Gun-Dealer Case Sheds New Light on Hutaree Antigovernment Hatred

A Michigan-based firearms dealer indicted this week on an unrelated federal gun charge had sold about a half dozen weapons to members of the extremist Hutaree militia group that was plotting to assassinate police, a federal law-enforcement official tells Declassified.

The indictment of Walter Priest, owner of Gun Outfitters in Adrian, Mich., has so far received no national attention. In large part, this is because there is no evidence that he was in any way involved or even aware of the Hutarees' bizarre plans—as alleged by federal prosecutors—to "wage war" against the U.S. government.

But his case sheds new light on the Hutarees' scary antigovernment passions (shared by more than a few militia groups), particularly their hatred of the beleaguered federal agency that enforces the country's gun laws: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The hatred of ATF, of course, is nothing new. In the years before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, fear and loathing of the agency helped fuel the militia movement. The anti-ATF passions were egged on by the National Rifle Association, which denounced ATF agents as "jackbooted government thugs."

Now, some watchdog and gun-control groups fear, those passions may be returning, helping to stoke an apparent resurgence of extremist militia and patriot groups united in their zealous opposition to any firearms enforcement.

Priest, 52, came onto the ATF's radar screen in July 2008 when he attended a Michigan gun show and sold a Remington rifle with the serial number altered or obliterated, according to the law-enforcement official. The customer then alerted local police, who tipped off ATF.

The ownership or sale of a gun with an altered serial number is a federal crime and one of major concern to ATF: it makes the gun untraceable in the event it gets seized in the course of other criminal investigations, ranging from routine street crimes to sophisticated drug-trafficking conspiracies.

After receiving the tip, ATF conducted an inspection of Gun Outfitters in November 2008. An ATF spokesman said there was nothing unusual about the inspection; its agents were checking Priest's paperwork and inventory, something the agency is empowered to do as part of its core mission to regulate federally licensed firearms dealers. But the inspection seems to have triggered a furious reaction from the Hutarees, some of whose members lived near Priest's gun store.

"Looks like the ATF enforcers are looking for a reason to start a firefight," David Brian Stone, a.k.a. "Captain Hutaree," the alleged leader of the group, wrote in an e-mail. "And we will answer the call." (The e-mail was recently read in court by a federal prosecutor and reported by Paul Egan of The Detroit News.)

It's not clear how Stone or any of the other Hutarees became aware of the ATF's inspection of Gun Outfitters. But the federal law-enforcement official (who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing nature of the probe) said that Priest and the Hutarees "knew each other" and that Gun Outfitters had sold members of the group about five handguns and one semiautomatic rifle—all of them legal purchases.

There also seems to have been other reasons for the Hutarees to have taken an interest in Priest's case. Priest's 24-year-old son Jason, who had worked at Gun Outfitters between 2007 and last year, had been arrested in January 2009 after local police responded to an complaint of assault by a member of his girlfriend's family. They discovered an arsenal of weapons in his apartment that included an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle with no serial number, a suspected silencer, ammunition, a tactical vest with spare magazines, and camouflage clothing. Many of these items were packed into a black bag, referred to as a "go bag" for combat, according to a sentencing memorandum filed by federal prosecutors last month.

Jason Priest also had what federal prosecutors described as an "extensive criminal history" that include charges of possessing explosives "with intent to terrorize," multiple probation violations, theft, and a conviction for possession of a switchblade, according to the sentencing memorandum. As The Detroit News's Egan reported, federal prosecutors have outlined an apparent relationship between Jason Priest and the Hutarees: after Jason Priest was arrested, Hutaree leader Stone and his son Joshua approached Walter Priest and offered to break his son out of jail. Walter Priest rebuffed the offer, prosecutors have said.

Harold Gurewitz, Walter Priest's lawyer, declined to comment on anything related to the Hutarees, other than to stress that the indictment of his client—for possession of the gun with the altered serial number—has nothing to do with the case against the militia group. (He also said his client could plead not guilty and contest the charge.) William Swor, Stone's lawyer, declined to comment. Jason Priest, who was sentenced to nine years in prison by a federal judge for federal firearms charges, could not be reached for comment.