July 24, 1997 in Nation/World

Three Guilty In Valley Bombings Jurors Convict Sandpoint Militants On All Counts

Craig Welch Kim Barker Contributed T Staff writer
 

The trial of three Idaho men who awakened suburban Spokane to the terror of home-grown militants ended Wednesday in a concussion of guilty verdicts.

After 10 hours of deliberations, a jury of eight women and four men convicted the Sandpoint white separatists of a series of bombings and bank robberies last year in the Spokane Valley.

Five women on the jury fought tears as a clerk read the verdicts - each man guilty on all eight felony counts - before a packed, nervous U.S. District Court gallery.

Charles H. Barbee, Robert S. Berry and Verne Jay Merrell listened silently, without expression, as the freedom they had waged a holy war to protect was obliterated.

The militia members now face mandatory life imprisonment and up to $1 million each in fines.

It took two monthlong trials with 500 pieces of evidence and more than 100 witnesses to solve the case. At one point, the investigation consumed 80 percent of the FBI’s resources in Washington state.

Gayle Ekins, former board president of Planned Parenthood, victimized by one of the pipe bomb blasts last summer, thanked authorities for not giving up.

“I was surprised I was as emotionally affected as I was, but I’m just really, really relieved,” she said.

“I think a lot of people will sleep easier tonight,” FBI regional supervisor Burdena Pasenelli said. “They will not be free to commit any more crimes.”

A spokesman for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department hailed the verdicts.

“I think the public got what it deserved,” deputy sheriff Dave Reagan said. “Those people are no longer a threat.”

Federal prosecutors came within a whisker of convicting the men in April, but one juror deadlocked the panel after 3 days of deliberations when he refused to convict the defendants of the most serious charges.

U.S. Attorney Jim Connelly refused to speculate on why the second jury had an easier time favoring the prosecution.

“I’m very, very pleased,” Connelly said. “It was a long, difficult case.”

But defense attorney Frank Conklin, who represented Merrell, said Barbee’s and Berry’s decision to take the witness stand in the retrial may have contributed to the outcome. Only Merrell testified in the first trial.

“It’s no secret that the lawyers didn’t want the defendants to testify,” Conklin said. “I don’t think some of their responses helped their defense.”

Defense attorney John Rodgers, representing Berry, was discouraged.

“The more you put into it, the more it hurts,” Rodgers said. “The jury just made a decision awful quick.”

Defense attorneys plan to appeal.

Prosecutors now begin prepping for the September trial of the fourth bombing suspect, Brian Ratigan, 38, who was arrested midway through the first trial.

Barbee, 45, Berry, 43, and Merrell, who turns 52 next week, each were convicted of two counts of armed bank robbery, two counts of destruction of a building used in interstate commerce, and four counts of using firearms in a violent crime.

Sentencing is set for Oct. 6.

The defendants were accused of bombing Valley offices of The Spokesman-Review, Planned Parenthood and U.S. Bank, and twice robbing the bank in April and July 1996. No one was injured. The $108,000 of stolen cash was never recovered.

The first crime sent shock waves through the suburban Spokane Valley.

About 2:30 p.m. on April 1, a masked man wearing a military-style parka dropped a pipe bomb outside the back stairwell of the newspaper office. The blast buckled a door where two children had been leaning only moments earlier.

The bomber jumped into a stolen white conversion van, driven by a gray-bearded man.

Eleven minutes later, two masked men carrying a pistol and a shotgun robbed a U.S. Bank branch 30 blocks away, before making off in the same van.

At both scenes, the men left religious missives that made reference to Yahweh, a Hebrew name for God popular among white separatists. The documents were signed “Phineas Priests” - a shadowy white-supremacy sect.

Prosecutors believed Berry was the bomber, and carried a .45-caliber Ruger pistol into the bank.

Barbee, prosecutors said, hid in the van at the newspaper and later ushered bank employees to a far wall, pointing a rare Benelli shotgun at their backs.

Witnesses at both trials picked Merrell out as the getaway driver.

Berry had been photographed for a 1995 newspaper series with a Benelli and was known to own a Ruger Vaquero pistol. The FBI eventually seized a pair of J.C. Penney jeans from Barbee’s home they said matched jeans shown in bank surveillance videos.

Three months later, on July 12, the same men dropped a bomb in the lobby of the closed family planning clinic, shattering windows, blowing out a door and causing $25,000 in damage to equipment alone.

This time, a fourth man, carrying an AK-47 assault rifle, joined in the robbery of the same bank a few moments later.

Prosecutors contend that was Ratigan.

As the FBI sifted through more than 350 leads, a Coeur d’Alene military surplus dealer came forward.

Christopher Davidson Jr. told the FBI he had sold survivalist gear to Berry, Barbee and Merrell, and the men had shared details of the crimes with him. He warned that the bombers planned to rob an armored car in Portland.

In October, with the FBI watching from the shadows, the three men left Berry’s Sandpoint truck repair shop and drove to a branch of U.S. Bank in Portland.

Authorities had called ahead and warned bank employees not to open, and the trio eventually left. Hours later, they were arrested in Union Gap, Wash.

The men denied involvement in the bombings and robberies and claimed they’d driven to Portland to warn bank employees of the pending Armageddon. They maintained that they wanted to drop off a religious letter and set off a tear gas cannister to capitalize on publicity generated by Spokane’s crimes.

The three are followers of Christian Identity, which preaches that northern Europeans descend from the 12 tribes of Israel and that other races are descendants of Satan. All three considered Randy Weaver’s 1992 siege on Ruby Ridge a life-changing experience - proof Uncle Sam is waging war on U.S. citizens.

Defense attorneys tried to suggest that Davidson, who collected a $130,000 reward and entered the federal witness-protection program, masterminded the violence, aided by three other men.

They called eyewitnesses who said they’d seen different men at the crime scenes or driving white vans. They also called Berry’s family members, who said he’d been driving to Michigan during the April 1 crimes.

The first jury convicted the men only of conspiracy, possessing illegal weapons and transporting stolen vehicles.

In the second trial, the defense beefed up its case, calling witness who also placed Merrell in Colorado during the April crimes.

Barbee, a former AT&T; supervisor, claimed to have been home on both occasions.

The turning point clearly came when each defendant took the stand.

None could provide evidence of their whereabouts on the day of the crimes.

Barbee sparred with prosecutors about how he found money to pay for a trip to Florida after the April crime.

Berry stammered and stuttered and could not provide receipts or a single customer name for the fledgling military surplus business he said provided for his family.

“You can lie awake at night and think, ‘if, if, if …,” defense attorney Conklin said. “But we had to deal with the evidence we had.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: The Verdicts

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Craig Welch Staff writer Staff writer Kim Barker contributed to this report.


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