October 9, 1996 in Nation/World

Feds Backing Off Militia Conspiracy Charges Reduced Against Vipers; Role Of Informant Questioned

New York Times
 

Four months after 12 members of the Viper Militia were arrested in a nationwide burst of publicity, federal prosecutors in Arizona seem to be backing away from original assertions of a concrete conspiracy to attack government buildings.

In a new indictment for a trial that will start in December, the six militia members who were facing two charges apiece of promoting civil disorder, the most serious of the charges, now face one such count each.

The new indictment, handed up last Thursday, does not use the phrase “training persons in the making and use of explosive devices for use in obstructing the federal government,” which was in the June 27 indictment.

A total of 12 new charges of illegal possession of explosives and machine guns were added against four defendants.

Jury selection is to start in Phoenix on Nov. 19, and the trial is to open there Dec. 3.

While the case still involves the largest group of people in a paramilitary group arrested in modern history, the case has narrowed in scope since July 2, when President Clinton opened a White House press conference by saluting the investigation as an effort “to avert a terrible terrorist attack.”

According to court documents and official statements at the time, the Vipers had trained for six months with illegal weapons and explosives and had prepared a videotape in 1994 showing six potential federal targets around Phoenix.

But one week after Clinton’s press conference, a federal judge freed half the Viper members on bail, saying they did not pose a threat. Five of the 12 face only one charge each of conspiring to make illegal explosives.

At detention hearings, Steve Ott, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms supervisor of the case, conceded that he had never notified officials at the buildings that were said to have been targeted, because he did not think they were in danger.

Clouds have been gathering over the role played by the government’s main informer in the case, an Arizona fish and game officer who used the pseudonym Scott Wells. Posing as a neo-Nazi, the bearded and tattooed officer infiltrated the group in December. The informer became so popular with the Vipers that he had to discourage talk of becoming their leader, Ott said at the detention hearing.

Defense attorneys are determined to portray the informer as a government provocateur, saying that he had provided the defendants with flash powder, asked them if they wanted to rob banks and tried to get them to hand out literature by Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group.

“It appears that these folks like to play army, and that is the only danger they present to anyone,” said James Logan, the lawyer for one of the six in jail. “The only thing they blew up was dirt.”


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