In July, the Clark County, Wash., Sheriff's Office, across the Columbia River from Portland, fired a female deputy for wearing two items of clothing while off duty: a sweatshirt and a tank top reading "PBG."
Those letters are an abbreviation of "Proud Boys' Girls"—the women's auxiliary of a right-wing men's fraternity called the Proud Boys, one of the political groups that have brawled in Portland's streets.
When the Clark County sheriff fired Deputy Erin Willey, it set off a national chain reaction that would lead to the resignation of the Proud Boys' founder.
The sheriff's report on Willey's firing, released in November, included the explosive claim that the FBI had classified the Proud Boys as "an extremist group with ties to white nationalism." Although the FBI later denied it had ever made such a designation—saying it doesn't categorize groups by political ideology—the label has stuck.
And the Proud Boys have unraveled.
"The spotlight of attention, coupled with the violence, has caused [the leadership] to implode and leave these groups rudderless," says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. "If you want to have any kind of mainstream appeal, getting connected to any kind of criminality, that's not going to fly."
But a key detail of Willey's firing has never been previously examined. Willey and the sheriff's office both believe the photos that catalyzed the Proud Boys' spiral into chaos were sent to the media by an ex-boyfriend and Proud Boy bent on revenge.
The Clark County Sheriff's Office report shows Willey was a victim of an alleged campaign of misogyny, abuse and harassment at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, Graham Jorgensen, who the report says is a Proud Boy.
The sheriff's office concluded in its internal affairs investigation that Jorgensen probably gave the photos of Willey in Proud Boys attire to The Columbian newpaper in an attempt to get her fired. Documents reviewed by WW show he warned her that he would go public, then celebrated after Willey lost her job.
The nature of the source of the photographs had little bearing on the decision faced by the sheriff's office. A deputy associating with a far-right group would be a problem regardless of how it came to light.
But Willey's story complicates the narrative around the crumbling of the Proud Boys—because it shows how closely that unraveling relates to the group's hostile attitudes toward women.
"This kind of in-your-face, pro-nationalist, authoritarian, macho brand—it's not containable," Levin says.
The Proud Boys are a group that claims to venerate women. But they also hold rigid, retrograde views about gender that many would find troubling and bizarre.
Gavin McInnes, a Canadian writer and co-founder of Vice Media, is the Proud Boys' founder. He once wrote in an essay that "through trial and error, I learned that women want to be downright abused."
The Proud Boys are one of several violent far-right groups—ranging from white nationalists to "incels," or involuntary celibates—that all hold the belief men are superior to women. While far-right extremist organizations are commonly criticized as racists and fascists, their sexism is often openly on display—and even used as a recruiting tool.
The group's tenets, listed on its official website, include "venerate the housewife." They "long for the days when 'girls were girls and men were men.'" Their website declares "Our group is and will always be MEN ONLY (born with a penis if that wasn't clear enough for you leftists)!"
Willey, 26, who spoke publicly for the first time this month in an interview with WW, says she thought the Proud Boys were simply a pro-Trump drinking club her then-boyfriend, Jorgensen, had joined.
She says she didn't look into the group's ideology until she saw a video of the group brawling at a rally. (She admitted to internal investigators at the sheriff's office that she had filmed Jorgensen's initiation into the Proud Boys, where he was punched by other members of the group until he could name five breakfast cereal brands.) She says her only involvement with the Proud Boys was through Jorgensen, who asked her to join a Facebook page on which she later volunteered to sell and model shirts for the group.
"I thought it was a pro-Trump group. I didn't think it extended past that," Willey says. "I was naive and should have known better. I didn't know it was a hate group."
By the time Willey was sworn in by the Clark County Sheriff's Office in December 2017, she says she had severed ties with the group. When she was fired seven months later, she had already broken up with Jorgensen and had filed multiple police reports against him, complaining he relentlessly texted and telephoned her, showed up at her door, spat on her car window, and destroyed her property, according to the police reports, as well as photos and screenshots of messages reviewed by WW.
"He wants to punish me for breaking up with him," Willey says, "and I don't know when he'll be done."
One month after the breakup, Jorgensen sent the photos of her wearing PBG shirts and a message that read, "What's the [law] regarding police having gang affiliations? Asking for a friend."
In February, he sent her a stream of obscene texts, which Willey provided to WW.
"Can't wait for the day you pull over some illegal MS-13 gang banger and he puts a bullet right in that stupid whore mouth of yours," he wrote. "That. Will. Be. A. Happy. Day."
Willey called the police and obtained a five-year restraining order that mandates Jorgensen stay at least 1,000 feet away and not contact her. Again, he promised via text to get "retribution."
Five months later, The Columbian published its story on Willey, using the same photo Jorgensen had texted her.
"This investigation later determined that Erin's [ex-boyfriend] Graham Jorgensen was the likely source of The Columbian's photo and that he sent this photo as a form of retaliation because Erin ended their relationship," the Clark County Sheriff's Office concluded in its internal investigation.
The Columbian declined to discuss its sources.
A police report filed in late July shows Jorgensen later claimed credit on Facebook for getting Willey fired: "I didn't get to pin the badge, but looks like I get to take it off. What a pleasure."
The Clark County Sheriff's Office did not return WW's calls. Jorgensen did not return WW's requests for comment.
Willey doesn't expect to work in law enforcement again. "It hurts to be torn away from all that," she says. "I've been there for people who needed me, and the fact that I can't have it, essentially because of a sweater, it's hard."
Willey lost her job, and the turmoil also caused significant damage to the Proud Boys. The sheriff's report made the label "extremist group with ties to white nationalism" stick to the group. McInnes, the founder, stepped down days after The Guardian reported that label. (McInnes was simultaneously facing problems connected to nine criminal prosecutions against the Proud Boys in New York that he said also contributed to his decision to distance himself from the group.)
With McInnes out, the Proud Boys have been faltering. Already kicked off Facebook and Twitter, the group is rudderless and losing its reach.
The Proud Boys national leadership tells WW that McInnes' departure changes little. "We liked beer while he was in the fraternity, and we still like beer after he's gone," they write. "One person leaving won't shut down the greatest fraternity on the face of the fucking planet." The group declined to comment on Jorgensen's actions.
"These groups have a trajectory and gravity of their own, and they oftentimes implode," Levin says. "Whether the FBI calls them extremists or not, groups like the Proud Boys are on the radar of law enforcement. The bottom line is, there's enough violence in there that it's going to poison the group."