The Far Right: Robbing and Squealing

WASHINGTON, D.C.--New details about a rash of bank robberies by white supremacists in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest have cast fresh light on the workings of a little-known far-right terrorist underground and its secret hideout in the Ozark mountains. They also demonstrate the existence of a broad white-supremacist apparatus that, if anything, has gained momentum since the Oklahoma City bombing. In court documents and testimony last week, members of a gang of bank robbers operating across the Midwest are revealed to have visited an isolated "farm compound" called Elohim City in eastern Oklahoma, which has been cited by law-enforcement officials as a hideout and staging point for the extremist underground since the mid 1980s. It has even been discussed as a possible planning area for the Oklahoma City bombing. In another development, one of the robbers in the gang was revealed in court last week to fit the description of a Philadelphia white supremacist with links to the Aryan Nations and to the same Oklahoma farm compound, where he resided for a time. There has been some speculation that this man may turn out to be the mysterious John Doe #2, wanted in connection with the Oklahoma City blast. Since the 1980s the racialist movement has pursued the revolutionary quest of setting up a "white bastion" in northern Idaho and western Montana. Through an armed underground called the Order, it robbed banks and armored cars, and engaged in counterfeiting to finance the white revolution. At the same time, the underground set up hit lists, targeting individuals it considered race traitors and outspoken antisupremacists. The best-known victim was Alan Berg, the Denver radio talk show host who was gunned down in June 1984. By the late 1980s the FBI had shut down the Order, sending most of its members to jail for life. But the revolutionary underground apparently survived, and, operating in small, secret, leaderless resistance cells--often unknown to one another--struck at Oklahoma City, then in the Midwest with the bank robberies, and most recently in two robberies and bombings in Washington state. Individually some of these revolutionaries are also members of the Phineas Priesthood, the murderous outgrowth of the Christian Identity movement. The Midwest bank robberies center around two main figures: Richard Lee Guthrie Jr., 38--the leader of the group who was found hanged in a Covington, Kentucky jail cell on July 12--and his partner Peter Langan, 38, who is to go on trial in Columbus, Ohio in early January. Two other young men, Kevin McCarthy, 19, who is testifying against the other robbers in a plea bargain, and Scott A. Stedeford, 27, who is now on trial in Des Moines, made up the rest of the gang. Stedeford is charged with robbing the Boatman's Bank in West Des Moines on March 29, 1995. Guthrie had pleaded guilty to 19 holdups in seven states, and had claimed to have given the money to white-power groups. Just before his death, Guthrie signed a plea bargain, agreeing to provide the government with information about organizations "whose goal is the overthrow of the U.S. government or engaged in domestic terrorism." And just before he died he told the Los Angeles Times of his plans to write a book going "a lot more deeper" into the robberies, his life, and the white-supremacist movement. The FBI believes the robbers netted some $250,000 which they gave to white-supremacist groups. None of the money has been recovered. Both Stedeford and McCarthy are acquaintances of Aryan Nations Pennsylvania leader Mark Thomas. According to friends, Guthrie lived with Thomas for a time. A former Aryan Nations official said Guthrie visited the Aryan Nations headquarters at Hayden Lake, Idaho in 1991. In addition, Thomas, Stedeford, and McCarthy had all visited Elohim City. Kevin McCarthy testified at Stedeford's trial last week that there was a fifth member of the bank robbery gang. On the instructions of the U.S. attorney, he did not name him. But the Columbus Dispatch and the McCurtain Daily Gazette, a local Oklahoma paper, reported the man was Michael Brescia, a neo-Nazi living in the Philadelphia area. McCarthy testified that after a robbery in Madison, Wisconsin, Stedeford drove this fifth robber to Elohim City. There, Brescia roomed with Andreas Strassmeir, the mysterious German who has been linked to Timothy McVeigh. Shortly before the Oklahoma City bombing, McVeigh's phone records show a call to Elohim City, where residents say he was trying to get in touch with Strassmeir. Both Strassmeir, who acknowledges meeting McVeigh, and Brescia have been named as codefendants in a civil suit filed by Oklahoma City bombing victim Edye Smith, whose two small children were killed in the blast.In his testimony, McCarthy described how Thomas provided him with fake identification and pistols. Thomas was present at a meeting near Van Buren, Arkansas in November 1994 where McCarthy met Langan and Guthrie.The Midwest bank robberies form one strand of the white resistance. Another came to light recently following a series of arrests in Washington state. In a string of robberies reminiscent of the Order's strikes more than a decade ago, on July 10 a group of masked men set off a pipe bomb behind a bureau of the Spokane Spokesman-Review. A few minutes later, they robbed and bombed a Spokane branch of the U.S. Bank.In a nearly identical incident, a bomb was thrown into Spokane's Valley Planned Parenthood clinic on July 12. Later that day, the same U.S. Bank branch was robbed. The robbers left literature and symbols of the Phineas Priesthood. In early October, in the midst of an elaborate undercover operation, FBI agents arrested three men--Charles Barbee, 44; Robert S. Berry, 42; and Verne Jay Merrell, 50, all of Sandpoint, Idaho. The three had participated in America's Promise, a Christian Identity group frequented by Louis Beam, a former Ku Klux Klan dragon, longtime ambassador to the Aryan Nations, and widely considered to be the de facto leader of the far right.The government believes Merrell is the leader of the gang. The son of an upper-middle-class Philadelphia family, he went into the submarine service in the Navy following high school. After serving in the Atlantic fleet for 12 years, Merrell got jobs--and security clearances--in domestic nuclear power plants. Merrell was someone who converted his investments into gold and buried them in the countryside. According to the Spokesman-Review, he got involved in the Arizona Patriots, a far-right paramilitary group with a strong resemblance to the underground Posse Comitatus groups that proliferated in the West and Midwest in the 1970s and 1980s. In the late 1980s some Arizona Patriots moved to the Sandpoint, Idaho area at the same time that America's Promise Ministries moved there from Phoenix. Sandpoint has become a focal point for the far right. It lies just north of the Aryan Nations headquarters. Both Beam and Merrell write for Jubilee, the Christian Identity newspaper, whose editor also lives there.These series of robberies--in both the Midwest and Pacific Northwest--clearly show how the white-supremacist movement learned from its defeats a decade ago. In the 1980s the Order collapsed because its members ratted each other out under pressure from the FBI. It remains to be seen whether the cell structure that replaced the Order can protect it in the face of a squeeze by the feds.Research: Jason Barton

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