When Trudy Sherburne returned to her desert home near Victorville after a short trip on Easter weekend in 1998, she thought her house was on fire. Government vehicles with flashing lights surrounded the place.
She quickly realized her mistake. The house was being raided.
Sheriff’s deputies, bomb squad specialists and military investigators were rummaging through each room, under the assumption that Trudy Sherburne and her husband, Christopher, were right-wing extremists with ties to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. They believed they might find a cache of weapons and explosives hidden among the inventory of the Sherburnes’ military surplus business.
At the end of the five-month investigation, the Sherburnes -- a deeply religious couple with six children -- each pleaded no contest to one felony count of possessing 10 tracer bullets, which illuminate the trajectory and are legal in several states but not California. Prosecutors never proved a link between the couple and McVeigh.
But by that time, their home was demolished and their business in ruins. Trudy Sherburne went to jail for five months. Her husband started a prison term that lasted five years because he refused to accept parole conditions that barred him from seeing his wife.
The ordeal has turned the Sherburnes into folk heroes among some religious fundamentalists and gun rights activists. They see the couple as innocent victims of overzealous law enforcement, itching to nab home-grown terrorists in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing. Gun Owners of America, a gun-rights lobbying group based in Virginia, raised thousands of dollars for the couple’s legal defense, and conservative radio commentator Jane Chastain, among others, has taken up the Sherburnes’ cause.
The tactics used by officials only fed the outrage. Investigators, who portrayed the couple as dangerous outlaws and weapons suppliers for militia groups, even searched the home of the Sherburnes’ pastor and the Christian school their children attended.
“We weren’t trying to overthrow the government or take out the president,” Trudy Sherburne said. “We had no ill intent.”
Were the Sherburnes anti-government extremists or simply an eccentric family living a survivalist existence in Southern California’s desert frontier? And if the couple were so dangerous, why did prosecutors succeed in getting a conviction on only one count each?
The answers may be revealed this year when a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge considers a lawsuit Trudy Sherburne filed against the county. The suit seeks $2 million in damages, arguing that multiple raids of the family home were unreasonable and based on weak evidence. The suit also accuses sheriff’s deputies of ruining the couple’s military surplus business by leaving the inventory -- shoes, pants, ready-to-eat meals -- in piles on the ground, where it was exposed to the elements and thieves.
The county has filed its own lawsuit, asking a judge to fine the Sherburnes $250,000 for using their home to stockpile the military surplus inventory in violation of county zoning codes. The county has also billed the family $25,000 for the cost of demolishing the house in 2001 for building code violations. No court date has been set for either lawsuit, and the Sherburnes have yet to pay the county bill.
Marjorie Mikels, an Upland attorney and friend of Trudy Sherburne, said the couple had “nothing there that was of any import -- certainly nothing worth destroying their lives and their home.”
David Hardy, a Tucson attorney who wrote about the Sherburnes’ case on a Gun Owners of America website, agreed.
“I think they [investigators] assumed the worst out of the available evidence, and when it wasn’t the worst, they didn’t back off an inch,” he said.
But county officials insist the searches were legitimate and resulted in the destruction of dozens of dangerous weapons.
The investigators say their suspicions about the Sherburnes were confirmed when they found five videotapes titled “Militia of Montana First Aid Series” and a handwritten diagram showing a tunnel system beneath the home. Following the diagram, they discovered the remains of a 5,000-gallon cistern that Christopher Sherburne had expanded and fortified.
Inside the underground rooms, investigators found a stockpile of ammunition, five 55-gallon water drums, a portable bathroom and six industrial-size batteries, according to court records. The entrance to one of the rooms was hidden behind a false wall in the house.
Search warrants show that, in addition to the tracer bullets, investigators discovered four used missile tube launchers, an inert 2.75-inch rocket warhead, an inert 81-mm mortar round, homemade explosives, various types of ammunition and illegal signal flares. Bomb experts destroyed some of the military devices in the nearby desert. “All that stuff was there,” said sheriff’s Det. Bryce Mibeck, who investigated the case. “That is the nature of a plea bargain: You drop some charges to get convictions on other charges.”
At the very least, the evidence showed that the Sherburnes are not a typical suburban family.
Trudy Sherburne, 57, has a master’s degree in early childhood education and has home-schooled her three youngest boys. Christopher Sherburne, 59, is an army veteran with a bachelor of science in engineering. On the weekend the family home was raided, he was in Florida, repairing a boat he said he hoped would carry medicine, Bibles and supplies to war-ravaged Sudan as part of a Christian relief effort.
The family home was built by Christopher Sherburne’s father in the 1940s. It was situated between Hesperia and Victorville, where the only neighbors were dried shrubs and Joshua trees. A diesel generator provided the electricity.
For nearly 15 years, the home was headquarters for the Sherburnes’ business, Genuine G.I. Surplus. The 2.5-acre property was strewn with metal shelving, empty ammunition boxes and crates with military markings. The couple bought most items in bulk at military auctions and sold them at flea markets and gun shows.
Robert Roy Templeton, president of Crossroads of the West Gun Shows, said he watched the Sherburnes and their children sell clothes, toy parachutes and other gadgets at his gun show for nearly nine years. “I never did see any indication that he had any weapons at all,” Templeton said.
But sheriff’s Det. Harry Hatch, an arson and bomb expert, confiscated a used missile launcher from the Sherburnes at one show, according to court records. Hatch warned them that it was illegal to have the device.
The Sherburnes’ problems began April 10, 1998, when sheriff’s Deputy John Lawrence accompanied a code enforcement officer to the Sherburne property to look into a tip about building code violations. There, Lawrence saw metal tubes with military markings and metal cases emblazoned with the words “high explosives,” according to court records.
Based on Hatch’s earlier encounter with the Sherburnes, deputies got a search warrant, saying they believed “the crates, boxes and tubes contain military ordnance, which has been stolen from the military or purchased illicitly.”
Over the next five months, deputies executed four more search warrants on the Sherburne property, plus 15 additional warrants seeking weapons in the homes of friends, family and customers in three states.
The Sherburnes’ pastor, Allen Stanfield, who once ran the Lucerne Valley Christian School, took responsibility for the Sherburne home after the couple were arrested and became temporary guardian of the couple’s three sons.
Investigators suspected the pastor might have taken some undiscovered weapons from the home. Stanfield said deputies searched his home, his tenant’s home and the one-room school while children were in class. No weapons were found.
The Sherburnes have offered differing explanations about why a stash of weapons was found in their home.
At first, they insisted that every military item on their property came from the purchases they made at military auctions. Later, they said they bought the empty rocket tubes and the ammunition from individuals but didn’t recall when or where.
Despite the earlier warning from Hatch, Trudy Sherburne said she didn’t think the empty rocket tubes and inert warheads were illegal because she saw such items routinely bought and sold at flea markets, gun shows and swap meets.
The suggestion of a link between the Sherburnes and the Oklahoma bombing first appeared in a search warrant dated April 13, 1998.
In it, sheriff’s Det. Scott Peterson described Christopher Sherburne as “a right-wing extremist, [who] was peripherally involved with the suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.”
Peterson, who retired in 2000, could not be reached for comment.
In an interview, Det. Mibeck declined to discuss what led investigators to believe the Sherburnes were linked to the bombing, but said FBI agents interviewed Christopher Sherburne immediately after the 1995 atrocity.
The Sherburnes insist they were never interviewed by FBI agents regarding the Oklahoma bombing. Gary Johnson, an FBI spokesman in Oklahoma City, said a search of the bureau’s database found no information to connect the Sherburnes to McVeigh.
If deputies were fearful of the Sherburnes, the couple were just as fearful of the world around them.
Trudy Sherburne said they stocked the underground shelter with supplies and weapons in case of a nuclear war, riot or other crisis.
“In the middle of the desert, you need a hideaway room,” she said.
Christopher Sherburne had wired the property’s perimeters with motion detectors to alert him to any trespassers. But the couple deny they were building bombs or explosive devices.
“I can see that things looked suspicious,” Trudy Sherburne said of the underground shelter and motion detectors.
The militia videotapes that investigators found in the Sherburne home are sold on the Internet and provide instruction on such things as how to dress wounds and fractures. The Sherburnes said they had attended a few meetings of a militia group in the nearby community of Phelan but eventually broke away because the group didn’t focus enough on Christianity.
By the time the investigation was over, the Sherburnes faced a 24-count indictment on charges of possession of a destructive device and other crimes, which could mean total sentences of up to 100 years in prison for each if convicted. Instead, they took a deal offered by prosecutors and pleaded no contest to possession of a destructive device --10 tracer bullets.
Gun Owners of America, which had taken up the Sherburnes’ cause, was soon joined by other conservative groups, including the founders of a fundamentalist Christian website and a group pushing for tough penalties on corrupt judges.
After five months in jail, Trudy Sherburne was released and reunited with her children, who had stayed with Stanfield. She resumed selling military surplus.
Christopher Sherburne was eligible for parole after 16 months in prison. Parole conditions rarely prohibit convicted spouses from seeing each other, but in the case of the Sherburnes, “he would have access to the same kind of weapons that got him in trouble in the first place,” said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Board of Corrections.
Christopher Sherburne wouldn’t agree to stay away from his wife, so he spent a total of five years in prison. Trudy said she would have given up the military sales to free him had she been told that that was the reason they were kept apart.
Meanwhile, county code enforcement officials declared the family home a public nuisance, saying the structure was substandard, had poor ventilation and heating, and was infested with rodents and insects.
The home was demolished under a county order in August 2001.
County officials defend the tactics of investigators, saying all of the searches in the Sherburne case were legal. Regarding whatever personal property was destroyed or damaged during the investigations, deputies blame thieves and vandals who may have pilfered from the home after the couple were imprisoned.
The Sherburnes now live in a mobile home in the high desert community of Apple Valley. They make a living selling shovels, flashlights, toys and other items at flea markets and swap meets.
The Sherburnes and county officials have tried several times, without success, to settle the Sherburne lawsuit and the county’s suit for $250,000. The Sherburnes say they are not looking for a generous settlement but simply want to hold officials accountable.
“We believe in this country,” said Trudy Sherburne. “We just feel the authorities need to abide by the same laws that the citizens must abide by.”