The Mountaineer Militia's Long, Slippery Slope
A Militia Watchdog Special Report
Last Updated October 21, 1996
Months of investigation and surveillance came to a quick end on October 11, 1996, when federal and state agencies fanned out to arrest seven individuals connected both to a West Virginia militia group and a strange plot to bomb an FBI fingerprinting center in case of a confrontation with the federal government. With strands of the case reaching back sixteen months, and sideways into several neighboring states, the intricacies of the Mountaineer Militia case have not yet all been unraveled.
Floyd Raymond Looker and the Mountaineer Militia
The Mountaineer Militia was never a militia in the limelight. It was not large in size like the Michigan Militia, or possessed of a controversial leader like the Militia of Montana had in John Trochmann. But it was in many ways a typical militia group. Organized by county, with a few disgruntled members in each, it spread slowly in the mid-1990s throughout most of West Virginia, developing contacts with groups in neighboring states, but generally remaining low key.
At the head and heart of the Mountaineer Militia was its commander, Floyd Raymond Looker (56 years old in 1996), known to his friends as "Ray," a middle-class man in a ranch-style home in a middle-class neighborhood. Looker's background was a little unusual, but typical among many militia members in its unsettledness. A law clerk, a missionary in China and Europe, a real estate appraiser (and other occupations as well, depending on which person Looker was talking to; to one reporter he claimed degrees in law, business and theology and that he was a doctoral candidate in educational development in Finland), Looker's life sometimes seemed unsettled or aimless. A devout Christian, he possessed a beautiful singing voice, used to great effect at church. But if Looker loved his God, he was much less certain about his government. The direction it seemed to be heading his country in seemed wrong, horribly wrong.
Looker's politics grew increasingly right-wing, increasingly strident--but more importantly, they lost any connection they might ever have had with the political mainstream. Looker became enveloped in a world of conspiracy and plots, where nothing was as it seemed and everything had a hidden hand behind it. In a pamphlet he wrote and distributed, he argued that the federal government wanted to confiscate the guns of all citizens, that there were one million United Nations troops stationed in the United States, and that authorities had built 130 concentration camps in the U.S. for the detainment of American citizens. To one local reporter he described the coalition of international bankers and corporations that would combine with corrupt American officials to take over the government and establish a New World Order--a takeover likely to begin during the summer of 1995. The New World Order would put dissenting American citizens in concentration camps, then move to implement a draconian population control plan devised by the United Nations that would reduce the population of the United States by 160 million people in just a few years. And American resources would be redistributed to poor countries and to the international elite. "They've put years putting this into effect," he explained. "They will not let the militias get in their way."
But it was in fact the notion of "citizen militias" that attracted Looker, who helped found such groups in West Virginia in 1994 and 1995, and appointed himself their commanding general. "Our common belief is that the U.S. government already has taken away many of our constitutional rights," he explained, "and without the Constitution, we the people have nothing to protect ourselves against a government run amok, other than our guns." Increasingly, Looker became identified with the militia movement, even if he was not a prominent national leader. He eschewed the television and print media, not trusting what they had to say--they were, he claimed, "parrots" for the federal government. Neighbors noticed his tendency to run around in fatigues. Militia members read the videos and pamphlets he produced. Looker had not quite given up on the normal political process, but he was certainly disillusioned. In 1994, he ran as a Republican for the state legislature, but few people listened to what he had to say. A Democratic delegate remembered that he was "a little to the right, but not an extremist or anything like that. He was always very nice and polite." The following year, Looker switched parties and ran for Harrison County magistrate as a Democrat. Again he downplayed his extreme views. "I am a normal person, not radical. I believe in freedom," he said. "Here's an opportunity to get back into the legal field as a magistrate and continue the dreams of a young man to one day be a judge." However, Looker came in last among many candidates.
Looker finally gained a spotlight, at least in West Virginia, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. Media reports that arrested suspects Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh had ties to militia groups, regardless of their accuracy, caused newspapers and television stations around the country to search out militia and "patriot" leaders in their areas to interview.
Overnight, Looker became a local celebrity. He boasted about the size of the militia movement, both nationwide and in West Virginia, and attributed it to fear of the federal government on the part of the people. But he emphasized that "We're not here to overthrow the U.S. government. We're here to defend--and defend is not attack--our constitutional rights." Like many other militia leaders, Looker claimed the Mountaineer Militia would fight if attacked, but would otherwise just operate to protect local communities and help out in local emergencies. "It's not any type of terrorist stuff or dangerous to American people," he told a television crew. "To the contrary, it is for the American people." He stressed that he was not a racist, and pointed to his Asian wife as proof.
Looker tried hard to make the Mountaineer Militia look both harmless and patriotic, but his conspiracy theories, at times bordering on paranoia, caused both neighbors and the local media to think him a little strange. In March 1995, before the explosion at Oklahoma City, Looker even faxed messages to the local newspaper, claiming there was a plot by the government to arrest militia members. Like other militia leaders nationwide, Looker could not shake his suspicion that somehow the federal government bombed itself at Oklahoma City. "I hate to say it," he told one reporter in April 1995, "but I feel like the government did this to itself in order to blame the militias. I'm not surprised this happened and I am not surprised the militias are being blamed for it."
And though he claimed not to be racist, Looker was open about making common cause with white supremacists. Referring to a warehouse in Anmoore, West Virginia, which posted Mountaineer Militia membership application forms in its window, right below a KKK recruiting poster, Looker claimed that he had a "difference of thinking" with the white supremacist who owned the warehouse, but that both were concerned about losing their freedoms. "Our common concern is the loss of constitutional rights," he explained. "When we're done working together, I told them, 'You go back to your hill and I'll go back to mine.'"
Looker readily granted interviews to the media, despite the adverse publicity after the Oklahoma City bombing, because he was eager for the chance to deflect hostile attention. The Mountaineer Militia was not plotting to overthrow the government, claimed Looker. In fact, it had nothing to hide, and Looker wanted to prove it. Though he would not release membership rolls or allow people to witness training sessions, he offered himself up for scrutiny and attention. He stressed to reporters that he wanted to be open and public. "One concern is that people meeting in secret are suspected of stockpiling weapons, and everyone starts asking who, what and why, and that just brings more attention. You flash a red light. When you meet in secret, and guns are involved with beliefs against government, they have the responsibility to check it out and find out what's wrong...There's less risk and less attention if you let everyone know what you are doing. We're not violating any laws."
Though to an outside observer, the Mountaineer Militia and its leader, Floyd Raymond Looker, might have seemed simply like a group of malcontents or cranks, people who liked to dress up in fatigues and vent a little about an intrusive federal government every now and then, there was a darker side to the Mountaineers, one that they purposely kept from public view for months on end. This other militia, this private militia, built arsenals of explosives and plotted to destroy federal facilities during some future moment of crisis. Like its brethren in Washington, Arizona and elsewhere, the West Virginia militiamen paid no more attention to the laws against their war preparations than their neighbors paid to the rumors of black helicopters and one world government.
The key figure in the private Mountaineer Militia, as in the public one, was Floyd Looker. He viewed himself as protecting the patriotic members of the Mountaineer Militia. "Right now," he explained in the spring of 1995, "militias are exceedingly paranoid about what Clinton is doing. Clinton wants to smash all this, and people are afraid of getting their pictures taken. Bill Clinton is head-hunting." Looker served as "the buffer between members and potential threats from the media and government." But Looker was not so much a buffer as he was a smokescreen--what he told the media about the Mountaineer Militia and what is was actually involved in were two entirely different things.
Like many militia leaders, Looker looked forward to "the day." What was "the day?" It was that moment of future confrontation with the federal government, that time when the militia would have to stand up for what they believed in--and use their weapons to support their stand. It was that moment of vindication of conspiracy theories, ideas, and survivalist preparation that every militia leader knew some day would come. To the Blue Ridge Hunt Club in Virginia, "the day" would come when the federal government decided to confiscate all remaining weapons from the hands of citizens. To Ohio militia leader J. J. Johnson, "the day" would come when the jackbooted thugs would illegally enter his home and threaten his family. To Mark Koernke, "the day" would occur when the New World Order finally changed from covert to overt attacks. Every militia leader has a "day" in mind, and while they are all different in detail, they are all depressingly similar in tone. It is the vision of "the day" that causes militias across the country to stockpile arms, legal and illegal. It is the vision of "the day" that causes them to plan and plot against the government to win when that conflict finally occurs.
The target that loomed largest in Floyd Looker's vision of "the day" was a local one, but one with national significance: the new Federal Bureau of Investigation Criminal Identification Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The Center, built at a cost of $200 million, was a monument to the pork-producing power of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who wrested the center from the power centers on the east coast and plunked it down in the mountains. The 986-acre site employed 1,719 people (and contained a day-care center). From across the country, identification and background checks would be sent to this facility, from fingerprint identification to background checks on prospective daycare workers. The Center's goal was to use computer programs to digitize the fingerprints so that print checks could take hours instead of weeks. But to Floyd Looker, the center had a more ominous significance. It didn't just provide a law enforcement service; it wasn't just a source of jobs to local Clarksburg residents. To Looker, the center was a key intelligence facility for the New World Order. It could keep tabs on any person in the United States, he felt. It could track the movements of any individual. In the event of a confrontation, it was imperative that the Identification Center be destroyed.
But this was something easier said than done. The Center was built with security in mind; trespassing seemed impossible, much less infiltration, still less destruction. The data banks were stored in reinforced concrete bunkers. The roads in the facility had automatic roadblocks. Looker was a patriot, but did he have the resources to accomplish something so difficult, so grand?
Perhaps he did, after all. For one of Looker's chief subordinates was James R. Rogers, a 40 year old major in the Mountaineer Militia, commander of the small Harrison County group, but also a lieutenant in the Clarksburg Fire Department, where he had worked for 19 years. Rogers was in a unique position to gain access to blueprints to the newly-constructed facility, because the fire department kept such documents in case of emergency or disaster.
Looker wasted no time in putting pressure on Rogers. On June 4, 1995, Looker and his chief of security and intelligence, "Colonel" Marshall Richards, known as "Okey," joined Rogers at a training session in Lewis County, where 26 county commanders from West Virginia and Pennsylvania met at a 600-acre farm that served as their training facility. The three discussed places the militia could target if they were ever involved in a confrontation with the federal government. Looker identified several federal facilities in West Virginia, including the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services facility, prompting Rogers to point out that he had access to information about the facility as part of his job as a firefighter.
Two months later, at another meeting at Veterans' Memorial Park in Clarksburg, Looker presented his conspiratorial views on what the Identification Center was really do, how it could track every person in the country. Since Rogers was the Harrison County leader, Looker argued, it was his duty to target the facility for potential action by the Mountaineer Militia against the federal government. Rogers was visibly shaken, but volunteered information about the facility and at Looker's request agreed to obtain intelligence information about the center. After all, Rogers had his own suspicions about the building. The anti-semitic magazine The Spotlight, which caters to the patriot movement, was suspicious of the center. Moreover, the FBI canceled a planned walk-through of the facility by a delegation of Clarksburg firemen.
Targeting federal law enforcement facilities for destruction in the event of a confrontation was a side of the Mountaineer Militia that Looker chose not to reveal to the press. However, though Looker and his militia associates did not know it, the veil of secrecy they threw around their activities had been pierced almost from the outset. The very person in charge of security for the Mountaineer Militia, Okey Richards, became alarmed at Ray Looker and his extremism. A couple of weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, Richards contacted the FBI and offered to provide information about the militia. This was not the first time someone had contacted the agency about Looker--a county commissioner had done so as far back as 1994, to no effect. Richards, of course, was much closer to and more familiar with Looker and his opinions. But since there were no criminal allegations against the Mountaineers at that time, FBI agent J.C. Raffety had to decline the offer.
The June meeting, however, changed everything, since the militia group had begun to target federal facilities. Richards contacted the FBI and provided a detailed description of the June meeting and furthermore, agreed to act as a government informant. Alerted to Looker's intentions, federal authorities opened up an extensive investigation that would last for over a year, fill more than 200 tapes with clandestine conversations, involve several different agencies, as well as two informants and an undercover agent, and would reveal an extensive clandestine explosives ring. Though Ray Looker could not know it at this point, his Mountaineer Militia had already begun to fall off the mountain.
Blithely ignorant of the seriousness of his position, Looker continued his plans against the FBI center, and started assembling an arsenal that would help him carry out those plans should "the day" come. He had the willing help of fireman Rogers, now a committed conspirator. By the end of the year, Rogers had access to the blueprints of the facility, and could give Richards detailed information about the center. Richards believed that the electrical or other utilities at the facility could be sabotaged so that infiltrators could plant bombs there. After the Christmas holidays, he thought, he could obtain copies of the blueprints themselves.
Looker was only too happy to hear the news. His imagination roamed freely with the possibilities that the blueprints presented. With them, the Mountaineer Militia could target the heavily guarded facility. Or better yet, perhaps, help someone else to do it. That way Looker would be completely safe, yet the facility would still be destroyed. It was this tantalizing possibility that law enforcement officers pursuing the case seized upon. Might Looker be willing to sell the blueprints? The feds decided to find out. They sent an undercover agent to meet with Looker on February 5, 1996, posing as a middleman who wanted to sell explosives or intelligence to unnamed Middle Eastern terrorists. Did Looker have anything to offer?
Looker thought that perhaps he did. He told the agent that a member of his militia had access to the Information Center blueprints, and that if a buyer was interested, Looker would be willing to obtain and sell them. This was, perhaps, just what Looker was looking for. An unrelated group would target the facility, while Looker could pocket some serious money. A couple of days later, Looker and Richards sought out Rogers to see if Rogers could come up with the prints. Looker said nothing of his plans for the blueprints. Rogers said that he could get the prints, possibly as early as February 10 or 11.
The fireman was as good as his word. Rogers broke into the fire department records and photographed them. On February 18, he proudly handed over to Richards two photographs of large vicinity maps as well as 35 photographs of blueprints. The materials he duplicated provided specific information about electrical lines, utilities, and underground facilities. Richards took the photographs to the FBI, which confirmed their authenticity. Rogers had indeed delivered the goods. In early March, the fire lieutenant met again with Looker and Richards, and explained in detail each of the photos. The Mountaineer Militia now had extensive information about one of the most important law enforcement centers in the country. Looker began putting together a packet of information for eventual sale to the middleman for the fictitious Middle East terrorists.
In the meantime, Looker also actively involved himself in creating a stock of illegal explosives for the Militia. As early as 1995, Looker had begun to reach across state lines in a quest for more bombs and bomb-making materials. Terrell Coon, a 46-year old Waynesburg, Pa, resident, was one willing source, providing materials for Richards at Looker's command: 11 sticks of C-4 plastic explosives, six containers of TNT, detonator cord, blasting caps, fuses, and a shotgun with the serial number removed. Looker later sold them to the undercover agent in exchange for $1300. In Ohio, Cleveland area residents James Johnson, 48 years old and the owner of an auto repair shop, and Imam Lewis, a 26 year old carpet cleaner, also provided materials, meeting with Richards to sell him $14,000 worth of explosives (400 at one exchange; 600 at another). Johnson boasted of being able to obtain up to 10,000 such devices, which were small explosives about 3 « inches long and 2 inches in diameter, as well as hand grenades and reconditioned LAWS anti-tank rocket launchers. However, by March 1996 the Clevelanders seemed suspicious and backed out of a deal to sell several hundred more devices to Looker when Richards explained they would be sold to Canadian separatists and the Irish Republican Army.
But key to this construction of a cache of explosives were two local militia members. One was 57-year old Jack Phillips, a chemical engineer Looker had tagged to make C-4 plastic explosives. In late May 1996, Phillips prepared a shopping list of equipment and materials needed for him to begin to manufacture explosives. Also important to the project was Mountaineer Ed Moore, 52, who took the lead in training militia members in explosives handling and manufacturing, even detonating at least one bomb at their training facility in Lewis County (Moore was licensed by the ATF to handle explosives). One of Moore's neighbors said he heard explosions come from Moore's house every week, explaining that "I just assumed it was his hobby." In early June, Looker and Richards met with Moore at a local restaurant to discuss plans for manufacturing C-4 and blasting caps. Moore felt he could make them without having to worry about them being traced. He was also, he told his two dinner companions, working on a fuel-air explosive device that could engulf "two football fields."
Throughout the summer, Looker, always accompanied by the watchful Richards, met with Moore and Phillips repeatedly to deal with the problems of bombmaking. In July he met with Moore to talk about obtaining nitromethane, necessary to construct the explosives. In September, Looker met with Phillips, who identified more needed equipment. Looker ordered Richards to obtain the requested items. Richards dutifully delivered the lab equipment to Phillips' home, where he noticed stocks of ammonium nitrate and potassium nitrate. In October, Richards delivered yet more equipment and witnessed additional bomb-making materials. The meetings did not always go smoothly. At one meeting in August, Moore became suspicious that the authorities were targetting them, and ordered Richards to take his shirt off to prove he was not wired. Luckily, Richards was not wearing a wire at that time. Upon being satisfied, Moore then showed Richards 400 hidden blasting caps.
By the fall, Looker was also ready to do some dealing with the Middle East. On September 19, Looker met with the undercover agent in Clarksburg and struck a bargain. Looker would provide the agent with the packet of information about the FBI Information Center within thirty days, in exchange for $50,000 in cash. Looker, the self-proclaimed patriot, was more than willing to sell out his country.
Though the authorities delayed long in moving against the militiamen, their actions, once begun, were decisive. Over 100 federal, state and local law enforcement spread out in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio to arrest the people identified in the explosives manufacturing capers. FBI agents were joined by ATF agents and the West Virginia state police. Armed with warrants, law enforcement officials searched five locations and served eleven arrest warrants. These warrants resulted in the seizure of almost 1,000 explosive devices, including plastic explosives and detonators.
The key arrest, of course, was Looker's. On October 11, Looker traveled unsuspectingly to Morgantown, there to meet the undercover agent and complete the sale of the FBI center blueprints. The agent was there, with the cash and ready to make the deal. But to his surprise, once the sale was completed, Looker found himself being placed under arrest. Though armed with two handguns, he made no resistance. The militia leader, paranoid as he was about the federal government, had been far too naive, far too trusting. He was nicked. The others were also arrested quickly, Coon, Phillips and Rogers detained in Clarksburg, and Moore in Huntington. Johnson and Lewis, arrested in Ohio, had to appear before a judge for extradition to West Virginia.
Announcing the arrests, federal officials took pains to inform the public that they were arresting individuals on the basis of individual actions--they were not targeting people just for being members of a group. "The Department of Justice does not investigate or prosecute anyone based on their views or the expression of those views," said FBI agent John P. O'Connor. "However, the United States is committed to prosecute individuals or groups seeking to further political or social goals through violence and force." Authorities were also quick to point out that it didn't matter whether Looker was planning to blow up the FBI facility at some specified date or only in response to a provocation. "The law makes no distinction," said William Wilmoth.
The charges against the seven militiamen and militia sympathizers were extensive. Looker faced charges of conspiring to provide material support and resources with the intent to use them in the preparation for committing an injury or depredation against the FBI fingerprinting facility; conspiring to manufacture and deal in explosive materials; causing explosive materials to be transported across state lines from Ohio to West Virginia; and causing explosive materials to be transported across state lines from Pennsylvania to West Virginia.
Rogers faced two complaints: providing the photographs to the Mountaineer Militia; and conspiring to provide material support and resources for preparation of committing an injury or depredation against the FBI facility. Coon landed a charge of transporting explosives across state lines from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, while Johnson and Lewis faced a similar charge from Ohio to West Virginia. Moore and Phillips were cited for conspiring to manufacture and deal in explosive materials. The charges were serious. Looker, for instance, faced a maximum penalty of thirty years in jail and a million dollar fine; Rogers faced half of each.
The residents of Clarksburg and the surrounding area were shocked. Sure, some of the Mountaineers had seemed eccentric, even extreme at times. But the revelation of an extensive bomb-making conspiracy in their midst seemed to depress the town, particularly when reporters began to stream into the small mountain community. The fire department, home to suspect James Rogers, was especially embarrassed. "The men and women of the department are simply devastated," said city manager Percy Ashcraft. "The actual death of one of their own members would likely not bring more grief than what has transpired." City officials held a "unity gathering" of some 100 people in response, where Mayor Tom Flynn noted that Clarksburg was composed of "law-abiding, hard-working citizens." It's a shame, he said, "that a few have cast a negative light on our city and area."
Other residents had definite opinions of some of the militia members. Clarksburg city councilman Jim Hunt contemptuously declared that Ray Looker didn't "have the intelligence to blow up a garbage can." Bar owner Frank Masiarczyk agreed. "I just don't think he did it. I just think he's a weak individual. I think Ray is not too smart and got set up. He's stirring up crap, and the government is scared of people like him." Bart Simpson, no relation to the cartoon character, described Terrell Coon as a "regular country guy" who kept to himself.
The reaction of other militia leaders across the country was cautious; most have grown used to disassociating themselves from fellow leaders or groups that have gotten themselves in trouble. "If they're guilty of plotting to do something like that [bombing an FBI facility]," said John Trochmann of the Militia of Montana, "the rightful thing is to put them away. But remember, they're innocent until proven guilty." Alabama militia member Mike Vanderboegh took a similar tack. "If the story is true, I hope they throw the book at them," he said. "But given the rush to judgment in other militia cases, I'll reserve judgment in this case. If it follows the pattern...it would seem to be like another harum-scarum headline that would not pan out." Sometimes-Ohio-militia-leader J. J. Johnson had a more practical problem--he shared a name and state with arrested suspect James Johnson, and many newspapers assumed they were the same man. Johnson portrayed the arrested Johnson as a suspicious character, possibly connected with the ATF.
Though the seven arrests ended the private phase of the investigation, FBI officials indicated that their detective work was by no means over yet. U.S. Attorney William Wilmoth noted that "the investigation is continuing," while other sources suggested that it might spread to militia groups in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The downfall of the Mountaineer Militia might yet create an avalanche that could envelope still others climbing the peak.