MIFFLIN TOWNSHIP — Sean Rowe was on a mission when he died.
Rowe, 38, wielded two machetes Wednesday when two police officers opened fire after an hours-long standoff on Peterson Road in Mifflin Township.
A deeper look into Rowe’s background reveals a multi-layered character who drew national attention.
Around six years ago, the 38-year-old U.S. Army veteran founded a guerilla group geared toward traveling to Syria to end the Islamic State once and for all. He called it Veterans Against ISIS — and it attracted national media attention at the time.
“Our primary mission is to liberate Iraq,” Rowe told an Esquire reporter in May 2015, while living in Jacksonville, Fla.
The plan was to recruit veterans to travel to the Middle East and lend a hand to ISIS-opposition forces like the Kurdish peshmerga. It was a mission Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly tried talking Rowe out of in a May 2015 televised interview.
“I don’t want to see your head on a stick,” O’Reilly told Rowe. “I’m looking out for you here, Sean — I’m not sure about the wisdom of this.”
The caliphate was declared dead by the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2019. It's unclear if Rowe’s group ever took any action. The group’s website no longer exists and its presence on social media is extinct.
But Rowe, an eight-year U.S. Army veteran with a tour in Iraq under his belt, had a slightly different, less aggressive mission — one he was still pursuing through Veteran Rehab and Refuge.
“He had a heart to help other veterans who were struggling with depression and PTSD like himself. He wanted to build a retreat and business selling microgreens for veterans where they could be safe and productive,” his obituary noted.
Knowing exactly what occupied Rowe’s mind in the moments leading up to his violent end might never be known. But there are clues.
He was born in Greenville, S.C., on Jan. 3, 1983. Rowe graduated from Elida High School in 2001, according to his obituary. He then enrolled in Clearwater Christian College in Clearwater, Fla., for a year before enlisting in the military.
His obituary states he “did three tours of duty in the Middle East and Korea.”
The Army Times reported in March 2015 — citing Army personnel data — that Rowe deployed with the Army Reserve to Iraq from 2004 to 2005, as a plumber. He then reportedly joined active duty and reclassified as a network switching systems operator, serving until 2010. He left service that year as a specialist, Army Times reported.
“I was just sick of the lifestyle, I didn’t agree politically with a lot of things, and I do consider myself an activist, so this really wasn’t a fit,” he told Army Times in 2015.
The Army Times included Rowe’s comments about his recent forming of the Veterans Against ISIS group. Rowe’s group shared the same name of a nonprofit, which is still active on social media. The group’s website, however, no longer links to an organization.
According to its Facebook page, the organization’s focus is “letting the terrorist group known as ISIS, or any other radical terrorist group, foreign or domestic, know that we are here. We are here in case of a domestic threat … may one arise, to assist and aid in the defense of our country.”
The organization’s Facebook page, which appears to be active with around 11,600 active members, said the organization is “not a recruiting agency that is trying to send able bodies to Iraq.”
It’s co-founder, Bob Maher — also an Army veteran — was quoted in the Army Times article calling Rowe’s plan to redeploy to Iraq “irresponsible.”
“Anyone who’s been in combat over there and wants to go back needs to have their head examined,” Maher said at the time.
Maher, and his group’s co-founder, Andrew Brian, applied and received a trademark for the name in 2015, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The trademark was then abandoned — meaning the name is up for grabs — in 2017.
Rowe’s group was based in Florida. He lived near Jacksonville’s San Marco neighborhood, a historic neighborhood just minutes from downtown, court records show.
He started getting into trouble with the law in August 2017, when he was charged for loitering and prowling, and resisting an officer without violence, both misdemeanors in Florida.
The arresting officer’s narrative stated he found Rowe, who he described as a white man in his 30s “with brown hair cut in a ‘Mohawk,’” walking on private condominium property. The officer said the property had been the location of numerous auto burglaries over recent years.
“There are regular complaints about persons trespassing on the property,” the officer wrote, adding he had grown familiar with the property’s residents over the years.
So when he encountered Rowe, wearing sunglasses, a black T-shirt and camouflaged pants, around 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, the officer asked him if he lived at one of the condos.
Rowe didn’t have much to say to the officer. According to the officer’s narrative, Rowe told the officer, “I don’t need to answer your questions,” ignored him and kept walking. The officer said Rowe was trespassing on private property.
Rowe responded by walking to the sidewalk and said, “See, now I’m not on private property.” He walked away and ignored the officer’s attempts to talk to him.
The officer called for additional assistance. When four other officers arrived, they put Rowe in handcuffs.
Rowe responded aggressively, saying “You’re kidnapping me! (Expletive) you!”
The charges stemming from that encounter were eventually dropped, court records show.
A couple months later, he was charged with reckless driving and operating a motorcycle without a license. The reckless driving charge was eventually dropped, but the judge ordered nine months probation, a letter of apology, advanced driving school and counseling.
Rowe in Ohio — December 2019-July 3, 2021
At some point, Rowe moved to Ohio.
“I moved out to the country to get away from this (expletive), and it’s still here,” Rowe said in a video he posted to YouTube on July 5, referencing what he described as corruption within law enforcement.
Criminal charges appear out of Lima from an incident on Dec. 4, 2019. He was charged with aggravated menacing, obstructing official business and resisting arrest, court records show.
The case went to bench trial in June 2020, where a judge found Rowe not guilty of resisting arrest — but guilty of the other two charges. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest on May 4, 2021 for violating probation, records show.
Rowe was not in Lima anymore.
In April, Koehler's mother placed a property she had owned since September 2019 in survivorship — and named Jeannette Koehler as an owner. The property, 3340 Peterson Road, is where Rowe and Koehler lived together.
Multiple videos posted on Rowe’s YouTube channel reference an alleged “conspiracy” involving Jeannette Koehler and her ex-husband. Rowe called Jeannette his “wife” and “soulmate,” but the couple never married, according to Ohio state records.
Koehler and her ex-husband divorced in 2014, court records show. The ex-husband’s identity is being withheld from this story because the couple now faces a custody case that involves a child.
The ex-husband said he never met Rowe and said, “everything that man said was a lie.”
Attorney Scott Wright said Koehler and the ex-husband shared parenting rights in Muskingum County up until August 2020 when she moved to her mother’s Peterson Road house in Mifflin Township.
Koehler’s move prompted the ex-husband to file a motion to modify the shared parenting rights, Wright said. The hearing for that motion was held in May, which is around the time the ex-husband began receiving death threats from Rowe through texts and social media.
“The threats got worse. Sean was getting more vocal and volatile. He indicated the child was doomed because of (the ex-husband’s) fatherhood,” Wright said.
As Rowe’s threats became more specific toward the ex-husband and the child, Wright filed a motion to terminate Koehler’s parenting rights altogether.
“Because she was now living in Richland County, the case gets transferred to the sheriff’s office. So I contacted them myself to tell them this could be a dangerous service packet,” Wright said, referring to domestic paperwork that Koehler needed to be given.
Rowe in Ohio — July 4-Aug. 4
Rowe was charged with public indecency July 6 when a deputy was dispatched to 3340 Peterson Road. The call came in as “a male walking around naked.”
No further details about the charge, including an officer’s narrative of the incident, were provided by the Richland County Sheriff’s Office.
However, two days prior — on Independence Day — the same agency arrived at the same address after a neighbor called. It's unclear what the neighbor reported.
Rowe documented the encounter on his personal YouTube account. In the first video, deputies are seen in his yard, one of which hid behind a tree. One of them yelled, “Come out.”
Rowe replied: “You’re trespassing. Come in here, you will be shot.” The video ended after 19 seconds.
The second video was a much longer one and Rowe was more verbally aggressive.
“I’m letting you live right now — on my property. I’m letting you live. I don’t have to. I could absolutely make an example out of you,” Rowe said, addressing a deputy who stood in his yard, partially hidden behind a tree.
A woman’s voice is also heard in many of the videos, calling the encounter “domestic terrorism.” In a 15-minute video posted July 5, Rowe discusses the encounter, which he said lasted nearly four hours.
“My family is being domestically terrorized by corrupt, or incompetent, law enforcement,” he said, adding he was still recovering from the July 4 episode.
Richland County Sheriff Steve Sheldon was reluctant to describe the July 4 encounter as a “standoff.”
“He was very agitated,” Sheldon said, adding the sheriff’s office responded with six cruisers that day.
“We decided on July 4, after consultation with two other police chiefs and my personnel from the sheriff’s office, the best course of action on that day was just to leave. We didn’t want to escalate it — we were trying to de-escalate it. We tried to get him to calm down and turn himself in and it just got progressively worse.”
The sheriff said the incident lasted "a couple hours."
Then, on July 30, Rowe’s significant other — Jeannette Koehler — was arrested. According to the incident report, filed by the Richland County Sheriff’s Office, Koehler’s Jeep Wrangler was pulled over.
“It was decided to box the vehicle in, and I passed both to box the offender in,” the deputy wrote in the report.
Koehler tried to escape, damaging a cruiser, the report said.
When she was finally detained, officers recovered a loaded handgun, a clip loaded with five rounds and “a large knife.”
Court records do not list an attorney for Koehler.
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s standoff, which ended fatally for Rowe, the sheriff’s office reached out to the Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic on Rowe’s behalf, Captain Jim Sweat said.
Sweat did not offer any further details and the VA did not respond to a request for comment. Ken Estep, the executive director of the Richland County Veterans Service Commission, said his office never had contact with Rowe.
The service commission, governed by state law, helps veterans apply for state benefits and assists in acquiring other services.
On Wednesday, Sheldon said his office decided to confront Rowe again, this time armed with an arrest warrant and a search warrant. The office had also received additional citizen complaints and experienced “threatening behavior,” Sheldon said.
But Rowe — by this time convinced law enforcement was out to get him and Koehler — had a new mission that day.
“I will die protecting her,” he said in a July 5 video, referencing Jeannette Koehler.
It was a mission that no longer involved national media, the Kurdish peshmerga or helping other veterans. It was a mission that involved only him, his machetes and a dozen officers armed with powerful weapons.
It was a mission that ended the way he foretold and that now involves the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the agency’s 47th probe into officers’ use of force of the year.
Rowe’s last video shows mucus dripping from his nose and tears coming out of his eyes.
About an hour later, he had been shot and was on his way to OhioHealth Mansfield, where he later died.