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Crime & Courts

3 doomsday preppers to plead guilty to charges

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Published:   |   Updated: August 7, 2014 at 08:43 PM

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— Three members of the so-called River Otter Preppers survivalist group have agreed to enter guilty pleas to federal charges, according to federal court records.

The Valrico-based group came to public attention in June when the FBI said its leader, Martin Winters, 55, fled from agents trying to arrest him. Winters turned himself in after a two-day manhunt.

Winters has pleaded not guilty to federal charges and is being held without bail.

Authorities said the River Otter Preppers were preparing for the end of times prophesied in the Bible.

Although being a survivalist is not illegal, the FBI said members of the group violated federal weapons laws by making dangerous devices or lying to buy guns.

While Winters’ brief time on the lam cast him in the public spotlight, other members of the group were arrested with less fanfare on federal weapons offenses; now two of them have signed plea agreements agreeing to cooperate with authorities. A third is scheduled to plead guilty next week without benefit of a plea deal, according to federal court records.

One of the preppers, Michael Keith Bonta, 49, of Clearwater, arranged for an undercover agent to buy “rod holders” from Winters, according to his plea agreement, filed with the court Wednesday. According to court documents, Winters designed the rod holders, which “consisted of metal tube pipes that were designed to fire a 12-gauge shotgun shell.”

The undercover agent paid Winters $100 for five of the devices, which were made by Bonta at Winters’ home on Oct. 14, according to Bonta’s plea agreement.

Also agreeing to plead guilty is Desiree Nikkole Beebe, 23, whose mother is identified in the FBI affidavit as Winters’ girlfriend. She lied on a federal form when she bought a rifle, according to a plea agreement, stating she was buying the gun for herself when it was for James Beebe.

James Beebe, 56, according to the FBI affidavit, is another member of the group who is banned from owning firearms because he was convicted of robbery in California in 1977. Although the affidavit says James Beebe is Desiree Beebe’s grandfather, an FBI spokeswoman said Thursday that information turned out to be incorrect. The two are related, said spokesman David Couverteir, and may be distant cousins.

James Beebe has pleaded not guilty to a federal charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Nicholas Ryan Hall is scheduled to plead guilty to a federal firearms offense next week. According to court documents, Hall bought a gun for the undercover agent, who had told Hall he was a convicted felon who had been unable to buy a gun. Hall said on a federal form that he was buying the gun for himself, according to court documents.

Desiree Beebe and Michael Bonta have agreed to cooperate with authorities, according to court documents. There is no mention of cooperation in the document detailing the charge Hall is scheduled to plead guilty to, which carries up to 10 years in federal prison.

Authorities began investigating Winters late last year and arrested him in June after he turned himself in. Investigators said Winters told them he had buried on his property about 50 AR-15 rifles, bought through straw buyers, and that he had made several booby traps to use on federal agents.

One device was made of plastic piping that used compressed air to shoot out fish hooks to trap and immobilize intruders. A second booby trap consisted of metal pipes designed to fire 12-gauge shotgun shells. Investigators said Winters told an undercover agent there were 40 armed men in the neighborhood willing to help him defend the property during his “last stand.”

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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