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She spread election conspiracies. It ruined her life.
How one of Arizona's top Stop the Steal activists came to believe the real conspiracy is to promote the hoax of election fraud
Welcome to our afternoon emails, which will contain a couple of reported pieces each week, loosely based around a theme. This week’s theme is election disinformation.
Even if you’ve never heard of Staci Burk, you’re probably familiar with her work — a smorgasbord of 2020 election fraud claims, none of which proved anywhere near true.
But the backstory of how she came to believe, and now question, those conspiracies is weirder than the conspiracies themselves. And, unlike her claims of fraud, it actually seems to be true.
For reasons she still doesn’t quite understand, Burk, a 47-year-old former Gilbert school board member, aspiring lawyer and Republican activist, was plucked out of political obscurity and placed at the center of a national campaign to overturn Joe Biden’s presidential victory. For weeks, a heavily armed security team, sent by former President Donald Trump’s disgraced and pardoned former national security advisor Michael Flynn, lived at her house, allegedly protecting her while stoking her conspiracies and fears.
But nine months after the election, with no great revelation, no smoking gun pointing to the massive fraud the former president claimed, one of Arizona’s biggest Stop the Steal proponents is having second thoughts.
Burk was both a purveyor of election disinformation and a victim of it. And, like a solid chunk of the country, she’s trying to unravel truth from fiction and figure out how she fell down this rabbithole.
Her story of how she got tangled in (and is now trying to find her way out of) the web of lies that surround the 2020 election offers a window into how Trump’s campaign of disinformation came together, and how it’s slowly unraveling.
Those who held Burk up as a savior have abandoned her, taking her cell phone and some of her recordings and documents with them. They’re more interested in cashing in, she says, than proving fraud, if there was any.
Now she’s on the lam, hiding out from many of her former cohorts, afraid for her life, unsure who to trust and utterly confused about whether she was used as a pawn to spread a massive lie and undermine the 2020 presidential election. To try to help her make sense of the last nine months, she created an organizational flow chart of names, color-coded by how they all came into her life and how they relate to each other.
“There’s no way out of this without believing one conspiracy or another,” she said in a recent interview. “Because either all these guys coordinated to pull off a big grift, and it was for fundraising and for whatever they’re doing right now over at the circus (audit). Or there was actual election fraud.”
Why does that name sound familiar?
But let’s back up. If you have heard of Burk, it’s probably because she’s one of those names that keeps popping up in far-fetched stories about election fraud.
The bamboo ballot conspiracy that the national news and late-night comedy shows found irresistible sprouted out of her claim that a member of the Koch family admitted to unloading fake ballots from a South Korean airplane.
She unsuccessfully sued Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey with her “kraken 2.0” lawsuit — a nod to the failed “kraken” lawsuit brought by former Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell that made many of the same claims, including the notion that the Dominion software Maricopa County used to count ballots was designed to rig elections in Venezuela.
Burk was among the team of dumpster divers who filmed themselves finding allegedly shredded ballots at the Maricopa County Elections Department office.
When the media got ahold of a recorded phone call in which an unhinged Republican state Sen. Sonny Borrelli claimed someone might kill him and Burk for exposing election fraud, and that the Republican attorney general couldn’t be trusted, Burk was the one who sent the recording to the press.
At one point, Burk even tried to stop the Arizona Senate’s audit after deciding that it was a false flag operation designed to cover up the real fraud.
So when we stumbled upon a series of emails Burk sent to election officials and the Attorney General’s Office declaring she no longer believed many of the conspiracies she helped spread, and she thought she was “lied to and duped” by a network of people with “financial and ulterior motives as well as a specific plan and agenda,” we were… let’s go with dumbfounded.
“You wanna talk about what a fool I am?” she said when we called.
Fools love company
Burk isn’t alone. Since November, we’ve watched some of the most level-headed people we know devolve into spewing absolutely nonsensical bullshit about election fraud.
Take state Senate President Karen Fann, for example, a good ol’ gal from Prescott’s old boys Republican club if there ever was one. Fann has gone from claiming the audit is meant to quell unfounded fears about election fraud to tweeting cryptic QAnon style messages.
Some of it is feigned — even politicians who know better than to believe the Big Lie also know better than to publicly oppose it. But much of it is earnest: Your grandma probably doesn’t know enough about election procedures to know that when Trump claims Arizona saw 74,000 phantom voters, it’s nonsense.
There’s a certain allure in the claims. Besides taking the sting out of a loss, crying fraud allows people to throw up their hands and say: The system is corrupt and there’s no fixing it, so why try?
A terrifying portion of the population is falling into that trap — one that undermines faith in the electoral process and destabilizes democracy. Polling consistently shows more than half of Republicans believe the election was rigged, with one survey showing nearly a third of them believe that Trump will be reinstated when the fraud is exposed.
Burk’s experience was an extreme version of the kind of gaslighting we’ve all been subjected to for the last year. Long before the first ballot was cast, Trump was warning his followers that if he lost, it could only be because of fraud. Trump priming the nation to believe there would be fraud, she says now, led her to believe outrageous claims that she probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
“You have an authority figure saying that there's fraud and even with the state legislators, they're not discounting it. They're pushing it too,” she said. “Behind the scenes to their constituents, they're definitely saying there's fraud, even if they’re not saying it in the press.”
So we thought if Burk can come around, maybe she has insights to a broader solution for the problem of nearly one-third of the country’s voters believing the election was stolen.
But Burk’s story doesn’t end with a nice tidy bow, a solution for combatting the daily onslaught of political misinformation. Instead, it’s a cautionary tale about how easy it is to lose yourself in a lie, and how quickly former compatriots will turn on you.
It all started with a tip
Burk has laid out chunks of her tale in court documents and a self-styled press release, but as far as we can tell, nobody has written about it. It’s too convoluted, hard to nail down and bizarre for the papers. Instead, the story around Burk has been about a woman promoting conspiracies in court and losing.
Following her through the labyrinth of misinformation that has been her life for the last year is mentally exhausting.
When we called Burk without warning one day, she spoke for six hours straight. All the while, she bombarded us with emails, texts and Signal messages containing hours of tape she had recorded with nearly a dozen people, along with photos, screenshots and cell phone videos to back up her tale.
It took a week to digest it all. At the end, our heads were swimming with our own conspiracies about how she got there.
There were chunks of her story we couldn’t immediately verify, or couldn’t put into context responsible enough to report. Those detours include a story of two black SUVs chasing her, an episode involving a member of the National Security Council and other high-level officials, attempted hacks on her home security system, attempted break-ins to her house and much more.
And, yes, we know Burk is an unreliable narrator. But she’s got receipts for the broad strokes and even some of the most unbelievable parts of her story.
She’s a fastidious record-keeper who records every phone call, usually in secret. Those secret recordings are part of what got her into this mess to begin with.
Here’s what we do know.
Burk’s red-pill moment started, as all good conspiracies do, with a tip from a friend’s cousin’s friend.
The friend’s cousin’s friend worked at a Seattle FedEx facility, and had allegedly seen “suspicious ballots” come through the facility. Burk tried to put the FedEx employee in touch with the FBI.
When she didn’t hear back, Burk reached out to U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, a chief proponent of the conspiracy that the election was stolen.
“And then I got a call from a Trump campaign in Philadelphia,” she said. “I don’t even know how the Trump campaign got my number.”
A Trump campaign aide put her in touch with Josh Barnett, a once and future Congressional candidate, and Tom Van Flein, chief of staff to U.S Rep. Paul Gosar, a super spreader of the Stop the Steal conspiracy and the QAnon conspiracy theory.
The men and others had been filming a “suspicious” South Korean airplane at Sky Harbor after receiving a tip that it was loaded with fake, foreign ballots. They gave Burk some grainy video of the airstrip and an airplane — no ballots in sight — and Burk started investigating.
The conspiracy becomes even more … conspiratorial
Receiving the plane footage was a turning point, she says now. Suddenly, high-placed officials in Trump’s orbit were crowding into her life, all of them wanting something from her — to sign affidavits, to file lawsuits, to be the face of the South Korean airplane conspiracy.
“If you want to get to the bottom of the conspiracy that they drummed up the election fraud, then you need to know who gave the tip,” she said. “They’ve all been very fuzzy about who gave the tip.”
One answer she heard was that it was an aide to Oprah Winfrey. Another theory is an employee was playing a joke on his coworkers. She’s not sure which to believe, or if either is true. There’s no proof for either option.
Soon after she connected with the crew from the airstrip, a friend was approached at a rally with a warning: Burk’s life was in danger because she had been investigating the plane.
The tipster offered to set Burk up with a man named Scott Koch, a failed candidate for Coolidge mayor, who could help her with security.
Koch’s employer, Shawn Wilson, owner of the Casa Grande-based Mayhem Security Solutions, would later tell Burk that Koch is a former sheriff's deputy with Department of Defense security clearance who hails from the famed Koch family of billionaires.
Instead of offering security tips, however, Koch, a Republican Trump supporter, told Burk that he helped unload those fake ballots from the plane. And he threatened that she would be killed in a car accident or staged suicide if she tried to expose it.
“The legitimate election, Trump won in a landslide. Even in California,” he told her.
Burk secretly recorded the whole conversation, and included it as evidence in her Supreme Court case.
Koch later recanted his story, Burk says, and claimed that he only said that to get information out of her. (We couldn’t reach him for comment.) But she’s not sure whether to believe him.
Why would somebody admit to a felony they didn’t commit, claim a conspiracy where there wasn’t one? The only answer she can come up with is to cover up another wrongdoing, perhaps a conspiracy to promote a hoax that the election was stolen.
Enter Mike Flynn, because why not?
Burk’s life started spinning out of control shortly after, when she heard from Mike Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor who resigned after less than a month on the job after admitting to lying to the vice president and others about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Trump later pardoned Flynn for any crimes, heading off his impending prosecution.
Because of the alleged threat on her life for investigating the plane, Flynn and Powell put Burk in touch with 1st Amendment Praetorian, a far-right volunteer security team founded by former Green Beret Robert Lewis that has provided protection for Flynn and at QAnon and MAGA events.
The rotating team of men lived at her house rent-free for weeks, allegedly protecting her but also constantly pressuring her to hand over her phone to Flynn and Powell. The phone contained secretly recorded conversations with Arizona politicians, or as Burk puts it, “dirt” Trump’s team could use to leverage state senators.
Burk was scared and overwhelmed by the crack commando team and the heavy firepower they brought with them. But she also felt like she was at the center of something important.
“They're telling me, you're gonna get killed, you know, that plane is a big deal. All this stuff, like, you're gonna save the country, Cupcake,” she said.
(All the men on the security team had code names. They assigned her the codename Cupcake. She never liked it — “it’s kinda demeaning”— but the other option they gave her, “Balls of Steel,” didn’t feel right either, she said.)
As time went on, her security team grew increasingly fixated with gaining access to Burk’s phone. When she repeatedly refused to hand it over, saying she had protected medical information on it from her previous nursing patients, her security detail stole the phone, she says.
On Jan. 11, a member of her security team codenamed “Yoda” (a retired Michigan cop named Geoffrey Flohr, who has been the source of much online intrigue for his alleged role in the Jan. 6 attacks and who has been dubbed #ShadowFlynn on Twitter) sent her a picture of the phone, complete with her screensaver featuring a photo of her grandchild, saying it was at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC. Trump had set up his Jan. 6 “war room” at the Willard, and several of his confidants were still allegedly taking up residence there a few days later.
In a recorded call with Flynn’s brother Joe in March, he acknowledged that members of her security detail had stolen the phone, and warned Burk to keep his brother’s name out of it.
“I’m feeling embarrassed, I’m feeling a bit traumatized by all that happened,” she said recently. “Like, Sydney Powell and Mike Flynn sent a team of military law enforcement to my house for seven weeks. And I think now that they were just trying to get my data. I have a lot of information I have collected over the years because I’ve been close with a lot of the Arizona senators.”
Marching ahead with a new conspiracy
Still, even after her phone was stolen, Burk continued her investigation into election fraud, turning up even more “evidence” in the form of “shredded ballots.”
In early March, Burk and a few local activists stopped by the Maricopa County Elections Office and filmed an open loading dock loaded with “ballots.” There were no ballots in the loading dock bay, it turned out, but the accusation was enough to spark a personal investigation from Republican state Sen. Kelly Townsend. Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer gave Townsend a tour, which she posted online, proving the documents in the loading dock bay weren’t ballots.
A few days later, Burk and her crew returned, this time to sift through the trash on the belief that the county was shredding ballots.
To them, the reconstructed papers they found included what appeared to be several filled-out 2020 ballots.
Richer denied that these were valid ballots, saying that the 2020 ballots were locked up in a vault, as required by law. Sample ballots and other miscellaneous election materials are kept in the warehouse and could have been in the warehouse dumpster, the office later said. Independent fact checkers found the claim false.
Until the shredded ballots incident, the threats against Burk were theoretical or online harassment at best. But after finding the ballots, Burk found herself facing possible legal threats.
The Maricopa County Elections Department initially said it would contact law enforcement about trespassing. The Attorney General’s Office reached out, saying they wanted to inspect the documents. Suddenly, law enforcement officials were turning their eyes to Burk.
The Arizona Senate also wanted the shredded documents.
In a secretly recorded call that Burk later sent to local reporters, Borrelli, the Republican state senator, urged her to hand the documents over, saying “high-level” people might try to kill them both over the material.
“I’m just offering to take this plutonium off your lap,” Borrelli said.
By this time, Burk had sunk her life savings into stopping the “steal.” She loaded debt onto her credit cards. She withdrew from law school to focus on election fraud full time, costing her a scholarship. She had undergone multiple hospital stays for stress-related heart issues. She had spent thousands on hotel bills because she was afraid to stay at home. She spent thousands more on lawyers and court filing fees.
She was broke.
That’s when she says a man from Flynn’s security team passed along an offer to have Flynn, Powell and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne throw a fundraiser to “make me whole again,” estimating they could easily raise $400,000.
But the offer came with a catch: She had to give Trump’s team the shredded documents.
Burk declined, saying the ballots weren’t for sale and she wasn’t interested in their “bribe.” Anyway, she didn’t have the documents — one of her dumpster diving compatriots did.
“They weren’t trying to make me whole because they cared, they wanted those shredded documents,” she said.
Burk hits the road
These days, Burk is laying low on the East Coast. She won’t say where, exactly.
She still fears for her life, though she’s not sure if the fear is justified. If there was no fraud, then all those people telling her that her life is in danger are probably just trying to manipulate her, she said. But she’s not taking any chances.
“I’m taking a road trip with Farady bags just in case,” she said, referencing the signal-blocking bags used to protect electronic devices from hacking. “They’re all telling me, you’re in danger, you’re in danger. That’s been the message the entire time, so I’ve been terrified the entire time. Would you feel like you’re in danger if the Senate majority whip told you that if high-level people get to you first, they’re gonna kill you?”
She’s also worried she could be brought up on false charges as a way to silence her, a fear she shared in a text to Biggs in June. But like many of her former allies, Biggs is no longer talking to her.
“My phone is likely bugged,” he wrote back.
Burk still has hours and hours of audio recordings with Arizona politicians. Call it an insurance policy.
Local politics has been a part of her life, her identity, for as long as she can remember, but now she doesn’t want anything to do with politics.
She is considering selling her house and moving away from Arizona, though she worries that she might have to disclose that it could possibly be bugged. (At one point, her security team had a retired FBI agent sweep the house for bugs, but he didn’t find anything. She worries he may have been planting bugs himself.)
She doesn’t have anyone to talk to who isn’t involved in the Stop the Steal movement, and she is struggling to make sense of what happened to her in the last few months. Which conspiracy should she believe? Was there a massive effort to rig the 2020 election? Or was there a massive conspiracy to dupe her into believing the election was rigged and use her as a pawn to push a lie?
She’s still not sure. But either way, it’s not good.
“Really, that’s the thing — I don’t really know what happened,” she said. “I can tell you my experience, like this person came, this happened, this happened. But the why and how and for what reason, that’s all speculation for me.”
Auditors have since laughed off the bamboo conspiracy, and there’s no evidence to suggest there was anything irregular about that plane.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit because Burk was not registered to vote, and another judge threw out Powell’s lawsuit, saying it amounted to “gossip and innuendo.”
Officials said none of the documents were actual ballots cast in the 2020 election.
Borrelli later attempted to walk back some of the more unhinged parts of the rant, saying he was trying to convince the conspiracy theorist to turn over the shredded ballots by using her own lingo. But Borrelli remains a Stop the Steal proponent, appearing last week at MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s “Cyber Symposium, where the Stop the Steal movement leader once again failed to provide the proof he has long promised.
Burk now says she’s relatively sure the election audit isn’t a false flag operation.