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

"I think what happened was Rick Walker saw the coiled snake on the 'Don't Tread on Me' flag, and this was when there was a lot of publicity going on about the new Dodge Viper. And he thought viper, snake, don't tread on me--hey, that's cool, let's do that. To the best of my knowledge there was nothing else."

Contrary to what they were dubbed by the press, Knight says the members always referred to themselves as Viper Team.

"At that point, I don't think we wanted to call ourselves a militia. In my mind, at least, we weren't [a militia]. We were a rifle team. We were going to go out and get competent at shooting rifles, and there were some guys in there that liked to blow up dirt. So let them indulge themselves and have a good time doing it and then we'll get serious about the rifle team."

One member, Randy Nelson, was a certified firearms instructor. Walker, meanwhile, had many NRA shooting ribbons and liked to shoot one of Knight's favorite weapons, an M1 rifle. The prospect of training with such skilled shooters, Knight says, was the primary reason he joined.

Knight and Williams attended Viper Team meetings and outings regularly until their arrest July 1.

Knight describes the January meeting, which he says was typical: "We'd sit around and talk about where we wanted to go camping, and the guys that were into the explosives would talk about what they would try to make a bigger bang. Gary was working on a dummy grenade deal so he could launch it with a rifle--which is all perfectly legal. He was making those with PVC and copper, I think. They were talking about that kind of stuff. And about training with some inert grenades. None of which I thought would ever happen.

"It was all talk. There was no money. That was the point, there was no money. The money we had collected for dues we were using for camping gear, field jackets and boots for people who couldn't afford to buy good boots. Sleeping cots. Our total budget at the time we were arrested [about $500] was almost as high as it had ever been."

On the other hand, he admits, "I don't think there's any hedging the fact that it was a militia group. We didn't call ourselves a militia group because it made no sense at all to say, 'Hey, look at me.'"

But then he mentions that Rick Walker was calling attention to the group. "He thought of Viper Team as his own personal Praetorian Guard. He's very loud, a lot of braggadocio, a lot of high-volume stuff. There were a lot of occasions when his loud words caused embarrassment," Knight says. Walker's talk alienated the group from other Arizona militias, who were attempting to upgrade their image after the Oklahoma City bombing.

Knight also acknowledges that, in a theme common to other militia groups, there was a sense that Viper Team needed to prepare for an upheaval which would require their military and survivalist skills.

"I thought it would be like the disaster in Florida, when a hurricane hit and it took the government four days to get people fresh water. That kind of thing: natural disaster, earthquake, L.A.-style riots. Anything along those lines," Knight says.

He concedes the group did discuss apocalyptic scenarios in which blue-helmeted U.N. troops invade U.S. cities to promote the new world order. But Knight insists that he considered such an event "very unlikely." His real attraction to the group, he says, was more recreational than ideological.

"I figured I could live with the guys blowing up dirt. Didn't bother me. I figured that I'd never touch it. And I never did. I never fired an automatic weapon. I figured I'd never transport any of that stuff. And I never did.

"I figured, very naively, that if I didn't and something ever happened, as far as them being careless or stupid, I would be out. Donna and I both wouldn't touch any of that stuff. However, having said that, if the group had ever decided, if one of the leaders had said that we had to go destroy property, unless and until invasion had occurred and the American public was on our side--and this was said--unless that had occurred, V Team was never going to do anything."

And, Knight claims, contrary to the government's original allegations, the Viper Team was increasingly heading away from the explosives and toward simply becoming a rifle team.

"We were getting away from all of that stuff. The only reason at all that there were explosives at the last outing was because [government informant] Drew Nolan said he hadn't had a chance to play with that stuff. And he wanted the opportunity to play with some explosives. That's right off the evidence tapes."

Nolan was an employee of the Phoenix gun mart Shooter's World who had turned informant for the government. He also paved the way for another member to join the militia in December 1995: a man who called himself Jay Wells. Wells was actually a state Department of Game and Fish agent working undercover on behalf of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

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