March 12, 1997 in Nation/World

Witness Feared Trio Would Kill Military Surplus Dealer Says Suspects Intended To Kill Bank Guard

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Christopher Davidson Jr. led the FBI to Spokane’s bombing suspects because he felt people would die if the crime spree continued, the military surplus dealer said Tuesday.

“I was afraid it was going to escalate and they were going to kill somebody,” the 40-year-old informant told a federal jury in Spokane.

The government’s star witness in the domestic terrorism trial testified that the three North Idaho defendants had shared chilling details about their crimes with him.

The men brought an assault rifle to last July’s bank robbery in the Valley because they planned to kill a security guard, Davidson testified in U.S. District Court.

Davidson said he had sold the trio military-style parkas and ponchos and was asked by one of the men to get rid of a Winchester shotgun - all “identical” to items captured on bank surveillance videos during last year’s robberies.

Verne Jay Merrell, 51; Charles H. Barbee, 45; and Robert S. Berry, 42, are on trial on a dozen felony charges.

They are accused of bombing the Spokane Valley offices of Planned Parenthood and The Spokesman-Review prior to robberies of the same U.S. Bank branch on April 1 and July 12. The bank also was bombed during the April 1 holdup.

Prosecutors contend the three white separatists hoped to overthrow the federal government and the banking system and were angry at the newspaper and opposed to abortion.

In his testimony Tuesday, the 6-foot-3-inch, 350-pound Davidson sputtered nervous laughter at unusual intervals and politely was rebuked for answering questions before they were asked.

The witness spoke openly about his fear of the defendants.

Davidson said Berry warned after the last bombing that a small group of well-prepared men would bring the country’s banking establishment “to its knees.”

And Barbee asked Davidson to buy him illegal plastic explosives and a bazooka, the informant said.

Davidson turned on his friends last August and began working for the FBI. The men were arrested Oct. 8 in Union Gap., Wash., in stolen vehicles and carrying loaded weapons. Authorities say they were planning another bank robbery outside Portland.

“I wouldn’t be able to live with it if the next bomb they set off killed a bunch of little kids,” Davidson told the jury.

Davidson has since collected a $130,000 reward and entered the federal witness-protection program. In exchange for his testimony, he was granted immunity from prosecution for the bombings and robberies, and any sales of illegal firearms.

Defense attorneys contend Davidson waited until the reward was high, then turned in the suspects to protect himself.

During initial cross-examination Tuesday afternoon, the informant repeatedly denied committing any crimes, despite suggestions by defense attorney Roger Peven that Davidson sold the suspects illegal grenades and a silencer.

Davidson admitted the defendants never told him they committed the bombings and robberies - even though he secretly taped their conversations.

“I did the best I could. I’m not a professional in all this,” Davidson said.

Peven rolled his eyes and snorted. “A professional is one who is paid for what they do, is he not?”

Davidson testified that he befriended Berry after meeting him at a gun show in 1992. Davidson occasionally gave Berry military gear in exchange for repair work on his truck.

Last spring and summer, Davidson said, Berry tried to recruit him as a “supply sergeant” for Berry’s militia group.

Davidson testified that Berry told him letters left at the scene of the April 1 bombing at the newspaper office were a “declaration of war.”

“They considered themselves at war against the United States government,” the witness said.

He also said Berry told him the men were proud of the damage their pipe bomb caused Planned Parenthood.

“They felt very good about blowing up … destroying it,” Davidson said. “They told me what they were doing was righteous and Yahweh was pleased with it.”

According to Davidson, Berry owned guns like those used in the robberies, including a rare Italian shotgun and a nickel-plated Ruger revolver Berry tried to disguise by spray-painting it black.

Davidson told the jury that Barbee explained why the men added an AK-47 assault rifle for the July bank robbery.

“They took the AK-47 along because if there was a guard there, they were going to take care of him,” Davidson said. “I took that to mean shoot him.”

Davidson said the decision to come forward was difficult and meant he’d have to go into hiding and give up his $50,000-a-year business. He demanded the FBI move his wife and three daughters and give them the reward if he were killed.

Defense attorneys said Davidson was primarily interested in assuring he was immune from prosecution.

When Peven questioned why Davidson waited until August to alert authorities, the informant said that’s when he became convinced the defendants committed the crimes.

But when the FBI supplied Davidson with cassette recorders and sent him back to talk with the suspects, Davidson returned with no incriminating evidence, Peven said.

“I have tape recordings that if I stacked them from the ground up they would reach my knee,” Peven said. “Why didn’t you say something to get them to say those things again? Is that so hard to do?”

“In retrospect, that might have been wise,” Davidson answered.

Davidson’s cross-examination resumes today. If convicted, Berry, Barbee and Merrell face $3 million in fines and mandatory life prison sentences. The prosecution expects to rest its case late this week. , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Charles Waltmire


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