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Agents Link Bombs, Arms to Arizona Militia

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Federal agents searching the homes and caches of Arizona’s Viper militia said Tuesday that they found bombs, hundreds of pounds of bomb-making material, more than 200 blasting caps, about 70 shotguns and rifles and a .30-caliber belt-fed Browning machine gun the Vipers called “Shirley.”

The agents pressed their search for 12-inch aluminum rockets carrying half a pound of explosives apiece that they said the Vipers were designing to be fired from automatic rifles. They said the Vipers bragged that each of the rockets could “take out a police car” at 500 yards in what the militia called its upcoming war against “the government.”

The explosives and the armament were found one day after agents arrested 12 Viper militiamen in what U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said was a plot to destroy buildings in Phoenix that house federal agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as the Arizona National Guard and the Phoenix Police Department.

In other developments:

* Experts in extremist groups said the Vipers were one of at least 12 anti-government militia organizations in Arizona, which is considered particularly congenial to such groups because of its permissive gun laws. The experts described the Vipers as the most secretive of the groups and said that its members thought the other Arizona groups were too soft.

* The experts said the Vipers might have taken their name from a 68-page militia operation plan in general circulation among extremist groups that calls for sniper tactics, ambushes and the use of explosives and chemical and biological weapons in a guerrilla war against the United States. The plan calls for death to collaborators: the “Judas solution.”

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Among the dozen suspects were a house painter, an apartment maintenance worker, a doorman at a strip joint, an air-conditioning repairman, a telephone company worker and an unemployed doughnut maker. Ten pleaded not guilty to federal charges that they conspired to commit civil disorder. The two others were scheduled to be arraigned Friday.

Undercover Agent

The search for weapons and explosives, conducted throughout Tuesday, was aided by an undercover ATF agent who had infiltrated the Vipers for six months. He helped authorities tape-record and videotape Viper meetings and bomb tests in the Arizona desert and led them to an apartment in suburban Glendale used to store explosives and guns.

“We have had a finger on their every move,” said John D’Angelo, an ATF spokesman. “If we ever thought there was an imminent threat to public safety, we would have shut them down.”

One state official, state Sen. John Kaites, said he had learned much earlier that one member of the Vipers, Dean Pleasant, 27, was not simply an unemployed doughnut maker. Kaites said in an interview that Pleasant was his Libertarian Party opponent in the 1994 election.

Kaites said he had arranged to meet Pleasant at a coffee shop to size him up. Pleasant sat down at his booth, Kaites said, then pulled out a .45-caliber pistol, placed it next to his coffee cup and began to lecture him about how the government should stay out of people’s business.

“He was an angry man,” Kaites said.

Pleasant told him that government should not control guns or drugs, Kaites said, or even the nation’s schools.

Assault Preparations

Such anger, federal agents said, grew into preparations for a full assault against government and those who serve in it. Court documents said that another of the Vipers, Gary Bauer, 50, an engineer, designed, built and tested bombs for the group.

One of the devices, the documents said, blew a crater the size of an all-terrain vehicle into the Arizona desert.

The Vipers referred to an explosive slurry they concocted from fuel and ammonium nitrate as “guacamole mix,” the documents said. They said it was tested at abandoned mines near Payson and Wickenburg in small bombs fashioned from soda cans and in large bombs made from 5-gallon plastic buckets.

One of the bucket bombs, the documents said, left a 12-foot crater.

“I have a mix, a powdered mix, that’ll blow a two-inch hole through half-inch thick plate steel,” one of the court documents quoted Bauer as telling the undercover ATF agent. “That has some real potential, but it is fairly unstable.”

Vipers taught each other, the documents said, how to reduce ammonium nitrate to powder with an electric coffee grinder.

During their search for weapons and bombs, federal agents approached Bauer’s modest white brick home in central Phoenix with extreme care. They described it as an artillery bunker so packed with guns and explosives they could scarcely walk from room to room without stepping on them.

The agents took hours to remove the weapons and the explosives. Reporters watched as they hauled the evidence away in pickup trucks.

“They were preparing for war,” said Steve Ott, an ATF supervisor at the scene. “There’s a lot of dangerous material in this house. We’re talking at least 50 guns, and we’re still counting.”

At the end of the day, the agents said they had found more than 70 guns, many at the Bauer home. They included semiautomatic weapons, the agents said, as well as automatics.

A neighbor, Jim Whitfill, said that he had seen people entering and leaving the house with guns at least six or seven times over the past year.

“I suspected they were involved in some sort of survivalist activity,” Whitfill said. “But I’ve lived in this town all my life and have seen people walking around with guns all the time. I didn’t give it a second thought.”

Agents said they found the machine gun among the Vipers’ belongings.

One of the Vipers, Randy Nelson, 32, fired the weapon, a Browning Model 1919, during what the Vipers called a “B-shoot” last January in the desert west of Wickenburg, court documents said. They described “B-shoots” as weaponry practices open to Vipers only.

“A-shoots,” the documents said, were less intense affairs for guests as well.

During the “B-shoot,” the documents said, Nelson permitted all Vipers present to fire the machine gun.

There was no indication why the Vipers named the weapon “Shirley.”

In addition to the weapons drills, the court documents said, the undercover agent also witnessed numerous test detonations of explosive devices, most of them built by Bauer and Finis “Rick” Howard Walker, 41, another member of the Vipers.

For the most part, the documents said, the Vipers used bombs containing ammonium nitrate, nitromethane and black powder, and they detonated the bombs with blasting cord and caps. By the end of their day of searching, agents said, they had taken into evidence more than 700 pounds of ammonium nitrate.

Larry Cruz, who has lived for eight years across the street from Walker’s home, a small brick and stucco house with green trim and green shutters, found it hard to believe that his neighbor was a Viper. Cruz described Walker as “a good family man.”

Walker’s wife, Cruz said, was “devastated” by his arrest. “She doesn’t know what to do or where to go.”

Members of the Viper militia, the court documents said, were required to take an oath.

“I swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and especially the original and genuine Bill of Rights,” the oath said. “I will support and defend my fellow militiamen. If need be, I will enter into mortal combat against enemies of the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Militia to carry out this oath. So help me God.”

As part of the oath, the documents said, the Vipers agreed to kill anyone attempting to infiltrate them and to seek retribution if a Viper was arrested.

If members were approached by law enforcement officers during a “B-shoot,” court documents said, they would shoot to kill.

Home to Militias

Several militias make their home in Arizona, as well as a number of militia spokesmen and other anti-federal government advocates, according to the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. The ADL cited recent testimony by Rick Romley, the Maricopa County prosecutor, before a U.S. Senate committee, who counted 12 militia groups in the state.

Romley said the dozen groups had about 300 members in all. The ADL said militia organizing has been reported in areas around Phoenix, Prescott, Payson, Snowflake, Kingman, Tucson, Mesa, Wickenburg, Pinedale and in the Four Corners region where Arizona joins the states of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

Some the groups have threatened to blow up power plants, government buildings, even Hoover Dam. Although no militias have been implicated, an anti-government letter was found at sabotaged tracks that caused the Amtrak Sunset Limited to derail last October in the Arizona desert. The train plunged into a dry wash. One crew member was killed and nearly 80 people were injured.

Arizona is attractive to militia members because it offers wide-open deserts and hidden foothills honeycombed with abandoned mines for testing explosives.

At the same time, Arizona gun laws are among the most permissive in the nation. State law allows virtually anyone who is not a convicted felon to carry a loaded gun if it is not concealed.

In addition, 50,000 Arizonans have obtained permits to carry hidden guns.

The official name of the Phoenix militia whose members were arrested Monday is Team Viper, said Joel Breshaw, regional director of the Phoenix office of the ADL. “Team Viper was known to be the best and most exclusive and secretive among the [Arizona] militias,” Breshaw said. “I had heard this group had pulled itself away from other militia groups.

“It didn’t associate with them and thought they were too visible, too outgoing. The Team Viper people wanted more secrecy. According to militia movement people we talked to, there was a falling out between this Viper group and other militia leaders, and there were threats [from the Viper group] to some of the other leaders.

“Some of the other militias were becoming more and more visible, interviewing with the media. And this Viper group didn’t like that.”

Breshaw said the Viper militia also thought that the other Arizona groups were too soft.

Origin of Name

Experts on extremist groups said the Vipers may have taken their name from a 68-page document circulating in anti-government circles called Militia Operation Plan-American Viper.

A book, “Guns & Gavels: Common Law Courts, Militias & White Supremacy,” by Devin Burghart and Robert Crawford, says the document “details the role of militias in a prolonged guerrilla war against the United States.”

In Phase 7 of plan, the book says, the militia will engage in “attacking and eliminating defended targets, larger troop concentrations and key leaders.” Targets are to be eliminated by sniper tactics, explosives, ambushes or chemical and biological agents, the book says.

In an interview, Crawford, a member of the Coalition for Human Dignity, which studies extremist groups, said he could not be certain the Arizona Vipers had named themselves after the operation plan. But he said extremist literature is designed to influence and inspire individual groups.

“In the leaderless resistance model that a lot of these folks use, there won’t be any central command,” Crawford said. “People in the movement will know by reading movement literature; they’ll know who the right targets are, and in their souls they will make the judgment as to when the right time is.”

“Leaderless resistance” is a phrase credited to Louis Beam, a Texas leader of the Ku Klux Klan and later a leader of the Aryan Nations.

Militia Operation Plan-American Viper does not reveal its author. Crawford said it is sold for $5 a copy by United Sovereigns of America, a group that offers advice on how to set up and use common-law courts instead of government courts.

United Sovereigns sells other extremist works, such as “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” an anti-Semitic tract, and “Operation Vampire Killer 2000,” a manual for recruiting police officers into the extremist patriot movement.

The author of “Operation Vampire Killer 2000" is Gerald “Jack” McLamb, a former Phoenix policeman. The Anti-Defamation League says McLamb’s aim is to convince law enforcement officials of a plot to create a one-world government.

Numbers Growing

The Vipers are among an increasing number of militia members across the nation.

Militia leaders and other extremists say their numbers have multiplied sevenfold since a federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed April 19, 1995, killing 168 people.

Some militia leaders claim they now command a total force of 250,000.

In the year after the Oklahoma City bombing, the share of Americans expressing sympathy for the militia movement--a minority--did not decline.

A Los Angeles Times Poll just after the bombing found that 13% of Americans said they were at least “somewhat sympathetic” with “armed citizen militia groups.” They included 3% who said they were “very sympathetic.”

In a survey conducted last April 13-16, The Times Poll found 16% who said they were sympathetic and 3% who said they were very sympathetic. Based on the size of the survey, the change was not statistically significant.

In the face of such sentiment, federal agents have mounted investigations into militia activities. Authorities have been reluctant to reveal the scope or the details of these investigations. Most recently, however, they arrested three members of a small Georgia militia and charged them with plotting to build bombs.

The three were members of the Georgia Republic Militia. They also were charged with conspiring to steal weapons and find targets for political assassinations and explosions in a “war” against the government.

Two of the three, Robert Edward Starr II, 34, and William James McRanie Jr., 30, were arrested on April 26 after a raid by state and local authorities in rural Crawford County. The third, Troy Allen Kyser, 28, surrendered on May 28.

They have been denied bond and are being held in a Georgia jail.

Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano and Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington, Judy Pasternak and Stephen Braun in Chicago, Paul Lieberman and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles and researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Alleged Militia Targets

1. Federal Bureau of Investigation

2. Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms

3. Internal Revenue Service

4. Secret Service

5. Immigration & Naturalization Service

6. Phoenix Police Dept.

7. National Guard Headquarters


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