The Secret World of Extreme Militias

On the Web and in militia groups, antigovernment extremism is on the rebound. A special investigation

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ty Cacek for TIME

ODF militiamen Frank Delollis, right, signals for a patrol party to turn around while searching the Old Roseville Prison property in Roseville, Ohio for enemy combatants during the Ohio Defense Force's annual FTX on Aug. 21, 2010.

(5 of 6)

Members of militias around the country say, like Goldsmith, that they resent comparison with white supremacists like Cummings and Von Brunn. They complain of being tarred as members of hate groups by watchdogs at the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. "I can't tell you how much I enjoy being lumped in with sociopathic organizations like neo-Nazis, anti-abortion extremists and Holocaust-denial groups," says Darren Wilburn, a private detective in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., who trains with a hard-core militia he preferred not to name. He cites his motto, "Life, liberty and the pursuit of anyone who threatens it," as evidence that he is not looking for trouble as long as trouble keeps clear of him.

The same two points—a defensive posture and ill will toward no one—were repeated with sincerity by many of Goldsmith's men. There were layers of meaning beneath those words, which peeled back as the weekend progressed. The Ohio Defense Force charter declares two missions, which may sound the same to outside ears but mean very different things. One is to help state and local law enforcement upon request. The other is to "assist in the protection of local citizens in emergencies."

An example of the first mission, the most recent one Goldsmith could think of, came after flooding struck Columbiana County six years ago. Chief Deputy Sheriff Allen Haueter says the militia helped direct traffic, leaving sheriff's officers free to respond to emergencies. But Haueter did not authorize them—"Oh, no, no," he says—to carry guns. They could as easily have done the job garbed as candy stripers.

Why, then, the paramilitary training that takes up nearly all the militia's time? That question bothers Sheriff Matt Lutz of Muskingum County, where the militia is headquartered. "There is no correlation with them saying they're there to help us in any way and them running around with assault rifles in the woods," he says. "That's what scares people. That just tells me they're preparing for the worst."

As indeed they are. The militia's second mission, protecting local citizens, requires no invitation from the likes of the sheriff. An officer named Ken, who asked that his last name and hometown go unmentioned, says, "You can be a civilized human being and defend yourself without being a bad guy." Against what? "Most likely it will start when the government tries to take our guns," he says.

Craig Wright, 50, a consulting engineer from Mansfield, was one of the face-painted raiders who ambushed the Blue Team's rear-perimeter guards. He learned something important, he says, when he went drinking with fellow members of force Red. "Some of these people are, quite honestly, quite scary," he said. "They might not be well educated, they might not listen to Beethoven, but they can take care of themselves."

And that is what Wright is looking for.

"We're not planning to overthrow the government," he said. "We're planning for what could happen." He proceeded to list, among other scenarios, a pandemic; economic collapse; hunger-driven big-city refugees; a biological, chemical or nuclear terrorist attack; an electromagnetic pulse from the sun that wrecks earthly machinery; invasion by Mexican drug cartels; and an eruption of ash from Yellowstone that "wipes out the breadbasket of the United States." Any one of those would likely give Washington the excuse to declare martial law. If so, Wright and his brothers in arms would fight back. "Hopefully," he said, "if they rule the cities, we'll rule the countryside."

This is a frame of mind that law-enforcement and counterterrorism officials have seen before, and it worries them. "There are a number of militias out there that we call almost defensive in nature, right?" a senior national-security official says. "So they train. They're pulling in arms or pulling in weapons. They're pulling in food. They're preparing bunkers... They're preparing for confrontation, but they will call it defensive." The official paused as if to play out a scene in his mind's eye. A well-equipped paramilitary force with "a perception of being confronted would strike out and strike out pretty hard," he says. "For a small or even a medium-size law-enforcement agency—anybody, really—there would be some serious, serious issues."

War on the Feds
On the sidelines of the disparate antigovernment movement, its philosophers are edging their followers closer to violence.

Bob Schulz, a leading exponent of the view that the IRS and much of the government it funds are operating illegally, has reached the brink of calling for war. The moment is significant because he is an influential voice among militia groups.

After more than a decade of conventional legal battles, Schulz and a network of allies organized by the We the People Foundation began filing hundreds of petitions for redress of grievances. Schulz had come to believe that the First Amendment's petition clause required governors, legislatures and federal agencies to provide specific and satisfactory answers to accusations of wrongdoing. He filled government dockets with thousands of questions—one petition, for instance, asked the IRS to "admit or deny" 116 allegations of fraud in the 1913 debate that ratified the 16th Amendment. When his petitions went ignored and the Supreme Court declined to hear his case in 2007, he wrote a formal brief accusing the court of "committing treason to the Constitution." The IRS, meanwhile, revoked his foundation's tax-exempt status, alleging that he used it to promote an illegal "tax termination plan" and bringing tax-evasion charges against some of the people who followed Schulz's advice.

Last year Schulz convened hundreds of delegates to a second Continental Congress in St. Charles, Ill., drafting Articles of Freedom with "instructions" that state and federal governments halt unlawful operations. Refusal to comply would be "an act of WAR," the delegates wrote, and "the People and their Militias have the Right and Duty to repel it." Several militia leaders are among the authors.

Then, in November and March, Schulz staged vigils at the White House in which he and some of his followers dressed in the mask of the menacing "V" from the film V for Vendetta. (In the movie's final scene, the oppressive seat of government erupts in spectacular flames to the swelling strains of the 1812 Overture.) "If the First Amendment doesn't work," Schulz says, "the Second Amendment would." He asks, "What does a free man do" when all other avenues are closed? "I am struggling with my conscience."

Regardless of what conscience tells them, what chance do would-be armed rebels possibly have of prevailing against the armed might of the U.S.?

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6