TOPICS > Politics

Viper Militia – Up in Arms

July 5, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ten of twelve members of the group appeared in court today, providing the first glimpse of the government’s case against the Viper Militia. Prosecutors played a videotape made by members of the group showing them blowing up homemade bombs in the desert.

A government witness, special ATF agent Steven Ott, testified he and an undercover agent had been monitoring the group for more than six months and during that time observed them stockpiling weapons, teaching each other how to make bombs, and discussing how they might direct violence at federal buildings in downtown Phoenix.

The 12 Viper Militia members were arrested on Monday on federal conspiracy and weapons charges. All week long federal officials have combed through the homes of militia members, finding what they characterized as an astonishing arsenal of weapons. At one home alone, they confiscated more than 100 guns. Some were homemade automatic and semiautomatic weapons.

And federal agents found more than 400 pounds of materials that can be used to make explosives.

Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley heads a task force that has been investigating Arizona militias for several years. Although he is not involved in this federal case, he says discovering groups like the Vipers confirms what his team has suspected, that some extremist militia groups have gone underground.

RICHARD ROMLEY, Maricopa County Lawyer: The militia movement and the way they’ve structured themself has really made it very difficult for law enforcement to investigate and to get a real handle on how serious a threat this is because they create independent cells. It’s not like a large organization like the Mafia.

There are independent–and, uh, generally do not interact with other cells towards a large organization, and so you literally have hundreds of them out there. Law enforcement has to come together.

We haven’t done a good enough job of trying to ferret out the real extremist components of the militia members. It’s a dangerous situation, and we should just not, you know, kind of brush it off like it’s not a serious situation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As law enforcement officials continued counting and cataloguing the Vipers’ fire power, details about the ten men and two women in custody began to emerge.

The suspects range in age from 27 to 50. Among them are an engineer, a salesman, a doorman, and a house painter. People who knew them say they all share one thing in common, an interest in guns. Four of the suspects bought ammunition at the Outpost Gun Store in Northwest Phoenix, where owner Alan Trabilcy frequently chatted with them.

ALAN TRABILCY, Gun Store Owner: They were just kind of average all-Americans. They all professed to be libertarians. They all professed to be conservative, pro-gun, very anti-big government. The thing that rials them up the most is these gun laws, umm, you know, Ruby Ridge, Waco, things like that. Just about any infringement of their individual rights bothers them a great deal, but I would have to say, um, what little I knew of them as customers, the assault rifle ban and the Brady Bill and things like that really pushed ’em over the edge.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mike Johnson also knows members of the Viper group. As the spokesman for three Arizona militia organizations, he met with the Vipers some months ago and he was concerned about the violent nature of their conversation.

MIKE JOHNSON, Militia Spokesman: King Viper was a small group, very outspoken, that was a little more boisterous than most of the militias, what we really cared for. They weren’t interested in as much of the political aspect into the teaching aspect, into dealing with other people as other groups.

From talking with them at meetings, we found that because of that uncontrollability, because of the boisterousness, I felt personally, and so did others, that we really did not want to associate with these people.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Johnson is one of the few militia leaders and supporters who knew the Viper Militia even existed.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Did the Vipers, did they catch you by surprise?

JACK McLAMB, Militia Supporter: It truly did. We like to think, especially on our home turf here, that we’re connected with the militias.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jack McLamb is a retired Phoenix policeman who runs the organization Police Against the New World Order. He helped negotiate a settlement recently to the standoff between the FBI and the so-called “freemen” in Eastern Montana, and like many militia supporters, McLamb is very skeptical that the government has a case against the 12 suspects.

JACK McLAMB: I have a lot of problems today. I’m sorry to say that when the federal government’s involved in something, we have to look very carefully at truly what happened. I hope that these are good, sound charges and these are truly the bad guys because they’ve sure been painted that way, and it would be nice for once that they truly were the bad guys, and the police got it right.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Joel Breshin is the Regional Director of the Phoenix Anti-Defamation League, which has been tracking militia groups for years. He says it’s a frightening sign that so few people were aware of the Viper Militia’s existence.

JOEL BRESHIN, Arizona Anti-Defamation League: The fact that they were able to discipline themselves to keep quiet and to keep their plan secret even from some of the other militias in this state I believe shows their, their seriousness, their dedication to their cause, and their intent to at some point do some very, very real damage. What it means is that we really don’t have a handle on terrorist groups like this, and we don’t know where they are.

We know they’re out there, obviously, but it’s going to take a concerted effort by all law enforcement agencies to try to find these people and it’s going to take, I believe, a change in how we as Americans view these kinds of anti-government groups.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Yesterday on the day Americans celebrate the birth of this nation, few people we talked to seemed concerned about these anti-government groups. In Glendale, a Phoenix suburb near where many of the Viper Militia members lived, residents gathered, as they do every year, to picnic and watch fireworks. We asked several people if they thought there had been a rise in militia activity in Arizona and whether or not it concerned them.

BILL RODDY, Nuclear Plant Employee: I don’t think there’s any more than there probably was ten, fifteen years ago. It’s just the idea, it’s a focal point now. It’s news, and what used to be, uh, a group now becomes a militia. What used to be a militia now becomes something beyond that.

CATHY HORNBURG, Government Employee: I think there’s a lot of people that have ideas against the government or against whatever philosophies or groups, but, you know, that they don’t do anything, but half the fun is in the planning, you know, and they just get all hyped up about that.

GERI FISHER, Temporary Worker: You have to go on with your life, either that, or you’ll be in your house, close the door. We wouldn’t be out here tonight if we were, you know, if it scared us that much.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Maricopa County DA Romley is concerned that more people aren’t disturbed about what he perceives as the growth in extreme militia groups.

RICHARD ROMLEY: I think law enforcement has finally gotten the message. And I’m not sure everybody else has.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: These people are dangerous?

RICHARD ROMLEY: Oh, no question.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Are there more of them than most of us think?

RICHARD ROMLEY: I believe probably there are more. But it’s very hard to tell from my perspective, from what we’ve been hearing, from the intelligence we’ve been able to gather. The numbers are growing. I think that they’re significant and probably what concerns me most in the short-term is that I’m seeing more extremists willing to take very violent means to accomplish their goals.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Romley and other Phoenix law enforcement officials say what frightens them most is that increasingly extremist groups not only talk about blowing up federal buildings, they seem to also have the capability to do it.