Van Hibler is the grandmaster of a Masonic lodge based in South L.A. About 150 men belong to the group, which collects dues, makes charitable contributions, and performs community service. A while ago, one of the men, David Henry, approached Hibler about starting his own lodge.
Hibler, 75, had known Henry for years, had helped him through the Masonic rites, and thought of him as a son. He told Henry he would have to apply through the state organization. "I kept telling him, 'You have to do this thing the right way,'" Hibler says.
That didn't pan out, and later on, Henry approached his grandmaster with a new proposal. Henry would start a police force — the Masonic Fraternal Police Department — which would protect all the grandmasters in Southern California.
Hibler did not want protection, and says none of the other grandmasters did either.
"My background calls for handling my own business with men and women. I've had to suspend brothers from time to time," Hibler says. "I did not need him to try to come in and help with what my problem might be. But I can't stop him. That’s what he wanted to do. After he did that, I told him to keep it on the right, and do the right thing."
Hibler was disappointed when news broke on Tuesday that Henry and two others had been arrested. Prosecutors allege Henry, 46, committed perjury and impersonated a police officer. Tonette Hayes, 59, whom Hibler identified as Henry's wife, was also arrested and accused of impersonating an officer.
The story became national news thanks to the third suspect, Brandon Kiel. According to Hibler, Kiel, 31, is married to Hayes' daughter. (Henry has referred to him as his son-in-law.) Kiel was deputy director of community affairs in the L.A. office of Attorney General Kamala Harris. He was immediately placed on leave.
Harris is the frontrunner in next year's U.S. Senate race. Even for a politician, she is uncommonly disciplined, and she has enjoyed a smooth campaign so far. At her moment of introduction on the national stage, the last thing she needs is to be linked to a bizarre story about a Masonic police force that claims to trace its lineage to the Knights Templar.
The whole thing sounds like a Dan Brown novel, especially to those who are unfamiliar with Masons, which is most everyone. But it also sounds unbelievable even to some Masons.
In Southern California, there are dozens of Masonic grand lodges that are predominantly African-American. Some are "Prince Hall" lodges, which trace their roots to a freed slave from the 18th century. Others, like the one that Henry belonged to, are Scottish Rite lodges. None of them seem to have heard of any Masons trying to set up their own police department.
"It was shocking to me they would conduct themselves in that way," says Fred Bacon, grandmaster of the Mount Calvary Grand Lodge in South L.A. "That's not what we do. It put a bad stamp on the organization."
The story began in January, when Henry's group sent introductory letters to several law enforcement agencies. According to the Sheriff's Department, Kiel followed up with phone calls requesting meetings. The three suspects ended up meeting with sheriff's officials in Santa Clarita. Not surprisingly, the deputies thought the whole thing was strange.
"The group claimed that they were descendants of the 'Knights Templar' and that their police agency had been in existence for 3000 years," the department said in a statement. "Additionally, they claimed that MFPD had sovereign jurisdiction in 33 states and across the border in Mexico."
On April 29, the Sheriff's Department served search warrants at two locations in Santa Clarita. They found badges, weapons, police uniforms, and "police-type vehicles," according to the Sheriff's Department. Henry, Hayes and Kiel were arrested and released the following day, according to jail records. They face misdemeanor charges of impersonating an officer. Henry also faces felony perjury charges.
Henry and Hayes were licensed to run a private investigations company, MIB Investigative Agency, according to state records. That license is suspended. Both also have active firearms permits as security guards.
Bacon says such activities were not condoned by the fraternal organization.
"We do things in the community — support kids, go to convalescent hospitals, give away gifts," Bacon says. "We don’t support guns. That’s not us."
Bacon says Masons have secret handshakes and passwords, which symbolize their fraternal bonds. And some lodges do have "Knights Templar" groups, who provide security. But he says they always operate within the lodge — never out in the community.
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"We don't do anything out in public to dismay anyone," he says. "That's what's shocking to me."
In Henry's defense, Hibler notes that Henry did reach out directly to law enforcement. "Why would he go to the police department if he was trying to do something illegal?" Hibler asks.
And he says he still thinks of Henry as a son.
"If he did anything wrong, I sure didn’t teach him that," Hibler says. "Sometimes kids can go astray."