Militias Draw Federal Scrutiny in NW Pennsylvania
By Joe Mandak, The Associated Press
Erie, Pa. (AP) -- The nation's militia subculture is alive, if hardly well, in northwestern Pennsylvania, even though experts say such groups have been on the wane since members testified before Congress in the mid-1990s in the wake of the Branch Davidian disaster and the Oklahoma City bombing.
Militia-type groups insist those events were government-provoked, if not sponsored, and the attorney for the man alleged to be leading one of two small Crawford County groups says his client is being unfairly targeted, too.
A judge in March jailed George Bilunka until trial, after federal agents testified the alleged leader of the six-member Christian American Patriots Survivalists said that "he didn't want to go to war with the government, but ain't got much choice."
Defense attorney Joseph Conte said suggestions that his client was armed to the teeth for an apocalyptic showdown with federal agents are a smear tactic.
"That's just the rankest hearsay," said Conte, who won't say if Bilunka belongs to a militia. "At worst, (Bilunka's comments are) just rhetoric by people that don't intend to hurt anybody. The government's got no reason to be concerned."
Others aren't so sure -- if only because alleged militia members are so hard to pin down.
"This case seems to be part of a swath that runs from Michigan down through parts of Ohio into Pennsylvania in which there is an increasing amount of this sort of activity," said Syracuse University Professor Michael Barkun, a militia expert. "Their numbers are almost certainly very small. Dozens. I don't think we're necessarily even talking hundreds -- and we're certainly not talking thousands."
Bilunka, 59, a retiree from Atlantic, and Darrell Sivik, 56, a gunsmith from Meadville, were arrested in March on charges Sivik sold a $300 homemade Sten machine gun to an undercover agent introduced to him by Bilunka. Authorities say Bilunka also bought at least one illegal machine gun from Sivik.
Sivik, the alleged leader of the Braveheart Militia that broadcast on a low-power FM radio station of the same name, was jailed after agents told a federal magistrate that he had threatened them.
Sivik said it was "time for the ammo box rather than the ballot box," and stashed arms at a hunting camp in Forest County so he could fend off federal agents, agents said.
The government contends Bilunka trained his group to kill SWAT officers and wrote a violent manifesto centered on Christ's Second Coming in 2009 and the need to survive one last, horrible war before the world ends in 2012. Bilunka had an underground bunker on his 27-acre homestead equipped with six months' supply of food.
Authorities said they also found two homemade land mines, material for a pipe bomb, and an illegal machine gun on Bilunka's property -- along with 20 guns and 2,000 rounds of ammunition that he possessed legally.
The Southern Poverty Law Center publishes a national list of active militias, updated annually based upon news accounts of arrests, or groups that publicly advertise meetings or recruit members.
Mark Potok, editor of the center's quarterly intelligence report, said neither Crawford County group was among the 171 so-called patriot groups -- defined as "militia or militia-type" groups -- known to be active in the U.S. last year. That's down from a peak of 858 in 1996, two years after the groundbreaking Militia of Montana was formed.
Militia members, and others who share their limited-government views and strict interpretation of the Constitution, say the Southern Poverty Law Center uses the term "militia" to target conservative groups it doesn't like.
Two of the four Pennsylvania groups on the law center's militia list were the Constitution Party, based in Lancaster, and the John Birch Society in Pittsburgh.
"We're tired of the Southern Poverty Law Center linking us with some groups that are, in fact, detestable," said John McManus, senior executive and past president of the John Birch Society. "We have nothing to do with militias and want nothing to do with militias."
Peg Luksik, a Johnstown housewife, drew 13 percent of the vote in 1994 and 10 percent of the vote in 1998 when she ran for governor as a third-party candidate on the Constitution Party ticket. Her running mate, Jim Clymer, a Lancaster attorney and national party chair, says the "militia" designation betrays an anti-conservative bias against a political party with 350,000 registered voters.
"It's just an attempt to paint somebody you disagree with ideologically by putting a name on them. Yes, we believe in Second Amendment rights, the individual right to bear arms ... it's a freedom issue," Clymer said. "But we're not a militia. We've never done anything to support militias or suggest that we are one."
Militia of Montana leader John Trochmann said the movement is misunderstood and unfairly mischaracterized.
"We vote. We participate in the system. In fact, my wife ran for county commissioner last time around and almost won," Trochmann said from his home in Noxon, Mont. "We're not against government; we're against corruption in government. Without government there's chaos. But certain governments create chaos, too."
Trochmann says there are more than 500 groups in the country. The Militia of Montana doesn't have formal members, but distributes survivalist and militia-related literature and has "tens of thousands" of hits on its Web site, Trochmann said.
"If these two men are guilty of breaking the law and using the word 'militia,' we don't believe in that," Trochmann said. "We'd rather point out where our government's doing it (breaking the law), protesting it and getting them to stop it -- although I don't see that being so successful."
Sivik's family and attorney David Ridge declined to comment, and Conte wouldn't comment on Bilunka's charges.
Bilunka's ex-wife tried to convince Magistrate Susan Paradise Baxter that he was harmless. Baxter jailed Bilunka. "His ex-wife's testimony demonstrates ... he has the ability to hide his dangerous views and activities when he wishes," the magistrate said.
Bilunka's ex-wife wouldn't talk to The Associated Press.
Barkun, the Syracuse professor, said that such beliefs, alone, aren't dangerous. But armed groups that hold such views often perceive government intervention as a provocation.
"They may say, and may believe, that they are acting defensively," Barkun said. "Whatever they may think, that's their business -- but guns change the whole dynamic here, it seems to me."
Robert Heibel, the FBI's deputy chief of counterterrorism during the Reagan administration, now teaches at Mercyhurst College in Erie, where the federal indictments against Bilunka and Sivik are filed.
"Until April 15, 1995, I never really thought Americans could do to each other what happened in Oklahoma City," Heibel said. "That's an evolution of Waco, Ruby Ridge, the adoption of lone-wolf tactics by the ultra-right. You can't say that, just because they only attract 15 guys, they aren't dangerous -- because with technology, they can be very, very dangerous."
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