Jury convicts Viper

The Arizona Republic/June 24, 1997
By Eric Miller

When he first joined the Viper Militia in 1995, Charles Knight was considered a model student.

Take question 22 of what federal prosecutors call the "militiaman's 101 test."

"Who are our enemies?" the question asks.

Knight's answer: "The press, ATF, FBI, United Nations and Federal Marshals."

On Monday, one of Knight's professed federal enemies racked up a decisive victory. After two days of deliberations, a jury of eight men and four women found him guilty of conspiring to make and possess explosives.

Knight, 47, of Glendale, faces up to five years in federal prison. He remains free on bail and will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Earl Carroll on Sept. 8.

A disappointed Knight said after the verdict that he realized the jury had a tough decision to make.

"This is the nature of a conspiracy charge," he said. "I have told the truth before God. I have done no wrong."

Knight's father, Charles Knight II, said his son's trial was a government "test case."

"The government has to prove that they're big and powerful and that they can take care of us," he said. "It cost millions and millions of dollars to prove nothing. They proved nothing except intimidating a jury."

Jurors said afterward that during deliberations, four members voted for acquittal.

"Nobody really wanted to find him guilty," juror Chuck Waun said. "This could happen to any one of us."

But Waun said the jurors felt they had to follow the law.

"They (Vipers) made explosive devices and it was against the law," he said.

The jurors' decision came only 45 minutes after they told Carroll at midafternoon that they could not agree on a verdict.

Valley contractor John O'Keefe, who said he was the last holdout for acquittal, called the jury's deliberations at times "very emotional."

"Even now, I don't know if we performed our duties right," O'Keefe said. "Who knows?"

O'Keefe said he was bothered that the government's key witness, Arizona Department of Game and Fish undercover officer John Schultz, had to shop for five months to find a federal agency willing to accept the case after he infiltrated the group.

Testimony in the nearly three-week trial established that Knight was first sergeant, third in command of the Vipers, a Valley secret paramilitary organization that was stockpiling contraband explosives and automatic weapons to prepare for a "rainy day."

To the Vipers, the definition of a rainy day ranged from floods and race riots to U.N. troops in the streets.

Although Knight's lawyer, Ivan Abrams of Bisbee, portrayed his client as "Mr. Average Guy," an air-conditioning technician with a wife and five kids, federal prosecutors alleged Knight knew all along that the Vipers' activities were illegal.

Throughout the trial, Abrams said that neither the Vipers nor Knight ever intended to harm anyone. Abrams said the group was more social and political than military, men and women guided more by egos than common sense.

"A lack of common sense is not criminal intent," Abrams said. "It is not criminal activity."

But in final arguments Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Hannis scoffed at such notions.

Hannis argued that during Viper meetings, secretly videotaped by the government, there were discussions of "terminating" infiltrators, how to take out buildings with explosives, and the need to make an emergency purchase of blasting caps and detonating cords before a new federal law went into effect that required the "tagging" or identifying of explosives.

"This isn't Mr. Average Guy," Hannis told the jury. "This isn't Mr. Duty, Honor and County. This is Mr. Plausible Deniability."

But Abrams called Knight a "defender of the U.S. Constitution."

"Viper team was a rag-tag group of men and women who said they didn't like federal agents," Abrams told the jury. "They were people who were frightened. Their world was changing and they didn't understand why."

He also said the Vipers were motivated by a "lot of macho talk, a lot of bragging."

"Viperism meant being able to tell the whopper of all whoppers and then going home and forgetting about it," Abrams said.

The Vipers drew national headlines last July when agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms conducted raids and arrested members of the heavily armed band.

Schultz testified that Viper members routinely debated and discussed such topics as urban combat, sniper techniques, troop movements, Viet Cong survival tactics, patrolling techniques and explosives training.

The decision in the Knight trial does not close the Viper case. One other former Viper, Christopher Floyd, 22, of Phoenix, will be tried later.

Ten other Vipers have pleaded guilty to their crimes and have been sentenced to federal prison.

Contributing to this article were David Leibowitz and Christina Leonard of The Arizona Republic.

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