Case against Viper militia takes a blow Judge frees 6 defendants

ATF aide denies danger

July 15, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

PHOENIX -- The government's case against the Viper militia of Arizona threatens to backfire on federal agencies that heralded it as a breakthrough in the war against domestic terrorists.

Federal authorities said this month that the arrests of 10 men and two women here -- the largest apprehension of militia members in U.S. history -- thwarted a plot to launch a terrorist campaign to attack government buildings with ammonium nitrate bombs.

Standing on the White House lawn, President Clinton said: "I'd like to begin today by saluting the enforcement officers who made arrests in Arizona yesterday to avert a terrible terrorist attack. Their dedication and hard work over the last six months may have saved many lives."

But last week, U.S. District Court Judge Earl Carroll sent home six of the dozen suspects, declaring that they were not a threat to their communities.

None of the so-called Viper militia members was charged with conspiring to destroy government buildings.

And during detention hearings in federal court last week, Steven Ott, supervisor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, conceded that he never notified officials at the allegedly targeted buildings because he did not believe they were in danger.

Ott also testified that "there was talk" of a state Fish and Game Department officer who infiltrated the Vipers six months ago becoming the group's leader.

"We told him, 'Absolutely no,' " Ott said. But the same undercover officer, Ott said, urged the Vipers to rob banks to further their cause. The Viper militia members turned him down.

Another troubling aspect of the case was that neither the fish and game officer assigned to the ATF, nor a paid informant who also penetrated the Vipers, had experience in working with federal agencies in serious criminal cases.

Six of the suspects remain behind bars, facing charges involving the possession of illegal guns and hundreds of pounds of explosive materials. Trial has been tentatively scheduled for Aug. 20.

Pub Date: 7/15/96

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