Inside A Nest Of Vipers

AS A BOY GROWING UP IN PHOENIX, Ariz., Dean Carl Pleasant was an enthusiastic member of an Explorer post sponsored by the local police department: he even won what was quaintly known as a ""stop-and-frisk competition.'' This fact, coupled with his lifelong fondness for guns, led his father to think the boy might someday be a cop. But Pleasant, 27, is now in jail as a suspected member of a group of terrorist wanna-bes who, among other alleged misdeeds, once discussed blowing up Phoenix police headquarters. And if it is still unclear whether he became a genuinely dangerous radical, the path he took speaks volumes about the frightening world of Team Viper.

Team Viper, a.k.a. the Viper militia, allegedly consists of 12 apparently ordinary Arizonans who, according to a NEWSWEEK investigation, are a strange assortment of middle-class gun crazies whose lives revolved around owning and using paramilitary weapons. If the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is right, they held regular secret meetings at a blue and white bungalow located at 6748 Shangri La Road in Peoria, a Phoenix suburb. Pleasant lived there, along with Randall Lynne Nelson, 32, a house painter who doubled as Viper captain. The house is a sparsely furnished bachelor pad complete with a beer-can collection; a friend says Pleasant and Nelson loved the movie ""Red Dawn,'' about a Soviet invasion of the U.S. heartland. But Pleasant, Nelson and other members of the team were talking a dangerous game -- about how to use guns and explosives ""in furtherance of civil disorder'' against a government they feared and hated. The ATF says the Vipers owned a huge arsenal and that one member, Gary Curtis Bauer, 50, allegedly had the makings of an Oklahoma City-style fertilizer bomb. The ATF also says the Vipers talked about ferreting out informers -- there was at least one and probably two spies among them -- and once discussed targeting the families of federal agents. Six Vipers, including Pleasant, Nelson and Bauer, now face conspiracy charges. The other six, facing weapons counts, have been released pending trial. All have pleaded not guilty.

The Vipers were preparing for guerrilla war against an unspecified enemy: if the Russians didn't invade Phoenix, the Feds might. Nelson succeeded Rick Walker, 41, as the team's captain. But Vietnam vet Bauer, the Vipers' weapons expert, may have been the real power in the group. Pleasant and David and Ellen Belliveaux, both 27, were among the hard-core followers. Pleasant and the Belliveaux couple were old friends: they went to high school together and, according to Pleasant's father, lived together before Pleasant moved in with Nelson.

Sport shooting was their hobby and much of their social life. Pleasant's father, Ralph, said Pleasant met Randy Nelson at the Wednesday-night league competition at Shooter's World in Phoenix. Pleasant, Nelson and some of the others also were regulars at gun shows in the Phoenix area. In 1992 Pleasant, a part-time college student and a sometime doughnut maker, met Mike Dugger, an organizer for the Arizona Libertarian Party. The party was recruiting gun owners with an aggressively pro-firearms stance, and Pleasant, who was outraged by the crackdown on assault weapons, joined up. He had another grievance as well -- mandatory auto insurance. According to his father, Pleasant spent a month in jail for defying Arizona's auto-insurance law. Repealing it was part of Pleasant's platform when he ran for the state Senate as a Libertarian in 1994. (He lost.)

But playing war games with the Vipers was his passion all this time. Dugger heard about it and chided Pleasant about ""going into the desert and shooting off guns.'' Pleasant told him he knew there were ""loose cannons'' in the group but said he was the ""voice of moderation.'' But was he? According to the ATF, this was about a year after Pleasant and others made a video showing how to bomb police headquarters and the local offices of the FBI, the Secret Service and the ATF. ""You have to understand Dean's mind-set,'' says fellow Libertarian Ernest Hancock. ""People have to decide whether they believe the government will grow to a point where it will take away our means of defending ourselves.'' Pleasant believed it would -- and the question now is, how far were he and his friends prepared to go?

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