TOPICS > Politics

Viper Militia – Up in Arms

July 2, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: The government says the 12 suspects had been conspiring for more than two years to blow up a number of buildings with connections to the federal government or law enforcement in Phoenix. Included on the militia’s hit list were the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, the FBI, the Immigration & Naturalization Service, the IRS, and the Phoenix Police Station. In an affidavit taken last week, an ATF undercover agent who infiltrated the group known as the Viper Militia said the 12 were arming themselves with guns and making bombs to resist the efforts of federal law enforcement.

Yesterday and today, ATF agents and members of the Phoenix Police Department’s bomb squad searched the homes of arrested militia members. At the home of alleged militia member Gary Curtis Bauer, bomb squad Lt. Mike DeBenedetto said he couldn’t believe what they found.

MICHAEL DeBENEDETTO, Phoenix Police Bomb Squad: So far we’ve got an incredible amount of weapons and for the most part, most of these weapons are rifles, uh, semiautomatic and automatic weapons inside the home. A lot of the weapons that are made inside there are handmade, homemade weapons that this man has either rendered a normal, normally functioning weapon into an automatic capacity, or he has constructed from scratch with a great deal of talent in machine skills his own type of weapons. Uh, we find that very frequently among militia groups, is they create their own kind of weapons from things you can buy at the hardware store, and he’s got quite a few.

MS. BOWSER: Are you surprised at the quantity?

MICHAEL DeBENEDETTO: I’m amazed at the quantity of weapons there inside that house right now. There’s about–

MS. BOWSER: Are we talking ten, twenty, a hundred?

MICHAEL DeBENEDETTO: I would be surprised if there’s not over a hundred weapons inside that house right now.

MS. BOWSER: When you walk in the room, there are like literally guns lying up on top of each other?

MICHAEL DeBENEDETTO: All over the place.

MS. BOWSER: Up and down the walls?

MICHAEL DeBENEDETTO: It’s hard to walk without stepping on a weapon through that house right now. There are–part of what the Bureau is doing in there right now is just clearing a path so that they can heavy easy access to the individual rooms.

MS. BOWSER: What about explosives?

MICHAEL DeBENEDETTO: There are components for bombs throughout the house, but he seems to have tried to have limit the individual components to a makeshift shop where he’s building his own bombs, rockets, grenades, and things of that nature. So the man’s level of expertise in weaponry and ordinance is very, very good.

MS. BOWSER: You deal with bombs all the time.


MS. BOWSER: From what you’ve seen in there today in terms of the quantity of materials that could be used to make explosives, how big a bomb could somebody build with what you’ve seen?

MICHAEL DeBENEDETTO: If I had to, to compare it or explain that, I would say that if this stuff blew up last night when we first got here, it would have completely annihilated, leveled this home, without a doubt. It probably would have broken out windows for probably a quarter to a half mile around here because of the percussion involved in this explosion. It would have looked like a Mel Gibson movie.

MS. BOWSER: Yesterday’s action represents the largest round-up of militia members ever on serious charges. Federal officials said today they do not anticipate any more major arrests in this case.

MR. LEHRER: Now more on this story from Raymond Kelly, the Undersecretary of the Treasury for Enforcement, which includes supervision of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms, and the U.S. Secret Service. He’s a former New York City police commissioner. Mr. Secretary, welcome.

RAYMOND KELLY, Treasury Undersecretary for Enforcement: Thank you, Jim.

MR. LEHRER: Let’s go through this, at least what is–first of all, how long has this Viper Militia been in existence?

SEC. KELLY: We believe it’s been in existence for about two and a half years. The investigation, itself, has been conducted for a little over six months.

MR. LEHRER: Only 12 people involved?

SEC. KELLY: Only 12 people involved. There was a 13th who tried to join the group. That person was refused. That’s the individual who was taken into custody last evening. His name is Huffman. He subsequently was released because he was charged with having automatic weapons; however, what he did apparently when he saw the arrest taking place is he dismantled the automatic nature of the weapons, so he was released today.

MR. LEHRER: These 12 people, what can you tell us about them in terms of backgrounds, ages, sex, education, whatever?

SEC. KELLY: They run from their early 20s to 50. I think Mr. Bauer is 50 years old. He’s the individual they were talking about as far as being the gunsmith, making guns.

MR. LEHRER: That’s whose house Betty Ann Bowser and the, and the Phoenix police officer were at.

SEC. KELLY: Correct. Some of the people are employed. Mr. and Mrs. Belaville, for instance, are employed. Other people are employed sporadically–house painters, that sort of–there are no professional people in this group.

MR. LEHRER: No unabomber types with Ph.D.’s in mathematics or that sort of thing?

SEC. KELLY: No. It doesn’t appear to be.

MR. LEHRER: Right. What, what brought them together? What, what–was it a desire? What desire to do–what did they want to do that brought them together?

SEC. KELLY: It’s difficult to say. Many of these groups have fringe people who feel disenfranchised in some way, shape or form, and they seem to bond together. They seem to find themselves. There’s no clear indication at least up to now as to what brought these people together.

MR. LEHRER: What was their motivation for wanting to blow up these buildings?

SEC. KELLY: Again, it’s hard to say. There’s clearly animus, clearly ill feeling against the federal government, and against these, these specific agencies. As far as any specific identifiable wrongs or slight that happened with these agencies, we’re not aware of that.

MR. LEHRER: Any connection to any other militia groups?

SEC. KELLY: Not so far. Of course, search warrants have just been concluded, and there’s a lot of information. They are going to have to go through that to make an analysis and make determinations if, in fact, there are any connections with other groups.

MR. LEHRER: Thus far, any connection to the Oklahoma City bombing?

SEC. KELLY: No. There doesn’t appear to be.

MR. LEHRER: These–had they worked out a timetable for when they were going to blow up these buildings?

SEC. KELLY: No, but they clearly had the wherewithal to create the mayhem. They had significant amount of ammonium nitrate, estimated to be at least, uh, 1,000 pounds. They had at least 70 weapons, automatic weapons for the most part. They converted semiautomatic weapons to fully automatic weapons, and as the officer said, on your piece, built their own automatic weapons.

MR. LEHRER: You can’t help but wonder what would 12 people do with 70 automatic weapons.

SEC. KELLY: Well, that’s a good question. I think those are some of the questions we still want to see answered.

MR. LEHRER: Yeah. Now, you didn’t move on these people because you thought they were about to go blow up all of these buildings, right?

SEC. KELLY: No. This case happened in the normal processes. Evidence was gathered, as you said. We certainly had significant support and help from local authorities. The evidence was presented to the grand jury. A true bill was issued last Thursday with arrest and search warrants and the operation was put into effect, I might say I think very professionally, by ATF and all the local authorities.

MR. LEHRER: Now, this undercover person who went in there, when did he go in there, and who–not his name–but where did he come from, and how did he get in there?

SEC. KELLY: The undercover person is a state employee who came forward to work with ATF and he had a position in the organization.

MR. LEHRER: Now I understand from what I read in the wires that this particular organization said they would kill anybody that they caught–they thought was an infiltrator, is that right?

SEC. KELLY: Yes, they had rhetoric of that nature. They talked about in their videotape that is mentioned in the indictment, about putting devices, anti-personnel devices, in the mailboxes along the way so that when the building was blown up and people responded, the people would be injured or killed, so clearly they were–they were talking some serious business.

MR. LEHRER: But this, this undercover agent, it was more than just a routine undercover assignment in other words, is what I’m saying. If they had found him, they might have shot him, right? Is that–

SEC. KELLY: Highly dangerous, and he did a very professional job.

MR. LEHRER: Yeah. And he was–as you say, he was–he was a local guy, right?

SEC. KELLY: That’s correct.

MR. LEHRER: Now the videotape, describe this videotape. What was on this thing?

SEC. KELLY: The videotape showed individuals in a car. You could hear them giving a voice-over describing a building and focusing specifically on columns of that building.

MR. LEHRER: And these are buildings in Phoenix?

SEC. KELLY: This was the Treasury Building.

MR. LEHRER: Treasury.

SEC. KELLY: The one that I looked at, where ATF was headquartered at the time, no longer there, but they were talking specifically about how you would plant explosives to collapse the columns and thereby collapse the building, and that would prevent transmission of information to Washington. And they, they did similar scouting missions on other federal buildings in Phoenix.

MR. LEHRER: Now were these videotapes designed for training purposes–

SEC. KELLY: Correct.

MR. LEHRER: –or for show-off purposes?

SEC. KELLY: Well, they were very much involved in training, training their own people, and their information that they conducted many training sessions, indeed, some of them recorded, so if you look at the charges, it’s conspiracy to conduct training to create civil disorder. This was focused on training their own members.

MR. LEHRER: And how did you all get this videotape?

SEC. KELLY: Well, through the course of the investigation, obviously, as you said, there was undercover–

MR. LEHRER: Undercover. Yeah.

SEC. KELLY: –involved in here.

MR. LEHRER: Yeah. Mr. Secretary, should this be seen as an aberration–12 people who got together in Arizona? Are we–are you on to something much more dangerous and widespread than that?

SEC. KELLY: Well, I, I think if there are groups like this, and I think we have to go under the supposition in our business that there are, that they’re small in number, we know that there are militia type organizations out there. Many of them are certainly law-abiding people; they do things such as having military exercises, but it’s totally within the law. And we don’t investigate groups. We investigate criminal acts. My own sense is that groups such as this are certainly small in number.

MR. LEHRER: Is there any doubt in your mind and your colleagues’ minds that these people intended to actually carry this thing out, this was more than just a bunch of people sitting around deciding, hey, if we wanted to build, we wanted to blow up these buildings, here’s how we would do it?

SEC. KELLY: Well, certainly in my mind there’s no doubt the things that they did–first of all, the continual accumulation of explosive devices, the continual manufacture of these weapons, going out and doing scouting, and then going out into the desert and actually exercising, detonating explosives, firing their fully automatic weapons, no doubt in my mind that at some time they were going to pull the trigger on this whole thing.

MR. LEHRER: There have been no details, at least that I have read, about how these people were, in fact, arrested. In the past, there–you know, don’t have to tell you–there have been stand-offs and, and sieges and all of that. How did this go so peacefully and so quickly?

SEC. KELLY: Again, I think it was really a tribute to the professionalism of ATF. They had a very detailed and involved plan. They involved the state and local authorities, and it worked like clock work. They were very conscious–

MR. LEHRER: They did it all at one time, all 12 of these–

SEC. KELLY: Did it all–

MR. LEHRER: Were they in different locations?

SEC. KELLY: –within the same time period. All at different locations, with the exception of two–actually three people were taken at the same location.

MR. LEHRER: Location.

SEC. KELLY: But it was done very professionally and with a great sensitivity to the–to keeping any possibility of, of harm to an absolute minimum. No one was hurt. None of the agents were hurt. None of the suspects were injured.

MR. LEHRER: Was there the threat of violence? Do these people–

SEC. KELLY: One person was armed and if, in fact, this operation had not gone as well as it had, they certainly had the ability to perhaps go back to their houses, where we know that they had a lot of weapons as the search has disclosed.

MR. LEHRER: All right. Is there–do you feel sitting here now that there’s still an awful lot more information to be found out, or do you feel you’ve got it?

SEC. KELLY: I think certainly we have the core of this group, but as we go through the information that’s been produced as a result of the search warrants, I think there’s a lot more useful–hopefully useful information that we can use to further this investigation and maybe other investigations.

MR. LEHRER: Mr. Kelly, thank you very much.

SEC. KELLY: Thank you, Jim.