Sticking By His Guns
Chuck Knight listened to his fellow Viper Militia defendants as they took turns discussing a plea agreement offered by government prosecutors. The 12 alleged conspirators and 11 of their attorneys sat crammed into a small room on the sixth floor of the Federal Building. They hardly fit around the room's table, and the humidity in the room had risen noticeably.
Rick Walker said he was dying.
Walker, the former leader of the militia, had fared worst in the four months since the group's arrest made national headlines. A diabetic, Walker had already suffered one heart attack and alarming weight loss during his incarceration.
And unless the rest of them joined him in accepting the government's offer of a plea agreement, Walker told them, he would never survive a prison sentence he expected to be very long.
As each defendant in turn spoke, there was little discussion of the evidence in the case. Beginning with the defendants facing the most serious charges, each militia member agreed that taking the government's offer beat the severe penalties they would face if found guilty in a trial.
Some hesitated. Chris Floyd, at 21 the youngest member of the militia and one of the least involved, complained that he couldn't resign himself to a prison stay. He couldn't afford to spend a year or more away from his young family, he told them.
Floyd then stepped out of the room with his attorney and returned a few moments later.
"Yeah, I'll do it," he said, agreeing with the rest.
Others left the room momentarily to consult their lawyers, but eventually, 11 agreed to take the government's offer.
It was Chuck Knight's turn to speak.
If Knight went along with the rest, he would plead guilty to a crime he does not believe he committed and spend two years in prison. If he balked, however, and elected to go to trial, he would ruin the deal for the rest of them. And if he were found guilty in that trial--which is what his attorney had told him was likely--he would face up to seven years in prison. Others could spend decades locked up.
Most important, Knight knew that his fiancee and fellow defendant Donna Williams supported the plea agreement. And if he ruined it for her, he was afraid he would lose her forever.
Suffering an acute bout of loyalty, Knight agreed to accept the government's plea agreement.
But in the days following that meeting, while under house arrest, Knight would wrestle with his conscience.
He was confined, when he wasn't working, to a modest north Phoenix house owned by a friend; he'd stayed at the house since being released from custody on July 13. Seven of the defendants remained in jail while awaiting trial, but Knight and four others had been freed, at least temporarily.
Knight's comfortable surroundings belied the truth: He couldn't leave the house without notifying court workers. Under one of his boots, he wore an ankle device that he couldn't remove. It allowed police to track him if he attempted to flee.
But he didn't want to flee. He only wanted to see Williams, his fiancee, and discuss his doubts about accepting the government's offer.
His release orders, however, prohibited him from contacting her. He couldn't contact any of the other defendants, or members of any militia, and he could not possess weapons. He could, however, entertain visitors and friends, who would, over the next few days, urge him to reconsider his decision to accept the plea agreement.
His dilemma was overwhelming. Should he be a good soldier and take his punishment to ease his fellow Vipers' lots? Or should he stick up for himself, to the detriment of his comrades, including his future wife? Something had to give.
Something gave on December 2, when U.S. Magistrate Barry Silverman altered the terms of release and agreed to let Knight and Williams have contact. Beginning that night, the two of them would spend every allowable hour with each other.
Knight learned that Williams was resolute--she had decided to take the government's offer and spend no more than 18 months in prison. But she made it clear to Knight that whatever he decided to do, it wouldn't affect their relationship.
Still, Knight wavered, swayed by his attorney Tom Hoidal, who pressed him to accept the plea bargain. Even if he didn't intend to break the law, he was told, the prosecution could show that the letter of the law had been violated. Accepting the plea, Knight was told, would save him years in prison.
But Knight was convinced that his role in the Vipers' activities had been harmless. He had never handled explosives, never fired an automatic weapon, never advocated hurting anyone or destroying anything. To the contrary, he had spoken out against such acts.
He knew he had done nothing that warranted his going to prison--and he felt certain a jury would agree.
On December 6, Knight read the actual wording of the proposed plea agreement. It shocked him. For the first time, the full import of admitting guilt became clear.
Four days later, he told his attorney he couldn't sign the document.
News that Knight planned to fight the government's charges rather than plead guilty--thereby jeopardizing the other defendants' opportunity to accept the deal--spread quickly among the defendants and their families. Angry parents and other family members called Knight to berate him, telling him that he was sending his friends to their doom.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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."
Knight is asked if he knew his dues were being used to purchase such supplies. "Yes," he answers.
Knight admits that the $25 he paid in dues was put into a kitty that reached about $500. Along with many other supplies purchased from that kitty, the "explosives guys," as Knight refers to them, used some of the money to buy blasting caps, small charges normally used by miners to set off explosions.
"The group as a whole tolerated the explosives for the camaraderie of the group, so we could all stay together."
Knight says he still doesn't understand why the explosives were such a big deal when the group had no plans to do anything other than blow up dirt in the desert.
Knight had only heard of--but hadn't seen--the infamous "target tape," made two years earlier by three of the defendants. The indictments suggest that the target tape is the proverbial smoking gun, the government's best evidence the Viper Team planned to blow up buildings. At the July detention hearings, government prosecutors attempted to show the tape, but after a few seconds of it played before a rapt courtroom audience, defense attorneys leapt to their feet and objected. The tape has still not been shown in public.
Knight says, "I didn't see it. To this day, I still haven't seen it. They mentioned it in one of the meetings. They said that Dean [Pleasant], Ellen and Dave [Belliveau] drove around in a car one weekend with a video camera, looking at buildings and narrating how to blow them up. I said, 'That's stupid. Where is that tape?' They said, 'It's been destroyed.' 'Have you seen it destroyed?' 'No, I gave it to [undercover agent] Doc to destroy.'
"They gave it to the ATF guy to get rid of. And the first thing he did was say 'Hey, look, we got probable cause, guys, here it is!' Well, that tape was two years old."
And Knight claims the tape was made for another group, not the Viper Team, which would not be created for another year. At least that's what he remembers from what he's been told about evidence in the case. He's been given voluminous copies of evidence--discovery that the government had to turn over.
"Let me see if I have that tape now. I might," Knight says, and he goes into a bedroom to search through some boxes.
He emerges a few minutes later.
"This is the target tape," he says as he walks to the VCR. Once it begins playing, this is what he hears:
Today's date is May 30, 1994. This is a reconnaissance tape for American patriots. What you are looking at now is the Phoenix, Arizona, Treasury Building, which houses Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms [the bureau has since moved]. You see here the communications array, including microwave. Also seen in this shot: the power transformer, on a telephone pole, leading to the building. Certainly not their only power source, but important and of note.
We will be going around the building. We will be taking note of its structure. We will also be walking up to the building. This is the address: Second Street and Indianola. We are south of Indian School. Today is Memorial Day. The offices are closed.
This is the main entrance to the building. You see there the iron grating, closing off the garage. We are on Second Street, west side of the building. Notice the structure. These pillars support the entire building. Take out these pillars, simultaneously, with explosives . . .
"Oh, my God," Chuck Knight says softly.
. . . and the building will collapse. This is important to note, an important objective to go after. Because if the building is not collapsed, information transfer will take place electronically. Records of local investigations, local suspects and various different operations will be transferred to federal computers back in Washington, D.C. . . .
Here we are on the north side of the building again, moving east, so you can see these mailboxes. If you wanted to put antipersonnel devices in here to harass Treasury employees, this would be an ideal location.
Knight says, "Jesus. God in heaven."
Also on the north side of the building, a water main. If you wanted to burn the building down, or you didn't want anyone to extinguish the fire after an explosion, take this out.
Knight says, "I'm going to throw up."
He shakes his head as future Viper colleague Dean Pleasant continues to narrate the video tour of Phoenix buildings. From the Treasury Building, Pleasant and the Belliveaus make similar assessments of the IRS office, Great American Bank, the U-Haul building (which Pleasant incorrectly identifies as the location of DEA offices), the INS building on Central Avenue (behind which, Pleasant notes, shrubs offer excellent concealment for a sniper), KPNX-TV Channel 12's studios, Phoenix Police Department headquarters, and the Maricopa County court complex.
When the tape ends, there is uneasy silence in the room. Then, in case Knight hasn't grasped the significance of the tape, James Taylor, Knight's pastor, crystallizes the peril it may pose. Taylor shifts in his chair and says, with measured restraint, "This tape would excite a jury."
"Well, yeah, because it's being done so cold," says Knight, referring to the lifeless tone of Pleasant's voice.
"No, because it was done at all," Taylor answers. "If I was sitting on a jury right now, and I heard that, I'd be ticked off. Does that tape still make you want to be so supportive of these people?"
"I think [Pleasant] had the right to be stupid," Knight answers. "I don't think he had the right to do anything about it."
"You think this is the right to be stupid? Or something else?"
"I think he was just bored. Dean Pleasant has a tremendous mind, but he can't focus himself, he can't do anything. I mean, he's unable to support himself. He was working at a doughnut farm, for God's sake, just to keep himself employed. Do I think I owe him anything? No."
"Do you think a jury of your peers will see that as just some guys who are bored?"
"I think it would be up to the defense to make that case. Or it would be up to the defense to make the case that the tape does not affect people two years later. Those people could have all kinds of criminal intent. But two years after the fact nothing has happened, there was no plan, [and government witness] Agent Ott said on the stand the reason they didn't alert anybody [supposed targets] that there was this dangerous group out there was because they knew there was no plan, no one in danger."
Later, Knight expresses regret at watching the tape. He's afraid of what prosecutors might make out of it but knows that his attorney should be able to keep it out of his trial: It was made nearly two years before he joined the group, after all. If it implicates the others, then so be it. He should not have to pay for the mistakes made by other defendants.
And he has reason to believe that his involvement, considered alone, would convince a jury he doesn't deserve prison time. At detention hearings, attorneys grilled government witness Ott about the participation of defendants such as Knight and Donna Williams, who faced none of the illegal weapons charges.
Knight's attorney Thomas Martinez, who has since been replaced by Tom Hoidal: "You didn't see Charles Knight mix, detonate, export . . . do anything illegal?"
ATF group supervisor Ott, testifying on behalf of the government's undercover agents: "Not to my recollection."
Martinez: "Charles Knight didn't use, export, buy, sell, make, teach, store anything on his own?"
Martinez: "The affidavit [for the search warrant] says, 'All members participated in making or mixing explosives.' Isn't it a fact that this isn't true?"
Ott: "That's correct."
Although they had been wary of each other at first, Knight and Williams developed a friendship and a curiosity about each other which had become a passionate affair. Knight says that although he had been married several times earlier, Williams was the first woman he had ever loved.
"I am not ashamed. We became the best of friends way before there was a chance of a romantic relationship. Both of our marriages were in failure by that point."
His divorce was final June 20. Williams' divorce decree had been final prior to that date.
Knight is not offended when he is asked how a man of faith can have so many failed marriages.
"That's what it's like to live under the grace of Jesus," he says. "You're allowed to screw up, and if you do, it doesn't mean you're less of a human being. You try to learn from your mistakes and move on instead of being buried by them."
Knight describes Williams as strong-willed and intelligent, someone who challenges him constantly on many different levels. In person, Williams has a striking presence: she's tall, handsome, and has intense eyes. In the militia, she had been called "Valkyrie."
On the morning of July 1, Knight and Williams woke up in his apartment. They dressed and walked outside, and Knight told her he'd see her later that day.
Knight drove to his first air-conditioning repair appointment of the morning, and he'd hardly pulled up his truck when it was cut off by an ATF van.
"Get out of the car! Get out of the car! Get out of the car," a pistol-wielding ATF agent screamed at him again and again.
Luckily, he says, a U.S. marshal with a cooler head took over, and his arrest went smoothly.
Gradually, the defendants realized what a media circus had erupted.
Most of the time during their incarceration, Williams and Knight could not see each other. They had contact only when male and female defendants were brought together at the federal courthouse for detention hearings.
One morning about a week after their arrests, Knight sat in one of the court's holding cells with the nine male Vipers and other inmates. In the next cell, other men were talking loudly. Down the hall, Knight knew, the female defendants, Williams and Ellen Belliveau, sat in a separate cell. He couldn't see them.
"Will everybody shut up a minute?" Knight shouted. The inmates quieted down.
"Donna," he said, "this is going to sound dumb in here, but will you marry me?"
From down the hall came her answer: "Yes, I will."
The inmates in Knight's cell broke into applause and pounded him on the back.
Later, when the defendants walked up a narrow set of stairs while in shackles, Knight got close enough to Williams to speak with her.
"You'll really marry me?" he asked.
"Yes, I really will," she replied.
Once they were released and allowed to contact each other, Knight says he made a proper proposal, on his knees. Williams accepted again.
When they were released from custody on July 13, Knight, Williams and four other freed defendants ran a gauntlet of quote-hungry reporters.
Only Knight spoke, shouting, "The truth will set you free!" as he left the courtroom. It's from Scripture, and Knight says it's his motto. Only after he rejected the government's plea agreement, he says, did he feel he was living up to it.
Knight, whose ex-wife had been awarded the house in the divorce, moved into his friend's house and, after a few weeks, started working again. As a result of the arrest, he's lost three customers out of a list of 400.
"My people know me," he says.
Pastor Warren Stewart is working the room into a fever, quoting Scripture in a booming voice that builds and builds. The African-American Baptist congregation eggs him on, shouting out "Hallelujahs" and "Praise the Lords" that punctuate the sermon in a syncopated rhythm. Stewart pushes on, riffing on the commercialism of the holiday season.
Then, with the congregation buzzing, Stewart pauses briefly to catch his breath. "I could stop there," he says with a smile, "but I won't."
It draws an appreciative shout from the crowd, and from the front row, a vote of confidence.
"Listen to this white man! He said, 'Stay with it!'" Stewart shouts, pointing at a worshiper in the front row, one of only a handful of white faces in the crowd of hundreds. "I think we have truly converted him to one of us."
The crowd roars in laughter.
"He's going to have me listening to country music before too long," Stewart jokes. "How long have you been coming, brother Knight?"
"Since I got out," Knight answers.
"This is brother Charles Knight," Stewart explains to the rest of the room. "He got into some trouble, and since then he has come to us and has been coming to our door ever since."
The worshipers erupt in applause.
"He said, 'Stay with it.' Oh, you bet I am," Stewart says as he pushes on.
After the service, Knight accepts the encouragement of other worshipers at the inner-city church, First Institutional Baptist on Jefferson Street.
Knight began to attend the church at the invitation of his friend James Taylor. Taylor told him that the black Baptists would have no trouble accepting someone who had been accused--perhaps wrongly--by overzealous lawmen.
Abandoned by his friends at Northwest Christian Church, Knight gave Taylor's church a try. His shunning by former friends, he points out, is ironic, since it was members of Northwest Christian who first introduced him to the militia movement.
Today, standing outside First Institutional Baptist, he is especially proud as he introduces members of the congregation to his fiancee, Donna Williams. The two of them look wholly out of place, white folks shaking hands amid a sea of black faces.
The parishioners greet them warmly, not seeming to care that in their midst stand two of the country's most notorious serpents.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.