Sticking By His Guns

ccused conspirator Charles Knight talks about his days in the Viper Militia, why he's fighting the government's case against him, and how he fell in love with fellow defendant Donna Williams

"This was at the time of Waco. And everyone was outraged that these people could be machine-gunned from the air and then burned, and the government was taking a 'Well, the heck with you' posture. That's how a lot of these groups got started. They were people who were interested in Waco and they got together to talk about it, and they got angrier and angrier and angrier.

"I listened to them talk about that kind of stuff, and after several meetings of that, I found it very interesting--they had literature from the John Birch Society and other conservative think tanks."

One of the leaders of the group wore a badge and referred to himself as the brigadier general of the Arizona Militia. It makes Knight chuckle now, the silliness of it. He admits that the talk would descend into lunacy at times, with rampant tales of black helicopters and Russian tanks on American soil. Some members, he says, attempted to clamp down on the rumor mongering. Knight tried to avoid squabbles with the loonier members over worldwide conspiracies.

"I'm just an air-conditioning guy; what do I know?" he says.
Besides, he notes, he was beginning to become more interested in the group for other reasons. Namely, a newer member by the name of Donna Williams.

"I don't think she liked me very much at first. She's very strong and very smart. I don't know, I think she intimidated me."

Gradually, he developed a friendship with Williams, who ran a concrete shop called Ancient Stone.

He also became more active in a splinter discussion group.
Although it was little more than a club for discussing politics, Knight admits that the splinter group thought of itself as a "militia." When one of the more paranoid members was asked to leave, the group changed focus, obsessing less about the "new world order" and turning more to discussions on basic preparedness and survivalism. Membership dwindled from 50 to about 15, half of whom were senior citizens.

"It moved at a snail's pace," Knight says. Then, during 1995, a few participants became interested in firearms.

"There were a group of people starting to do military basic training. . . . and I mean basic training, just learning how to shoot with weapons they already owned, and not even wearing those weapons as sidearms. Two or three people were asked to leave the group because they had worn sidearms and they were a bunch of Nazis. The group was that hard-nosed about it.

"Later on, the group split up because the people who wanted to go out and do the military training and [the others] had fallen on a difference of opinion. The military group was getting far too independent."

At this time, Knight says, he considered himself a member of the political, rather than military, cadre. He did go out one night with a handgun to see what the military types were doing, and it spooked him--the others seemed reckless.

Meanwhile, Knight and Williams "were just barely starting to like each other. We had a lot of differences. . . . But we were beginning to enjoy each other's company."

Increasingly, he became unhappy with the organization. In the meantime, two men, Randy Nelson and Rick Walker, briefly attended the group's meetings, and told Knight about another set that they belonged to, a group more interested in camping and target shooting than gabbing about politics. Knight asked Williams if she wanted to check out Nelson and Walker's bunch.

Not long after, they abandoned the splinter group. But Knight says that as far as he knows, the military wing--the ones that made even him, a Viper Militia member, nervous--is still doing night maneuvers with weapons in a river bottom near 107th Avenue and Jomax Road.

By Arizona standards, Chuck Knight's weapons cache and his activities were hardly unusual. Knight owned two rifles, two shotguns and a pistol, all legally registered, and he practiced with them in preparation for a future event in which, like the minutemen of Concord, he would be called on in an instant to defend his neighborhood.

It's difficult for Knight and his peers in the so-called "patriot movement" to understand that many Americans find this behavior utterly insane.

With foreign enemies losing their menace, however, groups such as the rabidly anticommunist John Birch Society have turned inward, focusing on domestic enemies--namely, the federal government. Estimates of the patriot movement put the numbers of men and women nationwide preparing on some level for an apocalyptic showdown with government agents in the tens of the thousands.

It's a small faction that has generated a disproportionate amount of press, nearly all of it accusatory. Militia members who claim to harbor mainstream ideas complain that they've been lumped in with extremist groups with racist agendas.

In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, many militias reportedly disbanded as a wave of anti-militia feeling swept the country. In its wake, the militia movement leaves a discontented rabble--Pat Buchanan's peasants with pitchforks--who can't understand why the rest of the country doesn't see them in the light of the Founding Fathers.

Chuck Knight is one of them. And he, like many others, came to the patriot movement with little experience in political activism.

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