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Noonday shows danger walks among us

by Jeorge Zarazua Monday, Jan. 12, 2004 at 4:41 PM

Krar and Bruey were selling firearms, ammunition and anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-government books and pamphlets to right-wing extremists. Since their arrest, Krar has pleaded guilty to possession of a chemical weapon, and Bruey has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess illegal weapons.

San Antonio Express-News, 01/11/2004

NOONDAY -- They visited the rented storage lockers at the same time every day, a quiet middle-aged couple whose lives seemed almost painfully routine. "They were here every morning about 7," said Teresa Staples, owner of Noonday Storage. "We never talked to them very much."

Staples assumed the man and woman worked out of their storage lockers, like several of her other clients, selling used clothing and other miscellaneous items. "What we saw them unloading was swimsuits, clothing, garden tools and things like that," she said.

But William J. Krar and his common-law wife, Judith L. Bruey, had a secret. Behind boxes of hardhats and jockstraps in their lockers, FBI agents on April 10 uncovered an enormous cache of weapons, including the makings of a sodium cyanide bomb capable of killing thousands.

The case serves as a chilling reminder of the threat domestic extremists pose even as the nation lives in heightened fear of foreign terrorists. Though the hunt for Osama bin Laden seemingly defines the FBI, the agency's domestic-terrorism caseload quietly has increased to 10 times what it was just before the Oklahoma City bombing, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

On the FBI's list were Krar and Bruey. Authorities say the two, now lodged in a Tyler detention center as they await sentencing next month, were selling firearms, ammunition and anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-government books and pamphlets to right-wing extremists. Since their arrest, Krar has pleaded guilty to possession of a chemical weapon, and Bruey has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess illegal weapons.

Who they are, what they were doing and whether they posed a danger to the public are questions that carry special resonance here in the Piney Woods of East Texas, which Krar and Bruey called home after moving to Noonday from New Hampshire in the fall of 2001.

The area, home to some self-proclaimed militia members, came under scrutiny for anti-government extremism a few years ago when John Joe Gray, then 51, took refuge on his 47-acre farm, vowing he wouldn't come out to face trial on charges that he assaulted a peace officer. Gray, a small-time building contractor, had hung a sign on his fence that read, "We are militia and will live free or die!"

In Krar's case, federal authorities admit they haven't been able to confirm his membership in any of the paramilitary groups with which he associated, though U.S. Attorney Matthew Orwig said the multi-armed federal investigation that secured Krar's guilty plea in November helped make the world safer.

But Krar's attorney, Tonda L. Curry, is convinced her client is harmless. (Bruey's attorney, Eric Albritton of Longview, declined to discuss the case.) Krar is an eccentric man, Curry said, who loves collecting weapons of all types. "Unfortunately, that collection crossed the line of legality," she said.

In an interview this week, Krar's son, Michael, said of his father: "I know he loves his country. ... He's not a Timothy McVeigh that was out to blow up government buildings. I'm not saying my father was a saint, believe me, but I certainly do not believe that he was the terrorist they made him out to be. "He's been made out to be the next guy to Saddam Hussein and bin Laden, and he's really not."

Previous suspicions

The Noonday case wasn't the first time that the FBI had investigated Krar on suspicion of connections to domestic terrorism. The FBI questioned him about anti-government views in 1995 in Nashville, after known militant Sean Patrick Bottoms told authorities he was conspiring with Krar to carry out an attack against the U.S. government. It would be bigger than the Oklahoma City bombing, Bottoms' brother, Kevin, told authorities.

Sean Bottoms later failed a polygraph test and admitted fabricating the allegations, according to court documents, and Krar never was arrested or charged. But, according to the FBI, Krar continued to associate himself with extremists, selling firearms and ammunition without a license.

Krar and Bruey moved to Texas to escape harsh Northeastern winters, Michael Krar said. Krar, then 60, had grown weary of cold weather and didn't want to spend another winter shoveling snow. He and Bruey, 54, rented a modest house on a secluded, private road on the outskirts of Noonday, a small community nestled amid piney woods and rolling hills.

And they rented storage lockers off the main highway that intersects town. Krar and Bruey were quiet and kept to themselves, seemingly making no attempt to establish any lasting friendships, local residents said. Bill DeLong, 63, owner of the Noonday Blue Store, said Bruey would stop at the convenience store almost every morning to pick up two orders of hot plate lunches -- the hamburgers were her favorite -- but didn't talk much.

On those infrequent occasions when either Krar or Bruey made conversation, Staples said, it was unremarkable, often focusing on the weather. "We never had any complaints," she said. "They always paid their rent on time, in cash. They were never late. "They would just come in, sit down and make the payment."

In lockers they rented from Staples, however, the couple were collecting explosives and toxic chemicals, federal authorities say. Their arrest sent shockwaves through sleepy Noonday, seven miles southwest of Tyler on Texas 155. Local residents said they couldn't believe a weapon of mass destruction was found in their town, best known for its sweet onions and the annual Noonday Onion Festival.

The town doesn't have a lot of crime, said Bill Lemmert, the area's longtime justice of the peace, who spends most of his time hearing traffic cases that originated on Texas 155. "I think maybe that's why they pick some of these areas because it is so quiet," he said. "Nobody suspects anything around here."

Staples, the storage facility owner, said that the discovery federal authorities made upset her. "The weapons and ammunition doesn't bother me as much as the chemicals," she said. "That's very, very scary. "It makes me angry that they would put my family's life in jeopardy."

Krar had no intentions of killing anyone, Curry said. Krar's son said his father, a former gun safety instructor for the National Rifle Association, had many firearms and a lot of ammunition. As for the racist literature and large quantities of canned food and powdered milk Krars kept at home, his son said it merely was his dad's inventory of items he would sell in his business.

Michael Krar said his dad grew up around guns and enjoyed collecting them. His grandfather was a master gunsmith for Colt Holding Corp., the son said. But what the younger Krar, the defense attorney and federal authorities haven't been able to explain, is why his dad had so many explosive materials, including the toxic sodium cyanide.

Brit Featherston, an assistant U.S. attorney and the federal government's anti-terrorism coordinator in the Eastern District of Texas, said the case also is alarming because of Krar's close ties to right-wing extremist groups. "He clearly had an affinity toward these groups," Featherston said.

Homegrown danger

Critics of the Bush administration have used the arrest of Krar and Bruey to decry what they say is an inattention to the dangers of domestic terrorism.

Right-wing terrorist groups have been linked to several domestic terrorism attacks and plots in the United States, the most audacious being the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people in 1995. Before the bombing, the FBI was working about 100 domestic terrorism cases, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Since the late 1990s it has been carrying close to 1,000 at any time.

Between 1980 and 2000, the FBI recorded 335 incidents or suspected incidents of terrorism in the United States, according to the Congressional testimony in February 2002 of Dale L. Watson, then the assistant director for counterterrorism and counterintelligence for the FBI."Of these, 247 were attributed to domestic terrorists, and 88 were determined to be international in nature," Watson said.

Watson's prepared remarks did not provide details, but he noted that right-wing extremism in the 1990s overtook left-wing terrorism "as the most dangerous domestic threat to the country."

The FBI in San Antonio, which tracks right-and left-wing extremists, declined to discuss domestic terrorism generally, saying that to do so could jeopardize investigations. "We can't even give you (the number of groups tracked) because there is a possibility that they may know each other and talk to each other," said Rene Salinas, the local bureau's spokesman.

But the Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps tabs on right-wing groups, identified 706 active hate groups in the United States in 2002, listing 48 in Texas. The center said the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and Blood and Honour, a neo-Nazi group, have chapters in San Antonio.

Daniel Levitas, author of "The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right" cautioned that not all of the 706 are domestic terrorist groups, but he said many are "devoted to criminal violence" and some are "truly committed to a terroristic agenda."

As for the patriot or militia movement, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 143 such domestic groups in 2002, 21 in Texas, which usually ranks high for militia activity, along with California and Florida, said Mark Potok of the center. "The militia movement began in 1994, peaked in 1996 with 856 groups and has diminished every year since then," Potok said. "It is a pale shadow of its former self."

But he warned the decline in the number of such groups shouldn't mean authorities have to drop their guard. "The William Krar case shows you that even if the numbers are few, the danger can be quite extraordinary," Potok said.

Critics, including University of Texas journalism Professor Robert Jensen, argue the federal government has failed to publicize the seriousness of Krar's case. "Cases like this -- of domestic terrorism, especially when they involve white supremacist and conservative Christian groups, don't have any political value for an administration, especially this particular administration," Jensen wrote in the Dec. 5 edition of Democracy Now.

"Therefore, why -- if one were going to be crass and cynical, why would they highlight this? "On the other hand, foreign terrorism and things connected to Arab, South Asian and Muslim groups, well those have value because they can be used to whip up support for military interventions, which this administration is very keen on."

Prosecutors dismiss the criticism, saying they released statements to all media outlets after Krar's arrest and indictment. Featherston said it was because of the heightened alert after 9-11 that authorities were able to uncover the potentially deadly arsenal Krar maintained. Otherwise, he said, it might have gone unnoticed.

"That's a success story," Featherston said. "That shouldn't be criticized. That's a hell of a success story."

Staff Writer Guillermo Contreras in San Antonio contributed to this report.
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