Cults and militias are growing in influence, so their presence in West Virginia is not unique, a national expert on the groups said Thursday.
Rick Ross, an Arizona cult expert who worked with former members of the Branch Davidian cult, said such groups have the right to express extreme ideas.
"But it's not a question of what groups believe, it's what they do," Ross said at West Virginia State College. "The First Amendment gives freedom to express anything, but committing crimes is not sanctioned."
Ross ticked off the names of more than a dozen extremist groups that have grown in recent years. Militia groups have gained attention and members following the Waco, Texas, fire that killed more than 80 Branch Davidian members and the Oklahoma City bombing.
"Our society is vulnerable and we as individuals have vulnerable times when we are depressed, perhaps about a breakup in a relationship or because we feel alone. We are looking for a group," Ross said. "Timothy McVeigh [the Oklahoma City bombing suspect] was alone, disheartened, looking for an identity. He was discharged from the military for failing to make it in the Special Forces."
There are probably 100,000 militia sympathizers in the country, and many more people are becoming exposed to their ideas.
"The Internet WEB pages, and other enhanced technologies have brought their message to 10 million people," he said.
Cults, he said, have in common the presence of a dictatorial leader in a totalitarian, closed system. Militia groups as yet have no characteristic leaders, but otherwise there are many parallels.
In West Virginia, William Pierrce continues to exert influence nationally through his book, "The Turner Diaries," Ross said.
The book is about a mythological race war, in which a man named Turner explodes a bomb made with fuel oil outside the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., Ross said.
"Of course," he said, "you realize the parallels with McVeigh."
Ross said "The Order," a white supremacist group in the 1980's, stole an estimated $4 million, of which $700,000 was never recovered. "Some $50,000 was given to Pierce, one Order leader said. And pierce paid $95,000 in cash for his farm," he said.
Pierce has never been charged with receiving stolen money and has denied receiving any money from the organization.
Ross also criticized Gun Owners of America, and its president, Larry Pratt.
"Larry Pratt goes to expositions where there is racist literature and books saying the Holocaust never happened," Ross Said.
"I would say Larry Pratt is a very dubious person because of his connections to racist groups," he said.
There is a West Virginia chapter by Sam Cravotta, a candidate for Congress in the Second District. Pratt visited Putnam County earlier this year to speak at a rally by the organization.
Ross warned the students attending his speech to keep their critical faculties when approached about joining extremist organizations.
"If you come across a group that seems too good to be true, it is," Ross said.