WELCOME, Md. — The complaints about the property on Fire Tower Road were urgent but not too far out of the ordinary in this rural stretch of Southern Maryland: Earsplitting gunfire, endangered cows, a stray bullet that pierced a neighbor’s equipment shed.
But that was before the would-be heirs to a mythical North African empire moved in, claiming their dominion extends not only over the lost island of Atlantis but also over five acres in Charles County.
The episode began when gun enthusiasts started getting together on Sundays for target practice at the wooded property of 64-year-old Byron Bell.
As the gatherings grew bigger, along with the caliber of weapons and the number of rounds discharged, they drew the ire of neighbors even in this sparsely populated and gun-friendly area.
Yet it was after county officials took action, deeming the site an unlawful firing range and filing an injunction to stop it from operating in September, that events took several unexpected turns.
That was when a group calling itself Moorish Americans — an offshoot of the extremist “sovereign citizen” movement whose members believe they are immune from dealings with U.S. legal and financial systems — essentially took over the range, declaring it “protected under the consular jurisdiction of Morocco.”
There followed arrests, flurries of spurious legal documents and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, all to the accompaniment of what neighbors describe as an ongoing din of gunfire on weekends. Things escalated last week when sheriff’s deputies raided the property, seizing what Bell said were about a dozen firearms.
The saga in Welcome, an agglomeration of tumbledown farmhouses and newly built homes roped together by winding country roads, highlights several enduring American loves: Guns, conspiracy theories, property rights and fruitless litigation.
William Tomlinson, who owns a farm that backs up to Bell’s property, said decisive action by law enforcement was long overdue. Tomlinson said many rounds zipped through the air on his property, chewing up a stand of timber trees and forcing him to move his small herd of cattle to a pasture where they aren’t at risk of stopping a stray bullet.
Tomlinson, who owns guns himself, said he sometimes has friends over for target practice. But it’s not comparable to what goes on at Bell’s place, he said.
“We’re not over here with fully automatic weapons, 40-round clips, shooting thousands of rounds,” Tomlinson said. “It’s a completely different situation. I would use the term reckless endangerment.”
Bell, who moved into his home in 2019 and bought it earlier this year, said he believes he and his friends were unfairly singled out.
“Everybody shoots around here. So why you going to have me stop shooting?” Bell said. “I thought it was about these people telling me what to do with my land.”
Yet even Bell, speaking to a Washington Post reporter in his home hours after he had sat there in handcuffs while sheriff’s deputies searched the premises, acknowledged that things had gone too far.
“It just went overboard,” he said.
‘I don’t want them shot’
Bell began hosting shooting days on his land in 2021. The events were organized by Mark “Choppa” Manley, a social media influencer and former D.C. security guard who promoted the site as home to the “Choppa Community” — an incubator of firearms education and ownership for African Americans.
On Sundays, amid the aroma of grilling burgers, kids would take classes in basic gun safety with plastic pistols while the grown-ups lined up for target practice with 9mm handguns and AR-style rifles. Manley catered in particular to Black residents of the District and Prince George’s County who were seeking to arm themselves for protection amid spikes in violent crime. Visitors were not charged, although ammunition was sold, as well as classes for concealed-carry licenses.
“It was like a family day,” Manley said.
Yet some of Bell’s neighbors didn’t share that view. Disturbed by the noise and risk of errant gunfire, nearly 40 of them supported a petition demanding that the range be shut down, the Southern Maryland News reported. Tomlinson, in particular, said he feared for his safety, since his farm sits downrange from a backstop for bullets on Bell’s property that he called “totally ineffective.”
“I have moved my animals to the other side of the farm,” he said. “I don’t want them shot.”
Tomlinson said he first brought his complaints to the county about a year ago. But it was not until September — in anticipation of an especially large crowd for Manley’s birthday on Sept. 11 — that government officials took decisive action. On Sept. 9 the county attorney’s office filed an emergency petition for an injunction against shooting on the property.
In an attached affidavit, the county’s planning supervisor said regulations prohibited the gun range unless it was granted a special exception to operate in an area zoned for agricultural conservation. No application for such an exception had ever been filed, she said.
The county attorney’s office declined to discuss the case with The Post. Charles County spokeswoman Jennifer Harris said in a statement that officials’ “top concern is for the health, safety, and welfare of the community. We achieve that through the enforcement of regulations that must be followed by property owners.”
Judge Karen Abrams granted the order, stating that the shooting happening at the range was illegal and that a failure to enforce the zoning laws “encourages citizens to ignore the very regulations that are implemented to protect them and others.”
Manley cleared out and started looking for a new site in Virginia. “I could tell Charles County wasn’t going to let up,” he said.
Yet around the same time, county officials came up against a new challenge. It was heralded by the filing of perplexing documents — adorned with symbols including the star and crescent and the pyramid-tip “Eye of Providence” that appears on the back of the dollar bill — asserting that the dispute over Bell’s land was subject to the terms of an 1836 treaty between the United States and Morocco.
‘Moorish American national’ charged with trying to take mansion
Among those documents was a “writ of error” signed by a man identifying himself as Lamont Maurice El and claiming that he was the consul general of the “Morocco Consular Court at the Maryland state republic.”
The consul, whose real name is Lamont Maurice Butler, had some experience with Maryland’s judicial system. In 2013, he was convicted on multiple charges stemming from his attempt to occupy a 12-bedroom Bethesda mansion. The ideology that had fueled that escapade was the same he later brought to bear in the legal wrangling over the property on Fire Tower Road.
The ‘Moroccan Empire’
Moorish Americans, also known as Moorish sovereign citizens, believe themselves to be the inheritors of a fictitious empire that they say stretched from the present-day kingdom of Morocco to North America, with Mexico and Atlantis thrown in for good measure. They claim the same protections from U.S. legal proceedings that are granted to foreign citizens, while simultaneously asserting their rights to take over properties — often well-appointed homes owned by other people — that they say are still part of the “Moroccan Empire.”
Bell declared his Moorish American citizenship in September, according to court documents. He told The Post that he was still struggling to understand much of the group’s doctrine but that he found it “very educational.”
Among the things he had learned, he said, was that he should consider himself exempt from the county’s legal actions — in part because government officials did not refer to him in court documents by the Moorish variant of his name, Byron David Bell-Bey.
“They weren’t really talking to me,” he said.
Butler, who had attended the weekend shooting gatherings when they were overseen by Manley, joined with other Moorish Americans to reopen the range, charging $25 a head and promising that “security will be in full force for everyone’s safety and protection” under Moroccan consular jurisdiction.
The group of Moorish Americans to which Butler belongs did not respond to requests for comment by email and through their website. Officials at the genuine Moroccan Embassy in Washington also did not respond to a request for comment.
On Nov. 13, Butler and another Moorish American, George Neal-Bey, tried to intervene when Charles County sheriff’s deputies pulled over a third member of the group. In a video that the Moorish Americans later posted online, Butler — wearing a camouflage uniform, dark headscarf and a pistol on his hip — can be seen approaching the deputies on the side of the road. Four of them then abruptly wrestle him to the ground while a fifth stands by with his gun drawn.
Butler and Neal-Bey were arrested and later indicted on various gun-related charges. Butler was also charged with resisting arrest. A judge ordered them held without bail. A hearing in their case is scheduled for Dec. 30 in Charles County Circuit Court.
Their case files have begun to thicken with documents bearing esoteric symbols. On Dec. 7, Butler filed a handwritten affidavit demanding acknowledgment of his treaty rights.
Bell, who until recently ignored the court order to close the range and has not appeared for court hearings, is now facing a $350,000 sanction for contempt of court. (Under the terms set by the judge, Abrams, $1,000 will be taken off the fine for every week that no shooting takes place on his property.) And just last week he learned that he could face further legal troubles.
On the morning of Dec. 21, Bell said, he and his wife, Chrystal, were awakened by a loud knocking, followed by the busting in of their door. A group of sheriff’s deputies then searched his home, he said, taking away his guns and a computer.
The warrant shared with Bell — which he showed to The Post — contains few details but indicates that the search was conducted as part of an investigation into possible possession of illegally owned or modified firearms, such as machine guns or short-barreled shotguns.
The sheriff’s office declined to comment.
Bell said the officers who searched his home were “very cordial.”
“They could have tore the house clean up,” he said. “But they didn’t.”
And though it took a while, the original problem on Fire Tower Road could now be resolved: Bell says there will be no more shooting on his property. As darkness filled the windows of his kitchen on a lonely plot of land nearly 4,000 miles from Morocco, he said he had gotten the point.
“You got to follow the rules,” Bell said.