents, relatives said they would try to visit with Cooper around holidays out of a sense of obligation, but that his drinking and belligerence made for unpleasant encounters, especially if they challenged his beliefs.
One relative said the motorcycle accident that resulted in Cooper losing his leg was not caused by his being chased by CIA agents, as Cooper often claimed, but was just a regular accident.
Cooper’s widow, Annie, and his oldest daughter could not be reached for comment by The Republic. His younger daughter, in an email, declined an interview.
Cooper’s twin siblings both declined interview requests. In an email, Cooper’s sister said she wanted her brother to rest in peace.
Cooper’s radio show became increasingly filled with solicitations for cash, according to reports in FBI files. Cooper told his audience that he would have to stop broadcasting if they didn’t send more money.
Cooper, cantankerous by nature, picked fights with other conspiracy and UFO experts and broadcasters.
Someone who landed on Cooper’s bad side earned his wrath and was usually excoriated over-the-air.
One former acquaintance, whose name was redacted in the FBI files, said he fantasized about using Cooper’s wooden leg to deliver a beating to him.
Among Cooper’s targets was Alex Jones, then on a Texas radio station and public access television show. In his gravelly voice, Jones traded in conspiracies, but Cooper saw him making up his theories out of whole cloth, unlike Cooper’s well-researched tirades.
Cooper was particularly troubled by Jones’ New Year’s Eve broadcast in 1999 during which the host chronicled an apocalypse triggered by the flipping of the calendar to the year 2000. Jones was “completely out of his mind,” and “panicked millions of people,” Cooper said in a broadcast archived on YouTube.
In a 2001 broadcast, Cooper said he had heard that Jones had denounced him as foul-mouthed and incoherent. Cooper went on the attack, saying Jones was a fraud.
Cooper said he hoped his audience would tell Jones what he said. “Though I suspect he’s listening, because he does,” Cooper said during the broadcast. “Alex Jones, you are a bold-faced, stinking, rotten, little coward liar.”
In June 2001, Cooper would make a prediction that would earn him the legacy as the man who predicted the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Cooper pulled on historical threads of tragic events and tied them to what he saw as the government and media colluding to make a boogeyman out of Osama bin Laden. Cooper predicted an awful event would soon occur in the United States and that the country’s leaders would blame it on bin Laden.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the day his prophecy was realized, Cooper stayed on air for 10 hours. According to audio archived on the Cooper tribute website, BeholdAMessenger, in the initial hours after the attack, Cooper theorized the towers of the World Trade Center came down by controlled demolition.
That theory would become the center of future conspiracies suggesting the 9/11 terrorism attacks were an inside job by the U.S. government.
Cooper’s hilltop home in Eagar gave him a view of who was driving up his street. And, too often for Cooper’s taste, it was teenagers or couples looking to take in the view.
Cooper made a habit of chasing away people from what he considered to be his street. He became increasingly convinced, according to police reports archived on BeholdAMessenger, that the visitors were federal agents looking to arrest him.
In March 2001, Cooper wrote an email to a friend predicting government agents would come for him soon. He said that meant his time was growing short.
“I will defend myself when they come and try to kill as many as I can before they kill me,” Cooper wrote in the email archived on the tribute website. “You can all count on me to set an example for future confrontations with tyranny.”
Cooper had once shown his friend Jacobs the view he had from his two-story house. If federal authorities were to drive up the street leading to his house, Cooper told Jacobs, he had the perfect perch to “snipe” them through the roofs of their vehicles.
In July 2001, a doctor, Scott Hamblin, who had grown up in Eagar and had recently moved back, wanted to show his wife and daughters the spot where, as a kid, he would watch storms roll in. The family parked on what Hamblin knew as Rodeo Hill with ice cream cones and watched the approaching clouds.
Hamblin saw a truck roll up the street. Hamblin had never met Cooper, but knew the reputation of the man who lived in the house on the hill. As the vehicle approached, Hamblin said, he told his family it was best they drive away.
Cooper followed the car two miles down the hill, into town and to the family’s driveway. Hamblin said he scrambled to get his family inside and then approached Cooper’s truck.
Cooper, Hamblin said, jabbed his finger at Hamblin’s chest and, using some choice words, told him to stay off of his hill. He also accused Hamblin of surveilling him. Hamblin said he grabbed Cooper’s hand and pushed it away. He also told Cooper he didn’t know who he was.
Cooper then pointed a gun at Hamblin’s head and told him he should find out who he was. And again, to stay away from the hill.
Hamblin called Eagar police. But, Hamblin said, it seemed like the department was reluctant to take action. Hamblin then told a high school friend who worked for the Apache County Sheriff’s Office about the confrontation. That agency, he said, decided to investigate.
The Sheriff’s Office issued a warrant for Cooper’s arrest on suspicion of aggravated assault — then started planning how best to serve the warrant on a man they assumed was loaded for bear.
In November 2001, the plan was set. Deputies would attempt a ruse to draw out Cooper. Around midnight, deputies in plainclothes drove up the hill, parked and blasted loud music, acting as if they were partying teens. Cooper came out to chase them away, but never got out of his vehicle as deputies had expected.
The attempted arrest went south.
Deputies converged on Cooper as he tried to drive back to his house. A tactical van that was supposed to block the street never got into position, according to a police report, and Cooper drove around it.
Cooper parked his truck in his driveway as deputies gave chase on foot. Cooper got out of his truck and had nearly made it to his front door when he turned and started firing. One shot struck a deputy, Robert Marinez, in the head, leaving him gravely wounded.
Another deputy, Joseph Goldsmith, returned fire, shooting at Cooper nine times, emptying his gun. Cooper took fatal hits to his heart and head.
Cooper’s funeral was sparsely attended, said Hayakawa, who traveled to Eagar for the service. He recalled a contingent of federal agents out front.
FBI records show that agents worried the memorial service would attract militia members from around the country. But that didn’t materialize.
Jacobs said he was sympathetic toward the deputies who took part in the botched arrest. He knew most of them and said Cooper likely knew them, too.
Jacobs said he didn’t think the deputies intended to kill Cooper. They just wanted to charge him and set a court date.
In the days following Cooper’s death, Jacobs was asked to appear on the Alex Jones radio show. Jones kept hammering away on the idea that Cooper was ordered killed by federal authorities, Jacobs said.
Jacobs told him that wasn’t the case. “I don’t know if there was a federal agent in the county,” he said.
Still, Jones kept telling his listeners that Cooper could not have possibly been killed over a purely local matter, Jacobs said. Federal fingerprints were all over this. Jacobs, unable to get a word in edgewise, said he eventually hung up.
Cooper’s death at the hands of police brought more credibility to his message, said Sexton, the author. “That spoke to people,” Sexton said. “He believes. He wasn’t just putting these things out there, but lived the life.”
Sexton said he sees Cooper’s ideas bubbling up in the Patriot wing of the Republican Party. He heard them from people he interviewed at Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign.
“The narrative of ‘Behold a Pale Horse’ has infected America’s right wing in totality,” he said. “But where its head has bobbed out of the surface is in the QAnon movement.”
Jacobson, the author of Cooper’s biography, said after his book was off to press in early 2018, he happened to check how Cooper’s book was selling. He said it was among the top sellers on Amazon at the time, even beating Michael Wolff’s just-released insider exposé on the Trump administration.
The reason: The mysterious Q had sent a message endorsing someone who mentioned “Behold a Pale Horse.”
The book was still listed this year as the top-ranked book on Amazon in the UFO and astrophysics categories.
Jacobson said that were Cooper alive in 2020, he would not be a fan of Trump. Nor would he want to be fawned over.
“He’s such a contrarian,” Jacobson said. “As soon as he became a god, he probably would have disappeared.”
For a while, Cooper’s radio show soldiered on without him, hosted by a man named Doyel Shamley, an avid listener who in 1998 had moved from California to Eagar, living in Cooper’s home and becoming his right-hand man.
Shamley moved into politics, winning election in 2016 as an Apache County supervisor. He resigned the position in 2018 to make a run for Congress, but dropped out of the race before the August primary.
Shamley did not return a message seeking an interview.
Cooper’s house in Eagar was gutted and remodeled after a Litchfield Park man bought it as a retirement home.
Christopher Compton said he didn’t know about Cooper when he bought the house. He’s since gotten up to speed, with everyone in Eagar telling him of their personal interactions with Cooper.
About once or twice a year, someone wants to see the view from the home. Compton doesn’t have much to offer gawkers in the way of stories, but he doesn’t chase them away.
When Compton first drove up to the house after buying it, he noticed a big trash bin in the driveway. It was filled to the brim with papers, he said.
But being on top of a hill, there was nothing to stop the winds. Compton said the papers caught the breeze and fluttered across the hillside.