Viper Snitch Hits a Glitch
Drew Nolan sets down his briefcase before he reaches out for a handshake.
"Always have to have one hand free," he says with a smile.
It's a statement he makes only partly in jest. He is armed, and after spending more than a year crisscrossing the country to keep from being found, he has come to the place where he faces the greatest risk.
Phoenix. Where, in July 1996, Drew Nolan became a wanted man for helping to bring down the Viper Team militia.
The federal government's much-hyped arrest of Viper Team made national news and brought comment from both Attorney General Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton. The arrest of a dozen members of the militia was hailed by the government as a blow to domestic terrorism; the very destruction of Phoenix itself had been averted, the public was told.
Almost immediately, however, the government's story began to change.
The militia members weren't charged with planning to blow up downtown buildings, as had first been advertised. Instead, some faced weapons charges for possessing explosives and fully automatic weapons. Others faced a charge of conspiracy for plotting to own such unregistered "destructive devices."
And, contrary to initial proclamations, half of the defendants were seen as so little of a threat, they were freed pending trial.
While news organizations scrambled to learn whatever they could about the defendants, the militia's activities and the investigation that brought it down, debate raged about what threat to public safety Viper Team had really posed.
Some wondered if the defendants hadn't been entrapped by overzealous undercover agents.
Prosecutors admitted that two had infiltrated the group. And within days after the July 1 arrest, reporters had learned their names.
One was a state Game and Fish agent named John "Doc" Schultz, known to the militia members as Scott Jason Wells.
The other infiltrator was not a member of any law enforcement agency.
He was an assistant manager at Shooter's World, and his name was Drew Nolan.
Prosecutors refused to produce either of them for Viper bail hearings. Instead, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms group supervisor Steve Ott testified on their behalf. Schultz and Nolan were referred to in court only as Mr. X and Mr. Y.
But that attempt by the government to protect his identity, says Mr. Y himself, was too little too late.
His cover blown (he still isn't sure how it happened), Nolan skipped town. He's been running ever since, convinced that members of the militia movement or their sympathizers want him dead.
He has returned to Phoenix during the trial of Christopher Floyd, the last of the militia defendants, which is going on now in federal court here. He will leave soon after it is over. He bears no malice for Floyd or any of the other militia members, he says. And he will not testify for either the prosecution or the defense. He will not attend the trial. The U.S. Attorney's Office and the ATF don't even know he's in town, he claims.
He's returned because he wants to be here as the Viper saga ends. And, he says, because he was betrayed by the government he served in the case.
Hoping that the Floyd case will revive press interest in Viper Team, Nolan has notified every major news organization in the Valley that he is back. Publicity, he says, may help him find an attorney. And with that attorney, he plans to sue the government for money he feels he's owed.
He hopes New Times can give him local coverage to bolster an article he's been told will appear in the Los Angeles Times as soon as Floyd's trial ends. Nolan wants to talk, for the first time, about the life he says he's been forced to lead since the Viper arrest.
So, after extracting promises that he will be neither photographed nor taped, Nolan agrees to discuss his role in the investigation of Viper Team and the hell it has made his life ever since.
Drew Nolan is sitting at a table at Arizona Center, explaining why joining the Ku Klux Klan was really the only option for a white person such as himself.
Looking dapper for a fugitive, Nolan wears a roomy black suit. His thinning gray hair is pulled back in a ponytail; white muttonchop sideburns sweep into a bushy mustache under a long nose and hazel-green eyes. He's 38, but could pass for nearly 50. He wears small silver earrings in each ear, an old watch on his left wrist and a silver-and-turquoise ring on the third finger of his left hand. (He doesn't mind the detailed inspection of his appearance. "Next week," he says, "I'll look completely different.")
If he weren't actually a government informant, he could play one on television.
About his Klan membership, he says: "Yeah, it doesn't look real good, but then, I don't have anything to apologize for."
The blacks have the NAACP. And for Latinos there's LULAC and similar organizations. Seeking a similar group for people of his own background, it was only natural, Nolan says, that he should join the Klan. "At that time, what was there for someone who was white?" he asks.
Only later did he realize that the organization was run by pinheads stuck in the 1860s, he says.
So, in 1987, he cut off ties to the group.
Eight years later, when a co-worker named Doc Schultz at the gun store Shooter's World wondered why Nolan owned such cool Nazi memorabilia, Nolan admitted that he had once belonged to the Klan.
Schultz had already let Nolan in on his own secret: that besides working at Shooter's World, Schultz was a state Game and Fish agent.
Schultz asked Nolan if he wanted to help out in law enforcement operations. Nolan says he refused. But after several more proposals, Nolan began to get more interested.
He'd worked as a cop before, both in the Air Force and in other states. Nolan says he was a military brat, and grew up primarily in the East. He mentions Boston a few times. At one time, he says, he was a security officer at a meat-packing plant in Texas; at another time, he worked in Maricopa County's Rabies-Animal Control department before getting the job at Shooter's World.
Nolan says he and Schultz discussed the growing militia movement and whether it posed a real threat to the public. The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and revelations about Timothy McVeigh's ties to the patriot movement motivated them to learn more about local groups.
Nolan says he learned about Viper Team quite by accident. An acquaintance came into the store and Nolan asked: "Where have you been, out playing with the militia boys?"
"No, not me. That's Gary," replied the acquaintance, whom Nolan won't identify.
The customer told Nolan about Gary Bauer and a group that toyed with automatic weapons and talked about going off to the woods for exercises.
Nolan says he passed that information on to Schultz, and the two of them decided to investigate Bauer's group. It was June 1995.
"Nobody knew enough about any group, and since they were well-armed and in the middle of nowhere, we wanted to know what they were doing," Nolan says.
He claims that they were also motivated by a story he says was later confirmed by Bauer: that members of Viper Team had talked about--perhaps only jokingly--"putting a bullet in Bubba," killing President Bill Clinton.
For infiltrating the group and attending Viper meetings and outings, Nolan says he was paid only about $5 an hour by the government. Later, his pay was upped to $250 a week.
An August 1996 Arizona Republic story revealed that, at this time, the ATF was investigating Shooter's World for not reporting stolen guns and for paperwork errors that violated several laws. An ATF supervisor recommended that Shooter's World's gun-selling license not be renewed. But that recommendation was overturned by a higher-level ATF official at the same time Schultz and Nolan--who by then were being supervised by the ATF--were taping Viper activities.
But Nolan rejects the newspaper story's suggestion that Schultz and Nolan were motivated to investigate Viper Team as a way to influence ATF decisions about Shooter's World.
"The people at Shooter's World did not know what Doc and I were doing," he says.
He refuses to go back over the entire surveillance of Viper Team, saying that all of it exists on audio and video tape and has been entered as court record.
On those tapes, the Viper Team discussed its antigovernment feelings and what the team should do to prepare for the possibility of a cataclysmic--if poorly defined--future. Prosecutors point to those plans as proof that Viper Team had the potential for, and were moving closer to, domestic terrorism. Defense lawyers have countered that the Vipers were sorely unorganized, had no concrete plans and were motivated primarily by the thrill of shooting off exotic guns and blowing up dirt in the desert.
Did Nolan perceive that the group was a greater threat to the public than defense attorneys later portrayed?
"I won't say yes or no to that," he replies.
He does comment that the group was becoming more skillful over time. "Until the arrest in July, they went from kindergarten to college. Rockets were being constructed, high explosives fired off. They were starting to get really good at what they were doing."
Militia defendant Chuck Knight claimed, however, that the group was tiring of its experiments in explosives and wanted to become strictly a rifle group. Several defendants, through their attorneys, claimed that explosives were brought on a final Viper outing only at the insistence of the informants, Schultz and Nolan.
"Doc and I didn't ask them to bring the explosives," Nolan counters. "They were brought specifically because I had missed a training." He claims he was told that he needed to learn how to detonate certain devices, and he says he didn't object.
If he hadn't missed a training, would the group have brought explosives at all on the final outing?
"I have no idea," he replies.
He's clearly proud of his role in the investigation, remarking in particular on a moment when an unsuspecting militia member was mixing explosives and then paused to say to Schultz and Nolan: "If you guys are feds, we're fucked."
If the investigation itself went smoothly, however, its aftermath proved a nightmare, according to Nolan.
"I don't know how it all unraveled," he says.
Nolan says that officials at the ATF and the U.S. Attorney's Office promised that his identity would never be revealed. To be safe, Nolan would be arrested with the rest of the defendants, paraded in chains in front of the others and then released under the cover story that he had worked out a deal with prosecutors. The other members might consider him a coward, but his identity as an infiltrator would remain hidden.
So, on the morning of July 1, Nolan reported to the ATF-leased apartment where Viper Team had been secretly videotaped, and he waited to be arrested.
Hours later, he was still waiting.
Later he got a call from an ATF agent. "Things are just crazy down here. If I were you, I'd pack my shit and get out of there," Nolan says the agent told him. Less than 10 minutes later, he left.
"Within a week, the media was crawling up my ass," Nolan says. He attempted to continue on as a manager of Shooter's World, but by July 9, a television crew showed up at the front door wanting to interview him. He slipped out the back door into a friend's car and sped off.
Nolan figured he had to get out of town. "I lived in a bulletproof vest in those days," he says, patting his chest to show that he no longer wears one at all times.
Days later, he began a 15-month odyssey which would take him to every region of the country. He believed the traveling was necessary to keep him from people who meant him harm. But more frustrating, he says, was his treatment by government officials.
The ATF offered to put him in a witness-protection program, but Nolan rejected its constraints. He would have to cut off ties to family and give up any old possessions which might identify him. He would be relocated in a new city and supported for a short while before being left to fend for himself.
"If I had murdered 12 people and had ratted out on the Mob, I could understand that kind of treatment. But I was asked to get into this," he says.
Believing that he still was owed back pay as well as reimbursements for expenses that he had incurred in the Viper investigation, Nolan says he complained bitterly to government officials.
ATF agent Steve Ott acknowledged that Nolan has complained, but said that the U.S. Attorney's Office is dealing with the former informant. Viper prosecutor Joseph Welty wouldn't discuss Nolan's predicament before the end of the Floyd trial.
For a time, Nolan lived in Texas and was in close contact with the ATF, which paid his rent.
During other periods, he claims to have been completely cut off from government agents.
About a year ago, he says, he returned to Phoenix with 92 cents in his pocket and stayed just long enough to get a legal name change and a new driver's license. He won't reveal what name he currently uses. Since July of last year, he says, he's lived in places from California to Maine, Washington to the deep South, Texas to near the Canadian border. No place has he stayed in for more than four months.
And, before returning this time to Phoenix, he claims to have spent a few months living near a lake, fishing for his meals.
"I am so sick of fish," he says.
The constant moving has left him $14,000 in debt. But he says that despite receiving a $7,500 government reward for the conviction of the first 10 Viper defendants, who pleaded guilty and received sentences from 18 months to nine years, the government still owes him $25,000 for the expenses he's incurred bringing the Vipers to justice. (Defendant Chuck Knight was convicted in a trial in June and is serving a four-year, nine-month sentence. Chris Floyd's trial is expected to go to the jury Friday.)
"They'll want receipts. But screw them. I'm not giving them receipts," he complains. "All I want is for them to straighten out the mess they created."
Nolan tells of numerous jobs he's lost when employers find out who he really is. And although he has a new legal name, he can't turn over his social security card without revealing his old identity. So he tells employers he can't supply one. No card, no job.
"I'm never going to find gainful employment. I don't have a life anymore. I don't have a chance for a life anymore. All I want to do is pay my debts. I didn't have to come forward and help. But I did," he says.
"I go nowhere without a gun. It doesn't mean there's going to be a shootout at the OK Corral or that I'll ever get a chance to use it. I don't want any problems."
From prison Chuck Knight denies that Nolan is in danger: "Nobody in my entire circle of friends has ever talked about hurting Drew Nolan. I bear him no ill will." As for Nolan's current predicament, Knight says: "You reap what you sow. His naivete cost him, exactly as mine has cost me, except in my case it's much worse."
Nolan speaks as though he, too, had been sentenced to prison: "Where do I go? What do I do from here? I have no idea."
He smiles, however, refusing to sink into self-pity. Putting down his briefcase once again so he can shake hands, the man who helped bring down the Vipers says farewell and then blends quickly into a crowd. In a few seconds, he's vanished.
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