'Vipers' in the 'Burbs

Newsweek/July 15, 1996
By Patricia King

They all ordinary, but harbored an obsession with guns - and possibly terror. The Feds may have busted them just in time.

Item one in the U.S. Government's case against "Team Viper" is a short videotape that was partly shot on the weekend on Nov. 11-12, 1995. The location was an isolated area in Tonto National Forest, about 60 miles northeast of Phoenix, Ariz., and the cameraman-director was Finis Howard (Rick) Walker, 41, a furniture broker who at the time was captain of the militia group. The event was a "B-shoot," Viper code for a field exercise that was closed to outsiders, and the mission was to test-fire a variety of home-made explosives. There were little bombs and big bombs, and everyone had a great time. "Yes!Yes! That felt good!" someone exclaimed as a small bomb went off. Another sequence showed two men wearing camouflage fatigues carrying a large drum. "This is the biggest firecracker we've ever made," one man said enthusiastically. Then came the explosion and a giant pillar of smoke. "Wow!Wow! It's a f-king mushroom cloud!" somebody yelped.

There are seemingly ordinary Americans having what they consider to be fun - which is why the videotape and the peculiar form of recreation it depicts are ultimately so chilling. As nearly as one can tell from the evidence now being presented in federal court, the members of Team Viper appear to be fairly typical Phoenix suburbanites who played guerrilla games in their spare time - and may have considered much, much worse. They live on streets like Shangri-La Road and West Glendale Avenue; some have kids, and most hold 9-5 jobs. They are neither drifters nor dropouts - not hermits, not commune-dwellers, not religious cultists. How this particular mix of people came so close to the edge of terrorist violence is a mystery for now. But united by their passion for things that Go Boom, they appear to have convinced themselves that their right to have convinced themselves that their right to bear arms was in jeopardy and that the Feds were out to get them.

It turns out that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, fearing that the Vipers were planning violence, was already on their trail. Responding to a complaint from a hunter who encountered a Viper patrol during the group's November demolitions spree, ATF agents mounted an investigation that involved an undercover infiltrator. The infiltrator was a state game warden who called himself Scott Wells. "Wells" posed as a neo-Nazi and was accepted by the group - but not before he had sworn to kill, if necessary, and not before he survived a secret background check. The data for this check came from phone records obtained by Ellen Adella Belliveau, 27, a Viper member who works for AT&T. Just how Wells passed the background check remains a secret, but prosecutors cited what seemed to be undercover evidence during a bail hearing last week. Among these details was the allegation that Bellivieau proposed targeting the families of federal agents if members of the group were busted. Nobody seconded her motion. Although all have pleaded not guilty, a federal grand jury indicted 12 Vipers on weapons charges and six of the group for allegedly conspiring to "furnish instruction in the use of explosive devices…in furtherance of civil disorder."

Part of the evidence for this conspiracy charge is another videotape that reportedly depicts Viper members narrating a tour of downtown Phoenix. The goal was to identify building housing various federal agencies, such as the FBI, ATF and the Secret Service, and show how to blow them up. The tape was made in May 1994, nearly a year before the Oklahoma City bombing. Dean Carl Pleasant, 27, is one of the narrators. A former doughnut maker, sometimes college student and losing candidate for the Arizona state Senate on the Libertarian ticket, Pleasant and the others point out the buildings' vulnerabilities and calmly discuss how easy it would be to "collapse" them using explosive charges. This may have been mere fantasy. His opponent in the state Senate race, Republican John Kaites, said Pleasant was "a bit immature," a guy who had never "grown out of the GI Joe phase." But what to make of the fact that ATF agents recovered 300 to 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate and a 55-gallon drum of nitromethane - the makings of an Oklahoma City-style bomb - from the home of Viper Gary Bauer?

You can argue, as some do, that Walker, Pleasant and the other Vipers are Walter Mitty types with a goofy taste for war games. "These people are not terrorists," says Rick Sherrow of Soldier of Fortune magazine. "they're not angels, but they're not terrorists. They're just dumb." Or you can argue, like Alan Trabilcy, owner of a Phoenix gun store, that the Vipers are "nice people" who just happen to own something in excess of 140 guns. "It's not that surprising." Tracible says. "Out West, people have 50 to 100 guns apiece." And you can argue, like militia spokesman Mike Johnson, that Pleasant was merely exercising he constitutional right to carry out a "reconnaissance mission" in case the U.S. government betrays its citizens by trying to take away their guns. "I've seen and met everyone who was arrested," says one of Pleasant's friends. "As far as I was concerned, they were all just taking classes."

But, this man adds, "a lot of people see us heading toward major civil unrest. It's not just this town - people are fed up with government taking more and more control of our lives." So if guns are your consuming passion, how paranoid can you get? Consider a document that may have some bearing on the Phoenix case. It is called "OPLAN American Viper" and is available from a Del City, Okla., group called United Sovereigns of America. ("OPLAN" is spook talk for an operations plan; the name Viper refers to the Revolutionary war battle flag showing a snake with the slogan DON'T TREAD ON ME.) OPLAN Viper is full of paranoid ramblings about the New World Order and a plot, supposedly including U.S. officials, to allow Russian and east German troops to take over America.

The message is to prepare for Guerrilla war - war against the invaders and against treasonous Americans as well. The tract recommends sniper teams, assassination and large-scale sabotage, including the "contamination of enemy food sources and water supplies" using ordinary household chemicals such as rat poison, drain cleaners and battery acid. OPLAN helpfully notes that "many books" are available to advise the reader on making explosives, and it suggests that "unguarded rail lines" are "soft targets" for the guerrilla-patriot. This is interesting because somebody derailed a passenger train west of Phoenix last fall and left a militia-style flyer on the scene. Although no one knows whether the suspects ever read the OPLAN, the FBI is looking for links between the Vipers and the derailment.

The ATF, meanwhile, clearly thought the Vipers posed a significant terrorist threat. Part of the reason is the sheer number of weapons seized - more than 140 rifles and pistols in all, 95 of which came from the home of Gary Bauer. Some of these guns were obsolete military weapons like the Browning .30-caliber machine gun that Viper Capt. Randy Lynne Nelson took to bed every night (he called it "Shirley"). Others were modern assault rifles, of which had been illegally converted to full-automatic fire, and at least a few had their serial numbers filed off. There were hand grenades, rocket launchers, gas masks, bulletproof vest, silences and thousands of rounds of ammunition. There were two live homemade bombs as well, which were allegedly found in Bauer's home and detinated by the Phoenix bomb squad. Bauer, 50, is an engineer, a Vietnam veteran and the Viper munitions expert. A neighbor said she often saw men with guns at this house. "I told my husband there are a lot of guns in that house, but that I didn't know what they were up to," she said. "He told me it was none of our business."

But the real reason for the government's concern was that Viper leaders, according to ATF investigators and many in the militia movement, had a history of talking dangerously tough. The group was expelled from the Militia of Arizona six months ago because Rick Walker was feuding with those who, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, were trying to improve the movement's image. Nelson and Pleasant were kicked out of a shooting competition sponsored by Soldier of Fortune magazine, and Nelson the used the group's newsletter to warn the competition's organizer that he was going to "smash your face." Pleasant stunned his opponent in the state Senate race by putting out a gun in a restaurant, and ATF Special Agent Steve Ott testified that Bauer boasted during a recent Viper meeting that he had "once had a law-enforcement officer in his cross hairs and was preparing to shoot if he gave him trouble." Most ominous of all was the report that someone in the group got a list of ATF agents off the Internet. That suggested that the Vipers might be ready to act out their violent fantasies.

It will be up to a jury to decide whether they posed a real threat or not. ATF has not claimed that the Vipers had a specific plot in mind, which could make the conspiracy counts hard to prosecute. But given the Vipers' wild talk and vast arsenal, the Feds had no real choice but to move sooner rather than later.

[IN the cross hairs - The dozen members of the Viper Militia allegedly planned to blow up - Oklahoma City style - seven government buildings in Phoenix. 1. FBI, 2. Secret Service, 3. Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, 4. IRS, 5. Immigration & Naturalization, 6. Phoenix Police Department, 7. National Guard Headquarters.]

[Those arrested on these charges were :

  1. Rick Walker, 41, office-furniture salesman,
  2. Donna Williams, 44, concrete saleswoman,
  3. Charles Knight, 47, air-conditioner repairman,
  4. Henry Overturf, 37, doorman at topless club,
  5. Dean Pleasant, 27, ex-doughnut maker, (He helped produce a video tour of potential government targets. A cache of weapons was found in the house he shared with Nelson.)
  6. Gary Bauer, 50, engineer, (Hundreds of pounds of bomb-making ingredients similar to those in Oklahoma Ciy were found at his house.)
  7. David Belliveau, 27, maintenance worker,
  8. Christopher Floyd, 21, doughnut maker,
  9. Walter Sanville, 37, VCR repairman,
  10. Scott Shero, 30, maintenance worker.
  11. Randy Nelson, 32, house painter.
  12. Ellen Belliveau, 27, AT&T account worker.

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