Shawn Lawrence “was hit with a brick” when he learned his high-school best friend — who he’d carried tunes with in choir and spent countless hours having innocent fun with — has become gatekeeper of the internet’s gutter.
Lawrence, 34, laughs recounting memories of Ron Watkins at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, north of Seattle. They forged a tight bond as one-quarter of a barbershop octet in the school choir before graduating in 2005, capping what Lawrence described as an exceedingly wholesome childhood.
That’s why Lawrence said “the most shocking thing I’ve ever experienced” is learning that Watkins, 33, could possibly command Q-Anon, an empire of conspiracy-oriented right-wing radicals, as the recent HBO documentary, “Q: Into the Storm,” suggests.
“He was the last person I ever expected to go this route,” said Lawrence, who now lives in Seattle. “He wasn’t like that in high school. He never mentioned weird conspiracies.”
In the six-part HBO series that concluded April 4, documentary filmmaker Cullen Hoback suggested that Watkins posted communiqués online as “Q”, the anonymous online persona followed by millions who hang on its every word and strive to uncover greater meaning from them.
Watkins denied he’s Q, and instead suggests it is Steve Bannon, the right-wing media figure and one-time adviser to former President Donald Trump. Watkins did not respond to interview requests emailed to his father’s business.
But Hoback lays out compelling circumstantial evidence to the contrary, including Watkin’s slip of the tongue that could be interpreted to mean he’s posted online messages as Q.
However, this much is certain: Beginning in 2018 Watkins was administrator of Q-Anon’s online square, the message board on 8chan, the unbridled free-speech zone where cruelty and violence run wild.
The message board has been harshly criticized as a forum for extreme pornography and hate speech. It’s where perpetrators of racially motivated mass shootings in 2019 at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas, found audiences that cheered them on in real-time. Negative attention after the Christchurch killings compelled James Watkins, Ron’s father and owner of 8chan, to rename it 8kun.
Q-Anon splashed on the internet scene in 2017 with magnetic appeal among Trump supporters, accusing prominent Democrats and Hollywood stars of being a cabal of flesh-eating pedophiles, and reached a peak of more than 4 million followers in the summer of 2019.
Hard-core followers of the movement, some with the letter “Q” emblazoned on their shirts, were among the insurrectionists who carried out the Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol, hoping to prevent Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s election. Five people died in the mayhem.
Hoback spent hours with Ron Watkins, who lives in Japan, and Jim Watkins, an expat living in the Philippines. But Ron Watkins’ youth remains a mystery to Hoback, largely because Watkins scrubbed his online footprints predating his time as administrator of the Q board.
Several people who knew Ron Watkins in high school contacted Hoback and described him as an attention-seeker, citing his deep involvement with music and theater, including a prominent role in a production of “The Music Man.”
“[That] really helps support the case we make in the series, but contradicts some of his behavior in recent years: Wiping his digital trail, erasing his past, creating this impression of sort of benign a ghost,” Hoback said. “What I’m learning now is that kind of masks who he used to be a bit.”
Jim Watkins, 57, met Ron Watkins’ mother in her native country of South Korea when he was stationed there in the U.S. Army, Hoback said. The family moved around due to Jim Watkins’ military career, but found its longest-standing home in Mukilteo, public records showed.
As Ron Watkins, an only child, was entering his teen years, his parents divorced, according to public records. He lived primarily with his mother, Ton Sun Watkins. Lawrence recalls she would answer the door politely when he visited but generally stayed out of sight while the boys played video games, cracked jokes or watched TV.
Lawrence described his shared teenage experience with Ron Watkins as overwhelmingly wholesome. They never drank alcohol, used drugs or dated, Lawrence said.
“He wasn’t part of the debate team. He didn’t care about government or politics. He had no interest in changing the system at all,” said Lawrence. “He just wanted to scoot through very comfortably.”
Ron Watkins excelled in the barbershop octet, which spun off from the school choir, and his personality came out on the choir’s frequent overnight trips.
“He loved singing, and he was a goofy kid, which is why we got along so well,” said Lawrence. “We had a few scat battles in jazz choir that made the class clap.”
On one overnight stay with a host family, the entire choir found itself with little entertainment besides a stack of dated “Hogan’s Heroes” DVDs.
“He was hilarious. He was the life of the party. He was just so carefree,” Lawrence said. “I could truly call him a good friend.”
Hoback, during his reporting, got the impression that Jim Watkins was highly influential on Ron, particularly during his youth, and may have exposed him to some of the internet’s most extreme content beginning in his teens.
“I just knew his dad was very secretive. He had a really different relationship with his father that he didn’t speak about with anybody,” Lawrence said.
After high school, Ron Watkins moved to China and remained in contact with Lawrence for the next 12 years. Their last conversation — “very casual, very simple, very genuine,” Lawrence said — took place on Facebook Messenger in 2017. Soon afterward, Lawrence noticed Ron Watkins deleted his Facebook account.
In recent months, as news stories describe Ron and Jim Watkins’ role in amplifying conspiracy theories, Lawrence was gobsmacked.
“It was my sister who texted me months back when his name started to come out bigger …,” Lawrence said. “There’s goofy Ron Watkins, a really great friend of mine.”
Lawrence doesn’t share Ron Watkins’ far-right ideology, and could hardly believe his old friend was associated with such a movement. “He never said anything racist, nothing bigoted, nothing conspiratorial,” Lawrence said.
Q has been silent since Dec. 8, and disbelief rattled many Q-Anon users when Joe Biden was sworn in without the sweeping glut of high-profile arrests predicted on the 8chan site.
On Jan. 20, inauguration day, Ron Watkins posted a message on Telegram, a popular right-wing messaging platform, resigning as administrator of the 8kun message board with the following message:
“We have a new president sworn in and it is our responsibility as citizens to respect the Constitution. As we enter into the next administration please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years.”
Lawrence disowns his old friend. “What he’s done, what he’s perpetrated … I don’t want anything to do with him.”