One evening two winters ago, a man in Staten Island, N.Y., absent-mindedly flipped through his mail. Inside one envelope was a stack of fake documents, including United Nations and Defense Department identification cards, and a note: “We would hate to have this fall into the wrong hands.”
It had. The package, intended for a member of a self-styled militia in New Jersey, had been delivered to the wrong address.
From that lucky break, federal officials believe they may have uncovered one of the most audacious domestic terrorism plots since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. Starting with a single piece of mail, investigators discovered an enormous cache of weapons in Noonday, in East Texas, including the makings of a sophisticated sodium cyanide bomb capable of killing thousands of people.
Three people -- William Krar, a small-time arms dealer with connections to white supremacists; Krar’s common-law wife, Judith L. Bruey; and Edward S. Feltus, the man who was supposed to have received the forged documents -- pleaded guilty in the case in November. They are being held in a Tyler, Texas, detention facility and are scheduled to appear before a federal judge for sentencing next month.
But what is typically the end of a criminal case may be only the beginning in this one. Some government investigators believe other conspirators may be on the loose. And they readily acknowledge that they have no idea what the stash of weapons was for -- though they have tantalizing and alarming clues of a “covert operation or plan,” according to an FBI affidavit.
“What was Krar going to do with this stuff? That’s what we want to know -- and we don’t know,” said Brit Featherston, an assistant U.S. attorney and the federal government’s anti-terrorism coordinator in the eastern district of Texas. “There is no legitimate reason to have this stuff. The bottom line is that it only had one purpose, and that was to kill people. And it’s very troubling that we have yet to figure it out.”
Krar, 62, who lived in the piney woods of Noonday, a tiny community about 100 miles southeast of Dallas, pleaded guilty to possession of a chemical weapon and faces a possible sentence of life in prison, Featherston said.
Bruey, 54, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess illegal weapons and faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, Featherston said.
Feltus, 56, of New Jersey, has pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the transportation of false identification documents and faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, Featherston said.
According to the FBI affidavit, Feltus has told investigators that he is a member of a group called the New Jersey Militia, which, according to its website, believes the federal government has grown too powerful and says it is “ready, as a last resort, to come to our nation’s defense against all enemies, foreign or domestic.”
It is unclear whether Krar or Bruey had any involvement with the organization. Neither representatives of the New Jersey Militia nor attorneys representing Feltus and Bruey could be reached for comment.
Tonda L. Curry, a Tyler attorney, represents Krar, who appears to have made much of his living, investigators say, by manufacturing trigger parts for .223-caliber Bushmaster rifles.
Krar, Curry acknowledged, is an “eccentric” who broke the law by possessing weapons he was not licensed to own, including fully automatic guns.
He has not cooperated with investigators, and Curry would not reveal any details of her conversations with Krar regarding motives for possessing the weapons. She said, however, that she had “never seen anything that indicates there was any kind of terrorism plot or any intent to use these things against the American people or the government in any way.”
“He was not the type who kept these things at ready access. They were miles from his home in a storage facility,” Curry said. “His home was not a bunker, an arsenal, whatever you want to call it, where he was ready to attack. These things were stored as collectibles.”
The case began to unfold in January 2002, when the package was mistakenly delivered to Staten Island. Investigators traced it to a mailing and business center near Tyler, then to Krar and Bruey, who lived together in Noonday.
With Bruey’s permission, they searched a storage facility the couple had rented. The firepower inside shocked law enforcement officers.
Investigators found nearly 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 65 pipe bombs and briefcases that could be detonated by remote control.
Most distressing, they said, was the discovery of 800 grams of almost pure sodium cyanide -- material that can only be acquired legally for specific agricultural or military projects.
The sodium cyanide was found inside an ammunition canister, next to hydrochloric, nitric and acetic acids and formulas for making bombs. If acid were mixed with the sodium cyanide, an analysis showed, it would create a bomb powerful enough to kill everyone inside a 30,000-square-foot facility, investigators said.
Also discovered were anti-Semitic, antiblack and antigovernment books and pamphlets, according to the FBI’s affidavit.
The affidavit included documents recovered from a rental car Krar was driving in Tennessee when he was pulled over by a state trooper in January 2003 for a minor traffic violation. Inside the car, according to the affidavit, the trooper found many weapons, including two handguns, 16 knives, a stun gun and a smoke grenade.
The documents were titled “trip” and “procedure,” and appeared to list rendezvous points in cities across the nation. They also listed what appeared to be code phrases; some investigators say they believe the phrases could be used to indicate a level of awareness of law enforcement officials or others.
“ ‘Tornadoes are expected in our area’ -- things very hot; lay low or change your travel plans,” one document said. “ ‘Major thunder storms are predicted’ -- they are looking pretty hard; be cautious.”
The clues, wrote FBI Special Agent Bart B. LaRocca in the affidavit, suggested an “involved criminal scheme which could potentially include plans for future civil unrest and/or violent civil disorder against the United States government.”
Revelations, however, that many questions remain unanswered in the case have made it the target of the new, post-Sept. 11 politics of terrorism.
Critics of the Bush administration say federal officials and the mainstream media are suffering from tunnel vision -- that they are so focused on international threats that they have failed to give sufficient attention to threats at home.
At most, the critics say, increased attention to this case could have brought more answers. At the least, they say, if the defendants in this case had been people with foreign backgrounds or Muslims, U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft himself would have announced the arrests and the guilty pleas.
Instead, details of the case were revealed in a half-page press release sent to local media. Officials say the case was at one point included in President Bush’s daily security briefings, but it remains virtually unknown outside East Texas -- even though, critics point out, it represents an instance in which federal authorities discovered a weapon of mass destruction.
Much of the criticism has come on Internet Web logs, known as “blogs.” People who operate the websites, or “bloggers,” have seized on the Krar case and what they perceive as the inattention it received from the Bush administration and major media.
The fault, critics say, lies not with law enforcement officers, whom they believe prevented a deadly plot from developing. Instead, they say, the fault lies with an administration that adheres too closely to a script.
“If anyone wanted evidence that the ‘war on terror’ is primarily a political marketing campaign -- in which war itself is mostly a device for garnering support -- they need look no further than the startling non-response to domestic terrorism by the Bush Administration,” one blog, called Orcinus, said recently. The blog, which uses a killer whale as its mascot and targets the nexus of politics, culture and journalism, is written and compiled by David Neiwert, a Seattle resident and former journalist.
Robert Jensen, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas in Austin and director of the College of Communication’s honors program, agrees with the criticism. He says that the Bush administration, to promote its efforts overseas, “needs a public that is afraid and sees these wars as justified.”
“The primary justification is a fear of people ‘out there’ who want to come here and get us,” he said. “Arrests of foreigners are very effective arrests to publicize. It has a political function. Domestic terrorism may be, in some ways, more of a threat. But there is no reason to publicize it. It doesn’t have any political benefit.”
Federal officials disagreed with the contention that their international investigation into terrorism had distracted them from domestic threats.
“Certainly, our international anti-terrorism efforts are clearly the No. 1 priority,” said Mary Beth Buchanan, the Pittsburgh-based U.S. attorney for the western district of Pennsylvania and the chairwoman of a committee of federal prosecutors that advises Ashcroft. “But domestic terrorism is also a part of that. As we’ve increased our efforts to find the sources of international terrorism, we are also stepping up our efforts in the area of domestic terrorism as well.”
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said the observations about the Krar case are overly cynical.
“We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how we announce our activities,” he said. “We base all our decisions on the facts and the law and we pursue all violations ... vigorously.”