Militia extremists defend their views

San Francisco Examiner/April 23, 1995
By Lance Williams and Scott Winokur

No matter what the government says, Vernon Weckner of the Unorganized Militia of El Dorado County says he knows that America's burgeoning militia movement is innocent of the horrendous Oklahoma City bombing.

The tipoff, he says, was an ominous convoy of black helicopters from the "international banking system," which he claims was hovering over the federal building only minutes before the explosion.

"We know who blew up the building -- the CIA blew up the building," says Weckner, a 64-year-old retired mechanic and writer for a militia-oriented paper in Marysville. He says he got his information from militiamen in Montana.

However extreme they might seem, Weckner's views are shared to some extent by more than 1,000 Californians, who in the past two years have formed 35 paramilitary militia units up and down the state, according to a count by Doug Fales, commander of the Placer County Militia in Roseville.

The rise of the militia movement has gained prominence since Timothy James McVeigh, a suspect in the Oklahoma blast, has alleged ties to right-wing militias in Michigan and Arizona and reportedly embraces many of the anti-government views promoted by the movement's leaders.

Weckner, who describes himself as legal owner of about a dozen firearms, including a high-velocity riot shotgun known as a "street sweeper," is haunted by apocalyptic fears for the nation he loves.

He says the United States is the target of a plot by international bankers who have set up concentration camps, begun copter flyovers and trained thousands of Hong Kong police and thugs from the Crips and Bloods drug gangs to carry out the coup. Soon, he says, they will activate their "shadow government" -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- and impose their "New World Order" through mass arrests of citizens.

All that stands in the conspiracy's way, he says, are America's militiamen -- heavily armed patriots who believe that the U.S. Constitution "commands you to take any means necessary to overthrow a government if it is tyrannical."

Militias have sprung up in San Diego, Anaheim, Monterey, Fort Bragg, Red Bluff and the East Bay, where militiamen held organizational meetings recently in Fremont. But most are concentrated in California's Sierra foothills, where the right to bear arms is sacrosanct, political suspicion passes for gospel truth and fierce distrust of government is as widespread as foothill chaparral.

In an October 1994 report, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said it was concerned because some militia units were "training with firearms in order to protect themselves from the police," whom they identified with the "New World Order" of their conspiracy theory.

Use of weapons a "God-given right'

California militias not only have ties to heavily armed militias throughout the nation, experts say, but to neo-Nazi and other racist groups within the state -- and could quickly evolve into violent organizations.

"The thing that connects these groups, at its most tame, is this paranoid distrust of the federal government and this fanatical obsession with weapons and explosives," says Brian Levin, associate director of Montgomery, Ala.-based Klanwatch, which also monitors hate groups.

He adds, "They also share the belief that it's legitimate to use these weapons to protect themselves from their perceived enemies -- it's their God-given right.

"I believe there's a significant amount of racism and anti-Semitism in these groups, but I think a lot of them are sugar-coating their connections. It's extremely disturbing."

According to experts, California remains behind the Rocky Mountain and Midwest states in militia activity, even though the populous Golden State long has been home to radical groups, including militant neo-Nazi, skinhead and racist organizations.

But the militia movement -- propelled by genuine outrage over the federal role in the 1993 destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas -- is growing so fast that experts said California could soon become like Montana and Michigan, where firearm drills by men in military uniform and camouflage face paint are increasingly common.

"Let's put it this way," says Rick Eaton of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which tracks anti-Semitic and hate groups: "Last year Bo Gritz (an ex-Green Beret apostle of armed survivalism) held a number of meetings in Northern and Central California, and the door prize at one in the Gold Rush country was a semiautomatic rifle."

Not necessarily racist

While they share some beliefs, the new California militias are distinct from racist and neo-Nazi groups, which are common and well-entrenched. Many militia members profess to harbor no racial or ethnic hatreds. Nor are all of them fire-breathers like Weckner.

Fales, the commander of the Placerville militia, is a soft-spoken auto mechanic. He describes the California militia as a "preparedness organization" devoted to God, country and the U.S. Constitution and "not racist in any way."

The Fort Bragg unit even spurned a gift of 1,500 rural acres that would have been perfect for training exercises, he says, when it learned the donor was a white supremacist. Fales also contends that bombing a day care center violates every tenet of the militiaman's code.

But Fales also says he was infuriated by the Waco shootout.

"If there was a church in Placer County that was assaulted, we would react in defense of those people," he says. "But we would not fire the first shot."

Edna Infalt, of the 100-member Unorganized Militia of Eldorado County, said her 74-year-old husband, Harris, founded the outfit in February to "change laws and stuff that's coming down." She claimed the group was unarmed and appalled by the Oklahoma bombing.

"I'm not a violent person. I've got a bunch of grandkids. All we want to do is save our constitution," says Infalt, 73.

The militia movement also has won sympathizers who claim to shun weapons, but admit they harbor similarly extreme beliefs.

"Last line of defense for America'

Mark Zapalik, director of the conservative Traditional Values Coalition in Concord, said members of his group recently viewed a videotape by Michigan Militia commander "Mark from Michigan" Koernke describing the supposed government conspiracy to bring in foreign troops to police U.S. citizens.

"If this stuff is true," Zapalik says, "the militia may be the last line of defense in America."

Many California militias operate in probable violation of a state law banning paramilitary organizations. Attorney General Dan Lungren's office said that, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, it's only monitoring these groups, leaving enforcement actions to local authorities.

In any case, law enforcement can do little, says Levin of Klanwatch, because militia members have the legal right to assemble and bear arms.

"The government has its hands tied. Even if you think someone is stockpiling something, you have to show evidence of a threat or illegality," he says.

Weckner says it would be a grave mistake for the government to target militias in the wake of the Oklahoma incident.

"We're not about to make a move against this government unless the government makes a move against us," he says. this report.

04/23/95 14:11 PST

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