For the past several weeks, dozens of QAnon conspiracy theorists have gathered at Dealey Plaza in Dallas in the belief they’d witness the return of John F. Kennedy Jr., who would reinstate Donald Trump as president.
The man leading them — Michael Protzman — is a longtime demolition contractor from Federal Way, who, according to court records and interviews, slipped down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories in recent years and is now leading what one QAnon expert described as a cult that may be taking a sinister turn.
Protzman, 58, has accumulated nearly 100,000 social-media followers on his Telegram channel, where he goes by “Negative48,” rapidly becoming a top QAnon influencer. His channel features a stream of QAnon-created and other conspiracies, including pro-Trump memes, vaccine falsehoods and antisemitic content.
In Dallas, his group’s antics — near the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 — have attracted national news attention and social-media fascination. Protzman has been seen wearing a tinfoil hat at times and giving bizarre speeches in which he recites strings of numbers, translating words into numeric values that he claims predict the future or reveal hidden knowledge.
“Yes I am QAnon King 174…Yes I am coming home 174. Yes John Kennedy 174. Yes I am Jesus Christ 174. Yes John Kennedy 174!” he shouted to rapt followers in Dallas during a rant in early November, posted on YouTube. One man listening appeared to pass out during the speech.
(The simple code used by Protzman, known as Gematria, assigns a number to each letter in the alphabet, so A=1 and Z=26. The numbers in each phrase add up to 174.)
Protzman’s emergence as a QAnon leader came as a shock to one relative, Michael Appia, of Spokane, when he stumbled across a news account last week.
“I am looking online at this QAnon deal, and I start reading the article and I go ‘Oh my God, that’s my brother-in-law!’ Appia said in an interview. “I look at this and I start crying. This is my sister’s husband. I was going, ‘Oh, my poor sister.'”
It’s not clear how long Protzman has been in Texas. He did not respond to messages sent through Telegram seeking an interview. When approached by a Dallas Morning News reporter, he cursed and refused to talk, the newspaper reported last week.
Back home in Washington, he is separated from his wife, who called police July 31, 2019, to report he’d pinned her down on a bed in their Federal Way home, according to court records.
Protzman’s wife had filed for divorce the previous month, and the couple got into an altercation during which he held her down and said “if he couldn’t have her, no one could,” a Federal Way police officer wrote in charging papers.
Protzman physically stopped his wife from leaving until she agreed to marriage counseling, she told police, describing Protzman as in a “blind rage.” She walked barefoot to a neighbor’s home to call 911.
“For the past two weeks, Michael has been acting differently, not showering or working, and believing in government conspiracies,” Protzman’s wife told police, according to a probable-cause statement.
When approached by police outside the house, Protzman told officers they didn’t have authority over him and struggled with them, “attempting to physically overpower the officers.” He was taken into custody and charged in August 2019 with one count of domestic violence-related unlawful imprisonment.
The case dragged on for more than a year amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the charge was dismissed this June “upon discussion with the victim,” records show. (The Seattle Times does not name victims without permission, and Protzman’s wife did not respond to messages seeking an interview.)
State business records show Protzman and his wife started a business, Eclipse Demolition, in 2007. It was administratively dissolved last year by the state after failing to maintain its registration.
Appia said his sister and Protzman have been separated for years, though their divorce is not final. The couple have an adult son and daughter.
He recalls that Protzman used to listen to conservative radio shows while driving for work. “He got caught up in the culture. He traveled a lot through Washington listening to bloody radio stations and talking about the conspiracies,” Appia said.
Appia recalled a time several years ago when Protzman launched into a theory involving Queen Elizabeth II of England — “a whole conspiracy about money and the Queen, and who controls economics.”
Last week, a man who lives near the house Protzman and his wife bought in 1995 described his ex-neighbor as behaving strangely a few years ago, telling anyone who’d listen his theories about the financial system.
“He went all around the neighborhood. His big thing was silver. He was all into going on the internet and buying silver. He said you have got to buy silver,” said the man, who asked not to be named because of privacy concerns.
The man said Protzman called him “brainwashed” after he told Protzman he was fine with leaving his money in traditional retirement accounts.
Even for the fringe QAnon belief system — which revolves around the idea that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles, and that Trump has a secret plan to take them down and imprison or execute his enemies — Protzman’s group in Dallas has proven outlandish.
He initially claimed JFK Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999, would return Nov. 2, but moved the goalposts when that didn’t happen, according to Vice News, which has reported extensively on Protzman and his followers.
Dozens of people have joined Protzman in Dallas, some of them flying across the country, leaving behind worried friends and family. Some members of the group have been soliciting money — leading to concerns about exploitation, according to news accounts.
Katy Garner, a woman who spoke to Vice News, said her sister had given about $200,000 to the group and was being forced to drink a hydrogen peroxide solution to ward off COVID-19.
“She left her children for this and doesn’t even care. She is missing birthdays and holidays for this. She truly believes this is all real and we are the crazy ones for trying to get her to come home. But she won’t,” Garner told Vice. “I don’t believe she will ever come back from this. We are in mourning.”
The behavior of Protzman and his followers has led to growing concern among some who closely track QAnon and other far-right extremists.
“The thing that worries me is you have a small, very cultic group of people who are waiting for this great event to happen and they are being manipulated by this leader who is controlling their actions,” said Mike Rothschild, the author of “The Storm is Upon Us,” a book about the QAnon conspiracy movement.
Still, Rothschild noted, the group so far doesn’t appear to be committing any crimes.
Despite studying QAnon for years, Rothschild said he and other researchers he’s in touch with had not been familiar with Protzman until his Dallas emergence.
“Nobody knows who this guy was; we never heard of him,” Rothschild said. He didn’t realize how quickly Protzman had gained followers until he checked out his Negative48 Telegram channel.
Protzman created the channel March 13, declaring he would show “how Trump is talking in code and what the code is.” Since then, he has created thousands of additional posts.
That first Telegram post came one day after a foreclosure action was filed in King County Superior Court on the home he still co-owns with his wife, court records show.
With the couple $47,594 in arrears on the property, the house is due to be sold at auction in February.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.