Clayton - Two young boys had died near David Stone Sr.'s ramshackle house, and he was ordered to give answers.
Instead, after months of ignoring lawyers' requests to respond to a wrongful death lawsuit, Stone filed for bankruptcy, a move that allowed him to avoid trial in the drowning deaths of 17-month-old Qamar Griffin-Jones and 2-year-old Darrin Hayes - two relatives who had wandered away from their baby-sitter and fallen into an uncovered hole Stone had dug for a septic tank.
That 1998 case is among several matters filed in Lenawee County Circuit Court involving Stone that point to a reluctance to cooperate with authority - from repeated failure to comply with court-ordered child support to foot-dragging in providing proof of his employment after his two divorces.
Outright hostility toward authority is at the heart of federal charges that allege Stone and eight others plotted to attack law-enforcement officers.
Stone identified his group, the Hutaree, as a Christian militia organization. But other local militias likened the unit to a cult or street gang of mainly young men who idolized the 45-year-old Stone. Some members were extreme even by the standards of anti-government militia; police reports show that one Hutaree member was on a federal terrorist watch list.
Although prosecutors said Stone's mind-set escalated to the brink of war, his lawyer said the government's entire case rests on a single word: "If."
"If you believe the government; if you believe the government's spin; if you believe the government's fear," attorney William Swor said. "It's interesting that the government is fearful of the citizens and it pooh-poohs the fact that citizens are afraid of the government."
Why feds say they acted now
Stone's rundown double-wide trailer served as the primary meeting spot of the Hutaree.
There, he railed against the government, creating his own vocabulary for the powers he condemned - with terms like "Elitists In Charge," who he said are undermining the Constitution.
The Elitists' foot soldiers were law-enforcement officers he called the "Brotherhood." And Stone ordered that bombs be built to slaughter thousands of them.
That is the scenario presented by federal prosecutors, who have charged nine Hutaree members with plotting to overthrow the U.S. government in a bloody civil war.
Stone was the ringleader, prosecutors said, while his 21-year-old son, Joshua Stone, served as second-in-command.
The others jailed while awaiting trial are David Stone Sr.'s new wife, 44-year-old Tina Stone; his 19-year-old adopted son, David Stone Jr.; Joshua Clough, 28, of Blissfield; Kristopher Sickles, 27, of Sandusky, Ohio; Michael Meeks, 40, of Manchester; Jacob Ward, 33, of Huron, Ohio, and Thomas Piatek, 46, of Whiting, Ind.
The suspects' lawyers say the clan is merely a group of disgruntled Americans arrested for speaking their minds.
But U.S. Attorney Joseph Falvey said they were plotting to turn talk into action.
"Owning guns is not a crime. Wearing uniforms is not a crime. Training is not a crime," Falvey said. "But when persons with dark hearts and evil intent get together and conspire to oppose by force with firearms and violence the authority of the United States, it is a crime."
Not your average militia
In some ways, the Hutaree behaved like many other area militias. They trained with guns and explosives in the backwoods, preparing for a war that some of them see as inevitable between the U.S. government and frustrated citizens.
Robert Dudley, 80, of North Adams agreed about four years ago to allow the group to use his wooded 53 acres for training. They gathered three or four times a year, sometimes camping overnight, he said.
"They were sneaking around, trying to be invisible," Dudley said. "They were guerilla-type maneuvers."
The men had guns, he said, but he never heard them fire.
Dudley said he chatted with Stone Sr. about survival - pondering hypothetically about what to do if the government turned off the power or heat. Dudley said he and Stone Sr. were both constitutionalists and Christians.
But other members of Michigan-based militias say the group was too extreme and have posted messages distancing themselves from Hutaree in the wake of the group's arrest.
"As far as ideology, they are neither a militia nor Christian, as far as I know," said Mike Lackomar, 36, a member of the Southeastern Michigan Volunteer Militia. "They are not much better than a well-armed street gang."
Lackomar said Clough was a member of his militia for a short time, until he washed out of an advanced leadership training course and stopped showing up.
"He's the only person I remember seeing have his rifle taken away," Lackomar said. "He was not mindful of where his weapon was pointed. Someone took it away, handed him a stick and said, 'Hey, stupid, train with this.' "
Lackomar said Stone Sr. and about five other members of the Hutaree group trained with his unit on at least two occasions in 2007.
"To me, this looks like a bunch of young guys following David Stone," he said. "Without him in place, it would have just been training on the weekend."
Plotting against police
According to prosecutors, Stone Sr. did more than train.
His goal was to first take over a handful of counties in southeast Michigan - including Hillsdale, Washtenaw and Lenawee counties - to lure the enemy to him, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Waterstreet told a federal magistrate at a detention hearing last week.
Waterstreet said that Stone Sr. also believed he should "own his own country."
Hutaree members regularly talked about killing police officers, Waterstreet said. In one scenario, they would gun down one officer, then wait for the subsequent funeral so they could ambush his mourning law-enforcement brethren.
In another, they would set an officer's house on fire, then shoot and kill the fleeing occupants.
The group's hostility toward law enforcement started to escalate in December, when Clough, using the Hutaree-given name of Azuurlin, posted a message on a Web site at www.awrm.com - A Well Regulated Militia. In it, he complained that members of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were looking for paperwork relating to "our commander."
"We have and will return fire," he allegedly wrote. "The question is, will you?"
The same day, Stone Sr. allegedly sent e-mails to Hutaree members under the name Joe Stonewall entitled: "Flash Flash. ATF enforcers.
"Looks like ATF enforcers are looking for reasons to start a fire fight," the message continued. "And we will answer the call."
By January, Stone Sr. had announced a "major operation" in April, in which anyone who opposed them would be killed, Waterstreet said.
And in February, an undercover agent recorded a speech blasting the government, which the leader planned to deliver at a militia summit in Kentucky.
"We think we are free," he allegedly said. "We need a certificate to be born, a license to drive, permits to build." These, he said, are actually "permission slips from the terrorist organization called the New World Order" - the term he coined for the current leaders of the U.S. government.
"They wanted to insert a team into a hostile area using a van," Waterstreet said of the alleged April mission in the making. "If anyone happened upon them and didn't submit to their demands, they would be put on the ground by bullet or knife."
Stone Sr. also instructed members to wipe down bullets and shell casings to clear fingerprints. And he told the group's bomb-maker - who actually was an undercover federal agent - to beef up explosives to ensure they could penetrate police cars and body armor, prosecutors said.
Just talk - or much more?
Detroit attorney James Thomas, who represents Joshua Stone, said the allegations are serious.
"But they are nothing more than that - allegations," he added. "The presumption of innocence still applies."
Aitan Goelman, who was chosen by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to prosecute Oklahoma City bombing suspects Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, said the Hutaree's threats cannot be taken lightly.
"It's always a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't position in cases like these for law enforcement," he said. "You can't wait till the actual fuse is lit in a case like this."
According to prosecutors, each of the defendants had a role in a deadly plot to wipe out as many police officers as possible.
Tina Stone - who married Stone Sr. Dec. 12 - was in charge of communications. Clough was allegedly assigned to map out routes to evade law enforcement once battle began.
Sickles - who had body armor, a sniper suit and night-vision goggles when police arrested him at his Sandusky home - discussed killing officers and practiced hardening himself by fatally shooting his cat with a .357-caliber handgun.
Meeks provided a list of names of federal and elected officials that Joshua Stone referred to as a "hit list." In his home, agents found 16 guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, stockpiles of canned food and a small plaque with a piece of barbed wire on it and an inscription: "Remember Waco." That's a reference to the 1993 ATF assault on a compound of a well-armed religious sect in which nearly 80 people died.
Ward and Piatek were well-trained and extreme, ready to act on any orders the Hutaree handed them.
All hearsay, responded their lawyers.
"We're talking about issues of free speech versus evidence of somebody's characteristics," Thomas told U.S. Magistrate Judge Donald Scheer. "This is not an issue we should take lightly."
Feds had to make a move
Lackomar isn't convinced the Hutaree were organized enough to follow through on the big talk.
"It doesn't mean they weren't in the deep planning stages," he said. "They were probably capable of trying something."
The government said it couldn't wait to find out.
Goelman said: "If they amassed explosives and were talking about plans, at that point, law enforcement has to make a move."