Sunday, June 16, 2024

‘Flying syringes’ and conspiracies: The far-right battle for a mosquito control board

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As soon as Jon Knight applied for a seat on the Shasta Mosquito and Vector Control District board, the conspiracy theories started flying.

Knight, who owns a hydroponic gardening supply store in Redding, spoke darkly about his suspicion that Bill Gates had helped unleash genetically modified mosquitoes in California. And he warned about “flying syringes that will mass vaccinate the population.”

Knight was considered along with Donnell Ewert, a retired epidemiologist who once was the Northern California county’s public health director.

The Shasta County Board of Supervisors chose Knight — a right-wing political activist who was pictured outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, holding what appeared to be a white power symbol.

Shasta County supervisors

Shasta County Supervisors Tim Garman, left, Patrick Jones and Mary Rickert at a board meeting in Redding.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“Do you know how that makes us look as a county? It makes us look like idiots. Outright idiots,” said Supervisor Mary Rickert after voting against Knight’s appointment last week.

There are parts of California that have doubled down on their political conservatism in the face of the state’s largely Democratic bent — and then there is Shasta County.

Home to 182,000 people, the mostly rural county has long been governed by mainstream Republicans such as Rickert, a cattle rancher.

But there is a bitter divide in Shasta County between traditional conservatives and the far right, akin to Washington, D.C., where ultraconservatives led the revolt that just ousted California Republican Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House.

Hard-right politicians — supported by members of a local militia, State of Jefferson secessionists and residents furious about coronavirus pandemic restrictions — hold a majority on the powerful Shasta County Board of Supervisors.

Earlier this year, the board voted to dump the county’s Dominion voting machines, citing discredited allegations of voter fraud pushed by President Trump, and moved to hand-count ballots for its more than 110,000 registered voters. The decision prompted new legislation — signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday and set to take effect immediately — that limits the ability of local governments to hand-count ballots.

Last year, the Board of Supervisors fired Karen Ramstrom, the county’s public health officer, for following state laws requiring masks and vaccinations during the pandemic.

The appointment of Knight to the vector control board is just the latest example of what many exasperated residents describe as Shasta County’s descent into a political sideshow.

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According to Knight, “everything is political in Shasta.”

“I can’t believe you’re calling me,” he told a Times reporter when reached at his Redding business this week. The vector control job is “a simple little voluntary position that turned into a political mess, which is insane.”

He added that he is “highly qualified for the position” and that he is a “junkie with information. I wake up at 4 in the morning, and I do hours of research.”

Knight’s appointment comes amid a boom in the mosquito population after California’s record-breaking rainfall this year. The bloodsuckers pose a serious health threat in Shasta County, where record levels of West Nile virus are being detected.

So far in 2023, West Nile virus has been found in 152 mosquito samples in Shasta County — more than three times the previous all-time high of 48 found in 2015, according to the vector control district.

Three human cases of the virus have been reported in the county this year.

And the mosquito-borne St. Louis encephalitis virus recently was detected for the first time since 1972, which “was shocking, quite frankly,” said Peter Bonkrude, manager of the Shasta Mosquito and Vector Control District.

Critics say Knight’s appointment to that district’s board of trustees — a group of five volunteers selected by each incorporated city and the county at large — shows an alarming disregard for science and public health.

That Ewert, the other applicant, actually studied mosquito-borne illnesses did not matter to the conservative supervisors.

“Just because people have a piece of paper on a wall doesn’t automatically give them this great insight,” said Supervisor Kevin Crye, who voted for Knight.

Crye added that he was “diametrically opposed to some of the stuff, healthwise, that Donnell Ewert stood for in response of COVID” when he was director of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.

Ewert, who retired last year after 23 years working for the county, told the Times that “it’s sad our county is not being governed now by a majority that believe in mainstream science.”

He noted that during the pandemic Shasta County had a lower vaccination rate and higher death rate from COVID-19 than the state as a whole.

“That anti-science perspective resulted in a lot of people losing their lives,” Ewert said. “They believed they would be at a higher risk getting vaccinated than getting the virus. I think that’s a shame, a tragedy, and, quite frankly, an outrage.”

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Appointments to the vector control board typically get little notice.

This summer, a spot came open when one of the trustees, Benjamin Hanna, a longtime prosecutor, resigned after Newsom appointed him as a Shasta County Superior Court judge.

Initially, Ewert was the only person to apply. The supervisors last month rejected his application on a 3-2 vote.

Patrick Jones, a gun store manager and chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said during a meeting last month that he did not like how Ewert handled pandemic-era homelessness programs and he would not “not support him on this board or any other board.”

A man behind a counter holds a rifle up for a prospective customer.

Shasta County Supervisor Patrick Jones, 52, right, of Redding, helps a customer with the purchase of a 30-06 CZ hunting rifle at his business, Jones’ Fort gun shop, in 2021.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

During the next meeting, Jones recommended the board approve Knight.

Jones did not respond to requests for comment.

Knight was an executive producer of the slickly filmed “Red White and Blueprint,” a documentary series marketed as the real-life journey of Shasta County patriots trying to take back control of their local government.

Jones, sometimes on horseback, appears repeatedly in the series and related podcasts alongside militia leaders, secessionists, and Knight.

With Jones’ support, the same hard-right coalition last year led the successful push to recall Supervisor Leonard Moty, a Republican former police chief, in large part because he enforced state-mandated coronavirus restrictions.

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During public comments in the supervisors’ meeting Sept. 26, Knight displayed a photograph of himself in the crowd outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In it, he wears a camouflage coat and, with his left hand, holds up the “OK” sign with his thumb and index finger touching and his other fingers outstretched, forming a “W.”

The Anti-Defamation League has labeled it a hate symbol, saying the typically innocuous hand gesture has been co-opted by white supremacists.

Knight told the supervisors that political adversaries had posted a cropped version of the photo, which shows just him, all over the internet, calling him racist.

Knight showed the rest of the photo, unveiling it like a piece of conclusive evidence that proves he is not racist: He is pictured with a Black man holding up the same symbol. [Knight told The Times he met the man that day and does not remember his name.]

“I have a more diverse group of friends than almost anybody,” Knight told the supervisors. “I have friends who are Black. I’m friends with Mien [an ethnic minority group from China and Southeast Asia], Hmong, Lao. I have friends from all over Europe, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Russia.”

Later in that meeting, Knight, who has warned about “weaponized bugs,” spoke ominously about the threats posed by “Bill Gates programs” and claimed, erroneously, that the British biotech company Oxitec had released genetically-modified mosquitoes in several California counties.

Oxitec does breed and release genetically-modified mosquitoes meant to combat invasive Aedes aegypti mosquitos, whose females can spread diseases such as yellow fever. According to the company’s plans, female offspring produced by the modified insects die, causing the population to collapse.

Kevin Gorman, the chief development officer for Oxitec, told the Times that the only place in the U.S. where it has released its mosquitoes is the Florida Keys, where, with government approval, it launched the insects for the last three years to fight Zika.

None, he said, have been released in California.

In a statement, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said that while it supports Oxitec’s anti-malaria work abroad, it “does not fund any work involving mosquito release in the United States.”

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The supervisors voted 3 to 2 to add Knight to the vector control board.

Knight said he recently got West Nile virus and was more sick than he ever had been.

“It ain’t no joke,” he told The Times, saying that, ever since, he urges his family to come indoors in the evenings when mosquitoes come out.

But he said he opposes widespread spraying of chemicals for mosquito abatement.

“I’m a totally organic guy,” Knight said during the supervisor’s meeting. “I was raised growing all my own food, raising my own livestock. My kids were born at home. I don’t believe in vaccines. And you can call me a conspiracy theorist, but I do not want to damage the environment.”

At one point, Knight scanned the crowd and said: “I don’t know if anybody else in the room has been selling pesticides for 18 years. Has anybody else been doing that? No? … I’ve been selling pesticides for 18 years.”

The next day, a county inspector showed up at his business, Northern Roots, to review his products, he said.

Shasta County agricultural commissioner Rick Gurrola told the Times that, based on Knight’s statements during the supervisor’s meeting, the county opened an investigation into his business and whether it has proper licenses to sell certain pesticides.

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Anita Brady, a retired high-school biology teacher, said Knight’s appointment to the vector control board terrifies her.

“The fact that he’s been swayed by these conspiracy theories, evidently for years, doesn’t give me much hope for what’s going to happen with this board,” she said.

Brady, who lives a few miles east of Redding, said she just wants the mosquito threat to be taken seriously — with a science-based approach.

In August, one of Brady’s neighbors contracted West Nile virus from a mosquito bite and was paralyzed by the disease. After weeks in the hospital, Brady said, he recently returned home in a wheelchair, unable to walk.

Brady said she recently saw a county worker driving down her road, fogging for mosquitoes.

“Normally, I’d be a little concerned because I don’t want chemicals,” she said. “I’m a retired biology teacher. I’m sensitive to that stuff. But, boy, we were rooting him on.”

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