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Roadside Killing Heightens Police-Militia Suspicions : Ohio: Town fears retaliation after paramilitary leader is shot by officer. Some call it murder, others self-defense.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Still draped in its Fourth of July bunting, this town of 1,100 citizens in the Appalachian foothills lives in fear of the next American revolution even as it celebrates the first.

Ever since a Frazeysburg police officer shot and killed a high-ranking member of the Ohio Unorganized Militia 10 days ago, the tiny brick municipal building on 2nd Street has remained empty. The village clerk works at home, out of prudence, in case someone seeks revenge.

The mayor’s wife worries every time her husband turns the key in his pickup truck’s ignition; she fears what might be planted in the engine. She’s moved her hunting rifle and shotgun within easy reach, out of their hiding places in the closet.

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The police officer in question, on administrative leave, has been moved to a safehouse far away.

The tension began in the early hours of June 28, when Sgt. Matthew May, an eager 24-year-old known as a stickler for rules, pulled over a car without regulation license plates. Instead, it bore white metal plates with professional red lettering: OHIO MILITIA 3-13 CHAPLAIN. A cross adorned the center.

The driver was Michael Hill, 50, a former Canton, Ohio, police officer who had moved to an isolated part of the state near the West Virginia border to raise dogs. As well as serving as the militia’s chief spiritual adviser, Hill was chief justice of a court the militia had established based on Scripture and the Constitution. The number on his tag referred to the part of the Ohio revised code that he cited as proof that the state could not control his right to travel.

At a wide, gravel-covered shoulder, between Ohio 16 and an alfalfa field, the encounter took a fatal turn. Either May was defending himself against Hill, who wielded a .45-caliber handgun at the officer--or May murdered a peaceful man, who, though armed, kept his hands at his side and his weapon tucked in his waistband underneath his shirt.

People who say they were witnesses tell diametrically opposing versions. Either way, law enforcement and militia leaders around the nation have been dreading an incident like this: a routine traffic stop that ends in death and becomes a symbol, a focal point for the suspicion that has been growing between both groups, deserved or not.

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“The media tells police officers that we’re shooting at them and all kinds of stuff,” said Ken Adams, executive director of the National Confederation of Citizen Militias, a clearinghouse for the movement. “That’s what they’re hearing. So this kind of thing happens.

“If it continues to happen, then it is going to get dangerous out there,” Adams said. “A militia person when he stops is going to defend himself.”

Signs of the choosing of sides are easy to find. Some townspeople wear navy and silver ribbons--the colors of the Frazeysburg police cruisers--to show they believe May. Others bought caps at the Wal-Mart with the word Cops on the front.

Meanwhile, a wreath of white, black and red carnations appeared just east of the site where Michael Hill died.

As the Muskingum County sheriff investigates the killing, communications of the militia movement--the Internet, faxes and short-wave radio--crackle with anger.

“Was this the shot heard ‘round the world? Will you be next?” asked a faxed Ohio Unorganized Militia Update from E Pluribus Unum, a Columbus patriot-movement group. Another fax from the organization’s leader, James J. Johnson, warned: “Due to recent events, more patriots are becoming minutemen, i.e., assuming a state of readiness.”

“This is utterly outrageous. This is cold-blooded murder,” read one posting to a militia discussion group. “Well, then, I’d expect his friends to take care of the matter, eh?” said another posting from Maryland.

Hill’s friends, for the record, say that they are outraged by his death and by what they see as a cover-up. But, they add, they plan to pursue vengeance only through the courts.

Sheriff Bernie Gibson has suggested that three militia members who say they were following Hill and saw the incident are lying. At the same time, Gibson would not identify another purported witness who corroborates May’s story, though his name is common knowledge in the streets of Frazeysburg. The man has left the state because of concerns over his safety, said Frazeysburg Police Chief Ron Brown.

“They don’t need to be afraid of us,” said Kathi Herda, who lives in nearby Zanesville and attended a meeting with Hill and his three friends the night he died.

The national militia confederation retained Atlanta attorney Nancy Lord, who on behalf of Hill’s widow, Arleen, is preparing a civil lawsuit against May.

A week ago, militia leader Adams and Lord took the militia witnesses to the FBI office in Columbus, 50 miles to the west. Despite the militia movement’s epic distrust of federal law enforcement, they turned over the prepared statements they’d sent the sheriff and asked the FBI to investigate whether May violated Hill’s civil rights. The case will be monitored, a federal agent said.

“Talking to the widow, she said she wants to use their laws against them,” Adams said.

Indeed, a state militia leader telephoned the police chief and “made it clear they weren’t out for revenge,” Brown said, “ ‘as long as you can guarantee you’re not looking for militia.’ ”

Such reassurances offer scant comfort to Rossan Davis, the mayor’s wife. “We haven’t been able to sleep at night,” she said.

After all, her husband and the sheriff told her that more than a dozen telephoned threats against the police and village officials had been recorded.

When Adams and Lord held a press conference on the municipal building steps, “Bernie told us not to go,” Davis said, “and he even said we should go away that day.”

Pete Stapleton, owner of Village Auto and Towing, endured his own dose of menacing calls. Two of Stapleton’s friends painted “We Support Law Enforcement” and “We Support Matt May” on a wooden sign. He put it out front of his shop.

“I guess I’ve gotten 40 calls,” Stapleton said Thursday. “They say, ‘You have no business sticking your nose in this problem. You should keep your nose to yourself.’ They said they’d burn this place down.” Lately, caravans of strangers’ cars have moved slowly through the streets at dusk.

“It has changed the village,” said Mayor Robert E. Davis. “People are hesitant about going out when it’s dark.”

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The town always felt safe before. The land was the prize in a 19th-Century poker game, which winner Samuel Frazey decided to develop as a haven for neighboring corn, soybean and cattle farmers. Today, retirees, employees at a nearby basket-making concern and even commuters to Columbus--seeking an escape from city woes--make up the population.

May--who stands about six feet tall and weighs about 250 pounds--was a security guard paying his own way through a local police academy who volunteered as a reserve officer when Brown started the Frazeysburg department two years ago. He was hard-nosed, a by-the-book guy who wrote a lot of tickets, but he also spread hay for the dogs of Frazeysburg during cold snaps.

A year ago, he was hired full-time and a few months ago, he made sergeant.

The promotion would have come even faster, Brown said, had two men May arrested not accused the officer in court of brutality during their trial on charges of driving while intoxicated, assault and interfering with an arrest. The pair pleaded guilty to lesser charges and never filed a formal complaint against May, Brown said. The chief said he does not believe May acted improperly.

At Hill’s funeral, across the state in Woodsfield, several hundred people overflowed two rooms. They honored his widow’s request that they not wear camouflage, as many militia members do. But they portrayed him as a gentle man, with a quote from Scripture for every occasion, who’d been martyred for the cause.

As far back as 1986, he’d studied constitutional law, attempting in vain to use the courts to prevent demolition of a condemned house he owned in Canton.

“The police are scared to death about anybody who even looks like they’re going to stand up for freedom and their rights,” said the Rev. Charles Mainous, a Baptist minister who officiated at the service. “And we’re living in a police state.”

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Militia Flash Point

A militia member is shot to death by a policeman, making this small town a center of tension between militias and law enforcement.


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