Suddenly he appears, shadowed by a bodyguard with a cobra stenciled on his jacket. Koernke is a big man; he looks like the butcher's boy grown up. His voice is high and reedy, but it has come to represent the truth. He is introduced, and acknowledges the ensuing ovation. And then the darling of the militia movement gives his little half-smirk and begins: "Ladies and gentlemen, we just came back from Palm Springs, where the disinformation flowed like water, trust me."
Since the crowd knows him of old, Koernke does not run through his standard talk: the universal-conspiracy theory featuring the U.N.; the Rockefellers; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; Bill and Hillary Clinton and others. He dispenses with apocalyptic visions: the hundreds of thousands of foreign troops on American soil, waiting; Americans enslaved and implanted with microchips. Nor does he need to recapitulate the only hope: to create secret places and hoard guns, pistols as well as others; to take no offensive posture, but to train for war he sees as nearly inevitable; to somehow cause the Federal Government and its masters to show their hand prematurely.
Tonight he simply skips to the part he has come to relish: "Somebody asked me, 'What are you afraid of?' and you know out there that I have not been afraid for a long, long time. That's one thing you have to learn to throw away. We have the opportunity, even at the risk of death, of saving this nation ..." The crowd listens, rapt.
Livonia and Palm Springs took place in May. Last Thursday, Mark Koernke was in Washington, watching silently as several other militia leaders testified before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and government information. The background role hardly accords with his stature. He is a "pre-eminent figure" in the militia movement's rise, "both a creature of it and someone who helped define it," according to Thomas Halpern, acting director of fact-finding for the Anti-Defamation League. Koernke first came to most Americans' attention when it was reported that he was wanted for questioning in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing. That turned out to be misleading. Stories that he had faxed an announcement of the bombing to a Congressman before it occurred, and that Timothy McVeigh once acted as his bodyguard, died on the vine; the fbi confirmed that he was not a suspect. In fact, say observers, Koernke's influence on the radical right, while less tangible, is more pervasive. The militia movement prides itself on being "unorganized," spontaneous and unburdened by a national structure. Yet it does have opinion leaders, and Koernke is one of the most vocal.
His three videotapes, adherents claim, are owned by millions. His shortwave-radio show, The Intelligence Report, was yanked after the Oklahoma City bombing, but he continues to broadcast via satellite. He has given speeches in 44 states. Says Michael Reynolds, an intelligence analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Klanwatch program: "He was an early bird in this particular cycle of right-wing extremism, and he has a style people want to hear." Koernke's defenders, like those of other militia grandees, note that he does not urge supporters to make a first strike on the government agencies they hate. Reynolds demurs: "Sure," he says, "many of the people attracted to him are weekend warriors, but you are talking about weapons training here, and you are also attracting people who are sociopaths, some of the same sort of bozos who made up the terrorist left in the '60s and '70s. You're putting out a hate-filled message, a paranoiac message, and you go beyond that and say, 'Get your guns, because it is coming,' and you've just raised their temperature another 25¡."
Some recent journalism has suggested that many members of the much broader Patriot movement trace their involvement to a key negative experience with the Federal Government. A close look at Koernke's background, however, suggests not a sharp turn but a straight line. From his teens, Koernke (who declined to be interviewed for this story) has exhibited a fascination with guns and guerrilla warfare, an intense dislike of authority, a grandiose vision of himself with an attraction to the idea of martyrdom, and, as one ally puts it, the ability to "talk until most people have turned to sand." If anything, Koernke appears to have become increasingly himself. That mix of characteristics did not make him popular early on. But eventually he located an America, or part of an America, that prized them and, within a few short years, turned him from a near outcast into a leader.
Koernke's former neighbor in Gallagher Lake Estates (about 15 miles north of the dilapidated farmhouse Koernke, his wife and four children occupy today outside the town of Dexter) recalls him as friendless. On the 20-minute walk home from the school-bus stop younger children would taunt the gangly, bespectacled high school student and slap his books from his hands. His former classmates and teachers at Dexter High School remember him as having one or two friends but also, as one puts it, "some exotic ideas." Several remember he wore fatigues to school, a peculiar fashion choice at that time. He also brought his fascination with secret places with him. History teacher Hank Flandysz remembers lecturing one day when a noise emanated from beneath the floorboards. "I walked over, and there was a trapdoor in the floor that led into some maintenance tunnels for access to the heating pipes," he says. "The trapdoor lifted up, and there looking up at me was Mark Koernke. He asked me, 'What room is this?'"
Flandysz taught Koernke in three classes, and remembers him as unusually argumentative about politics in his senior year, although not disrespectful or "hurtful." He divined a strong libertarian, anti-government cast to the student's beliefs but also a more conventional conservatism: Koernke rued Richard Nixon's resignation and the end of the Vietnam War. Around this time he told at least one family member he wanted to "go to Vietnam, get shot and come home a hero."
Koernke's passion, however, was science. He devoured science fiction (even today, the Star Trek books and the German Perry Rodan series, about a band of heroic warriors who take over the solar system, dominate his home bookcase) and, says science teacher William Eisenbeiser, devised elaborate schemes to build everything from a spaceship to a machine that would extract oil from shale. According to the Dexter Leader of April 24, 1975, Koernke won several science-fair prizes, one for a "communications antenna" that "is now being sold to nasa." Despite grades that several of his teachers recall as unspectacular, the article stated that the federal space agency had awarded him a scholarship to the University of Michigan in nearby Ann Arbor. "Mark's main interest and ambition is to become an aerospace engineer with NASA," it reported.
The university does have a record of the scholarship, its donor unknown, yet Koernke elected to spend his freshman year at the less prestigious, less expensive Eastern Michigan University. While there he joined the ROTC program, cutting a vivid and peculiar figure. "I don't often remember students who were in only briefly," says Lieut. Colonel Michael Chirio (ret.), who ran the program. "But I remember him. He was not a shrinking violet." Koernke, says Chirio, loved to lecture others "about a lot of things," especially weaponry. "He evidently knew a great deal about arms, and he just bored the hell out of everybody else. Most of the other cadets shied away from him." Freshmen were traditionally evaluated by upperclassmen. The older students he polled, says Chirio, "were all of the opinion that they didn't think he would be a reliable officer."
Spencer Gilliard, the program's sergeant major, remembers Koernke as a "so-and-so," and not just because Gilliard is black and Koernke had complained publicly about "niggers and Jews." A "fanatic with weapons," says Gilliard, Koernke also seemed chronically unable to observe rank. The culmination of this attitude, recalls another staff member, occurred "one day, when he came in and he had these general's stars on. He had promoted himself to general. All the other cadets were going crazy. You had to work real hard, and colonel is the highest rank you could make. It was like-golly. He was one of those you looked at and you said, 'Man, where is he coming from?'"
Koernke complained frequently about "big government," which he extended to include university rules and ROTC regulations. Several of the staff came to believe that he had no interest in a real Army career, just in weapons training and in the commando-style "Raiders" exercises. The following year, although no longer in the ROTC, he dropped by and boasted that he had formed a Raiders group of his own.
Koernke did manage to attract a few friends. One of these was Ramon Martinez, then an upperclassman and now with the U.S. Customs Service in Washington. "The majority opinion was that he was nuts to have around," Martinez says now. "But I saw it differently. I saw a guy with his own way of doing things." Martinez enjoyed Koernke's intellect, his ability to talk at length about history or classical music. He also discerned character and bravery. Once, when the two witnessed what they feared would become a brutal hazing, Martinez watched Koernke prepare to wade in on behalf of the victim: "He was going to butt-stroke somebody to protect this guy." (Instead, Martinez woke a staff member, who broke it up.)
Martinez was not blind to Koernke's faults. He confirms that Koernke made casual racist remarks and was enthusiastic in extolling the economy and technology of Hitler's Third Reich. Koernke, says Martinez, was a literal interpreter of the Bible's Book of Revelation, with a literal expectation of Armageddon. Occasionally, as Koernke went on and on about some grim fantasy, Martinez feared he "might have some sort of chemical imbalance." But the two stayed friends. Martinez was Koernke's best man when he married Nancy Wise, a home-economics student he had met while peddling chocolate-chip cookies at an rotc bake sale. At about the same time, however, Koernke's college career derailed. Nancy Koernke attributes this to the effect of nasa cutbacks in the mid-'70s. "He didn't seem as happy after that," she says. "At first his grades had been really good, but [then] they started to decline." Koernke left Eastern Michigan and the rotc and never made use of the University of Michigan scholarship.
For the next year or so, by Martinez's account, his friend toiled as a bookbinder, a security guard and a janitor, sometimes working two or three jobs at once. Yet he found time to help Martinez around his home. And in December 1977, Martinez says, he was godfather to Koernke's newborn daughter.
Days after the birth, Koernke joined the 70th Division (training), U.S. Army Reserve based in Livonia, Michigan. Later, as he climbed the ladder of the Patriot right, he traded heavily on his purported military-intelligence experience, calling himself an "intelligence analyst and counterintelligence coordinator" with a top-secret clearance, and afterward the commander of two "special-warfare" brigades used to "train U.S. military in foreign warfare and tactics." However, judging from a summary of his service record provided by the Army and anecdotes from soldiers familiar with him, his claims seem inflated. He did attend the Army's intelligence school at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, but the introductory curriculum he would have taken was less suited to a high-level strategic thinker than to that person's secretary. Once back in Michigan, as an E-5 specialist -- the equivalent of a sergeant -- with a G-2, or security, section of a peacetime Reserve unit, there would have been little call for the arcane arts he had learned. A soldier in the current equivalent of his unit assesses Koernke's position as that of "a glorified clerk," concerned mostly with processing security clearances.
Koernke's reaction to the job's drabness appears to have been typically inventive. An officer with the 70th recalls that, he was employed for a time devising "lanes training," a set of simple, pre-scripted troop exercises. The assignment misfired. "Koernke came up with these wildly ambitious, grandiose scenarios," says the officer. "Nobody bought them." Every year the reservists gathered for two weeks of concerted drill, and the G-2s were allowed to train briefly with active-duty troops. Koernke returned with stories of espionage derring-do that were so rococo they became the talk of his contemporaries. Says one today: "He was in this dream world. You would sit and have a drink and say, 'Guess what that jerk said today.'"
That must have galled Koernke; so must the unglamorous civilian job he took in 1982, and still holds, as a maintenance worker at the University of Michigan, where he had once expected to study. But by then an event had already occurred-or was reported to have occurred-that would change his life forever.
It was in the spring of 1980, recalls his wife, and they were sitting on a porch swing with their young daughter. "He came back one weekend and was troubled," she says. "It was visible-I could see it in his face that there was something wrong." An old friend from rotc had approached him, he told her, enthusing about "a great new job offer" that he had assumed Koernke knew of too. "Basically what it was," she says, "was that they were to secure an 'open-air camp,' a facility for men, women and children. And [Mark] asked, 'Well, what country is this in?' And the friend replied, 'Well-right here.'" The friend, whom she says Koernke will not identify even to her, went on about the supposed detention camp for 45 minutes, and then, realizing that it was all new to Koernke, "turned and left [Mark] standing there and has not talked to him since."
That, says Nancy, began "a five-year process to realize that there was something seriously wrong" with America. Koernke launched into a furious self-taught course on the nefariousness of the Federal Government. He began reading more newspapers. "But," says Nancy, "it was 'read between the lines.'" He searched out books by conspiracy theorists and became suddenly aware of a community of fellow searchers. "People that I baby-sat for," says Nancy. "People that he worked for and that I worked with on and off. People we went to church with. You know, it was like God's working in his own way in his own time."
It was a time of considerable economic hardship for the Koernkes. Between 1980 and 1984, they had three more children. Mark joined the local Jaycees for a couple of years, where, in addition to working doggedly on his public speaking, he excelled at running clothing drives for the needy. Says a former fellow member: "I always thought that they [the Koernkes] were needy and should be on the list of families who needed help." Koernke's political philosophy, however, made great strides. In 1985, says Nancy, a man in Texas sent him a list of Federal Government employees who belonged to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group (all bastions of the Establishment and longtime targets of right-wing conspiracy theorists). Long convinced that "an entity" was manipulating government affairs, Mark had found his culprits. Says Nancy: "It was like, boy, here we go, this makes sense. You know, because they have control of the media. They have a big influence in government. They have a large influence in the banking world, so they're going to, you know, power-grab. And it was-it all fits. It clicked."
Mark extended his research beyond secondary sources to legislators, whom he called repeatedly to help document secret language hidden in otherwise innocuous bills that he felt was eroding the intent of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He rang Michigan Senator Carl Levin's office four or five times a week, says Nancy. At least one lawmaker apparently felt harassed. Nancy reports that Mark's first visit from the FBI was prompted by the phone calls.
Ramon Martinez too was becoming more concerned about his friend. Watching Koernke buy uniforms and accessories at gun shows, he says, sometimes made him think Koernke was "outfitting his own squad." Once, he says, Koernke asked him if he would like to take part in some military drills -- with live ammunition. Another time, Martinez dropped by the house to find Koernke with a couple of teenagers. "He was talking tactics to them, fixing them up with gear, like they were soldiers. But they weren't soldiers. I didn't really want to know any of them."
Their dialogue had deteriorated. "There had always been these little hiccups," says Martinez. "I'd get irritated and he'd back off or laugh it off, but more and more, he was consumed with this stuff. He continued to talk about [a nuclear] Armageddon. In fact, he got target-locked on it. He was becoming obsessed with post-[nuclear]-holocaust government intrusion. And then you take the quantum leap from [nuclear war] and Soviet invasion to [present-day] government involvement, left-wing infiltration into the government."
In 1983, Martinez says, his friend called him for what turned out to be the last time. "He was basically asking me about taking up arms against the government. 'Hypothetically, they've come to get my guns. Will I defend myself?' I'd been in law enforcement at that time about five years, and the question was so off the wall. I mean, you should be talking about probable cause, about why they would come to take my firearms from me. But the scenario being painted was, all of a sudden, the government turns into a fascist government. They're gonna come and get us. This was what he was suggesting, and I wasn't prepared to get in a discussion with him. So I brushed him off. That conversation really bugged the hell out of me. I remember thinking, This guy is way out there. He's not just eccentric anymore. It was like, Wake up, Ramon, this guy is a nut roll." Martinez never talked to Koernke again.
This spared Koernke from having to explain his 1984 arrest for carrying a concealed weapon (he reportedly received a suspended sentence) or his 1986 arrest for felonious assault. According to a police report, three complainants, who admitted to having tried repeatedly to pass Koernke's van, alleged that he "bolted from the van ... pointing a handgun at them with both hands [and said] 'If you want problems, I'll give it to you. Stay off the road.'" The resulting search of Koernke's van turned up a gas mask, a (legal) 12-gauge shotgun with 10 shells, K rations, two military shovels and a canteen. He convinced a judge that he had been acting in self-defense.
Within a few years, Koernke found more than enough new friends and admirers to replace any who might have become disenchanted with him. His life as a public figure began with a series of calls to radio programs. Ted Heusel, the host of a long-running Ann Arbor talk show, remembers that Koernke would call several times a week, anonymously. "He never spoke mean about anything, and he never spoke unpatriotic. He was very literate, [and] it was always very short. You never had to hang up on him."
Then in 1991, says Nancy, she and Mark attended a rally in Birch Run, Michigan, for the presidential campaign of America First Populist Party candidate and right-wing avatar James ("Bo") Gritz. The featured speaker was to be Gritz's vice-presidential running mate, Cyril Minett, but he failed to show. Participants, taking shelter from a pouring rain, began talking politics. Koernke started running through his theories and soon, says Nancy, "he was asked, you know, 'Get up there and talk.' So they pretty much pushed him up there, and he just kind of fell into it and started talking."
And people listened. Joyce Moore, an enthusiastic Michigan Patriot, was impressed by his encyclopaedic knowledge of obscure, but troubling legislation. "People asked me where I got my information from, and I told them I got it from Mark and checked it out myself, and they should do the same," she says.
Dominick Vincentini, co-director of a constitutionalist organization called Justice Pro-Se, was attracted to Koernke's apparent intelligence expertise, especially to his "information" that American skies were aswarm with "black helicopters," unmarked because they were not American aircraft at all but rather the vanguard of a new-world-order invasion force. Vincentini arranged for Koernke to speak at a local library and played up the black-helicopter angle. Such events usually drew up to 150 people. That night 400 attended, and Nancy claims that 1,000 more were turned away. Suddenly, speaking offers started to flow in from all over the country. Jon Coon, a Libertarian Michigan politician with a following in the Patriot movement, suggests that for some, the sheer universality of Koernke's theory was a draw. "[All his information] builds toward a broad general picture that there is a new-world-order conspiracy. Others are content to leave some things open to question, but he generally doesn't. When a point is raised from the audience, he always ties it in. Mark Koernke has the answers. That makes him different."
That and the timing of his first videotape. Koernke made America in Peril just as federal officers were moving in on David Koresh's compound at Waco, Texas. The ensuing tragedy was a key impulse of the militia movement, and Koernke surfed it expertly. The video presents him as calm and in control, sardonic rather than hysterical. To those who knew him back when, the fascination with military arcana is there, the mistrust of any law or rule, even an obscure (if negative) reference to Nazi Germany. It is a weird and personal tour de force that, one can't help thinking, was at least 20 years in the making.
In it, the new world order has already taken over much of the government. The federal alphabet-soup agencies are arms of the conspiracy, as are America's street gangs, which have been nurtured to further its aims. Exploiting carefully planted legal loopholes, this unholy alliance has waged a campaign of terror and disarmament on arms-bearing Patriots.
And that's just for starters. Reliable sources have detected 300,000 foreign troops on American soil, including a contingent of Nepalese Gurkhas in Montana, this doctrine holds. Soon they will attempt an outright takeover of America, dispersing countless Patriots to dozens of detention camps already built for the purpose by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (fema's employees are the new world order's shadow government: "Only 59 to 63 out of 3,060 actually deal with storms, disasters, hurricanes and nuclear attack.") Once the nation is supine, it will be carved into large regions ruled through terror by new-world-order proconsuls. Microchips will be implanted in every newborn child, enabling the government to track each move by a new generation of citizens. Americans will live in slavery. Unless ...
"The enemy has almost reached the point where he can touch the golden ring," Koernke intones in the video. "All their different schemes, plotting and conniving have come to a nexus, a point in time at which they have the opportunity to grab everything." The only hope, he declares, lies in inducing the conspirators to act prematurely, before their confederates in the Federal Government have managed to completely disarm the Patriots. "If we are lucky, we can get them to move too quickly." War on American soil is probably inevitable. "Did I say it was going to be a short war? Did I say it was going to be an inexpensive war?" Koernke asks. "Absolutely not." He ends with the slogan "Death to the new world order!"
Says Rick Strawcutter, a well-known right-wing Michigan cleric in whose church the video was filmed: "No one dreamed, and I certainly didn't think, that the tape was even going to go anywhere. There's been a lot of people that have said the very same thing for years ... But it just so happened that he kind of put it together from a perspective of someone who might know something, and the rest is history."
As the tape has become more popular, Koernke has been speaking continuously. He has allied himself at various times with movement firebrand Linda Thompson and the Militia of Montana, one of the most aggressive purveyors of the militia concept. Nine months ago, G. Michael Callahan, an Arizona coin and precious-metals dealer, began sponsoring The Intelligence Report five days a week on short-wave radio. Koernke has made two popular sequels to his video. And all that was before Oklahoma City.
It has, presumably, been a heady couple of months for Koernke. The man who as a teenager regretted not being able to get shot, and thus immortalized, has received death threats and at least once has posted armed guards at his house. He has faced off with Sam Donaldson. True, the attention can be a nuisance. Some viewers are intrigued by his 1993 tape inviting "experts" in various types of weaponry to join the militia-at-large Raider Company based in Dexter. Last September in the Michigan town of Fowlerville, three men claiming to be Koernke's "bodyguards" and "unorganized militia" members were arrested while transporting a .357 magnum revolver, three semiautomatic pistols, three loaded assault rifles (an AK-47, an M-1 and an M-14), three gas masks and assorted other military gear. Two of the three are currently in custody. Local authorities say no further inquiry has been made into their connections with Koernke.
But whatever Koernke's actions and associations back home, it is his role as a traveling salesman that seems to take most of his energy. Since April he has bobbed up in Livonia, Palm Springs and Orlando, Florida. At each venue he works the Oklahoma City bombing more snugly into his world view as "yet another foot stomp on the part of the new-world-order crowd to manipulate the population," softening it up for draconian new antiterrorism measures. At each venue, it seems, there are more reporters. At each Koernke touches a few more people.
From somewhere in Mark Koernke's dissatisfying past, a lone voice muses. Ramon Martinez remarks, "I looked at home, and I realized I've got a wedding picture with him in it. He stood up for me. I was the best man at his wedding. I was godfather for his daughter. I mean, I knew the guy. I thought I did, anyway."
In the militiaman's infinitely more satisfying present, a crowd applauds madly. He addresses the audience in Palm Springs. "If I fall," he asks, "who will pick up the flag?" And from his listeners, glad cries ring back, "I will! I will!"