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Wednesday, Sep 17, 2014
Crime & Courts

Doomsday preppers have long history

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Published:   |   Updated: June 21, 2014 at 11:00 AM

— In one way, it seems Martin Winters created what he feared.

Winters, 55, was preparing to fight the government agents he thought would invade his Valrico neighborhood at the end-of-times prophesized in the Bible's Book of Revelation, authorities said.

The world didn't end, but the FBI did come for Winters and some of his friends. The members of a group of survivalists, so-called “doomsday preppers,” were indicted on federal weapons charges in connection with some of their preparations.

The FBI said Winters fled when agents tried to arrest him, then turned himself in after a two-day manhunt.

Survivalists, who make preparations for various doomsday scenarios, have been around for thousands of years, experts say, dating back to the Mayans and even before.

In the 1950s, survivalists were girding for an invasion of space aliens, according to Peter Behrens, who teaches abnormal personality psychology and the history of psychology at Penn State.

“The object of end-of-times is different for different generations,” Behrens said. “There are different groups of different kinds. But the underlying theme, underlying psychology is the same: 'I want to be able to control my future. I want to be able to survive and this is how you do it.' This is one extreme way to feel safe and secure.”

Richard G. Mitchell Jr. spent more than 12 years living among survivalists, and wrote a book about his experiences, “Dancing at Armageddon.” An emeritus sociology professor at the University of Oregon, Mitchell said survivalists have a lot in common with professional wrestlers. There's no need to be afraid of them, but it wouldn't be a good idea to provoke one, especially an amateur. Some people, he said, think survivalism is fun, while others say it's serious and hard work.

Mitchell said most survivalists have seized what he calls “an opportunity for creative self expression... An opportunity to play at serious life.”

The problems survivalists see ahead are always solvable by what they can gather. “By and large, what they do is what they do well,” Mitchell said. “If they have a farm or they have an assault weapon or a pickup truck and a little bit of rural property, that's what's needed. If they have extra stamps or trade goods, that's what's needed. The story always matches the resources.”

In the case of Winters and his fellow “River Otter Preppers,” as they called themselves, the resources included underground barrels of food and guns, as well as booby traps designed to ensnare government agents, according to an FBI affidavit filed in connection with search warrant.

The plans Winters related to an undercover agent seemed incredible, and even at points ridiculous, as described in the affidavit:

Winters showed the agent a map and said that members of his group would be stationed along the river during an apocalyptic event to look out for government boats. He showed more maps of trails his followers, “the Army guys,” would use to protect their property or repel government agents. He planned to put “bullet things” and “rod holders” in trees to be used against government agents.

He planned to barricade his door, release propane gas and shoot at agents with pistols. He would run to other covered positions in his home and shoot some more. When the house filled with propane, it would catch fire.

He planned his “last stand” at another location on his property, where he would shoot and kill the agents running from the gas or fire.

His booby traps would shoot wires with fish hooks out of pressurized pipes. The pipes would be mounted on the eaves of his house, and Winters planned to shoot the agents who became entangled on the hooks.

The hooks, Winters said, would hang at crotch level to entangle the government agents, according to the affidavit.

Winters told the undercover agent he had 40 men in the neighborhood willing to shoot. He claimed to have spent $200,000 on his preparations, according to the affidavit.

Asked about the crotch-level, fish hook booby traps, Mitchell said, “Alas, these were not part of the paramilitary training I received. Sounds dramatic but perhaps not lethal? More a 'yucky, kooky, really bad, scary thing' worth lengthy golly-gee-wow discussion but infrequent actual use in time of dire need.”

They also illustrate another parallel to the showmanship of professional wrestlers.

Various media reports say there are 3 million survivalists and that the number has grown exponentially. But Mitchell, who has studied the phenomenon for more than 20 years, said the numbers have no basis in fact, and that there are no reliable statistics.

Mitchell said his sense is there has been a small uptick in recent years in survivalist activity, however.

“This is cyclical and to the extent we have the sort of rabid discourse on the failure of institutional order, the failure of government and the failure of corporate order, we do have these excesses of individualism, I guess we could call them,” he said. “This really was an excess of individualism.”

In some ways, Mitchell said, Winters is typical among survivalists. For example, there were about six members of his group, according to the FBI. Mitchell said survivalists may talk about having large numbers of followers, but almost never join with groups larger than seven.

And Winters' willingness to talk to the undercover agent was especially true to form, Mitchell said.

“When the FBI came calling, he could not resist telling the tale,” Mitchell said. “No survivalist can resist a chance to tell stories. This is their primary trade and it is also their greatest joy, to spin those narratives out and to help others.”

Some of the booby traps Winters is accused of making are dangerous and commonly made, Mitchell said. They involve tubes that fire rounds of bullets. Making them is also illegal.

It appears Winters' called the wrong kind of attention to himself by some of his associates, fellow “River Otter Preppers” who had felony backgrounds. According to the FBI affidavit, law enforcement was tipped off when one of the convicted felons posted a picture of himself on Facebook holding a gun. It is against the law for convicted felons to possess firearms.

The FBI says the preppers used straw buyers to help the felons get guns.

“He was doing fine until he associated with the wrong friends,” Mitchell said. “He just got dumb.”

Another mistake was breaking the law, according to the FBI, to get around a non-existent regulation.

According to the affidavit, Winters had other people purchase rifles for him because he thought he could only buy five rifles at a time. There is no such limit in Florida on the number of guns purchased at a time, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Using straw purchasers to buy guns, however, is a federal crime.

By and large, Mitchell said, it doesn't look like Winters did anything really dangerous. “He didn't blow up his house with propane,” he said. “For all we know, he never did anything with fish hooks except to demonstrate them. He didn't do. He talked.”

A lot of what survivalists do is perfectly legal, Mitchell said, and not all that unusual. Half of Americans own guns, and many store food for emergencies.

People “put up fences in their backyards; they get dogs that bite. They do all kinds of things that are overtly resistant to intrusion by others,” he said.

If survivalists are left alone, they are, for the most part, no threat to anyone else, Mitchell and Behrens said.

“Prepping has gotten sort of a bad rap,” Behrens said. “It's good to prepare.”

In Florida, residents are told at the start of every hurricane season to stock up on supplies. Other parts of the country prepare for other potential disasters. Most people know to depend on government agencies to help in times of trouble.

Survivalists “have flipped that around” and see civil agencies as their potential enemies, Behrens said. That, he added, “could border on” mental illness for some people. “You have to be careful how far you go. There's a spectrum here.”

“It's a cultural phenomenon at this point,” Behrens said. “There's lots of things going on politically, ideologically. The big element here, I think, is social media. Prepping feeds the media and the media feeds the prepping because they have instant access to people who are like-minded.”

Beherens said there are “unsubstantiated, misleading, socially irresponsible posts on Twitter. Twitter is a feeding ground for this kind of stuff” where you can find “provocative posts against the government, building a network of friends who believe like you, or purport to believe like you.”

Some survivalists on the fringe lack critical thinking skills and look only for information that supports their viewpoint, Behrens said. “They can't keep things in perspective.”

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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