[Note: Below is the text of Chapter 6 of my book In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest. I'm running it today to complement the above post on Tony Perkins.]
Thus says Yahweh: Behold, I will raise up against Babylon and against them that dwell in the midst of them that rise up against me, a destroying wind...
-- Jeremiah 51:1, quoted in notes accompanying a pair of bombs set off April 1, 1996, in Spokane
It was April Fool’s Day, but this was no joke.
The two men wore masks and obviously wanted money. One clacked a round into the shotgun as they entered the bank, while the other held up a handgun and announced that this was a stickup. But these weren’t ordinary bank robbers. They had a message they wanted to send, too.
“Tell the cops to free the people of Justus or we’ll be back,” one yelled, as they herded the bank’s employees into a corner and started grabbing cash out of tellers’ drawers. As the robbery progressed, they shouted more slogans:
“Tell your government and its people not to mess with the Freemen!”
“It’s free the people in Justus!”
“Justice for the people in Justus!”
Then they shouted at everyone to get out of the bank, and the employees quickly complied. One of the men set a pipe bomb atop the head teller’s counter. As the pair ran out of the bank and into a waiting white-and-maroon Chevy van, the bomb went off, blowing a hole in the bank’s ceiling and ripping apart six teller’s stations.
The Phineas Priesthood had struck. The ghosts of The Order had returned to haunt Spokane.
The assault actually had begun eleven minutes earlier and thirty blocks away, at a suburban satellite office of the Spokane Spokesman-Review. A circulation worker at the plant’s rear delivery door saw the van come roaring up. Peering through a window, he saw a man behind the wheel of the van with a long white beard, while a second man in a ski mask jumped out of the passenger’s seat and came running up to the plant’s rear door. He bent down and set something near the door, looked up and saw the man watching him, then returned to the van, which screeched off.
Curious, the circulation man poked his head out the door to see what they had left. His blood froze when he saw it: a pipe bomb, fuse lit and sizzling toward its end.
For a second, he thought about being a hero and pulling the fuse out. But in the same flash, he thought about his two young sons, both just behind him, visiting him after they had finished with school.
He ran back in and yelled at everyone to call police and take cover.
“Then, boom!” he later told a reporter for his newspaper. “It was pretty unreal.”
Windows in the plant shattered. Upstairs, an editor was knocked out of his seat, and the cover of his phone was blown off. But no one was hurt. Another worker, outside in the parking lot, thought the rear end of his car had blown off. “The next thing I saw was smoke coming out of the back of the building,” he said.
Everyone in the plant, about twelve people, came running out to the parking lot, afraid that perhaps another bomb was about to blow. Then someone called the police.
Brief moments later, the two men burst through the doors of the Spokane Valley branch of U.S. Bank, this time with masks on both. When they left less than ten minutes later, the stunned and scared employees were milling in the parking lot, the sound of the bomb and the slogans for the Freemen ringing in their ears.
The robbers also were $50,000 richer. As FBI agents who quickly swooped onto the scenes of the attacks discovered, this operation had been very well planned. The robbery occurred at the beginning of the month, days on which most banks are flush with cash in order to convert payroll and government checks. And it had taken place in the unincorporated Spokane Valley, which is patrolled by the more thinly spread county sheriff’s deputies.
Just about the time the bombs went off, a woman’s voice was broadcast over the deputies’ radios claiming that an officer had been shot. The transmission may have been the first diversion.
Then, the bomb went off at the Spokesman-Review plant. Officers were still trying to respond to the call about that attack when they got word of the bank robbery, too. By the time policemen made it to the bank, the robbers were long gone.
Investigators found the getaway van about two hours later, parked in the lot outside a Valley home-and-garden store. Afraid the van had been booby-trapped, they evacuated the store and surroundings and sent a robot to open the door and peer inside the van with a video camera. Nothing went off. Inside, there was a jar filled with gasoline, which also had been splashed around the van’s interior.
Apparently, that was the robbers’ only mistake. The jar had been intended to detonate, setting the van on fire and destroying its contents. Instead, federal agents and policemen were able to comb the van for clues; they came up with some important pieces of evidence, including fingerprints and “items of interest.”
The most revealing item, though, had been left intentionally by the robbers. At both the newspaper plant and the bank, near where the bombs went off, they had left copies of the same two-page note sealed in plastic.
It was typed, a two-page rendition of Bible verse -- mostly Jeremiah 51, and a portion quoting Revelation 18 -- apparently intended to announce the coming fall of “Babylon.” Some of the language was peculiar: it referred to “Yahweh” where most Bibles refer to “the Lord,” and changed “man” to “Adam-man.” The passages attacked the immorality of secular society, and ended with a warning apparently directed at bankers: “Flee you usurer from the face of our land, and all that would not that the Master should reign over them, for the end of Babylon is come. Praise Yahweh!”
Judging from the language, it seemed clear the note’s authors were believers in Christian Identity, evident sympathizers of the men in Jordan whose standoff was then only a week old. And the symbol at the bottom of the second page clarified the picture even further.
It was a combination of a P and a cross: the logo of the Phineas Priesthood.
Of all the permutations of the Patriot movement’s Christian Identity factions, the Phineas Priesthood is perhaps the most insidious and frightening. The clear threat of violence lies at the heart of the group’s agenda, and as the Spokane bombings suggest, its members are prepared to carry it out -- on a national scale. The sect’s tendrils extend to some of the most notorious crimes of recent history, to Oklahoma City and, possibly, to the burning embers of black churches in the South.
The Phineas Priesthood wants to force the country to adhere to “God’s Laws.” And its adherents plan to punish people who violate them. Their blueprint:
-- “Executing” interracial couples and homosexuals.
-- Bombing abortion clinics and “executing” abortion doctors.
-- Bombing civil-rights centers and “executing” civil-rights leaders and other “race mixers.”
-- Robbing banks to finance their activities, purchase arms, and help fund the work of other radical Patriots and white supremacists.
Each of these crimes, adherents of the sect believe, is justified because they represent enforcement of God’s laws -- specifically, Old Testament laws regarding homosexuality, abortion, race mixing, and money lending. These laws -- inspired, evidently, by verses from the Old Testament and Apocrypha -- supersede secular society’s rules, they believe, and only when Americans adhere to them will God bless the nation again. They see themselves as real Christian heroes.
The work of carrying out their agenda, conducted within small, secretive, leaderless cells that are connected only by belief and occasional communication, already is being conducted in a flurry of seemingly isolated incidents across the country. The Spokane robbery/bombing is only the most recent such case.
FBI officials in Spokane at first were skeptical that the radical right was behind the attacks. Although there was plenty of evidence to make the link -- especially the shouted slogans and the note, featuring the Phineas Priesthood symbol, which in the small amount of literature available on the sect appears as a mark to be left behind, a kind of calling card -- the investigators believed the note and other clues were a ruse by some sophisticated robbers hoping to throw them off the track. Three weeks later, they finally became convinced of the connection to the far right, and issued a series of composite sketches of the four known suspects.
Besides the man with the gray beard, there was a thin, smaller, bearded man believed to be the second gunman. A portly, dark-haired man believed to have been seen the day before the robbery in the getaway van wore a beard on that day, but was believed to be the same man, minus the beard and dressed in a shirt and tie, who visited the bank moments before it was robbed and then exited, making a signal that looked like a pump-action shotgun being loaded, according to eyewitnesses.
The van, they discovered, had been stolen the day before in Ellensburg, midway across the state to the west, from a used-car lot. That suggested the criminals might have come from western Washington, and investigators intensified their search there. But months later, they were still frustrated. No sign of the self-proclaimed Phineas Priests had emerged.
What was immediately clear was that precious little actually was known about the Priesthood. Their movements and activities are extremely secretive and not prone to being infiltrated by informants, because they follow the strategy of “leaderless resistance” promoted by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Louis Beam at the Estes Park meeting: forming in small groups of six to eight men dedicated to the cause.
The Spokane incident, though, was far from the first violent act in which the Phineas Priesthood, in name at least, has played a known role. Since the mid-1980s, there has been a series of hate crimes believed to be the acts of the Priesthood. In most cases, the sect’s role was identified by the criminals themselves or from those within the movement.
-- Three masked men walked into a gay bookstore in Shelby, North Carolina, late one night in 1984 armed with guns, rounded up three people in the store, shot them to death t point-blank range, and then set fire to the store, killing a fourth man inside. Two North Carolina white supremacists, Robert “Jack” Jackson and Doug Sheets, were accused in the slayings. An all-white jury acquitted Sheets, after which prosecutors dropped the murder charges against Jackson.
Eventually, Jackson wound up serving time for plotting to bomb the Southern Poverty Law Center, headquarters of an Alabama civil-rights activist organization that long has been a thorn in the side of the radical right. In 1991, campaigning for Jackson’s release, an Ohio Posse Comitatus group indicated Jackson was a member of the Phineas Priesthood.
A pamphlet produced a few years later by a Florida Christian Identity group promoting the Phineas Priesthood heralded the North Carolina killings as an example of what awaits people who break God’s laws. Titled “Whose Law Will You Follow?, it was apparently written by someone with an inside knowledge of the perpetrators’ operations:
“Oh God,” was the cry from one of the male prostitutes, as he gazed from silenced barrels to the zeal-filled eyes of the executioners. Maybe he was calling for God to come down from the Heavens and save him and his fellow temple prostitutes, but more likely he knew it was God who had sent these masked men and, out of desperation, he was preparing to meet the maker face to face!
Everything went as planned and the building was secured with dispatch. Two weeks of surveillance had paid off. While one man kept the sodomites at gunpoint, another checked the closets, restrooms and “peep show” booths which were frequently used for committing crimes against nature. The other placed flammable and explosive devices in strategic areas. All was ready!
The trial was simple and to the point. One of the masked men asked the accused what they were doing at a known homosexual gathering place after midnight on the Sabbath, but none chose to answer. Then they were asked to produce wedding bands, a picture of a wife, or a female companion. None could comply. Shortly before the fuses were lit on the explosives, Civil Rights were violated!
The pamphlet goes on to warn: “In cities and towns all over America, names and addresses of law violators are being compiled. Six-man teams are forming across the nation. Soon the fog that comes from Heaven will be accompanied by the destroying wind of a righteous God.” The account is signed: “The Phineas Priesthood.”
-- In 1991, when prosecutors re-filed charges against Mississippi businessman Byron de la Beckwith in the 1963 assassination of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, they introduced evidence that Beckwith was a member of the Phineas Priesthood and carried out the “execution” as part of his “ordained duty.” One potential witness, a former Klan member, declined to testify for fear of retribution by the Priesthood: “You don’t know when they’re going to strike,” he told a Mississippi newspaper. “There is nothing quite so dangerous as a religious fanatic who thinks he’s doing the Lord’s will.” A jury nonetheless eventually convicted Beckwith.
Beckwith’s nephew, Reed Massengill, wrote a book on the case afterward. “The Phineas Priesthood is really shadowy -- I hate to even call it a group, because we know so little about it,” he told a National Public Radio interviewer. “Some people believe it doesn’t exist. Those who do believe it exists believe it to be a vigilante band of individuals who take God’s law, as they perceive it, into their own hands and commit acts of murder and mayhem -- against race mixers in particular.”
-- Two Oklahoma men, Walter Eliyah Thody and Richard Scott McIntosh, were convicted in January 1992 to more than 30 years each in prison for twice robbing the same Muskogee savings and loan. Thody, just before his sentencing, later told a Tulsa newspaper the stolen money went to support the activities of the Phineas Priesthood.
Thody, a onetime tax protester who believes a “Jewish conspiracy” is out to destroy America, had previously spent six years in prison for passing counterfeit currency, after trying to convince a jury that he was justified, since the Federal Reserve printed phony currency. While in prison, he made connections that enabled him to form his own cell of the Phineas Priesthood. When he got out, he immediately began robbing banks to finance their work.
He and McIntosh were caught shortly after robbing a Muskogee bank as they attempted to switch vehicles; with police in pursuit, they commandeered another car from a housewife who had just pulled into a nearby parking lot, but police rammed the car after a short chase and arrested the pair.
“After years of trying to defeat the conspiracy by all legal means, I came to the conclusion that this was an all-out war,” Thody told the reporter. He claimed he and his colleagues had robbed up to fifty banks around the country, all to “plunder the enemy.”
Thody said cells of the Phineas Priesthood exist throughout the country, peopled by average-seeming men with families and jobs. The Priesthood, he said, is a “silent brotherhood.”
-- When anti-abortion activist Rev. Paul Hill gunned down a doctor and his escort outside a Pensacola, Florida, clinic in July 1994, the event was given major play in the August issue of Jubilee, a Christian Identity newspaper, with a story headlined “Phineas Priesthood Emerges to Combat Aborticide?” It concluded: “Perhaps Hill, knowledgeable in scripture, relied on the example of Phineas who saved Israel from the wrath of God by punishing those who broke His law!”
In Hill’s own writings, including an anti-abortion tract popular at Patriot gatherings, he envisioned an underground enclave of assassins who commit murders as punishment for “disobeying God’s laws” -- abortion, homosexuality, and a host of other crimes, including interracial mixing. He cited the Old Testament story of Phineas as inspiration and justification.
Sometimes just the name of the Phineas Priesthood can be used to suggest a threat. Jonathan Mozzochi, director of Portland’s Coalition for Human Dignity, a hate-group monitoring organization, was approached by an anonymous man after one of his speaking appearances in Oregon. “You ever hear of the Phineas Priesthood?” the man asked with a knowing look, then simply turned around and walked off. Mozzochi says the remark was clearly intended to intimidate him.
When a Unitarian church in Idaho Falls, Idaho, scheduled a speech in April 1996 by sociologist James Aho, an Idaho State University professor who has written two books on the Christian Patriots, an anonymous person or group left pamphlets on cars outside the church -- namely, the Ekklesia “Whose Law Will You Follow?” flyers that described the murders of the gay men in North Carolina. Since there are no X-rated bookstores in Idaho Falls, the implied threat appeared to be directed at Aho (who had canceled earlier due to an illness) and others who oppose the radical right.
“This wasn’t an anti-gay-rights thing,” said Kay Snyder, president of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, who was at the meeting that night. “It was anti-everything.”
As the Kamikazee is to the Japanese/As the Shiite is to Islam/As the Zionist is to the Jew/So the Phineas Priest is to Christendom
-- Inscription on the cover of Vigilantes of Christendom
The nominal inspiration for all these deeds is Phineas (or Phinehas in the King James spelling), an Old Testament “man of God” whose story is related in Numbers 25. Ignoring a commandment from Moses, who blames a plague from God on the “whoredom” of his straying flocks, an Israelite man marries a woman of another race -- a Midianite. Hearing of this, Phineas rises up from the congregation, takes a spear in hand and stalks outside:
“And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.”
The Biblical verse is cited not only by Hill and the Jubilee (and is carried on anti-abortion demonstrators’ pickets when they stage rallies at clinics -- “Nos. 25” ), it is the heart of the chief work about the Phineas Priesthood, a 1990 book titled Vigilantes of Christendom by a Lynchburg, Virginia, white supremacist named Richard Kelly Hoskins. At 450 pages, the text is the seminal inspiration for the sect, a blueprint for the group’s violent agenda in the same manner that William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries inspired both The Order’s Robert Mathews and accused Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Hoskins, who first elucidated the concept of a Phineas Priesthood in his 1984 book War Cycles/Peace Cycles (which called for the death penalty for homosexuals), sells the black-bound Vigilantes of Christendom through Christian Patriot groups, and it can be found on the tables at some militia meetings. Richard Flowers, who sells the book through the Boring, Oregon-based Christian Patriot Association, is an associate of militia promoter/trainer Col. James “Bo” Gritz. Gritz appeared with Hoskins at a July 1991 Christian Identity gathering in Reidsville, North Carolina. That same month, Hoskins traveled to the Northwest to speak, a featured guest at the “First Annual Great Northwest Conference” in Spokane, organized by Identity preacher Dave Barley of Sandpoint.
In his book, Hoskins details the concept of a “never-ending priesthood” dating back to Phineas and continuing down through the ages, enforcing racial purity and the rest of “God’s laws.” Beowulf, Saint George, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Scottish folk hero William Wallace, even Jesse James -- these were all Phineas priests, Hoskins claims. So was John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, and the originators of the Ku Klux Klan, particularly former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The common trait of all these men, according to Hoskins: the zealous pursuit of enforcing God’s laws. They were opposed to race mixing, the rape of their daughters, sodomy, and most of all, “usury,” the lending of money for interest, a sin forbidden by Old Testament law. But “strangers,” as Hoskins calls Jews, blacks and other non-whites, have gradually seduced Western civilization with an international banking system based on usury (he calls it “the establishment”), reaching the depths of perdition in the post-Civil War industrial American society.
Adolf Hitler, too, is an object of Hoskins’ admiration, though he stops short of conferring Priesthood status on the Fuhrer (Roman Catholics like Hitler, Hoskins notes, “often instinctively know the right thing to do but lack the scriptural training to `prove’ their conclusions by scripture and verse”). However, he says Hitler was on the right track, especially since he “had become a danger to the establishment.” Still, he writes, “Germany made a fatal error in assuming that because some of the countries she was fighting were composed of Christians, that she was fighting Christian nations. Nothing was further from the truth. She was not fighting Christian nations, she was fighting nations inhabited by Christians who had been conquered.” Hoskins decries U.S. involvement in World War II as Americans “fighting their own kind,” and proclaims the Holocaust a “manufactured” hoax.
The modern role model he recommends for the Priesthood, however, is straight out of the Northwest: The Order. For twenty-five pages, he examines the activities of Robert Mathews’ gang of thirty or so “Aryan warriors”: from the murder of Alan Berg to bank robberies using bombs at other locales as a diversion, Hoskins extols the way The Order organized itself. He especially appreciates the cell structure of the group, and the financial gains Mathews made through his various crimes against “the establishment.”
However, Hoskins says Mathews went astray in his concept only in falling away from Christianity (which in Hoskins’ case means Christian Identity) and adopting Odinism as his religion. Had Mathews followed Scripture, Hoskins says, he would have known not to make the group any larger than six; as it was, The Order’s larger numbers made it inevitable that it would be infiltrated and destroyed.
Hoskins appears to have corresponded with Mathews’ right-hand man, Bruce Carroll Pierce, the trigger-man in Alan Berg’s murder now locked away for life in a federal penitentiary. Pierce buttressed Hoskins’ case by enumerating Mathews’ mistakes:
“1) Bob recruited some he shouldn’t have. He mistook quantity for quality, incorrectly assuming numbers were a key ingredient to success.
“2) Improper organizational structure from the beginning. Only small cells of 5-6 men, autonomous from the other cells, yet uniting when the situation demands it.
“3) The pistol being left should have been just a temporary setback, with proper planning.
“4) Bob was too kind. He should have excluded T. Martinez for refusing to take the voice stress analyzer test, instead of continuing to coax and coddle him. This led to Bob’s death, and the capture of the men in the Washington Whidby Isle [sic] area.
“5) Law abiding Christian should not work with pagans. Committed Christians who follow God’s Law should not work with those who are not equally committed.”
Pierce reiterated the last point when Hoskins queried him whether he would ever work with non-Christians again: “The answer is an unequivocal NO! Not only would they have to be Christians, but they would have to identify with God’s Law and believe the Law-commands of God, and their life would have to manifest these beliefs.”
Hoskins also corresponded with another Order member, Richard Scutari, who read his manuscript for Vigilantes and told the author “it will help others to understand what motivates someone to live under God’s Laws at all costs.” Scutari also reflected on what went wrong: “In answer to your question `would I do it again’ -- In a heartbeat! But without the stupid mistakes.”
Order members appear not to be the only criminals with whom Hoskins communicated in preparing his book. Another was an unnamed man who had killed a mixed-race couple in Tennessee, who during the course of his trial claimed that interracial marriage contravened God’s law. Hoskins writes of the exchange:
Later, I was told that the man is believed to have shot perhaps a score, and perhaps many scores of interracial couples. Such statements are difficult to confirm because these executions of mixed-race couples are generally believed to be taking place all the time in all parts of the country, but are censored out of the media so as not to discourage the activity.
When later talking to this man by phone I found him to be a Bible student presently taking Bible courses by mail. He has a wife and a seven year old daughter that he has seen once. He is sorry that he can’t see his family, and wishes that they had the money to visit him, but is content that he has done what God put him on earth to do and has no remorse or regrets.
He is believed by some to be only one of a large number doing their thing across the country.
Vigilantes also extols the virtues of, and seems to credit as acts of the Phineas Priesthood, other crimes: the widespread practice of lynching blacks in the South in the years prior to 1970; the bombing deaths of a “race-mixing” federal judge in Texas and a black civil-rights lawyer; the assassination (blamed on the Red Brigades) of German banker Alfred Herrhausen in 1989; and of course, the 1984 North Carolina gay bookstore shootings.
Whether there are any real links between the Phineas Priesthood and these events is unproved. Hoskins’ claims that historical figures were Phineas Priests seem fantastic and inflated, and as with most Patriot-movement claims, more hyperbolic than factual; certainly, they lack any hard historical evidence. What’s more, among the other crimes Hoskins credits to the Priesthood is the mother of all conspiracy theories: the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963.
Hoskins himself declines to shed any public light on the Phineas Priesthood. An elderly, soft-spoken man with a gentle Dixie drawl who takes his dog for walks each day to get away from his publishing business, the author declines to offer public explanations of his book. He refuses interviews: “I know you’re just doing your job,” he told me, “but I’m no meat on a chopping block for your job. I have better things to do, and I have fish to fry.”
In private, he is far more forthcoming, but equally genteel in his demeanor. Hoskins occasionally embarks on tours around the country, addressing small gatherings of Christian Identity believers in unpublicized locations. In one such meeting, Hoskins was avuncular and guru-like, first delivering a formal speech and then conducting a small, less formal workshop on identifying God’s laws and the appropriate enforcement of them. While Hoskins spoke mostly about evildoers who violate God’s law and broadly suggesting that it killing such violators was acceptable, but avoided naming individuals or the ultimate penalty that might await them, audience members could be heard chiming in after a “lawbreaker” was mentioned: “He should die,” and “Kill them.”
When confronted in public, though, Hoskins told an Atlanta Constitution reporter in 1991, when asked about the Phineas Priesthood: “Oh, go on. There’s no such organization in the world.” His defense recalled William Pierce’s claim that The Turner Diaries was a mere work of fiction: “That’s just a biblical story, like Noah and the ark,” is Pierce’s stock answer. “All I did was write a story -- a Biblical story.”
Even if it is merely a story -- and Vigilantes of Christendom is far more than that -- it is one being told around many Patriot and white-supremacist campfires. Copies of Hoskins’ book appear on tables at militia meetings throughout the country, and through a variety of Patriot and Christian Identity catalogs.
It is a story that clearly has an effect on its readers, because a number of them are taking the course Hoskins prescribes. As the book suggests, there is in fact no public organization called the Phineas Priesthood. It is more of a belief system -- an idea, like the militias, to form units of leaderless resistance, in this case the six-man groups of shadow “Saxon warriors” who enforce God’s laws.
Hoskins’ disclaimer is particularly disingenuous in light of the hundreds of pages of ostensibly factual history he presents in his book. In writing, at least, Hoskins affirms the facticity of the sect: “It makes little difference whether you agree or disagree with the Phineas Priesthood. It is important that you know that it exists, is active, and in the near future may become a central fact in your life,” he writes in the first page of the book’s foreword.
Hoskins himself is closely connected to at least one known Phineas Priesthood figure: Byron de la Beckwith, the man convicted of assassinating Medgar Evers. Beckwith’s wife, Thelma, said she and her husband knew Hoskins and received his newsletter, The Hoskins Report. She and her husband also attended gatherings in Hayden Lake at the Aryan Nations accompanied by Hoskins, she said.
And at least one self-proclaimed Phineas Priest, Walter Thody, credits Hoskins’ book with catalyzing his own ambitions and providing them a focus, though he was already working in that direction. “We didn’t have a name for it,” he said. “It was just an organization doing the job. That book for all practical purposes describes very actively what we are.”
The Aryan Republican Army, a gang of Midwestern bank robbers, also appears to have been inspired by Hoskins. The ARA was comprised of at least four men who committed some 18 stick-ups before two of their leaders were arrested in January 1996 in Ohio (a third, Jim Thompson of Pittsburg, Kansas, is still at large). Law-enforcement officials believe the group was funneling its ill-gotten gains to other white-supremacist groups, much as The Order did. In a recruitment video, one of the leaders, Peter Kevin Langan, declares that the ARA’s goal is to “exterminate Hymie,” to “repatriate all non-whites to their homes,” and to “return the country to the Bible -- these laws.” The video also recommends Vigilantes of Christendom ¬-- as well as The Turner Diaries -- as blueprints for conducting war against the government. Langan and his cohort, Richard Guthrie, were also said to have attended Aryan World Congress sessions in Hayden Lake. Guthrie, reportedly about to turn state’s evidence in the case after pleading guilty to the crimes, hung himself in his jail cell in Cincinnati on July 12.
Beyond even the obvious claims of affiliation with and inspiration from the Phineas Priesthood, a rising national tide of hate-related crime and violence is an ominous sign that the sect’s agenda is being carried out. Some crimes committed by radical-right adherents are consistent with the blueprint:
-- An Oklahoma militia leader, Willie Ray Lampley, 65, his 49-year-old wife and another man were convicted in April 1996 of conspiracy to manufacture and possess a bomb. Their targets, prosecutors claimed: civil-rights groups, welfare offices, abortion clinics and gay bars. Like Thody’s group convicted in 1992, Lampley operated out of Muskogee.
Lampley was armed with 210 pounds of fertilizer, a gallon of nitromethane, and a triggering device made from a toaster. He and his comrades planned to target the Houston offices of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the Montgomery, Alabama, offices of the Southern Poverty Law Center. His group had an even longer list of future targets. Fortunately, an informant leaked word of the plans to law-enforcement officials, and the FBI arrested them in November 1995 before any bombs went off.
-- James Oswald, a 51-year-old Wisconsin man, was convicted in late 1995, along with his 20-year-old son, for an array of charges on 20 felonies ranging from bank robbery to the slaying of a Waukesha police officer. Oswald refused to answer questions about the anti-Semitic tone of diaries he kept that were used as evidence in the case, referring to “blood oaths” he took as a “Teutonic warrior.” Oswald’s diaries outlined a plan of robberies, police shootings and hostage-taking similar to The Order’s, and were so incendiary that the judge hearing his case slapped a court seal on them, ordering all who had read them, including a Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal reporter, to remain silent.
Oswald was reportedly linked to Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh by photographs showing the two men together at a shooting range. What really piqued FBI agents’ interest, though, was the similarity between Oswald’s robbery plans and a series of thirteen unsolved stickups throughout the Midwest by two men who resembled McVeigh and John Doe No. 2, the as-yet-unapprehended third suspect in the Murrah bombing. The robbers’ calling card was a pipe bomb left behind at the scene of each crime; Oswald and his son, likewise, used pipe bombs as diversionary tactics in their robberies (a tactic echoed by the Spokane bank robberies).
While Oswald denied he had any connection to the Oklahoma City bombing or any connection to white supremacists, he refused to say whether he’d distributed any money from the robberies to such groups, saying the question was too broad. “There are many groups that are raising in the country that are concerned about fascism going on,” he said. “There is an elite that governs the country and uses charges of racism to keep the country down.”
Other seemingly random acts of violence around the country appear consistent with the agenda of the Phineas Priesthood, and sometimes their perpetrators even indicate a familiarity with the sect’s precepts. One, a 23-year-old skinhead living in Spokane, walked up to an interracial couple, a black man and a white woman, at the city’s Greyhound station in 1992 and shot them both to death. After his conviction, he pointed to the Bible tale of Phineas as justification for the act when interviewed by Spokesman-Review reporter Bill Morlin. “I wasn’t mad at them or anything,” Chris Alan Lindholm, now in state prison, told him. “I just knew they should die for what they had done. I think he put his arm around her or something.”
Bill Morlin has just about seen and heard it all. A veteran cops-and-courts reporter, he has been covering the radical right in the Inland Northwest since 1982. Indeed, his coverage of the Randy Weaver affair well preceded the fatal standoff (and in fact is blamed unfairly in some circles of the Patriot movement for the escalation of the conflict). And he has made numerous contacts over the years with white supremacists, partly by covering a succession of Aryan Congress events and by covering the trials of The Order members.
In the fall of 1995, Morlin was invited by a secretive militia group that offered to let him and a photographer tag along on a training session in the northern Idaho woods. Morlin and S-R photographer Dan McComb were both blindfolded by their contacts and then taken to the training area, a remote spot deep in the Panhandle forest somewhere. When the blindfolds were removed, Morlin and McComb found themselves surrounded by a group of armed men with ski masks, who proceeded to conduct military-style exercises and plunk at silhouette targets in the shape of Hillary Clinton and federal agents.
They were well-equipped, with expensive scopes on their rifles, electronic sensing devices and high-tech guns. They told Morlin that they were being financed by a millionaire businessman who supported their work, and said they knew of at least three other militia units in the area, including one comprised solely of teenage boys. Getting caught with the gear was one of their biggest fears; they told Morlin that if a cop pulled them over while traveling with it, they might be inclined to open gunfire.
“We call it `traveling hot,”' said one of the masked men. “If we get stopped for a routine traffic incident, we've got to decide up front if we're going to tolerate that. If we've got a fully automatic rifle or something like that, you have to be thinking, `If he stops me, I'm going on the offensive.”'
On the same day in December that the encounter was published, Morlin also ran an interview in the Spokesman-Review with a Sandpoint-area man who had made some minor waves with his own arsenal. Charles Barbee, who operated a Ponderay body shop, and a traveling companion named Robert Berry had been pulled over in May in western Washington, near Longview, with a large arsenal: guns, silencers, night-vision goggles, stolen license plates, a high-tech global listening device, and a wealth of ammunition. The pair refused to identify themselves and stayed in jail for a month before being released eventually after federal officials decided not to file charges. Their story intrigued Morlin, who called up Barbee and asked for an interview; Barbee agreed, saying he’d “already been compromised” by the arrest.
Barbee, it turned out, was a regular at Dave Barley’s America’s Promise Ministries church in Sandpoint, having become an adherent of Christian Identity while he was still an AT&T employee in Florida. He told Morlin he was building an arsenal to help erect a defense against the New World Order: “We have to be ready to conduct guerrilla warfare. That’s how it will be won,” said. “If there’s another Ruby Ridge or Waco, we’re not going to tolerate it again. If the federal government sends in their armies to put women and children to death again, we will respond and put as many federal agents to death as possible.”
Such a scenario did not strike Barbee as bloodthirsty. “Slaying people is not always wrong if it’s justified by God’s law,” he told Morlin. It all sounded like a page out of Vigilantes of Christendom.
In the months before the bombing, Morlin says he began spotting further signs that more people on the fringes of the radical right in the Northwest were picking up the Phineas Priesthood concept and adopting it. At an Aryan Nations gathering, he spotted an Aryan security officer wearing a belt buckle inscribed with the insignia of the Priesthood. Morlin and his photographer convinced the man to pose for a portrait, though all Morlin really wanted was the belt buckle. When he wrote a story about the Priesthood in the wake of the April Fool’s Day attacks, he had the belt buckle blown up from the negative and illustrated the article with it.
Fearless journalism doesn’t come without its drawbacks, however, Morlin has been threatened on occasion. And he suspected that the December stories had something to do with why the Spokesman’s plant was targeted by the bombers.
As events turned out, he was -- once again -- right on the money.
The tide of significant hate crimes in America since 1994 alone has been rising steadily: arson attacks on black churches, bombings at abortion clinics and gay nightclubs (as well as the 1996 Olypmic Games), murderous attacks on abortion doctors, beatings and murders of homosexuals, racially motivated assaults on blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, as well as against interracial couples -- not to mention Freemen-style armed standoffs, right-wing bank robberies of the Phineas Priesthood kind, and horrendous acts of terrorism such as the one befalling Oklahoma City.
There is nothing, however, to seemingly connect all these acts -- in large part because many of them go unsolved, but also because if someone is caught, that person at most only implicates the three or four other participants in his or her own cell. The floodwaters of hate and violence keep rising, and no one seems to understand what is feeding them.
That, in a nutshell, is how leaderless resistance is supposed to work. And the fact that the tide is indeed rising is a sign of the strategy’s success. The Phineas Priesthood is the ultimate distillation of the logic behind leaderless resistance, yet no one can possibly blame all of these crimes on any single group like the Priesthood -- although the fact that so many of them match the agenda of the Priesthood is almost certainly more than a mere coincidence. More likely, it stands as testimony to the effectiveness of leaderless resistance in spreading its ideology widely.
Hate crimes in general are monitored somewhat haphazardly on a national scale. Statistics have only been gathered since 1990, so the database needed for a sense of whether or not a problem is growing is limited at best. But the FBI’s number-crunching arm, the Uniform Crime Reporting Program, dutifully stocks up figures showing a general rise in hate crimes in the past few years, but no one’s sure if that doesn’t just reflect an increase of reporting of those crimes as hate-crimes laws are more vigorously enforced and victims become more emboldened.
Crimes against homosexuals are tracked by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, though most of its studies are based on statistics strictly from urban areas; gay-bashing in rural areas is less well-documented, but anecdotally at least is considered by many who monitor hate groups to occur at a far higher rate than in cities. Some states -- Idaho and Montana included -- don’t even rate crimes against homosexuals as belonging in a “hate” category. In general, NGLTF researchers have observed a rising trend in attacks on homosexuals or people with AIDS, though the figures sometimes conflict. The FBI noted an actual decline in reported hate crimes aimed at homosexuals in 1996 from the year previous (from 1,019 to 1,016), but a 1996 national report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects showed a six percent increase in hate crimes against gays and lesbians. NGLTF executive director Kerry Lobel pointed to a number of factors for the discrepancy: Gays and lesbians, she said, “often do not report hate crimes based on their sexual orientation because of their fear of discrimination by police, lack of interest or diligence on the part of the police, and lack of training in many police departments in working with members of the ... community.”
Attacks on abortion clinics and their workers are perhaps less common but often command more attention, especially when they entail horrifying murders like Paul Hill’s fatal shotgun attack on Dr. John Britton and his escort, James Barrett. Hill is only one of several anti-abortionists who have used lethal force against clinics and their employees: John Salvi III killed two women in two gun attacks on abortion clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1994; Michael Griffin, a onetime associate of Hill, fatally shot abortion doctor David Gunn in 1993; and a still-unknown assailant shot and wounded a Vancouver, British Columbia, abortion doctor as he sat in his home in 1994. A Grants Pass, Oregon, woman named Shelley Shannon shot and wounded a Wichita, Kansas, abortion doctor in 1993; from prison, her correspondence to other anti-abortionists has indicated a nationwide underground network of like-minded activists inclined to commit violence against abortion workers. One of these groups linked to Shannon, the Army of God, later claimed credit for setting off pipe bombs at an abortion clinic and a gay nightclub in Atlanta.
There is, however, one kind of hate crime that law-enforcement people are well aware has been increasing: the burning of black churches. Since 1995, more than forty black churches have been victims of arson attacks, focused in the South but popping up elsewhere in the country, even in the Northwest. The growing list of arsons caught the attention of President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno, and officials of various civil-rights groups, who testified at congressional hearings that they were convinced the arsons had an underlying connection. Not all of the attacks have been hate crimes specifically; in one case, a not-all-there teenager who just liked to light fires was charged. But in other cases, Ku Klux Klan members have been charged, crosses have been burned on the lawns, and white-supremacist graffiti has appeared.
Not surprisingly, the Phineas Priesthood’s name has not appeared in connection with any of these crimes -- but then, given the sect’s general secretiveness, it seems unlikely its members will begin claiming credit for any of its crimes, other than through the occasional robbery note. Some researchers believe Phineas Priesthood status is only conferred upon someone after he has “proven his place.” If that is indeed the case, such crimes of initiation would be relatively low-level matters, big enough to warrant an item in the paper that can be clipped out and produced as proof, but not big enough to draw attention to the group.
The design of leaderless resistance ensures that the larger movement can never be concretely linked to these individual acts. The important connection, though, can easily be found on a broader scale: The Priesthood itself is a manifestation of the same swelling tide of racial and religious hatred that everyone involved in dealing with the crimes -- especially investigators looking into the wave of church arsons -- has become most concerned about. The Phineas Priesthood is merely the most logical outcome of combining leaderless resistance with the principles of Christian Identity’s hate-filled religious beliefs, but not necessarily the only one. It is this same combination that some experts investigating the sources of the church arsons see at work in the tide of fires. Other groups, like the Aryan Republican Army, take different names, but the pattern is virtually identical. Focusing on the individual groups distorts the bigger picture.
“There’s a problem talking about 'a conspiracy’ or 'a national conspiracy,’" says Michael Reynolds, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Klanwatch arm. “What we may have, looking at the overall pattern, are several conspiracies.”
The fires’ political source, he says, is leaderless resistance. “It’s a guerrilla strategy. Instead of a top-down structure, you have cells of two to six individuals going out and committing whatever acts they choose, whether it’s assassination, robberies, arson or bombings -- all aimed at bringing on the race war that white supremacists, whoever they belong to, all want. The idea is to intimidate and provoke.”
The most effective part of the strategy is that, like trying to nail a blob of mercury, its very diffuseness lets it continue on, even when a cell is broken up due to crimes its members may have committed, and leaves law-enforcement officials baffled about what steps to take afterward. The crimes themselves become a way of communicating, especially among the believers dedicated to taking action.
“The real twist to leaderless resistance is that there doesn't have to be a coherent network for the action cells,” observes researcher Paul deArmond of Bellingham’s Public Good Research. “The use of the term `phantom cell’ is very revealing, since one of the premises of leaderless resistance is the creation of a `virtual’ network of terrorists who communicate with each other by their actions and the reports of those actions through the media. Every report of a church arson carries the message: Here I am, you do likewise. After a certain threshold is reached, the motives of an individual arsonist -- copycat, psycho, white supremacist, whatever -- are less important than the fact that churches are burning, and away we go with an epidemic of church arsons.”
Reynolds hasn’t seen the Phineas Priests’s hand appearing overtly in the church arsons, but they fit his profile of the suspects. “They’re violent, they organize in cells, and black churches would be natural targets for them,” he says. “And we know they exist.”
Others who monitor the radical right’s activities around the nation agree. Some of the crimes linked to the Phineas Priesthood so far may simply be cases of opportunists and wannabes seeking to inflate their own importance by calling themselves Phineas Priests, says Chip Berlet, an analyst with the Cambridge, Mass., think tank Political Research Associates. But some are no doubt the work of hard-core believers following Hoskins’ prescription of “scriptural dictates.”
“There are people using the name, and it’s not a name you would pick off the Saturday morning TV,” says Berlet. “It’s a little bit like walking in the woods. You often don’t see the fox, but you see what the fox left behind.”
And Berlet says these people could well be the most dangerous elements of the radical right, future Oklahoma City bombers waiting to happen.
“The level of paranoia is still very high, and it tends to spin off these underground groups that, once they go underground, of course, their world view is so internalized that there really is no reaching them with any kind of discourse. They simply go off.
“They’re a lit fuse, and the only question is, how long is it?”
The bomb went off again in Spokane, just a little more than a hundred days after the first explosion: on July 12. It was a duplicate of the first crime: set off a pipe bomb, then rob a bank. In fact, it was even the same bank.
The bomb went off at a new target this time, one nearly as logical as the newspaper: the Planned Parenthood clinic out in the Spokane Valley. What didn’t make it quite logical is that, unlike other PP facilities, only birth control and advice are dispensed there -- no abortions are performed. And the clinic was closed at the time.
Still, two men wearing black ski masks and camouflage ponchos drove up in a white Chevy van at about 1:30 in the afternoon, broke out a glass door, tossed in a pipe bomb, ran to the van and screeched away. A witness saw a driver with a white beard, as in the first attack. Moments later, the blast rocked the neighborhood. It blew out the clinic’s windows and ripped up its interior. A piece of the pipe from the device flew out of the clinic, over a two-story building and four busy lanes of traffic, and finally landed harmlessly in a restaurant parking lot.
Within minutes the bombers were in familiar territory: back at the U.S. Bank on East Sprague Street, a few miles away from the clinic. This time, three men with masks and ponchos walked in with automatic weapons raised and demanded money. One of them carried what appeared to be a propane tank with some wires rigged to its top, perhaps a large bomb, and set it down on the floor while the other two collected cash.
Bank employees knew the drill. They kept their hands up and handed over the money. Even the customers were familiar with the scene. One of them, Dale McElliott, had been at the bank when it was robbed the first time, and when he pulled into the space at the drive-up window and looked inside and saw arms raised in the air, he knew what was up again. He crept out of his car on his hands and knees and up the line to the other drivers waiting behind him, asking them for a cellular phone to call the police with. One of them did. Another witness, meanwhile, dialed 911 from a nearby pay phone.
It was too late. The bandits shortly emerged from the bank, cool as cucumbers, with the propane tank-bomb and jumped into the car. One witness saw a second car pull up behind the van and follow it away down the arterial, its driver speaking into a cellular phone. The van was found later, abandoned this time in the parking garage of a mall. Again, it was loaded with a device that appeared to be meant to detonate and destroy the van, but which the Spokane bomb squad, thanks to a robot, soon found was not functioning. When police moved inside, they found the other propane device the men had carried into the bank as well.
The target, a women’s clinic the bombers apparently believed was committing abortion, was a new twist. There were other differences: Three men instead of two rushed the bank. There was no bomb set off at the bank this time. And, it appeared, there was no note left behind at either location.
Or so it seemed. As they scoured through the rubble of the Planned Parenthood clinic’s doorway, where a two-foot crater had been blasted into the concrete and sheetrock was scattered like paper and beebees from the bomb itself rolled around on the floor, investigators found a matchbook with some words scrawled on it in pen, adapted from Psalms 139: “Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men. For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain. Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? And am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?”
Workers and managers at the clinic were shaken, but immediately put up a temporary clinic in a mobile trailer unit and resumed operations. At U.S. Bank, the company offered to reassign workers who felt too traumatized by the events. Eventually, some three-quarters of them took the company up on its offer.
“The mood clearly is different than after the first robbery,” one bank official said. “People are frightened. It’s going to take longer to rebound from this.”
The bank put up a $100,000 reward in August for any information leading to the robbers’ arrests. This in turn spurred correspondence from the Phineas gang itself. They sent a letter to U.S. Bank (and a copy of it to Bill Morlin), declaring, “Your gods are paper” and “no match for Yahweh,” warning them to pull back on the reward.
“Publicly rescind your bounty and declare your gods powerless or those who worship at your alter [sic] will suffer his wrath,” it read. U.S. Bank remained firm in offering $100,000. A few weeks later, it added $15,000 more to the pot for good measure.
About the same time, Planned Parenthood received a note, too. “So sorry to have missed you July 12, and you missed the note about Psalm 139. Will do better next time. (Praise Ye Yah.)” The return address on the envelope was signed, “Phinehas.”
“The note was so chilling, my blood ran cold,” said Susan Edgar, Planned Parenthood’s interim Spokane director.
“I can’t even begin to tell the impact it had,” said Gail Elkins, the organization’s board president. “I wanted to go in the bathroom and throw up.”
The trailer unit in the Valley was closed down immediately, and all workers were called in to the main downtown clinic. Terrified officials at Planned Parenthood kept publicly mum about the note.
The tables were about to turn. By September, the reward money had done its work: two informers had contacted the FBI, eager to collect what by then had become a $130,000 reward. One of them had been recruited by the Phineas Priests, who told him that banks were “temples of Satan” and that they had come close to killing a guard in the April Fool’s Day robbery. A second informer contacted them and corroborated the first man’s information. The main informer continued to meet with the gang even after he had officially become a snitch.
The suspects: Charles Barbee, the man Bill Morlin had interviewed in October, and his traveling buddy, Robert Berry, as well as a third man, Jay Merrell, who fit the description of the white-bearded man. All three had met at Dave Barley’s Identity church in Sandpoint. Two undercover agents, following through on the tip, bought a used 1991 Chevy Suburban from Barbee and discovered that it had bulletproof lead in the doors and remotely opened machine-gun trapdoors in the rear panel.
In his meetings with the men, the informer learned they were planning their next bank hit for October 8. This time, federal agents would be ready for them.
When the trio left their homes early that Tuesday, and drove out of Sandpoint in two Chevy Suburbans, they were already being trailed on the highway to Spokane and being observed from a surveillance airplane. This time, though, they drove through Spokane and kept going west on Interstate 90. At Ellensburg, they headed south toward Yakima and then on toward Portland, Oregon. A stolen Ford Aerostar joined them in Hood River, about fifty miles east of the metropolis. They moved a little closer to town, setting up a center of operations at a Troutdale truck stop.
By then, a procession of nearly fifty FBI agents had joined in the surveillance, including a change of airplanes. They watched the men drive their three vehicles back and forth into Portland, where they cased a U.S. Bank branch in the southeast corner of the city. They pulled in and out of driveways in an attempt to avoid being observed. Finally, ready to make their move, all three men drove in the Aerostar to the bank.
The FBI was one step ahead of them. They hastily phoned the bank’s manager while the men were en route and told them the bank was about to be robbed. They instructed the bankers to lock their doors and for all employees to get down on the floor. Everyone hastily complied.
When the three men pulled up and walked up to the bank, masks on and guns raised, they found the doors locked. Confused and surprised, they jumped back in the van and sped away. Back at the truck stop, two jumped out and climbed into the Suburbans, and the three vehicles sped off up the freeway together.
They finally pulled over in the town of Union Gap, just south of Yakima, to gas up at a convenience store. Two got out and went into the store, while the third pulled around to the side to use the restroom. They’d been drinking. A fellow customer, 71-year-old Pearl O’Dell, snapped at the two inside the store for their bad breath when she encountered them at the beverage cooler: “I asked them to please step back. I said their alcohol breath was more than I could stomach,” she later told a reporter.
Suddenly, the place was filled with federal agents, running up and down the aisles and throwing the suspects to the ground. They ran, guns raised, into the walk-in cooler. Some of the customers thought it was an armed robbery. Outside, another agent used his gun butt to smash the driver’s side window of one of the Suburbans. Soon, all three men were on the ground in handcuffs. FBI jackets started to swarm the gas station, and the startled customers finally breathed a sigh of relief. Obviously, this was a bust.
“Those guys didn’t even know what hit them,” store owner Diane Butler later said. She said the FBI told her the agents had simply been waiting for a relaxed moment when they were out of their cars, and her roadside stop provided that opportunity.
The next day in court, the three men were sullen and uncooperative. They refused to rise for Spokane U.S. Magistrate Cynthia Imbrogno, refused to sign cards acknowledging they understood their constitutional rights, and declined to accept court-appointed counsel. “Yahweh is my defense,” Merrell told the judge. “I will ask for nothing from the state.”
Agents also swooped onto the three men’s property, finding a large cache of guns, ammunition, bomb-making supplies, and other weapons, as well as computers, ballistic shields of the type used by riot police and a key-making kit. There were detonators in Jay Merrell’s house. And amid a large cache of guns at Robert Berry’s house were seven Bibles.
Merrell, it seemed, like Barbee had come to Sandpoint in large part because of Barley’s America’s Promise church. He had been a featured speaker at church gatherings on a couple of occasions, testifying of his hatred for the government, and had written for the Identity newspaper, Jubilee. A native of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, where he graduated from high school in 1963. He joined the Navy and became an engineer on nuclear submarines for the next twelve years, before he left to go to work as an engineer at the Peach Bottom Nuclear Plant in Delta, Pennsylvania. He moved around to different jobs in the nuclear industry, working for plants in Ohio, Florida, Texas and even in Brazil, ultimately winding up with the Bechtel Corp., where he helped construct the Palo Verde nuclear plant near Phoenix.
It was while he was living there that Merrell encountered Dave Barley’s church, and he eventually became a regular member. Then, Merrell summarily quit his career as a nuclear engineer and moved up to property he had purchased near Snowflake, Arizona. He became involved with the Arizona Patriots, Robert Mathews’ old gang of anti-Semites who partook in paramilitary activities at night in the desert. Then, when Barley packed his bags and removed from Phoenix to Sandpoint in 1989, Merrell followed shortly thereafter.
Merrell, Barbee and Berry finally broke down and accepted court-appointed lawyers to represent them. They were ordered held without bail, though Barbee’s lawyer noted that they had strong ties to Idaho and they had not resisted arrest, even though they had weapons within reach. “That also indicates their respect for authority,” Berry’s lawyer suggested. A few weeks later, citing the complexity of the evidence and the fact that it had become a domestic terrorism case, federal prosecutors asked for, and received, a two-month delay in the men’s trial.
With the arrests, it was as though a six-month-old cloud had finally dissipated from over Spokane, especially for the Phineas Priests’ victims. U.S. Bank provided counselors for their workers, but several people still quit, and others transferred to other branches. Customers at the bank offered words of encouragement.
At the federal courthouse downtown, security guards began checking every bag and purse that came through its doors, and workers installed a protective coating on its windows designed to keep the glass from shattering in a bomb blast. At the Spokesman-Review’s downtown and Valley plants, security was heightened -- video cameras installed, doors and entryways closed off, trees and bushes pulled out.
Bill Morlin found out that his suspicions about the bombing of the newspaper’s plant were correct. The informers told the FBI that the April 1 bombing was intended to send Morlin a message, apparently for his stories of December 3. Morlin discovered this chilling little nugget when he finally got a look at federal documents released in December containing details of the informers’ stories.
At Planned Parenthood, officials began raising funds for a $250,000 security upgrade, and by December had $70,000 in pledges. They also made plans to reopen the Valley clinic, this time at a new location. “They’re not going to win,” said the nurse practitioner who ran the clinic. “If I was afraid, that would mean that they did win.”
However, on their first go-around in the court system, the Phineas Priests did enjoy a kind of victory. The March 1997 trial of Barbee, Merrell and Berry took a month, during which federal prosecutors presented an array of damning evidence -- ranging from computer files and documents found in the men’s homes to the arsenal the men had with them when they were arrested in Union Gap -- that left little doubt the trio were indeed the bombers. Verne Jay Merrell took the stand and, in three hours of rambling testimony, denied that he and the others committed the bombings and the robberies -- but that whoever did was justified, because banks are immoral “usurers” whose crime is punishable by death. He also said he couldn’t follow the nation’s laws: “The system of laws in the United States are at a direct variance with the laws of my Creator,” he testified, keeping a Bible at his fingertips. The Bible also justified his fondness for weaponry: “The words my King tell me that He expects me to be armed in this world,” he said.
There was, however, a problem inside the jury chambers. No sooner had both sides rested their cases than a single juror, known as No. 2, announced early in deliberations: “I could hang this jury right now.” Other jurors said the man, a wood-products worker from Yakima, had decided perhaps even before the trial began that he was going to vote to acquit. Initially in the jury’s discussion he had a few allies, but they too were persuaded by the weight of the evidence that the trio was guilty; and as they changed sides, the holdout became louder and more aggressive -- and more cemented in his position. Finally, with the jury voting 11-1 to convict, the judge was forced to declare a mistrial. Everyone went home and prepared for a second trial.
The imbalance in the jury’s vote notwithstanding, the Phineas Priests saw the temporary victory as a sign of divine vindication. Charles Barbee granted an interview in May to a Spokane radio reporter in which he decried the government’s decision to seek a new trial as unconstitutional “double jeopardy,” charging that prosecutors were “just usurping power by force of arms again.” Barbee claimed the trio’s religious beliefs were the cause of their persecution: “It’s obvious our religious views were on trial. As to how much impact it had with the jury, I don’t know; that’d be speculation.” And he predicted vindication yet again: “They didn’t have any concrete evidence that any of us were involved in these crimes. What they got are inferences of guilt.”
Barbee’s confidence couldn’t have been helped by the arrest of the fourth, and potentially most lethal, member of the band: Brian Ratigan, a former Army sniper who had also attended Dave Barley’s Identity church in Sandpoint and lived in the wooded countryside near the town. Ratigan had been caught in March, while the first trial was in progress. FBI agents, tipped off by the informants to Ratigan’s role as the fourth participant in the earlier robberies, had been searching for the wiry 38-year-old, but he had eluded capture by moving around and staying with various friends in the northern Idaho woods. He was finally caught when he tried to leave by train and agents, following yet another tip, surprised him at the station by posing as baggage handlers -- a ruse that let them put him in handcuffs without incident. At his hearing, he was defiant, earning a rebuke from the judge for shouting at the prosecutor: “You’ve said enough, Pharisee! Sit down!”
Maledictions notwithstanding, the tide had turned for good against the Phineas Priests. Barbee, Merrell and Berry went on trial again in July, with the prosecution taking a route identical to that of the previous trial -- but this time, it was more careful during jury-selection process to screen for potential believers in Patriot ideology. So it was perhaps not surprising that this time around, the jury voted unanimously to convict the trio of eight counts of robbery and bomb-making each: “After awhile, it was clear that the (government’s evidence was overwhelming,” said one juror. “There were just too many coincidences.” All three men were sentenced to life terms.
It went no better for Brian Ratigan, whose trial came in September and brought the same result -- guilty of five counts of bombing and robbery, again accompanied by a mandatory life sentence. When he was sentenced in December, though, Ratigan made a last stand of sorts in the courtroom. Calling the judge a representative of the “prince of darkness,” he claimed that bank robbery is not a crime because banks participate in “usury” -- a violation of God’s laws. “For our Creator, there’s no such thing as a bank, so there’s no such thing as a bank robbery,” he said.
Before he was led away, he sounded a warning: “I don’t recognize your system. Your Babylon is going to fall. It doesn’t need a militia. It doesn’t need Phineas priests. It’s going to fall by its own evilness.
“People of Spokane, you have been warned. You have been sent four witnesses. Babylon is about to fall. The Messiah, Yashua, is on his way, so repent.”