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Nationally and locally, civilian militias have a new look

By Lee Williams


Tucker on Firing Line

Florida Charter Oaks militia instructor Al Rivero and lead instructor Darren Wilburn watch as Tucker fires a handgun in June at the Cecil M. Webb public shooting range.
Photo by Carla Varisco-Williams

Amelia Foxwell is the new face of citizen militias in Florida. At 33, the Sarasota resident is younger than most militia members. She is Web-savvy, eloquent and a mother who is working on a master’s in psychology.

Foxwell and fiancé Darren Wilburn are founding members of the Florida Charter Oaks Militia, a Sarasota- based group with about 25 active members who travel from around the state each month to train in survival tactics and firearms use.

Their group — and a growing number of similar militia organizations across Florida and the nation — does not want to be judged by the Oklahoma City bombing or other crimes. Members see the group as a constitutional militia, based on the Second Amendment principle of a well-armed and prepared citizenry.

The couple typify the new-style militia leaders. They are young, well-spoken and physically fit — a far cry from past militia commanders known for camouflage-clad beer bellies and outlandish statements. They are open to scrutiny, are deft at public relations, and will soon be featured in programs on MTV and the National Geographic Channel, focusing on their firearms training.

Wilburn, 45, is a former Army Special Forces sergeant and decorated combat veteran who is the group’s lead trainer. He works as a private detective.

For him, the militia is all about personal empowerment: “We would like for every person in the country to not be an easy victim, whether it’s street crime or political crime,” Wilburn said.

While they still dress in camouflage and run around the Volusia County woods with guns in monthly training exercises, they also aspire to perform public service like participating in Neighborhood Watch and disaster relief programs.

They led a voter registration drive in Newtown, and plan to rent vans to help residents of the community get to the polls on Election Day.

They decry the secretive tactics adopted by militias in the past.

“I hope we get infiltrated by the FBI,” said Wilburn, a former Green Beret. “They’ll learn we’ve got nothing to hide.”

One of hundreds

The Florida Charter Oaks Militia is one of the hundreds of militia and patriot groups that sprang up across the country in the wake of the 2008 presidential elections.

Florida had none before President Barack Obama took office. Now there are an estimated 50, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The center says patriot groups are marked by their belief in unfounded conspiracy theories, and their heated anti-government rhetoric. They advocate resistance, violent or passive, and strongly oppose law enforcement, the United Nations and anything else they see as the “New World Order.”

Militias are the armed wing of the patriot movement, the center says.

But compared with militias in the 1990s — when the movement peaked — the Charter Oaks militia is leaner and much more diverse. The Sarasota group has African-American, Hispanic, Jewish and lesbian members, as well as college students.

Members also have diverse political views. While most are conservative, two described their politics as far left. What unites them is a distrust of government and a feeling they must prepare because something bad is about to happen in America.

They also love their guns.

Mike Brown is a new member. The former paratrooper was an infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division. He lives in Newtown and is trying to reach out to the African-American community. Brown, who is black, says he has not experienced racism in the group. “It’s very different from when I was in the military,” he said.

Theories abound

Mark Potok, editor-in-chief of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report and its Hatewatch blog, is wary of Charter Oaks.

“Most militias claim to be enlarged neighborhood watches, finding lost children,” Potok said. “The public posturing is quite common. The bottom line is, they may not harm anyone, but they’re motivated by a conspiratorial view of the world that borders on madness.”

A common conspiracy theory: The federal government is about to impose martial law with the aid of the United Nations and foreign troops who will confiscate all privately owned firearms. Those who resist will be shot or sent to concentration camps, which they believe are being built by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Potok said most patriot groups lump taxes, law enforcement, license requirements and even the most mundane government actions into one category: tyranny.

“For some groups, overcoming tyranny means shaking your fist at the federal government and making lots of noise on the Internet,” Potok said. “For others, it involves blowing up federal buildings.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s Mark Pitcavage is a leading militia expert. A historian by training, Pitcavage ran the ADL’s Militia Watchdog website.

In the 1990s, the typical militia member was a middle-aged man, often a laborer or small business owner, Pitcavage said. Since the 2008 resurgence fueled by social media, the movement has attracted younger members unfamiliar with the Oklahoma City bombing or a spate of recent militia arrests.

Four members of a Georgia militia were arrested last year, accused of plotting to kill federal officials with explosives and the biotoxin ricin. Eight members of a Christian militia, who believed the Antichrist was coming, were arrested in Michigan in 2010 in connection with a plot to kill police.

Younger members are drawn by the allure of exotic weapons, camouflage clothes and paramilitary training.

Foxwell, the Charter Oaks founder, questions the research the Southern Poverty Law Center used to classify her militia as anti-government.

She suspects it was little more than a Google search. She notes that several Airsoft teams — the game is similar to paintball — were listed as anti-government when teenage members used the word “militia” in a team name.

From arduous beginnings

Wilburn and Foxwell share a home on the edge of Newtown. They met at a gun range in Volusia County two years ago.

“I don’t believe in love at first sight, but there was definitely interest and attraction,” Wilburn said.

The pair shared more than their strong conservative beliefs. Both had arduous childhoods, which forged them into strong individualists.

Wilburn dropped out of high school and was “not headed down the right road,” when at 19 he hitchhiked across the country, eventually ending up at his grandparents’ home in Ohio. His grandfather had fought in the Korean War, and the two talked about a career in the Army.

“He told me I wasn’t no momma’s boy, and that I’d do fine,” Wilburn said.

Wilburn enlisted in 1985, but ignored his grandfather’s advice by volunteering for airborne training and U.S. Special Forces. The trials he faced as a child helped him survive the arduous training needed to earn the coveted green beret.

“I was an only child, and I don’t have a clue who my father is, so I only had myself to count on,” he said. “This caused me to challenge myself as much as possible. When you grow up as the only boy, you never feel safe, and I had to provide safety for myself and my mother.”

Wilburn excelled in Special Forces, which has been described as an army within the Army.

“There’s definitely a different set of rules. A lot of time we never referred to each other by rank. It’s much more relaxed,” he said.

In his mid-20s, wearing the distinctive headgear, it was difficult for him not to swagger a bit and become cocky.

“The Army really was my first family — the first time I had brothers,” he said. “It’s Amelia’s philosophy that that was the reason I started this militia group.”

Foxwell grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She dropped out of high school in 10th grade and ran away from home, spending 10 years on the road.

She wound up in the Florida Keys, running a restaurant with her mother and stepfather until it closed in 2001. She later moved to Sarasota and enrolled at the University of South Florida.

She earned a degree in applied psychology, is working on her master’s, and hopes to get her doctorate eventually. Her dreams are lofty.

“I would like to set up schools and counseling rehab centers in places like the Congo, for child soldiers,” she said. “My primary focus would be PTSD in children, but with learning and rehab therapy.”

Five missions

Wilburn organized Charter Oaks like a Special Forces “A-Team.”

Each member has a specialty, a skill such as communications, first aid or weapons training, and they share skills with other members.

The members keep in contact with one another, and with seven other militia groups throughout the Southeast through a secure website that features announcements, forums, multimedia and a blog. While the site is closed to the general public, it is open to anyone who emails a request to Wilburn.

The site contains documents and videos offering knife-fighting techniques, survival tips, patrolling tactics and speeches by Ron Paul, the Republican Congressman from Texas who recently ran for president, and other lawmakers. Many of the group’s videos have decided anti-government and anti-police views.

Under Wilburn’s tutelage, Charter Oaks trains for five missions: crime prevention, counterterrorism, disaster relief, repelling an invasion and resisting tyranny.

They have put their tactical training to use. Wilburn and others patrolled the Arizona-Mexico border last year armed with M-4 carbines and handguns. They tried to thwart illegal immigration and narcotics trafficking. While there, they found and turned in an 80-pound bale of marijuana.

Jerry “Buz” Sawyer, a 60-year-old former Navy radioman from North Port, is the group communications officer. Sawyer wrote a training manual for the group, which includes hand signals, radio operations and guidelines for overt and covert communications.

While patrolling Arizona’s Vekol Valley, Sawyer said the team found a “rape tree” in the desert, a macabre trophy created by the “coyotes” who smuggle aliens. Sawyer said that after a coyote rapes a woman in his group, he will hang her underwear on the tree. The group found a small pair of panties that could only have belonged to a small child.

“Why am I involved? I’ve got a 3-year-old grandniece,” Sawyer said. “I look at her and try to imagine the world that will be waiting for her when she turns 18 — a world without the freedoms and liberties we had at 18.”

‘They come to us’

Last month, the Cecil M. Webb public shooting range near Punta Gorda was the scene of one of Charter Oak’s outreach missions. The militia group offers firearms training free to anyone interested in learning how to shoot.

There was no preaching during the class, although there would not have been much need: The students were all like-minded. Several were considering joining the group.

“We don’t proselytize,” said Sawyer, “They come to us.”

Jim Johnson, who came for training from Port Charlotte, was handing out copies of the Constitution as well as books by Ron Paul and Thomas Jefferson before class.

Wilburn never mentioned politics during his firearms class, which consisted of the fundamentals: stance, grip, sights and trigger control, coupled with a heavy dose of safety throughout.

When “Tucker,” a 30-year-old waitress from Sarasota who did not want to be fully identified, adopted an improper shooting stance with her strong-side leg forward rather than back, Wilburn quickly caught the mistake and made a correction that improved her shooting.

Tucker, who said she is considering buying her first handgun for self-defense, had no experience with guns before the class. Now, she is comfortable with everything from a 9mm pistol to a 12-gauge combat shotgun or an M-4 carbine.

“I am extremely grateful, particularly for the confidence they’ve given me,” she said. “I have gained a lot of knowledge, politically. I like the fact they don’t take an extreme stance on anything.”

Membership and rights

Local law enforcement was reluctant to talk about Sarasota’s militia group. Sheriff Tom Knight declined comment.

Sarasota Police Det. James LaPlante, who serves on the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, and who has twice tried to interview Wilburn, also declined to discuss Charter Oaks.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which has its own domestic security task force, referred all militia questions to the FBI.

Supervisory Special Agent Michael McPherson, who coordinates the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Tampa, pointed out it is not illegal to be a member of a militia. Membership is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.

McPherson said what the FBI and his anti-terrorism task force are worried about are “militia extremists,” or those that believe in violence.

The FBI uses a three-pronged test to determine whether a group poses a threat: Is there a political or social agenda, coupled with a violation or potential violation of federal criminal law, plus some type of threatened use of force or violence.

“If all three are met, I would be interested in investigating this type of case,” McPherson said.

Wilburn said LaPlante, the Sarasota detective, hoped to turn Wilburn into an informant.

“He wanted us to snitch. He said I was more likely to come into contact with dangerous people first, and asked if I would please call him,” Wilburn said. “I told him if we have that issue, we would handle it ourselves.”

Foxwell, a co-founder of Charter Oaks, has been questioned by the FBI, once while supervising an outing of fellow college students. “We consider it standard operating procedure for an out-of-control government,” she said.

Wilburn and Foxwell plan to introduce themselves to Sheriff Knight, Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, and other law enforcement officials.

“We want them to know that any time spent investigating us is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Wilburn said.