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For years, law enforcement officials say, Brian Michael Knoff helped run a smuggling operation that brought tons of marijuana into the United States, grossed millions of dollars and, in the end, left at least one gang member dead.

But Knoff didn't buy yachts and entertain expensive women. He didn't own a house. To all appearances, he didn't live a lavish life.

Instead, officials say, Knoff was apparently sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into the extreme right antigovernment movement ¨ money believed to have been spent on deadly arsenals, movement defense funds and, possibly, terrorist plots.

"I'm not in it for my own personal thing," Knoff once explained. "I want to get ... big enough where we can, we can help some of the good people."

Knoff, a fugitive for two years now, is not alone.

Across the United States, right-wing criminals, who have long relied on such perilous endeavors as robbing banks and running financial scams, seem to have discovered a new way to fund their subversive political activities. While such politically based drug-running was once restricted to revolutionary groups in countries like Colombia, Mexico and Peru, officials now believe it has arrived on American shores.

"There's a world-wide phenomenon in which antigovernment and separatist groups are using drugs to buy weapons and finance other activities," says Rensselaer Lee of Global Advisory Services, a Virginia-based firm that investigates the international drug trade. It is only natural, experts add, that drugs' easy profits should attract extremists here.

"Once you get into this (far-right) underworld, it's like any other criminal enterprise," says Oliver Revell, the retired deputy associate director of the FBI. "It's like Mafia street hoods. Once you've thrown over any recognition of (government) legitimacy, then you're going to do what is most available (to raise funds).


Brian Michael Knoff

"Drugs today provide that."

The evidence that drugs are funding parts of the extreme right is growing. In July, Florida deputies busted a $500,000-a-year marijuana operation that local, state and federal authorities believe funded the right-wing underground. In Oregon, officials believe three men convicted of operating a major methamphetamine lab pumped a small fortune into the militia movement. In Georgia, police recently arrested two heavily armed men who may have been underwriting white supremacist activities with a drug operation.

The story of Brian Knoff appears to be a textbook case.

Taxes, land and drugs

Born in Grafton, N.D., 59 years ago, Knoff was raised as a Mormon but left the church after blacks were admitted, officials say. It's believed that in the late 1980s he became friendly with several members of the Posse Comitatus, a violent and anti-Semitic tax protest group. Three of those friends eventually went to prison for their part in a $4 million land swindle that was meant to raise money for the Posse.

In 1988, Knoff was himself convicted of tax evasion and was sent to a Texarkana prison. There, he met Clell Lagett Benton, a Mormon raised in Mexico. In 1992, officials say, ex-cons Benton and Knoff brought in Floridian Richard Allen Hammons to help launch a marijuana smuggling operation out of Palomas, in northern Mexico.

At first, the three bought small loads of poor quality pot from freelance Mexican dealers and moved it by truck to the New Mexico border, investigators say. But then Benton contacted Rene Saenz, who provided a link to the Sinaloa group, one of Mexico's biggest drug rings. After that, the Americans' operation took off.

They used a Cessna to fly tons of pot from a clandestine Mexican airstrip to North Dakota and Florida, officials say. From there, the drugs were distributed to Indiana, Florida, Pennsylvania and South Dakota. By 1994, the gang included 20 people.

But that year, with the three partners netting more than $1 million a year, Saenz was murdered in Mexico. He'd neglected to pay the Sinaloans a $1 million debt.

Through much of this period, Knoff was active in extreme right-wing circles. In Deming, N.M., he conducted weekly seminars on so-called Patriot and common-law theory. In April 1994, he was invited to a major conference hosted by E. Tom Stetson, a leading adherent of the racist Christian Identity religion and co-founder of the Unorganized Militia of Idaho. When Knoff's New Mexico home was searched later in the year, authorities found a virtual who's who of the far right in his address books.

Included among 30 major Patriot and white supremacist leaders were Louis Beam, a former Klansman and ambassador -at-large for the racist Aryan Nations; David and Randy Trochmann, co-founders of the Militia of Montana; Earl Jones, a prominent Identity preacher in New Mexico; Linda Thompson, whose videos about the Waco, Texas, debacle galvanized rightists; Kirk Lyons, a leading attorney for racist groups; and Greg Dixon, an Indiana preacher who is a strident tax protester and militia supporter.

"It's war, a two-way war," Knoff was captured saying in a 1994 police surveillance video made in El Paso. "What (the government) did in Waco, what they did to that (Randy Weaver) family in Idaho ... My attitude is, it's war. This is war."

A Cuban operation

On June 18, 1994, Knoff, Hammons and Benton met on a luxury boat in the waters off Tampa, Fla. The three men and others allegedly discussed plans to restart their smuggling operation with a bold new twist: They hoped to base their operations in Cuba, moving drugs from Latin America to the island and then on to the United States. They spoke of buying and selling arms, drug prices, profits, Cuban politics, interrogations, flying through storms to avoid radar. And they discussed their politics.

Unknown to them, they were being secretly recorded.

"We've got the same problem they've got," Hammons says of the Cubans. "It's our f---in' government. It has nothing to do with communism or anything else. It's these power-hungry bastards that are f---in' going to impose their will on every kind of culture."

"We're more communist than they are," Knoff replies.

"I don't care what I got to do to fight Šem back," Hammons says.

"I'm the same way," Knoff answers.

Later that year, the three men were indicted on federal drug charges by a grand jury in New Mexico. Benton and Hammons, now serving time on those charges, would tell authorities later that they'd had a falling-out with Knoff, who fled after his indictment, leaving $162,000 in cash. Knoff, they said, had ripped them off for $1 million. They also told officials Knoff had urged them to put money into the Patriot movement.

Benton and Hammons alleged that Knoff had trafficked in heavy weaponry and sought to trade weapons for drugs. During this time, officials say, Knoff had obtained three full-automatic, fully suppressed Ruger 10/22s ¨ illegal machine guns capable of firing rapidly and almost silently.

Knoff and his friends "called themselves Patriots," Hammons told authorities in a prison interview. "They forecast the doom of this government ... [and said] the republic that was actually established in this country is long gone, that the common-law jurisdiction was the original jurisdiction that this country was founded on."

Last July, a similar case came up.

Cyanide gas and white supremacy

Northeast of Gainesville, Fla., sheriff's deputies on a marijuana-eradication exercise came across a large patch of the drug. Executing a search warrant on a house rented by Danny Ray Simmons and girlfriend Angela Louise Cooke two days later, they found more drugs -- and they stumbled onto an extensive arsenal.

There were numerous assault rifles, a 12-gauge "street sweeper" shotgun, cases of ammunition, even a .50-caliber sniper's rifle. More frightening, they discovered potassium cyanide and a shopping list for other chemicals -- chemicals that when put together form deadly cyanide gas. Ingredients for pipe bombs and the explosive compound RDX, along with gas masks, were also found. And, officials say, there were 811 marijuana plants, indoor growing equipment and $47,000 in cash.

Officials say Simmons is dedicated to white supremacy, common-law theory and the militia movement. Evidence backing up that contention was found in the house, including a trove of far-right literature, paramilitary training and militia propaganda videos, and the addresses of several Klan and militia leaders, including private numbers for Michigan militia figures Norm Olson and Ray Southwell. There was also a Patriot publication that Simmons appeared to be in the process of editing.

Simmons pulled up to the house during the search, but immediately fled into the woods when he spotted the deputies. Deputies arrested Cooke, but she was bailed out a short time later. Both Simmons and Cooke are now fugitives.

Deputies estimate the marijuana operation was grossing a minimum $500,000 a year. Local, state and federal authorities say they believe that Simmons was funneling his profits in the far-right underground.

In a third case, Edwin Dale McClain was convicted earlier this year of operating what officials say was the biggest methamphetamine lab in Oregon history. Officials say that McClain and the two other men convicted in the ring, which apparently operated for several years, were linked to antigovernment groups in Arizona and Montana.

When police searched McClain's home near Yakima, Wash., they seized a $1 million fake cashier's check signed by imprisoned Montana Freemen leader LeRoy Schweizer . They believe McClain had attended a Schweizer seminar.

After the arrests, federal prosecutors said they believed that the drug rings's profits ¨ conceivably, as much as $6 million ¨ went into militias.

Other cases continue to pop up. In Locust Grove, Ga., for instance, police found marijuana, methamphetamine, 30 weapons and pipe bomb components in the mobile home of Stephen Harper and Shelby Reynolds. The couple, who police suspect may also have been selling guns, were charged with drug trafficking after the July bust.

Police also found white supremacist literature, bumper stickers and cartoons, along with paper silhouettes of ATF agents for target practice.

"Harper has all the signs of someone involved in the militia movement," said police Lt. Michael Tate, who defused explosives at Harper's home. "One of the things these [extremists] do to raise money for their deeds is narcotics trafficking."

Traditionally, American right-wing extremists have shied away from drugs, seeing them as part of a corrupt society they loathe. But that appears to have changed, at least among some factions. Revell, the retired FBI official, says many extremists "don't believe in the use of drugs, but they will sell drugs in much the way Islamic terrorists do. They sell drugs because it is going to the infidel, the non-believer."

The extremist right has always had big plans. In the 1960s, the Minutemen worked for a revolution. In the 1970s, the Posse Comitatus wanted to destroy the power of the federal government. The Order planned for race war during in the 1980s. Now, militant racists strive for an all-white nation in the Pacific Northwest.

But the problem has always been money.

The Minutemen stole heavy weapons but were caught. Posse financial scams landed key activists in jail. The Order robbed $3.8 million from armored cars, but their dramatic attacks ended with the capture of most members. Today, those who would make revolution are discovering what the once drug-shy Mafia found out long ago.

"Drugs," as Lt. Tate explains, "are a high cash-flow operation."

 

In Their Words:

"We can help some good people"

On June 18, 1994, on a luxury boat in the waters off Tampa, Fla., Clell Lagett Benton and Richard Allen Hammons, now serving time for drug trafficking, spoke with their alleged partner, Brian Michael Knoff, who is a federal fugitive. The men were surreptitiously recorded as they allegedly discussed setting up a new drug operation based in Cuba after a Mexican operation collapsed. They also mentioned their antigovernment views and desire to help others with similar politics. What follows is an edited, partial transcript:

Hammons: If I can do anything for Cuba I'm striking a blow against this f---in' (American) government. Any way I can help them survive and keep the politics the way it is in Cuba, I

I'll do it. I, you know, I'm just tired of the bullshit. I've f---in', I don't care what I got to do to fight Šem back.


Clell Lagett Benton

Knoff: I'm the same way.

Hammons: ... I think that we can make some good money. We gotta do something else anyway. We can't wait and take our time thinking about this shit either. ...

Benton: I got the connection in Mexico to do anything. ...

Hammons: They won't f--k with you in Cuba.

Benton: None. No, no, in Cuba it's gonna be...

Hammons: They call it the pearl of the Caribbean There's nothing better than Cuba if you get to live there. ... There was a lot of pot comin' in there. They were bringin' there through Columbia and they were putting it right in Cuba and you could pick it up in Cuba. ... I know damn well that the authorities down there are into the drug trafficking business.

Knoff: Mm hmm.

Hammons: ... You can sit right there in Cuba until it's time to take off and when the weather's right to take off where they can't track you, you can bring it into f---in' Florida as easy you can anywhere. ... If you're hauling' something like skunk (marijuana), it's just about like hauling cocaine. It's a small package. You don't have to haul 1,000 pounds to make a lot of money. Haul 400 pounds and make a ton of money. Shit sells for $2,500 a pound wholesale, and if you're growin' it, that, oh, damn near pure profit besides what you pay off. ... It probably wouldn't take $100 a pound in Cuba. ...

Knoff: I'm not in it for my own personal thing. ... I want to get, ah, a little bit of, big enough where we can, we can help some of the good people.

 

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