When militia leader Floyd "Ray" Looker was sentenced last Friday to 18 years in federal prison, it was just one in a string of recent successes in the fight against antigovernment radicals.
Across the United States, law-enforcement agencies are winning important court battles against militia members, tax protesters, white separatists, and those who threaten local officials with liens and other phony legal tactics.
Several things are involved in this effort, according to expert observers and participants in this crackdown: Excellent police intelligence based on infiltrators and turncoats. A kinder, gentler approach toward armed malcontents holed up and ready to shoot it out (as opposed to the gun-blazing tactics at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, which were public-relations disasters). New no-nonsense state legislation aimed at "common-law courts" and legal filings designed to gum up the legitimate court system. And a crackdown on tax-avoidance and other financial schemes often promoted by "freemen," "sovereign citizens," and others who consider themselves independent of federal and state law.
In Mr. Looker's case, for example, authorities used an informant to foil a plot to blow up an FBI building in Clarksburg, Va. Meanwhile, state prosecutors in Utah have begun winning convictions against antigovernment types who refuse to pay taxes.
It's the same philosophy used against mobster Al Capone, says Utah Assistant Attorney General Wade Winegar, who heads the effort: "If we can't get them on their most egregious offense, we go after them under the tax laws."
"All of these groups that have strong opposition to the government seem not to pay taxes," he says.
Looker's sentencing, in addition to the sentencing of a hate-group leader in Pennsylvania last week, the recent arrest of three terrorist plotters affiliated with a Michigan militia group, and the ongoing trials of the freemen in Montana and the "Republic of Texas" defendants are also putting antigovernment groups and individuals on notice that they could end up in jail.
This has reduced the number of "fence-sitters" who may have been tempted to participate in illegal activity, says Summit County, Colo., judge Jeff Ryan. He points to one common-law court in Colorado that was disbanded when those who had threatened local officials were aggressively prosecuted.
"People saw this wasn't going to be a slap on the wrist," he says.
The radical fringe
At the same time, though, the hard-core types are feeling more isolated these days and therefore may be driven to radical action says Judge Ryan, a former prosecutor in Colorado and Illinois. A recent coup d'tat in the Michigan Militia, for example, saw the moderate leadership tossed out by those more inclined to espouse white-supremacist philosophies and armed action.
"Among white separatists, we've seen the emergence of a surprising number of small groups with revolutionary aims," says historian Mark Pitcavage, who specializes in right-wing radical groups. Among these are such groups as the New Order, the Phineas Priesthood, and the Aryan Peoples Republic.
"We don't really know how many are out there," says Dr. Pitcavage, who trains FBI agents and other law-enforcement officials. "These are groups that don't really advertise - until they're caught."
"This is certainly a dangerous trend, should it continue," he adds.
But in observing law-enforcement efforts around the country, Pitcavage says: "In general, we're doing pretty well," noting that authorities "are really tuned in" in Colorado, Texas, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon - states that have seen more than their share of radical behavior.
Evidence of success
Among the recent evidence that antigovernment activists are feeling the heat of prosecution:
The arrest in Oregon last week of Ronald Griesacker, under indictment in Kansas on federal bank-fraud charges. Mr. Griesacker is a former corrections officer with reported ties to militia and common-law court groups.
Last week's sentencing of Mark William Thomas, the hate-group organizer in Pennsylvania. He was involved in a series of Midwest bank robberies.
* The recent federal indictment of four Illinois men charged with plotting assassinations, bombings, and robberies as part of a racist, antigovernment terrorism campaign.
* The conviction in Florida of a retired New York City policeman who refused to carry a valid driver's license or register his car - a common tactic among those claiming to have ''sovereign authority'' as freemen.
* The recent arraignment of three Michigan men described as "armed and dangerous" by federal officials seeking prosecution on conspiracy charges involving the illegal possession of weapons and explosives with intent to attack judges and law-enforcement agents.
Meanwhile, the federal trial of six freemen continues in Montana, where some of their number were involved in an 81-day stand-off with federal agents at a foreclosed farm they called Justus Township before surrendering in June 1996. The six, who have frequently disrupted the proceedings in Billings, Mont., are charged with helping the group's leaders avoid arrest. Leaders of the group will be tried in May on charges including bank fraud and threatening the life of a federal judge.
Drawing the lien
While Utah may be unique in pursuing antigovernment radicals under state tax laws, some 20 states have passed laws dealing with bogus liens. In Congress, Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York is sponsoring a bill that would give greater protections to state and local officials frequently threatened in such cases.
While the number of potentially violent members of the so-called Patriot Movement is thought to be small (10,000 to 15,000 people), those with philosophical leanings in that direction may be as many as 5 million.
Officials hope that by enforcing tax laws, going after financial scams, and taking a harder line on common-law courts, they can head off worse problems.
"If you can cut it off at the roots," says Mr. Winegar, "you can really reduce the risk of having somebody like [convicted Oklahoma City bomber] Timothy McVeigh who's going to go out and do something stupid."