Raiding the Vipers' Nest

The BATF claims "Team Viper" was a radical militia group bent on committing terrorist acts. But where is the evidence?


On July 1, the militia movement was back in the news as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms arrested a dozen members of a group it called the "Viper Militia." President Clinton offered his congratulations the next day, "saluting the enforcement officers who made the arrests in Arizona yesterday to avert a terrible terrorist attack. Their dedication and hard work over the last six months may have saved many lives." Attorney General Janet Reno was also effusive, declaring that the BATF agents had bravely defended the nation from "a potentially dangerous situation." Raymond Kelly, the Treasury Department undersecretary who oversees the BATF, hailed the demise of an "armed and dangerous" militia group bent on stirring up "civil unrest."

Government spokesmen described a plot, supposedly recorded on videotape, to blow up several federal buildings, the Phoenix Police Department, the Arizona National Guard headquarters, and a local TV station. BATF officials spoke of seizing 77 machine guns, hundreds of other firearms, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, booby traps, tons of ammonium nitrate (the fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City bombing), and explosives such as nitromethane (also used in Oklahoma City) and lead azide, described by experts as a powerful and unstable primary explosive.

All in all, it sounded as if the BATF had done what it is supposed to do: prevent domestic terrorists from wreaking havoc. The local and national media helped trumpet the achievement, flashing colorful graphics of targeted buildings on television screens and trekking with cameras to remote desert areas where the Vipers had blown things to smithereens. "'Vipers' in the 'Burbs," read the headline on the lead story of Newsweek's July 15 issue. "They all looked ordinary, but harbored an obsession with guns–and possibly terror," said the subhead. "The Feds may have busted them just in time." The story continued, "How this particular mix of people came so close to the edge of terrorist violence is a mystery for now," but "given the Vipers' wild talk and vast arsenal, the Feds had no real choice but to move sooner rather than later."

Since then, some details have come to light that suggest the Vipers were not quite as dangerous as the BATF would have us believe. Further grounds for skepticism are likely to emerge at their trial, scheduled to begin December 3. It will be interesting to see whether the national media follow these developments with the same breathless attention they devoted to the case as the government spun it on that first day.

As it turned out, there was no terrorist plot. Furthermore, the "vast arsenal" kept shrinking. Seventy-seven machine guns dwindled to four, and the unstable lead azide was transformed into lead styphnate, then lead picrate, a less dangerous compound. The amount of ammonium nitrate was reduced to 500 pounds, plus 14 or 15 gallons of nitromethane, all of which is legal to possess. But we'll have to take the BATF's word for all of this, because agents rushed the seized explosives (alleged explosives?) to the desert and blew them up. Most of the guns turned out to be legal World War I and World War II surplus rifles–not surprising, since a couple of the men arrested were collectors and one had a federal firearms license.

Oh, and by the way, there was no militia. The name "Viper Militia" first surfaced in a BATF affidavit and was dutifully transmitted in press reports. But the group called itself Team Viper or the Viper Team, not the Viper Militia. The government has not alleged that the Viper Team was affiliated with any militia group (though some of its members were rumored to have been kicked out of a group called the Militia of Arizona, and Viper was briefly affiliated with an ad hoc Arizona militia umbrella group called Alliance in Militias, but pulled themselves out). Nor are the Vipers mentioned in two recent books on the dangers of the militia movement by Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee. (See "The Militias Are Coming," August/September.) This particular militia threat seems to have been conjured up mainly by the BATF.

Government spokesmen said the Vipers came to the BATF's attention after hunters and Boy Scouts encountered armed people in camouflage who were setting off explosions in the Tonto National Forest, about 60 miles northeast of Phoenix. One of the hunters reported the incident to a state Game and Fish officer in November 1995. He said the armed men, who warned the visitors to leave the area, claimed to be working security for a mining operation that was blasting nearby.

In many parts of the country, explosions would tend to alarm the neighbors. The desert surrounding Phoenix, however, is vast and almost uninhabited. I hadn't been to the city for several years before I went there in August, and I was impressed by how it had grown, fed by water from the Central Arizona Project. Its suburbs spread for miles, dotted with new shopping centers and rambling ranch-style homes. Downtown, new office buildings gleam in the bright sunlight, housing high-tech firms alongside the offices of more traditional agricultural concerns. About 60 percent of Arizona's 3.7 million residents live in or near Phoenix. But outside the metropolitan area, which extends about 25 miles from downtown Phoenix, people are few and far between, and this is where the hunters and the Boy Scouts ran into the men in camouflage.

After the report, the Game and Fish officer joined the Viper Team as an undercover agent–taking an oath, required of all members, to kill infiltrators or informants. He collected information on the group's activities and plans, setting up video and audio surveillance of meetings. It's unclear when the informant began working directly for the BATF, but he was eventually joined by another infiltrator. After several months of meetings in Phoenix houses and apartments and several sessions with weapons and explosives in the desert, the BATF decided it had enough evidence to justify arrests and searches of the Vipers' homes.

In the first few days after the arrests, there was a lot of talk about plots to blow up government buildings. But in the actual indictments, no such charges were included. Six members of the group–Randy Nelson, Finis (Rick) Walker, Dean Pleasant, Gary Bauer, and Gary and Ellen Belliveau–were charged with "conspiracy to furnish instruction in the use of explosive devices and other techniques in furtherance of civil disorder." Together with the other six–Charles Knight III, Henry Overturf, Walter Sanville, Scott Shero, Donna Williams, and Christopher Floyd–they were also charged with "conspiracy to unlawfully manufacture, receive and possess unregistered destructive devices made with ammonium nitrate." Finally, Nelson, Pleasant, and Bauer were charged with "unlawful possession of machine guns."

The conspiracy charges hinge on intent. To obtain convictions on the charge of unlawfully manufacturing and possessing "destructive devices," the government will have to show that the Vipers intended to use the explosives as weapons and designed them with that in mind. To substantiate the other conspiracy charge, the government needs to prove that the Vipers intended to create civil disorder. That may not be easy.

The Vipers, 10 men and two women, include a few maintenance men, an engineer, a house painter, the owner of an air-conditioning service, an AT&T employee, and a doorman at a topless nightclub. Some are religious and quiet, while others are, as Soldier of Fortune consulting editor and Mesa, Arizona, resident Richard L. Sherrow puts it, "loud-mouthed smart-asses."

Republicans, Libertarians, and a Democrat, some were involved in mainstream politics at the same time they worried about black helicopters, the New World Order, and federal plans to conduct house-to-house searches for private weapons. The Vipers had regular meetings, and some of them did go into the desert to fire weapons, allegedly including machine guns, and set off explosives. They published a newsletter that featured the logo SHF–for "Suicidal Hippie Fucks." Two of the Vipers, Dean Pleasant and Randy Nelson, showed up at a Soldier of Fortune shooting competition in Las Vegas in September 1995 wearing T-shirts with that slogan. They made a generally negative impression. Sherrow, a 20-year Army veteran and explosives expert who spent six years in the BATF, says these guys were "wannabe warriors…the gang that couldn't shoot straight."

Like Sherrow, most of the people I talked to in Phoenix thought the Vipers were, at worst, tough-talking jerks. A few, including Maricopa County Libertarian Party Chairman Ernie Hancock, have a somewhat higher opinion of the group. He calls Pleasant a friend and serious activist. Pleasant, he says, recently brought to light and testified against a bill that would have made the organized and unorganized militia in Arizona, which under the state constitution consists of all able-bodied males of a certain age and is not supervised by any government official, subject to the federal adjutant general.

While not exactly mainstream even within the party (he supported Rick Tompkins's challenge to Harry Browne, considering the eventual L.P. presidential candidate too moderate), Hancock takes seriously the pledge all party members take not to initiate violence. So, he says, did Pleasant, a one-time L.P. candidate for state senator. As a Viper, Pleasant was prepared to resist any government attempt to disarm the populace and assert dictatorial control, a prospect that strikes most people, including L.P. activists, as wildly implausible. Still, Hancock believes that nothing the Vipers did violated the letter or spirit of the L.P. pledge. Over a breakfast at a Denny's in north Phoenix, he argues that the charges against them amount to a "conspiracy to learn and to teach. It's all about controlling speech and knowledge."

Hancock has a point. Those who object to laws against the mere possession of an implement or substance will find these arrests inherently objectionable. But even those who believe the government has a right or a duty to outlaw the possession of certain dangerous things should find the Viper case disturbing. Judging by the currently available evidence, the Vipers were inaccurately and unfairly demonized as terrorists. Lacking proof of an actual plot to blow up anything, the government covered itself by charging the defendants with teaching and learning about explosives. But simply possessing and using most explosives is not illegal. If it were, plenty of farmers and ranchers–who use explosives not just to clear stumps and rocks but because it's fun to make things go boom–would find themselves in trouble. The Vipers attracted the government's attention by combining explosives with eccentric political beliefs. It was not so much what they did as what they said that bothered the BATF. As Newsweek put it, "The real reason for the government's concern was that Viper leaders, according to ATF investigators and many in the militia movement, had a history of talking dangerously tough."

But did this dangerous talk justify locking the Vipers up? An early indication came a week after the arrests, during hearings to determine whether the 12 would be freed on bail or remain in jail pending trial. This is usually a relatively quick and straightforward procedure, but the hearings dragged on for four days. The government had originally planned to present several witnesses, but in the end the prosecution didn't call the BATF agent most familiar with the case, Jose Wall, who had sworn out the affidavit seeking search and arrest warrants. Instead, his boss, nine-year BATF veteran and group supervisor Steven Ott, was the only prosecution witness. Defense attorneys questioned him aggressively.

Referring to the alleged bomb plot, attorney Jeffrey Ross, representing Scott Shero, asked Ott, "Isn't it a fact that this wasn't true?"

"That's correct," Ott replied. The undercover informants had learned about a two-year-old videotape showing several buildings in Phoenix that might be potential targets in the event of a takeover by the New World Order, with a narrator discussing their vulnerabilities. But Ott testified that the Vipers were far from implementing a bomb plot and did not represent an immediate danger.

Ross pressed on: "In referring to the ATF affidavit [for a search warrant], it was claimed that all members participated in making explosives. Isn't it a fact that this isn't true? And that the targets were to be considered only in the event of a 'New World Order' takeover? Isn't that correct?"

"Yes, that's correct," replied Ott. "We felt our undercover agent knew what they were planning, and [they] had no plans to conduct bombings of these buildings at that time." He also admitted he had no clear evidence that the group had created a big crater in the desert with explosives, as reported in the BATF affidavit.

Ultimately, U.S. District Judge Earl Carroll ruled that six of the defendants–Knight, Shero, Williams, Sanville, Overturf, and Floyd–could be released without bail, on their own recognizance, until the trial. Fitted with electronic ankle bracelets (for which each had to pay $4.97 a day), they were required to report daily to court and confer weekly with their lawyers. They were forbidden to contact each other or have anything to do with firearms or destructive devices. The judge would not have approved such an arrangement if he thought these six represented a clear and present danger to public safety. Their release seemed to contradict the notion that "the Feds had no real choice but to move sooner rather than later." Henry Overturf turned himself back into jail, saying he lost his job and couldn't find new work because of his notoriety and thus couldn't afford to live on the outside. Donna Williams also lost her job within days of her release, and can't find another.

The trial is likely to produce further embarrassments. Defense attorneys will be eager to talk about Shooter's World, a gun store in Phoenix where both of the BATF's undercover agents worked during the Viper investigation. According to The Arizona Republic, inspectors from the bureau's regulatory branch found discrepancies in more than 5,000 weapons transactions processed by the store, and the store was still unable to account for at least 369 weapons. The inspectors concluded that Shooter's World usually failed to report stolen weapons as required by law, and the owners' attitude toward federal regulations was so lackadaisical that local BATF officials recommended pulling the store's license. They were overruled by the Dallas regional office, which ordered the license renewed. BATF spokesmen say the renewal and the Viper undercover operation are unrelated, that the bureau's regulatory and criminal divisions operate independently of one another. But defense attorneys plan to ask whether providing jobs for the undercover agents conducting the Viper investigation was the price for renewing the store's license. If the allegation seems plausible in court, it will raise the question of whether the BATF, as critics allege, routinely pressures people caught violating firearms laws into assisting undercover operations of dubious value.

Then there's the crater in the desert, six feet deep by at least 12 feet across, supposedly made by the Vipers and their dangerous fixation with explosives. The crater was described repeatedly in the affidavit backing up the search and arrest warrants. It turns out, however, that it was made by local sheriffs, who found some two dozen 50-pound bags of old explosives in a shed near an abandoned mine. Rather than leaving them there for some fool to stumble across, they detonated them–making the crater the Vipers were supposed to have made–and filed a report. Did the BATF not take the trouble to check with local agencies before completing its affidavit, or was it aware all along that the Vipers hadn't made the crater? Neither explanation is flattering.

Another question is whether the bureau's undercover agents operated simply as informants or more as provocateurs, urging the Vipers to escalate their activities. Defense attorneys have already alleged that the two undercover operatives urged the Vipers to distribute anti-Semitic and racist literature produced by the Aryan Nations, but were voted down. Ott admitted under oath that the undercover agents strongly suggested the group start robbing banks to finance its activities, another idea the Vipers rejected. When the Vipers decided to stop experimenting with explosives, say the defense attorneys, the informants convinced them to continue, and they may even have supplied some of the explosives.

The BATF and U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano may have overlooked the weaknesses in the case against the Vipers because both were eager for some good press. Napolitano, a Clinton appointee, last January 1996 declined to seek search warrants requested by U.S. postal inspectors who were finishing a two-year child pornography sting operation. The inspectors, who had received 106 warrants with the help of other federal officials during the investigation, were surprised. They turned to Maricopa County officials, who obtained the warrants and made the arrests. A search of the prime Phoenix suspect's house yielded numerous photos and videotapes of children having sex with men, plus a confession that the suspect had sodomized numerous boys. The case became a public issue in May when a postal inspector appeared on ABC's 20/20 with a letter from Napolitano stating that she had refused to take the child pornography case because it unfairly targeted homosexual men. Perhaps she was right, but the case has generated local criticism and a Senate investigation.

The BATF's troubles have been widely publicized, although so far the bureau's blunders seem to have led mainly to budget increases. Within the past year, the agency has had to account for its actions before a House subcommittee on the Waco tragedy and a Senate subcommittee looking into the shootings at Ruby Ridge. In both cases, the BATF came under the heaviest criticism of any federal agency for its initial actions and for the inadequacy of internal review procedures, which seemed aimed more at justifying or covering up than getting at the truth. In its report on Ruby Ridge, the Senate terrorism subcommittee cited the bureau's "unwillingness to acknowledge obvious shortcomings, such as misstatements of [Randy] Weaver's background. This kind of refusal to admit mistakes may have a tendency to encourage similar behavior by ATF agents in the future." The Senate subcommittee promised hearings on the issue of "whether the ATF should continue as a separate agency." The question of the ATF's continued existence has arisen several times since the early days of the Reagan administration, most recently when Vice President Al Gore's "reinventing government" commission considered the possibility of merging the agency with the FBI. For the BATF, a public relations coup could hardly have been unwelcome.

The bureau may still get that image boost, whatever the outcome of the Viper trial. Although the local press offered good follow-up reporting on the weaknesses in the case, the national media have shown little interest in recent developments. If that pattern continues, most Americans will remember a heroic arrest of domestic terrorists by a beleaguered agency that finally seemed to be getting its act together. But if the national media cover the trial and its outcome with anything like the attention they gave the arrests, the BATF could find that another operation intended to burnish its image has tarnished it still further.

Alan W. Bock is senior essayist for the Orange County (California) Register and author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Dickens Press), the paperback edition of which has just been published by Berkley.