Paranoid Patriots: Conspiracy Theorists on Trial, for Conspiracy
The woman sharing the elevator with me at the Federal Courthouse shakes her head. "The fellas oughta remember to talk like someone is listening," she says, "because God is always listening."Turns out that, in this case, God was a "cooperating witness," a snitch.He went by the name of Ed Maeurer, and he seemed like one of the fellas, a good American, a free man and a patriot, brave and righteously paranoid. He was there when the boys learned how to make sparkler bombs, and he was one hell of a shot at the militia range. Shooting at cut-out figures of federal agents didn't seem to bother him at all. He brought his own silhouettes for targets.He was also wired for sound. When you confided in him about how much you'd like to blow up a federal detention center, or toss a pipe bomb through the window of a cop car, you were speaking for posterity.He was in direct contact with the FBI. Whenever one of the boys gave him a little something for the coming calamity -- a converted rifle, some nine-millimeter ammo, a guide to chemical explosives, some propane tanks, a list of recipes, some PVC pipe to fill with chemicals and black powder -- he took it straight to Special Agent Ramon Garcia of the FBI.Every now and then, Garcia would cut him a check for services rendered.Much of the case against the seven people currently on trial for conspiracy against the U.S. Government hinges on the testimony of Ed Maeurer. Prosecuting attorneys depict Maeurer as a man with an admittedly checkered past who has decided to atone for former sins by helping the government douse the flames of domestic terrorism. Defense lawyers argue that he is a jailhouse snitch, a double felon who failed polygraph tests administered by the FBI, a desperate man who was broke and purposely exaggerated the threat of the Washington State Militia and the Seattle Freemen in order to siphon money out of the FBI."When you judge the government's case," defense attorney Tom Hillier told the jury in his opening statement, "you judge it by the evidence and its foundation. The foundation is Ed Maeurer, and he's a liar."But while Maeurer may lie, the tapes do not. The government is documenting its case with hours of material recorded in the FBI's 13-month investigation, first by Maeurer and later by undercover agent Michael German. The tapes are often unintelligible, but they do offer a garbled introduction to the strange and remarkably paranoid world views of defendants John Pitner, Marlin Mack, Gary Kuehnoel, and Fred Fisher of the Washington State Militia, and Tracy Lee Brown (a.k.a. William Smith) and Judy and John Kirk of the Freemen.In these tapes, there is much talk of eroding liberties and disappearing rights, impending doom and coming invasions, calls for good citizens to arm themselves in preparation, guerrilla war tricks picked up from obscure manuals, woods to retreat to, caves to hide in, ways to modify semi-automatics into machine guns and construct homemade bombs.Every now and then, there is an explosion.WAR GAMESImagine the humiliation. Instead of fighting -- or at least talking about fighting -- the most righteous war in 200 years, a head-to-head show-down with the FBI, the U.N., and the Federal Reserve Bank, here sit the last true defenders of American liberty, busted by the government for conspiracy.Where is their grandiose defiance now?For all their proud rhetoric of doing holy battle with a criminal -- occupation government -- they don't show the slightest bit of rebellion in court. When the judge walks into the room, they all stand up. They dress nicely, smile at their fans in the audience, shake their heads in disbelief when the accusations are made. Occasionally a face turns red and a defendant leans over to whisper into the ear of an attorney.The defendants hardly give the appearance of being a well-trained squadron of soldiers. Kuehnoel can barely get up from the couch, so serious are his back troubles. Pitner and Fisher both look like they'd drop dead after 15 minutes of physical exertion. With his wild white beard and permanently befuddled eyes, Brown a.k.a. Smith looks like one of those nuts who sits down next to you at the library and starts babbling.It's hard to imagine these guys running obstacle courses in full cammo gear, much less leading guerrilla counterinsurgencies against the jack-booted thugs of the New World Order.But the federal government's indictment charges that the defendants manufactured 21 illegal bombs and machine guns in all, and that they planned to use these weapons in terrorist attacks against government institutions.There is plenty of evidence that the defendants were thrill-seeking war-lovers who enjoyed learning how to make things go boom. But the dire threat of their collaboration may be somewhat overstated.Defense attorneys argue that the militia was infiltrated because of its political views, that the conspiracy was an invention of the FBI, and that the escalation of arms within the group was a direct result of the encouragement of paid informant Maeurer and undercover agent German. They claim that Maeurer and German essentially ran the show, enticing the defendants into building new weapons by feeding their collective paranoia. Without the infiltrators, defense attorneys say, the group's momentum may well have fizzled off into nothing.By the time Special Agent German arrived in Bellingham last February, Pitner, the militia's leader, had pretty much dropped out of the group because of money and health problems. In one videotaped meeting between Maeurer and Pitner, Maeurer laments, "We're losing our guys."But German, or "Rock," as he was known to militia members, brought fresh enthusiasm to the group. German, a graduate of Wake Forest, Northwestern, and the FBI Academy, invented an alias and fabricated a colorful past that would link him with Maeurer and thus earn him easy acceptance into the militia. He started attending militia meetings in April, and within weeks he managed to win over the defendants, particularly the youngest and most energetic, 23-year-old high school dropout Marlin Mack, who fell for German's "cover story" and confided in him completely."I developed relationships with people to make them speak more frankly about their criminal acts," German testified in court.German posed as a dealer in stolen military goods, and on several occasions he delivered, getting new packs for the boys, or even some of those neat night-vision goggles. He set up a trading posts of sorts, an "off-site" for storing bombs and firearms. The place was made of cement, and completely "secure"É aside from the fact that it was wired for both sound and video by the FBI.THREATS REAL AND IMAGINEDThere is no way of knowing whether John Pitner and his followers actually believed that forces representing the United Nations were about to converge on Washington state from the Canadian border. Or whether Freemen John Kirk and Tracy Brown (a.k.a. William Smith) actually believed the FBI planned to follow up their arrests of the Montana Freemen with a Seattle Freemen bust.There is also no way of knowing whether they were stockpiling munitions for an attempted takeover that they saw as inevitable, or whether they actually planned to take out infrastructure and kill federal agents. In opening statements for the government, Prosecuting Attorney Susan Dohrmann accused the defendants of plotting to blow up a Burlington Northern railroad tunnel, as well as a microwave tower near Bellingham. She painted a convincing picture of the serious threat the defendants posed.But not all of the tidbits within the mountain of evidence entered during the trial pass the straight-face test. At one point, Maeurer presented the jury with an honor bestowed upon him by Pitner, a small card heralding Maeurer as a "militia sniper." The card described Maeurer as "well-armed and prepared for self-defense against the menace of a criminal government. Any government agent who tries to run away will only die tired. When executing such vermin, the bearer will only feel the recoil of his rifle."Other threats are more harrowing. In one recording, Mack ridicules Pitner for insisting that the militia remain exclusively for defense as opposed to offense. "Saving people, my ass," he says. "We're gonna go on a killing spree!"But as defense attorneys have repeatedly pointed out, for all the macho threats and wishful boasts, the defendants never actually blew anything up, and never shot anyone. Mack's lawyer Wayne Fricke describes the threats as "general disgruntled dissatisfaction." "There were months and months of talk," he says, "but nothing was ever done."It is almost sad to see these proud soldiers in the cold light of the courtroom. They look so tired. I am reminded of the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the curtain is drawn to reveal a shriveled, nervous wizard, his grand powers a sad joke.In one telling appearance, Theodore Carter, who pled guilty to charges against him in January in return for testifying for the government, testified that his experience as an "explosives expert" in the militia was limited to teaching the group a trick he learned from some kids -- how to make sparkler bombs by wrapping sparklers tight in strapping tape, leaving one sticking out of the bundle for a fuse. Militia members then discussed how they could beef up the sparkler bombs, making more effective shrapnel by adding nails or small rocks to the mix. There was further talk of using iodine crystals.Fortunately, none of these particular fantasies were ever acted on. Carter attended one more meeting and then quit. Asked why he joined the militia, he said, "I was lonely. I wanted friends. It was better than sitting at home drinking."