Indiana in middle of thriving militia region

Indianapolis Star/April 23, 2001
By John Masson and Andrew Wolfson

While numbers of groups decline elsewhere, Midwest remains stronghold for such activity.

Six years after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building thrust the modern militia movement into the spotlight, the number of such groups nationwide has dwindled dramatically. Except here.

Indiana, Kentucky, and Michigan form a sort of militia corridor, private watchdog groups say, although militia groups here and elsewhere have been much quieter after the bombing deprived them of their mass appeal.

"There was indeed a spike downward (in membership) after the bombing, but it's now approaching where it was in '95," said Devin Burghart of the Center for New Community in Chicago. "Today, the highest levels of activity are from Michigan down to Kentucky, then over into Ohio.

That's where the largest concentration of militia groups in the country continues to be." Members of self-described moderate militias, while declining to cite actual numbers, agreed with Burghart's assessment.

"We are having a resurgence of new members," said Stan Wilson, who commands the militia in Hancock County. "You got your ups and downs, your slow periods, but here within the last four to six months there's been a real big resurgence of people wanting to become involved."

Militia membership jumped immediately after Timothy McVeigh blew up Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, but then began to dwindle, according to the FBI and private watchdog organizations. The Southern Poverty Law Center's most recent figures show the number of militia groups dropping from a peak of 370 in 1996 to 68 last year.

The decline was mainly because of law enforcement crackdowns and the exit of members who tired of waiting for a revolution that never came. Something else that never came, despite early reports, was proof that tied McVeigh to any militia group.

"(McVeigh) only went to a couple of meetings, and in at least one of them he was asked to leave because he was too radical," said Phillip Crousore, regimental commander of the Tippecanoe County militia, near Lafayette. "After (the bombing), we got painted with the same broad brush."

No direct links ever were found between militia members and the fatal blast, which killed 168 people, including 19 children. But the image of militia members as mad bombers stuck. And eventually, the added scrutiny cost them membership.

"When you shine a light on something like that, it's often like flipping on the light when you come into the kitchen," Burghart said. "The cockroaches tend to scatter."

The groups, many of which offer paramilitary training to members to rebuff expected government attacks, first arose in the early 1990s as a reaction to fears that the federal government was about to confiscate firearms from its citizens.

The federal government's role in confrontations with the Branch Davidians at Waco in 1993 and with Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, a year earlier "further fueled conspiratorial beliefs that the government was becoming more tyrannical and attempting to reverse constitutional guarantees," according to a paper written by FBI Agents James Duffy and Alan Brantley.

Militia leaders claimed that gun-control legislation was a prelude to socialist one-world government, or "New World Order.'' Claiming they were the legal and ideological heirs to the Minutemen who fought at Lexington and Concord, militiamen and women positioned themselves as a "last defense" against the government, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks the groups.

While many of the surviving militias now disclaim violence and terrorism, some of the more paranoid and extremist organizations still present a grave threat, experts said.

During the past three years, several militia leaders have been charged in elaborate conspiracies to bomb government buildings and utilities, and to assassinate state and federal officials from judges to senators.

"Even though most militia groups claim they only operate defensively, the extremely high levels of paranoia most such groups possess means that they often think they are acting justifiably when they are not," the ADL cautions on its Web site. "And even groups that may not pose a danger can spawn individuals committed to violent or extreme acts," Burghart agreed, saying it's important to remember the danger such groups can pose.

"In the early '90s, it was difficult to get people to have concerns about the militia," he said. "People thought they were just a bunch of kooks running around in the woods with guns, looking for black helicopters."

Experts urge caution about other areas of militia thinking, as well. While most militia groups haven't espoused racial bigotry, for example, FBI Director Louis Freeh warned in 1999 at a Congressional hearing on counter-terrorism that "hate philosophies" had begun to take root in the movement. That included the "pseudo-religion" of Christian Identity, which provides both a religious basis for racism and anti-Semitism.

Militias fall under the umbrella of the so-called Patriot Movement, which the ADL says includes a collection of groups, many more extreme than militias, known as "sovereign citizens," tax protestors, Christian patriots, Christian Identity groups and white supremacists.

But Wilson, the Hancock County militia commander, dismissed the notion that his organization, a smaller unit of the Indiana Citizens Volunteer Militia, is racist. He said a wide variety of ethnicities already are represented in the ICVM.

"We recruit all citizens of the state of Indiana," he said. "We're not a group that's racially biased. . . . We want all people of all races to join."

Despite claims from some militia leaders that they speak for the entire movement, there is no centralized militia leadership and different chapters hold far different views, said retired FBI Special Agent Donald Bassett, who heads the independent Crisis Incident Analysis Group. The group reviews and tries to prevent violent clashes between government and patriot groups.

Many militia leaders -- including those in Indiana and Kentucky -- have condemned the Oklahoma City bombing, while others say they think McVeigh was a patsy in a government conspiracy to embarrass and vilify the patriot movement, said Mark Pitcavage, who monitors militias for the ADL.

But most militia chapters, like the Kentucky State Militia, never have been linked to any crime, according to the Kentucky State Police and the ADL. The commander of the Kentucky group has been invited to testify before state legislative committees, and two Kentucky state lawmakers spoke at a militia rally earlier this month.

Other contacts between the government and the militia started just weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing. Freeh and then-Attorney General Janet Reno ordered agents in the FBI's 56 field offices to open lines of communication with militias, and meetings were held in many cities, including Indianapolis. FBI Special Agent Doug Garrison, who works in the Indianapolis office, said the meetings helped calm tensions.

"It was just to let them know . . . we weren't the big, bad FBI lurking behind every tree and interested in what they were doing on weekends when they were out having meetings," Garrison said. "They feared the FBI. They feared that we were wiretapping their phones, or following them around, and that wasn't true." Garrison said the agency wants to keep lines of communication with the militias open as the clock ticks down for McVeigh. But he said the upcoming execution doesn't mean there's a heightened threat from militia members.

"Most of the militia people don't view Tim McVeigh as a hero," Garrison said. "He's a killer of innocent people. I don't think there's much disagreement on that."

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