Outfit tries to regroup, but few are interested
The Courier-Journal, Sep. 8, 2002
LEXINGTON, Ky. — The militia movement in Kentucky, once a stronghold of paramilitary activity in the United States, appears to be waning.
With former Kentucky State Militia commander Charlie Puckett in prison and Steve Anderson — another high-profile member of the group — being sought as a fugitive, the militia is in disarray, despite recent efforts to regroup.
The state militia is dead without Puckett’s leadership, militiaman Roger Shanks of Lancaster said recently when Puckett was sentenced to 30 months in prison on federal weapons charges.
”It’s not anymore,” Shanks said when asked how the organization is faring. ”When I joined, I joined because of Charlie Puckett.”
The Kentucky militia’s decline follows a national trend that has seen the number of civilian paramilitary groups drop from 858 in 1996 to 158 last year.
Militia activists cite a number of reasons for the decline, from apathy about what the government is doing to federal prosecutions of militia leaders. But militias are trying to reorganize, including Kentucky’s.
”We’re just deciding where we go next” since losing Puckett, said Terry Lee Ingram, a state militiaman who said he’s a master sergeant in the group.
Ingram said an Aug. 20 meeting for members was ”postponed due to lack of participation,” but will be rescheduled on a weekend. The original date, on a weeknight, made it difficult for members with jobs to attend, he said.
The sharp growth of militias and patriot groups followed the 1993 siege of Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and the 11day Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992 in Idaho with fugitive Randy Weaver.
With the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City in April 1995, militias saw a surge in membership as critics of the federal government claimed the government engineered the bombing to crack down on potential terror groups.
In Kentucky, the state militia met regularly and held training sessions in which members were schooled in survival and guerrilla warfare. But virtually all of the activity has stopped.
IN RECENT YEARS, militias have had little to rally around, said Mark Pitcavage, national director of fact-finding for the New York-based Anti-Defamation League and a militia expert. ”They have not had a cause celebre,” he said.
Even people in the movement acknowledge that interest has declined.
”I don’t think people are educated enough to know how much the militia is needed,” said Patrick Perry, a former Kentucky militia member who ran the group’s Web site until last spring.
Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said that Norm Olson, the head of the Northern Michigan Militia-Wolverines, recently announced he is moving to Alaska ”because he couldn’t get anyone to come to meetings. He’s disappointed in the fact that all the patriots have disappeared and gone back to their TV sets and wives and children.”
Another prominent Michigan militiaman, Mark Koernke, was convicted last year on charges stemming from a high-speed police pursuit. Koernke founded the Patriot Broadcasting Network and hosted a pro-militia shortwave radio talk show, ”The Intelligence Report.”
Some militiamen and others blame the movement’s decline on criminal prosecutions of such activists. ”It seems like a kind of Greek tragedy sort of thing — cut the head off the snake and the body will die,” Ingram said.
Charles Whitley, a friend of Puckett’s who isn’t in the militia, said he’s convinced the case against Puckett was designed to destroy the militia in Kentucky.
BUT U.S. Attorney Greg Van Tatenhove of the Eastern District of Kentucky denied that.
”We really don’t focus on the group in this instance as much as we do an individual involved in illegal conduct,” Van Tatenhove said. ”As federal law enforcement we’ve not targeted the militia, but in the militia some participating personalities have emerged who are committed to illegal acts. Mr. Puckett is an example of that.”
Pitcavage said the decline of civilian paramilitary groups has happened faster in other parts of the country than in the Midwest, where militias have remained relatively strong. Kentucky, however, appears to be an exception for the region, he said.
According to Potok, the passing of Y2K drained some of the interest in militias. Some groups claimed there would be an apocalyptic event as the new century came: The United Nations would take over the country, or the Clinton administration would use the failure of computers to declare marshal law.
”None of those things happened,” Potok said. ”This really set off a lot of patriots who felt they had been led down the primrose path.”
The criminal cases also hurt, Pitcavage said, citing Puckett’s arrest, the Anderson matter and a case out of Cloverdale, Ind., in which two leaders of the 14th regiment of the Indiana State Militia were charged with plotting to kill another member of the group.
”That really kind of puts a damper on mild-mannered ones who don’t want to be arrested,” he said.
PUCKETT, 56, was charged in February with possessing firearms, pipe bombs and nearly 35,000 rounds of ammunition in violation of federal law. One of the charges alleged he also had a device to convert a rifle from semiautomatic to automatic fire.
Two weeks after being charged, Puckett fled house arrest, only to return to Lancaster in Garrard County in April, with his attorney saying he had left the militia. Puckett pleaded guilty in May to possessing a handgun, attempting to intimidate a witness and possessing an instrument used to convert a rifle into a machine gun.
Anderson, a white supremacist who operated an illegal radio station from his Pulaski County home, was kicked out of the state militia last fall, about the time he allegedly shot at a police officer who tried to stop him for a traffic violation. Anderson fled into the woods and hasn’t been seen since.
Ingram said Anderson caused division in the militia with his extreme views, especially among Western Kentucky members who broke off and created their own group, 911/ KSM.
But Jesse Horn, former commander of 911/KSM, said last week that the group is ”pretty much dissolved. I know a lot of people who still say they’re active but they just don’t come out. Everybody wants to go to the Wal-Mart, go to a game, stay at home and watch cable TV.”
Horn said apathy about what goes on in the government and the militia’s negative image in media reports have made it nearly impossible to recruit new members or keep old members active.
He also blamed the prosecutions. ”Everybody is still out there, but it’s no use playing the game with these people,” he said, referring to federal law enforcement.
FOR CRITICS, the militia decline is welcome. They note the ties of some members to the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. Anderson, for example, allegedly held KKK meetings on his property and was a member of the anti-Jewish Christian Identity Movement.
State Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, the only Jewish member of Kentucky’s General Assembly, said she doesn’t think Puckett or Anderson ”had anything good planned for this commonwealth.”
But Ingram said the militia was never about racism, religious hatred or opposing the government. It was to provide a backup for the Kentucky National Guard if needed, he said.
”This was not a right-wing, gun-nut type of organization,” he said. ”. . . We raised our hands and swore the same oath that a police officer or a member of the armed services swears.”
Van Tatenhove, the federal prosecutor, said militia activity still concerns him, despite its weakened state.
”I do think to the extent that the militia movement moves to the fringe, it’s an unhealthy thing — particularly because of that tendency to become anti-government and to fabricate justifications for operating outside of the law,” he said.