By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The next day, Rick Walker suffered another heart attack. And then, on December 19, two of the defendants appeared in court to enter guilty pleas on their own. Gary Bauer and Randy Nelson, who face some of the most serious charges, didn't wait for the government to make another offer. Three others, Henry Oberturf, Walter Sanville and Scott Shero, pleaded guilty December 27. Donna Williams was to enter her plea December 31.
Knight remains determined to fight the government's charges. He may be joined by one other. Chris Floyd reportedly has changed his mind and has refused to sign the plea agreement as well. While the others admit guilt and accept sentences as short as a year and as long as 10 years, Knight and Floyd alone will roll the dice and attempt to prove that they are innocent of wrongdoing.
A trial is scheduled for January 28.
Six months ago, mug shots of Chuck Knight and his 11 fellow defendants adorned newspapers and the network news as the federal government bragged that it had foiled a nefarious plot to blow up several Phoenix buildings.
"They all looked ordinary," read a July 15 headline in Newsweek, "but harbored an obsession with guns--and possibly terror. The Feds may have busted them just in time."
President Bill Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano all hailed the arrest of the Viper Militia as a victory against domestic terrorism--a victory the government hungered for in the wake of the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing.
Almost immediately, however, questions arose about the government's claim that it had intervened in the nick of time to thwart a massive terrorist attack. None of the indictments leveled at the defendants accused the group of planning to blow up Phoenix buildings--an allegation which had figured so prominently in press accounts and statements by Clinton and the others. Instead, most of the counts involve technical firearms and explosives charges. Several of them could have been avoided, for example, simply with the purchase of $250 tax stamps, which make it legal to own the machine guns some Vipers possessed.
Some pundits--Nightline's among the first--wondered if the press hadn't been duped by a government which had overstated its case for political reasons.
A federal judge appeared to confirm that conclusion when he determined that six of the defendants presented so little threat they should be released pending trial (one returned to custody voluntarily when he could not get his old job back).
During July detention hearings, the government presented evidence that two agents had infiltrated the militia after receiving a complaint from a hunter in November 1995. The agents had surreptitiously taped--both audio and video--every meeting and outing held by the Vipers since January 1996.
In one videotape made by the Vipers themselves, shown in court and on television, camouflage-wearing members of the militia set off explosions in the desert while hollering things like, "Wow! Wow! It's a fucking mushroom cloud!" Members also fire unregistered automatic weapons. However, Knight and several other Vipers, the government admitted, handled neither explosives nor machine guns.
Defense attorneys denounced the government's tactics and its informants, who they suggested had encouraged and perhaps entrapped the militia members.
In recent weeks, however, as the national press has lost interest in the Viper case and stories about it locally have slowed to a trickle, those tough-talking defense attorneys seem to have changed tack. Eagerness to take on U.S. attorneys and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and its agents has been replaced with an aversion to going to trial.
His aversion to that strategy has led Chuck Knight to tell his story.
He relaxes on a Sunday after a grueling week repairing air conditioners. For 16 years, he's operated his own business, and it means long hours, trial or no trial.
Knight's look is Western: he wears boots, jeans and a black leather vest over a light blue shirt. He is muscular and has enormous hands. A rim of reddish stubble accentuates his jaw line. When he talks, his sentences usually emerge wrapped in slightly raspy laughter. He is courteous.
Knight, 47, is a man of faith who easily slips into expressions of his love for religion and the church. But it's clear that Knight is most often evangelizing himself. And enjoying it.
Even as he considers options which could send him to prison for several years, he's irrepressibly optimistic. Only occasionally, when the full weight of his predicament hits him, his face flushes and furrows and he fights his emotions.
Sitting quietly across the room is Knight's friend, the Reverend James Taylor, an African-American pastor who created a stir when he showed up at the federal courthouse to accept Knight from custody July 13. People were astonished to see a black man appear on behalf of a militia member, Taylor relates with a laugh.
Taylor's a soft-spoken man, not tall, but with the build of a linebacker, and he patiently listens to Knight explain how he's gotten into this fix.
"I guess it was about two years ago now," Chuck Knight begins, "an elder at my church invited me to go to a meeting at the Libertarian party headquarters discussing the Constitution and other information. At the time, it sounded pretty radical to me, all the black helicopters and that kind of nonsense. I guess this is when that stuff was just starting.