Defense Says Suspects Were Set Up Prosecution Says Separatism, Zealotry Compelled Trio To Bomb And Rob
FROM FOR THE RECORD (March 6, 1997): Correction Attorney Roger Peven represents one of the three Spokane bombing and robbery suspects on trial in federal court. His name was misspelled in a photo caption in Wednesday’s paper.
Spokane’s three accused bombers live in a shadowy, paranoid world guided by unorthodox religious beliefs and hatred of Uncle Sam, defense attorneys admitted Tuesday.
They amassed weapons, traveled in stolen vans, established safe houses and set up bank accounts under phony names. Free time was spent in paramilitary training or writing about the evils of banking.
But they didn’t bomb any buildings or rob any banks, their attorneys said Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Spokane.
An Idaho military surplus dealer, confidant and friend committed the crimes, then set them up to collect a $130,000 reward, according to the defense.
Attorneys gave opening statements in the trial of Charles Barbee, 45; Robert S. Berry, 42; and Verne Jay Merrell, 51, on bombing and bank robbery charges.
The Sandpoint men are accused of bombing the Valley offices of The Spokesman-Review and Planned Parenthood and twice robbing the Spokane Valley branch of U.S. Bank last year. No one was injured.
While defense attorneys portrayed the suspects as a trio of bungling, gullible, anti-government fanatics, prosecutors painted a more sinister picture.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Lister told the all-white jury of 13 men and three women the defendants are members of a white separatist sect whose religious zealotry compelled them to commit the crimes.
“This case is about a group of men who, armed and disguised, terrorized the Spokane Valley,” Lister said. “They did it because they thought it was justified by God’s law.”
Lister said that during the April 1 and July 12 bombings, Barbee, hidden behind a black ski mask and wearing a military-style parka, ushered bank employees to a far wall.
Berry, similarly dressed, stuffed a satchel and filled it with cash, she said. Merrell, face uncovered, waited in a getaway van. The two holdups netted the robbers more than $100,000 in cash.
The newspaper bombing was a warning not to identify members of a secret militia group that was the subject of stories in 1995, Lister said.
Merrell’s writings about the evils of “USurers” a biblical term for lending institutions - made the choice of U.S. Bank a political pun, the prosecutor said.
The men targeted Planned Parenthood because they are revolted by abortion, Lister told the jury.
After later learning the Planned Parenthood building was vacant during the mid-summer bombing, the men sent the office’s director a letter. “Sorry to have missed you on July 12,” it read in part. “We’ll do better next time.”
Letters found at the scene of each bombing identified the culprits as “Phineas Priests” - a reference to an Old Testament story about a man who stabbed a fellow Israelite after he slept with a foreign woman.
Similar letters later were found on Merrell’s home computer seized last October by authorities.
The defendants spent more than a year planning the robberies and bombings, Lister said. In spring 1995, Berry and Barbee were arrested in Kelso, Wash., with a cache of weapons, flak jackets and stolen license plates.
After that arrest, FBI agents found a “Things to Do” list in the van - reminders to Barbee and Berry to get a police scanner, change license plates and find an escape route, Lister said.
“On May 2, 1995, these defendants had the recipe to commit a bank robbery,” she said.
Stolen white vans used in the bombings were found with seats removed. When the defendants were arrested in Union Gap, Wash., last October, the stolen blue van being driven by Merrell also had seats removed.
But defense attorneys said the trio belonged to a right-wing underground that includes scores of people who could have committed the crimes.
“Phineas is not a concoction of these three men. It’s national,” said Barbee’s attorney, Roger Peven in his opening statement. “To believe there are only three men involved in this situation is to make a grave mistake.”
Peven described Barbee as a hardworking, deeply fundamentalist military veteran who left a good job with AT&T; after becoming convinced the FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were waging war against U.S. citizens.
Barbee’s seminal moments: the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge and the fiery deaths in Waco, Texas, in 1993.
“Those events changed Mr. Barbee’s life,” Peven said. “I don’t ask you to agree with his beliefs. I do ask you to understand.”
Peven said Barbee also had no motive to bomb the newspaper. Barbee was quoted by name and his face appeared in photographs in the series that included stories about the secret militia band.
“He was happy with the stories,” Peven said.
Peven said the true villain is Post Falls gun dealer Christopher Davidson, a government informant who turned in Barbee, Berry and Merrell in August 1996.
Davidson is expected to testify that the men informed him in great detail about the crimes, even urging him to watch the news after the July 12 bombings.
But Peven said witnesses can place Davidson - who weighs 350 pounds - at the scene of one of the crimes. Peven also pointed out that he demanded immunity from prosecution.
And Davidson - “a man who bragged about bank robberies and armored car robberies” - was unhappy with news stories about the secret militia group, Peven said.
“I may be telling you things the government doesn’t even know,” he said. “But you need to know the truth.”
Attorney John Rodgers, representing Berry, described the three defendants as “not particularly worldly.” Their beliefs kept financial success at bay and made them gullible pawns to Davidson.
“They are very, very easy prey to a deal-maker like Davidson,” Rodgers told the jury.
Merrell’s attorney, Aaron Lowe deferred opening statements. Testimony resumes this morning.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo 2 Staff illustrations