As sunbathers sipped beer and caught rays at the swimming pool right outside, an overflow crowd swarmed into a posh Palm Springs hotel Sunday afternoon to hear militia promoter Mark Koernke speak about how the federal government is stomping out the liberties and constitutional rights of American citizens.
Koernke was one of several anti-government speakers scheduled to address the five-hour "taking our country back" conference at the Palm Springs Hilton resort. In all, organizers said, more than 600 people attended at $12 a ticket, with about 200 watching on closed-circuit TV in a separate room because no space was left in the ballroom.
Among the speakers who appeared before Koernke was scheduled to take the podium was Ted L. Gunderson, a former FBI agent and self-proclaimed satanic expert, who told the crowd that the government is using last month's bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City to "arouse the American public . . . to further erode our liberties and destroy constitutional rights."
Afterward, Gunderson said he believes that the bombing was perpetrated by "an element within the government, a demonic element from within the government, but I don't know who it is. . . . Somebody in the government--Army, whatever--somebody in the system was responsible."
About 50 demonstrators, including members of the National Organization for Women, peacefully protested the appearance of Koernke, a University of Michigan janitor who has promoted underground militias on his shortwave radio broadcasts, and whose visibility has soared since the Oklahoma City bombing.
One protest organizer, Rancho Mirage Councilman Alan Seman, called the protest turnout "relatively small."
"There are 250,000 people in the (Coachella) valley," he said. "I'm sure they have other obligations. There's a basketball game this afternoon."
Inside the Horizon Ballroom, speaker Charlena Alden, of the Del Mar-based Citizens Against Legal Loopholes, demanded that Congress authorize hearings into the Justice Department, the GATT and NAFTA treaties, and the Federal Reserve Board.
If not, she said, her group will file 2 million simultaneous lawsuits in September. "We'll gun them down with paper," she said of her plans to "shut down the system."
At a poolside bar outside the ballroom, D. D. Gerdin, here from Aspen, Colo., for a ski conference, lunched on spinach salad and shook her head in disbelief.
"I don't agree with them. They should come outside and come into the real world," she said.
Koernke was the big draw at the event. He was an initial target of FBI interest after the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing as a result of a fax he sent about the blast to a congressman, and his fleeting association with suspect Timothy McVeigh.
Koernke, 37, has not been linked to the deadly bombing, but his broadcasts were recently suspended because of the negative publicity he has engendered since the Oklahoma episode, which he has asserted was a government plot to "draw our attention away from the economic crisis imposed on us by top government officials."