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

Knight charges that both men encouraged the Vipers to go further with their activities, to the point of suggesting criminal behavior the others would not agree to.

He says, "The only reason explosives were included in the last outing was so Drew 'Frenchy' Nolan could experience it. And as for the craters, Jay 'Doc' Wells--the other government plant--had them bury the explosive to produce a bigger hole."

Nolan had told them that he had a Klan background and had been in a motorcycle gang.

"I figured a lot of people had made those kind of mistakes," Knight says to explain why he didn't protest a former Klansman joining the group. Knight claims there wasn't racist talk in the Viper Team, and Nolan didn't offer any. "They knew better," he says.

Wells suggested that the Vipers consider robbing a bank and using the money to purchase more supplies. "Absolutely not, I'm not going to do that kind of stuff," Knight says he answered. Government witness Steven Ott confirmed Knight's objection during detention hearings.

"Jay wanted us to have a formula. He wanted us to write down what we would do in various scenarios. I said no. Jay was leading the group. He would start the conversations. He was so skilled at it, he'd get into a subject, get us going, and then just sit back."

Every Viper meeting since the January swear-in of Knight and Williams is on either audio or video tape, Knight says. He's seen and heard most of it. He says much of what he hears himself saying in meetings is stream-of-consciousness rambling.

"Most of the stuff I said was relatively mild. I don't advocate killing. I don't advocate bombing. I don't advocate the destruction of anything."

It seems likely that Knight's fate will depend more on a jury's interpretation of what he says on the tapes than on what he's done.

He's concerned that prosecutors will use some of his statements out of context. For instance, Knight has a habit of referring to his air-conditioning tools as "implements of death and destruction." It's a phrase he's used countless times. In one Viper meeting, however, he applied the phrase to militia equipment, saying, "With our capacity for death and destruction, we have to be careful what we do." Knight says the statement was intended as a precaution about proper handling of firearms, but he assumes the government will cast it in a more sinister light.

During another gathering, Knight warns the group to be "tremendously careful" and on guard for government infiltrators.

Knight says the tapes contain a passage in which government agent Jay Wells asks what would happen if, in the event of civil war, the Vipers discovered that one of their members is a spy.

Knight asks, "We still have a termination policy if someone turns us?"
When another member says, "Yes," Wells points out that the group is talking about a capital offense. Wells then attempts to further define a scenario in which deadly force would be justified. Would an oil embargo be a serious enough crisis? Wells asks.

Knight responds, "We aren't going to be doing any of this shit. It's just not going to happen. What's going for us is taking the moral high ground."

Randy Nelson says, "That doesn't feed your family."
Knight replies, "Planning does . . . but planning ahead to do something like that [killing or committing robbery] is wrong. If it comes to that [civil war], we'll plan then."

Knight says he also is nervous about a remark he made after an explosion. "I said, 'Man, that would have torn the tread off a tank.' And [prosecutors are] taking that to mean 'Oh, yeah, an ATF tank?'"

Knight says he has no idea what it would take to do that kind of damage, and that the government is blowing such statements out of proportion.

The defense attorneys, too, have seen and listened to the tapes.
"I guess they feel there are enough politically incorrect things said to where they're afraid the prosecution can make it really nasty," Knight says.

"Plus the fact that we said we knew it was a conspiracy. Yeah, that's on the tapes. [Defendant Dave Belliveau] was very careful to explain the antiterrorism bill and the conspiracy statutes and all that stuff to us. And I said at one point, 'Well, yeah, if one of us goes down, we should all hang together because we'd most assuredly hang separately.'"

Knight says under the language of the antiterrorism bill, parts of which have since become law, it seemed obvious to the group that the Vipers would be considered a conspiracy.

At the time, he explains, discussing whether the militia was a conspiracy was a way to criticize what they felt was a dumb law. But in the hands of government prosecutors--and out of its original context--that discussion becomes a damning admission.

Knight says defense attorneys have told the defendants that the second key piece of damaging evidence is the use of their dues to purchase supplies for explosives.

All 12 defendants face a common charge (for Knight, Chris Floyd and three others, it is the only charge): That they conspired to construct a "destructive device."

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