Trial of a Viper
By Fran Van Cleave
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
Opening arguments began on June 4th for the first member of the
Viper Team to stand trial, Charles Knight, a 47-year-old Army veteran
and former M.P., now businessman/owner of Knight's Air Conditioning
Service & Repair. He is charged with conspiracy to make and possess
unregistered destructive devices, a Federal felony.
The prosecution must prove intent to harm in order to make the
destructive device charge stick. Otherwise, the charges and blasting
caps possessed by the other members of the group can only be defined
The jury of 8 men and 7 women were quickly put to sleep by
Prosecutor Welty's monotonous hour-long opening statement, which
characterized the Vipers as "militant survivalists" compared to the
rest of us, "who would only store food and water or build a bomb
shelter against a possible nuclear tragedy." The defense attorney,
Ivan Abrams of Bisbee, Ariz., confined his remarks to a terse 15
minute soliloquy on the virtues of Duty, Honor, and Country, and of
survival training in the aftermath of such urban disasters as the
L.A. riots and the hurricanes in Fla.
In a move that surprised many, the prosecution put John Schultz,
the confidential informant, on the witness stand. Previously, the
government had held that they did not need to put either Schultz or
Drew Nolan, the other informant,on the witness stand. Invoking
government privilege seemed to be the primary reason for making
Schultz, an employee of Game & Fish, into an ATF agent a few days
before they went to the grand jury last May.
Schultz, alias Private Investigator Scott Jason Wells, also known
as 'Doc,'took his PH.D. in environmental science with a dissertation
on mosquitoes. A former Colorado State Trooper, he has worked
undercover since the early nineties, and claims to have been involved
in sixty covert operations, twenty of which are still open. He states
that he obtained his cover job at Shooter's World because "violators
often frequent such places." In the team photo, which Dr. Schultz
showed to the jury, he's the one with the snake tattoo. His other
informant, Drew Nolan, was also employed at Shooter's World, and was
paid "under $10/hr. by ATF in the beginning, less so later."
At the request of the prosecutor, Schultz read the oath (Exhibit
89) from the Militiaman's Handbook. "I swear that I will protect and
defend the U.S. Constitution and the original Bill of Rights...." At
the first team meeting he attended on Nov. 15, 1995, the group voted
out the use of alcohol on the range, and engaged in a lengthy
discussion of a barbecue at Chuck Knight's house.
It took him five months to interest any agency in following the
Vipers -- initially the FBI and ATF would not return his phone calls
-- but Schultz persevered.
In testimony, Schultz uses what I think are an unusual number of
overly descriptive terms -- for example, he used the word
"indiscriminate" to describe the way Dean Pleasant fired his Thompson
submachine gun on the range. Mr. Abrams objected to that, and was
immediately over-ruled by Judge Earl Carroll, who in the last five
days has over-ruled at least two dozen objections, and sustained only
Schultz testified that Randy Nelson and Rick Walker appeared at
Shooter's World shortly after he joined the group, and demanded to be
taken to his apartment, that Nelson rode behind him in the car with a
loaded gun, and that Walker called his phone from (Walker's) portable
as soon as they arrived to verify that he was not an informant. Like
the other members of the group, Nelson usually carried a gun, and
Schultz did not say how he knew that it was loaded. Nor did he say
whether or not it was pointed at him, so we'll have to assume that it
wasn't. Prosecutor Hannis has had him describe the behavior of all
group members in stultifying detail, in order that the jury may know,
as he puts it, the full extent of the conspiracy, so it seems odd
that he left that out.
In one of the few incidents that involve today's defendant,
Schultz described a time when Donna Williams, on guard duty at a
shoot that involved automatic weapons, saw two cars, roughly a mile
and a half away, coming toward them via a dirt road. He states that
Knight, who was in charge of security, responded to the alert
carrying a ".308 M1A sniper rifle." At the prompting of the
prosecutor, Schultz explained how much more lethal .308 ammunition is
compared to .223, and how much less prone to wind shear at 200 yards.
The cars turned off and went away on their own. We in the audience
were left with the hideous implication that the affair was in the lap
of the gods, but for that piece of luck, Knight would have picked
them all off one by one, preferring cold-blooded multiple murder to
an outsider's discovery of the Viper's un-tax-stamped guns.
This seems strange in light of the fact that Knight does not own
any proscribed weapons himself, nor did he try to obtain any, and
comes across on the tapes -- what one can hear of them, for the
government has made no effort to clean up the villainously inept
audio -- as a calm and moderate person. I wonder if the tapes would
sound better had Schultz majored in a different kind of bug at
college -- say, wireless microphones instead of mosquitoes.
Though I recognized three of the Viper's voices, I could not
follow who said what about two-thirds of the time. The jury got
transcripts to read and follow along. Interestingly, Knight has
discovered an error in the transcripts, where the government claims
he made an inflammatory anti-government statement that was made by
combining crosstalk from Randy Nelson.
During cross-examination, Schultz was asked about the time when
he suggested that the group rob banks to finance their meager bank
account. The group said no, and Knight said, "That'd be the last
thing we'd do!" Schultz agreed that Knight had said that, but
insisted that it was not a negative answer, "only prioritizing." Mr.
Abrams then asked what would be the next-to- last thing Mr. Knight
would do, where-upon the prosecution objected, saying that he was
trying to get the witness to speculate. Judge Carroll sustained the
Knight insists that he added, "If we start doing stuff like that,
we lose the moral high ground," and says Schultz deliberately left it
out, despite the fact that it is on the audiotape, and that he
(Knight) said it more than once. Call me prejudiced, but anyone who's
a fan of Robert Heinlein and loves "Moon Is A Harsh Mistress" -- as
Knight told me he does -- is an unlikely candidate for bank robber.
Prior to dismissing the jury today, Judge Carroll cautioned them
not to read anything they might find on their cars, or anywhere in
the parking garage, "purporting to be about juries." He never
uttered the dreaded acronym "FIJA," just told them to throw those
things away, or give them to the court to dispose of. He's going on
vacation in two weeks, and is in a hurry to get this trial over with.
The jury seems to be aware that something is not right here.
Surprisingly, there happened to be an unusually large number of gun
owners in the jury pool the day this jury was picked. Man, it's hell
when you run out of pre-emptive challenges, isn't it?
I think the most salient point here is that statements such as
"Members were highly vocal and critical of FBI involvement at Ruby
Ridge and Waco" are now being admitted as evidence of ... what? Bad
intentions? Or (to wring a double pun from a campy aside by Myra
Breckinridge), as we Latin bombshells call it, mens rea, an evil
mind? We are not told, exactly, but we know that it is not a good
thing, just as we know it is not a good thing to discuss what to do
if we woke up and found our house surrounded by men in black ski
masks with guns.
Schultz said he "assumed" this last scenario referred to
government agents. I find it a reasonable assumption. Isn't that the
Until next time, greetings from the free and democratic people's
United State ... er, States.
Contributions to the Charles Knight Legal Defense Fund may be
sent to Acct. #14928432, Bank One, 4922 E. Bell Rd., Scottsdale, AZ
Fran Van Cleave is a science-fiction writer and cat owner. The
September issue of Analog Science Fiction includes her first
short-story sale,"Second Chance," a libertarian solution to the
abortion problem. It hits the bookstores July 15!