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

He was born in Washington, D.C., in 1949--he laughs at the notion of starting life "inside the beltway"--to a father working on Lyndon Johnson's staff. He grew up in Kansas City in what he describes as a lower-middle-class neighborhood of mixed race. "I played in a rock 'n' roll band. I was one of three white guys and three black guys in a band in Kansas City. . . . We played a lot of military bases."

Knight first married in 1969 and joined the Army in January 1970, spending the bulk of his military career at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, until his discharge in January 1973. He divorced and moved to Arizona that summer. He pursued a college degree while working as a security guard, and entertained the thought of becoming a police officer. Instead, he chose to serve part-time as a reserve military policeman until 1988.

Knight entered refrigeration school in Phoenix in 1981. Since then, he's operated his own business, Knight Air Conditioning.

"My kids and I would go to parks and I'd go around handing out my business cards and say, 'Hi, my name is Chuck Knight and I do air conditioning, and I'm trying to start my company up. Would you give me a call? I'll treat you right.' And, honest to goodness, it grew from that into a pretty good-size little company. I had three trucks at one point."

Knight today has one truck, four children (ranging in age from 25 to 16), two stepchildren and four ex-wives.

Knight says his youngest child has taken some ribbing. "The 16-year-old in school has had comments, saying, 'Your dad is a terrorist.' My kids know it's nonsense. My kids are tough, and they know I'm an honest guy."

In 1988, Chuck Knight joined Northwest Christian Church, and became a deacon. At the time, he says, his political interests were relatively dormant.

"I voted. I was conservative. Basically, I just thought less government is better government."

Five years later, a church elder invited him to the political discussion group. But by November 1995, he was ready to try out a new outfit, one he was told about by men named Randy Nelson and Rick Walker.

Knight says that when he and Williams joined Nelson and Walker's friends in that initial camp outing, the group didn't have a name.

"This looked like an opportunity to go out and play around in the woods with a group of people I could learn to camp with," he says, remembering that about 10 people, dressed in camouflage, set up camp in a remote part of Tonto National Forest.

Some of them were interested in more than building a campfire.
"They had taken out some junk that they were going to blow up in the desert," Knight says, sounding no more concerned than if they had planned to pitch a tent.

"They had taken out this green glop . . . they mixed it up there. And they did three or four ridiculous explosions. They just went 'Poof!' and green goo went everywhere. Rick Walker had green smut all over his butt. And there were little green flecks of crud on the trees. It was just ridiculous. They basically went 'Whoosh!' And [Walker] said, 'Well, let's try something different.' So they tried all these different things and they finally got something that made a little more noise.

"Nobody had a particular role. Rick Walker was formulating stuff to go bang. Everybody else was just doing what other people do in the forest every day."

Knight says Walker and Gary Bauer showed the most interest in the explosives.

"Not me; I'm as timid around that stuff as can be. I am scared unreasonably by explosives. A firecracker blew up in my hand when I was a kid, and I've been spooked ever since. I mean, it was all I could do to throw a grenade in the Army, and I only threw the one in practice.

"Anyway, I thought, that's all fine and well if these guys want to do that stuff. I mean, it was fun to watch."

Knight and Williams went home after only an hour and a half. Not because of the explosions, he says, but because they didn't want to stay overnight and, since they were still married to other people, didn't want rumors starting about them.

Meanwhile, a hunter happened to approach the camp, and was turned away by a sentry. That hunter contacted the state Department of Game and Fish.

That campout would be the last outdoor gathering the group held which was not under government surveillance.

Knight and Williams began attending the group's in-town meetings as well. "I liked that it was a group of guys who were going out shooting and were doing it safely," Knight says.

"I had learned how to shoot in the Army, and I felt comfortable with it. I wasn't going to hurt anyone else doing it. I knew the safety; I knew how to handle it. It was nice to be with a group of adults, doing things. And it all seemed harmless."

In January, Knight and Williams were sworn into the group, which by then had a name.

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