Larry Steven McQuilliams “wouldn’t hurt a fly” and was a loyal volunteer, his friends and others say. He performed at Renaissance festivals, dog-sat for neighbors.
But in November, McQuilliams, 49, fired more than 100 rounds at several buildings in Austin, Texas, where he had moved from Wichita. The targets included a police headquarters, federal courthouse and Mexican consulate. After police shot and killed him, they found his map pinpointing nearly three dozen targets, two of them churches.
Authorities said McQuilliams — who had the words “Let Me Die” written on his chest — held racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. Police Chief Art Acevedo called McQuilliams a “homegrown American extremist.”
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“Hate was in his heart,” he said.
In many ways, McQuilliams is the face of domestic extremism today: nondescript, placid, a helpful neighbor.
“The wall between extremism and mainstream has really come down significantly,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino.
Domestic terrorists used to be easier to identify.
Twenty years ago, after the shocking wake-up call of the Oklahoma City bombing, authorities began cracking down on a subculture of extremist groups, many arming themselves in preparation for a showdown with what they saw as an oppressive federal government. The numbers of such groups sharply declined.
But today, at a time when much of law enforcement’s focus has shifted from domestic to foreign terrorism, a network of extremism is again spreading throughout the land.
“We’re just a penny dropping away from one or more McVeighs,” said J.J. MacNab, an author who for two decades has been tracking anti-government extremists, referring to the Oklahoma City bomber.
And this time, extremists are harder to track.
Anti-government groups are more loosely organized, making them more difficult to infiltrate. White nationalist groups have few strong leaders and are splintering. And while groups sometimes seem to fight one another as much as their perceived enemies, that only adds to the noise that law enforcement tries to monitor.
“There’s no head to this thing,” said Leonard Zeskind, president of the Kansas City-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, who has monitored extremist groups for decades. “Without leaders, they’re out there under no one’s control.”
Over the past year, The Kansas City Star interviewed members of domestic extremist groups. It found that yesterday’s movements have metastasized into a widespread and sometimes chaotic network of organizations and individuals:
▪ The profile of extremists is changing. They seem to be getting younger, and they are more Web savvy. The militias now include some veterans of overseas wars who are trained, unhappy and searching for the camaraderie that the groups provide.
▪ While the Arkansas-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — now called the Knights Party — remains a name brand for white nationalists, separate groups have sprouted, including a KKK based in eastern Missouri. This month, three members of that Klan were charged in Florida with plotting to murder a black man.
▪ Two online forums see hundreds of posts a day bashing minorities and the government. The cumulative effect of so much venomous rhetoric has inspired some to commit violence, even murder, experts say.
▪ An effort is underway in Montana to establish whites-only communities whose residents will run everything from the mayor’s office to the schools. A similar effort failed in North Dakota when the neo-Nazi organizing it was charged with terrorizing local residents.
While extremist groups are constantly moving and changing, Zeskind said, their ideology has remained constant. For white nationalists, for example, it’s a belief in an international Jewish conspiracy, racial superiority and an out-of-control government.
“They remain a sewer of violence, promoting racism, promoting anti-Semitism and serving as a breeding ground for violent attacks,” Zeskind said.
The anti-government Patriot movement — the other main faction of extremists — focuses less on racial issues and opposes what it sees as government oppression.
The number of Patriot groups skyrocketed after President Barack Obama was first elected, going from 149 groups in 2008 to 874 in 2014, according to a report released in March by the Southern Poverty Law Center. About one-fourth of the current groups are armed militias, the center said.
Authorities and watchdog groups are seeing a new surge in violent incidents.
Anti-government groups have accounted for an uptick in domestic terrorism — a recent Department of Homeland Security assessment links 24 violent incidents to sovereign citizens since 2010.
White nationalists have carried out their own attacks. F. Glenn Miller Jr., who is accused of killing three people in a shooting rampage at Overland Park Jewish centers a year ago this month, is an avowed neo-Nazi.
There are currently 784 “hate” groups operating across the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. They include white nationalists, Klansmen, neo-Nazis, skinheads, border vigilantes and even black separatists.
The number is down from 939 groups in 2013, but that doesn’t tell the real story, said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the law center.
“It appears that extremists are leaving these groups for the anonymity of the Internet, which allows their message to reach a huge audience,” he said in the report. Moreover, he said, “the drop in the number of extremist groups hasn’t been accompanied by any real reduction in extremist violence.”
Some white nationalist groups have Missouri connections, such as the Vanguard News Network, a racist online site run by Alex Linder of Kirksville, and the St. Louis-based Council of Conservative Citizens, which promotes preservation of the white race. (Former U.S. Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and numerous other politicians got in hot water for speaking at some of that group’s events.)
Old, new or reinvented, the groups all are motivated by the same factors, said Zeskind, author of “Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream.”
“The U.S. is undergoing a tremendous demographic transformation in which white people will become a minority,” he said. “That is the turning point for these people. When you lose majority status, you lose the ability to democratically control.”
As far as defining what all these groups believe, good luck.
Some want nothing to do with politics. Others run for office, including a candidate for the Park Hill school board in 2013.
Some, like the Ku Klux Klan, say they are Christian-based. The neo-Nazi Aryan Nations has its roots in Christian Identity, which teaches that Jews are the descendants of Satan and blacks have no souls. The leader of the National Alliance describes himself as a cosmotheist. And Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance, used to be a Christian Identity pastor but says he is now an atheist.
Leaders even differ on the groups’ current state of health.
“There’s a resurgence,” said Jeff Schoep of Detroit, commander of the National Socialist Movement. “As bad as things are with the economy, in times like that there’s always going to be resurgences because people are looking for answers.”
Metzger, however, said the organizations are “in flux.”
“It’s individuals all over the place, with all kinds of ideas, and sometimes they’re able to work together and sometimes they’re not,” said the longtime white supremacist from Indiana.
But Metzger said he’s glad that the movement is splintered.
“If I could help splinter it more, I will,” he said. “They need to go to lone-wolf, leaderless resistance and forget about trying to build above-ground organizations because they’re just going to get infiltrated and trapped and end up in prison.”
The face of extremism in America today isn’t necessarily a wild-eyed, bearded compound dweller, an AK-47 in one hand and “The Anarchist Cookbook” in the other.
It could just as easily be your insurance agent. Your co-worker. Your child’s teacher. The candidate running in your district. Even your mayor.
▪ Edward Stephens V, an electrical engineer, ran for the Park Hill school board in 2012 and 2013, losing both years. In 2013, he drew 712 votes, or 7 percent of the total. One of his proposals for the school curriculum: “removing materials that promote racial diversity.”
Stephens was supported in 2013 by the American Freedom Party, which on its website recommended that “all European Americans vote for this candidate who would represent the interests and concerns of White American school students.”
Reached this past week, Stephens declined to comment.
▪ Reed Benson taught world history at Pittsburg State University from 2007 through 2012.
Benson is the longtime director of the Church of Israel’s Christian Heritage Academy in Schell City, Mo. The church adheres to Christian Identity teachings.
A university spokesman said that he was not aware of Benson’s background and that he could not comment on why Benson left.
Benson could not be reached for comment.
▪ Arthur Jones, a retired Illinois insurance salesman and outspoken neo-Nazi who calls the Holocaust “the biggest, blackest lie in history,” has run for Congress several times, getting 29 percent of the vote in a 2006 Republican primary.
The Vietnam veteran wrote Miller in jail after the shootings in Overland Park, calling him “a true patriot.”
In an interview, Jones called Adolf Hitler a great leader and said he celebrates his birthday each year. Jones said he has been attacked multiple times for his beliefs, including once at a march for Rudolf Hess.
▪ Philip Holthoff, a high school social studies teacher in the Star City school district in Arkansas, was a contributor and frequent poster on a racist online forum. He resigned after the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote about his activities and contacted the principal last spring.
▪ Dan Clevenger, the mayor of Marionville, Mo., resigned after coming under fire for making anti-Semitic remarks when Miller, his friend, was arrested after the Overland Park shootings. The resignation came after the town’s aldermen had voted to start the impeachment process.
After the shootings, Clevenger told reporters that what Miller did was “terrible” but that he “kind of agreed with him on some things.”
Zeskind said it may be tempting to simply discount extremists as kooks, but that could turn out to be a dangerous — even deadly — mistake.
“We’ve got to remember that Nazis are people too,” he said. “They are people who act and talk like other people, except they have this contorted sense of how they think the world should operate.”
Online sites, including one based in Missouri, have pulled the movement into the 21st century, connecting legions of extremists at warp speed.
Every day, hundreds — sometimes thousands — of users post messages on the forums under names like “Proud Anglo Saxon” and “Hammershark88.” (White supremacists often refer to the number 88, which represents “heil Hitler,” based on the eighth letter of the alphabet.)
On the forums, users comment on everything from breaking news to politics and provide information on upcoming events. Some recent topics: “The white elite are as much our enemies as Jews, if not more,” “Favorite pictures from the Third Reich” and “What Six Million? or Jewish Math,” referring to the belief that the Holocaust did not occur.
Stormfront, run by Don Black, was the first white nationalist Web forum in the country, and it remains the biggest. Its motto: “White Pride World Wide.”
Black himself has major movement cred. He succeeded David Duke in the late 1970s as grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. (He is married to Duke’s former wife and lives in Florida.)
In 1981, federal authorities arrested Black and nine others for plotting an invasion of the Caribbean island of Dominica to help put an ousted prime minister back in power. Black was sentenced to three years in prison.
Black left the Klan in 1987 and in 1995 launched Stormfront, which now has nearly 300,000 registered users who have written 11 million posts.
Longtime white supremacist Linder, of Kirksville, Mo., launched a rival website, the Vanguard News Network, in 2000.
The network, whose motto is “No Jews. Just Right,” includes an online forum with more than 160,000 threads. One about last year’s shootings at the Jewish sites in Overland Park has had more than 116,000 views and more than 900 posts.
Linder, a former member of the National Alliance, sometimes tags his own posts this way: “If we exterminate termites because they destroy the foundations of our houses, how much more lenient should we be in our treatment of jews, who destroy the foundations of our society?”
Miller posted regularly on the Vanguard News Network forum. Using the name “Rounder,” Miller authored 12,683 posts on the site over 10 years.
Online, Miller found a community among whom he could share his ideas. He corresponded with, among others, Kevin Harpham, who pleaded guilty to planting a bomb in 2011 along the route of the Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Spokane, Wash.
Miller’s last post was the day before the Overland Park shootings. He wrote that he had talked to a neo-Nazi friend, who had updated him on his charge of terrorizing a North Dakota town.
A study released last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that more than a dozen people in the past five years had been murdered on American soil by registered members on the Stormfront forum.
For example, in 2009, Richard Poplawski ambushed and killed three Pittsburgh police officers with an AK-47 just hours after logging on to his Stormfront account, according to the law center study.
Some argue that the Internet actually curtails violence by providing an outlet for racists to vent instead of acting on their anger.
“This right here is the very reason that our enemies should be glad that forums like Stormfront and (Vanguard) exist,” said Jason 916 on the Vanguard forum a year ago, referring to the Overland Park shootings. “If people are able to talk about it, they’re less likely to snap and go on a rampage. When they take away free speech, there’s really nothing left but violence. Who knows how many lives these forums have actually saved?”
Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, doesn’t buy that argument.
“With just a few mouse clicks, or a few taps on a smartphone, they could be connected to thousands and thousands of other people who think exactly the same thing and reinforce their views and empower them and make them more bold and energized,” he said.
Their own towns
On the opposite end of those who spread their message in a virtual world is an effort to pull white nationalists into their own actual community where they live near one another, patronize white-run businesses and create a culture that envelops every aspect of their lives.
The project, called Pioneer Little Europe, has gained some traction in Montana. In the past several years, dozens of white nationalists have relocated to the Flathead Valley around Kalispell, where civil rights activists say they are forging alliances with anti-government Patriots because of their shared hostility toward the government. Both groups are encouraging their followers to stock up on guns.
The 85-page manual that lays out Pioneer Little Europe was written by a former organizer for Duke, who describes a strategy to “swamp” a target area by taking over its political and economic systems, forcing out those who don’t share their beliefs.
The most visible attempt to create a Pioneer Little Europe was in the tiny town of Leith, N.D.
Craig Cobb, the neo-Nazi friend of Miller, started buying plots there in 2011 and later announced plans to turn the town into an all-white hamlet. Cobb, who purchased some of the plots in the names of several white supremacists and flew Nazi flags on his property, sought to acquire enough power to run the town.
But in 2013 he was charged with terrorizing some of the residents with a gun after he confronted them and shouted obscenities while patrolling the streets. He was arrested that November, not long after attending a National Socialist Movement rally in Kansas City, and spent several months in jail.
In an interview last year, Cobb — who grew up in St. Joseph — told The Star that whites need to take the country back.
“We’re literally in a racial war in this country,” he said, “and we’re losing really badly.”
For those whose anger is focused on the government, the deadly Ruby Ridge, Idaho, shootout and Waco, Texas, inferno in the early 1990s were galvanizing events. They saw the government as out of control, trampling their civil rights.
Two years after Waco, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
The worst act of domestic terrorism on U.S. soil brought intense scrutiny upon the militia movement. Authorities infiltrated several groups and thwarted some violent plots. By 2000, the numbers had sharply dwindled.
In recent years, though, the militias and their sister group, the sovereign citizen movement, have been making a comeback.
“In 2007, we were tracking about 50 active militia groups,” the ADL’s Pitcavage said. “Now it’s over 260.”
Militia leaders say the movement has gone through a transformation.
“The militia movement has grown, but it’s changed,” said Mike Vanderboegh, former leader of the 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment Constitutional Militia and a longtime figure in the Patriot movement. The militias, he said, learned a lot of lessons from the ’90s.
“One was to have no big public movement because they’re susceptible to infiltration,” he said. “So they now keep their focus local on their town, neighborhood. A lot are doing search and rescue and turning out for natural disasters.”
Describing them as anti-government is ridiculous, Vanderboegh and other militia leaders say. They love the Constitution but believe that the federal government has overstepped its authority.
“It’s gratifying to us how the veterans of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have come home and brought a new level of professionalism to our endeavors,” he said. “So in a sense, we have the wars in southwest Asia and Barack Obama to thank for the boons to the armed citizenry.”
The new militias are younger than those of the ’90s — most members are between 20 and 35, in part because of former soldiers joining, said Norm Olson, who in the 1990s co-founded the Michigan Militia Corps, one of the country’s largest at the time.
“Sometimes these kids that are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq that are so messed up with PTSD and all the rest of it, we get them into a militia organization and it seems to be therapeutic for them,” said Olson, who now heads the Alaska Citizens Militia. “They’re finding out that, ‘Hey, I can go and be with my band of brothers again.’”
The soldiers also bring military skills and equipment to militias, Olson said. “So we’re way ahead; we’re a quantum leap forward.”
Others point out that the number of soldiers joining militias is a small fraction of all those returning but confirmed it’s worth noting.
“They’re coming home and they’re bored, and they miss the camaraderie of warfare,” said MacNab, author of an upcoming book about anti-government extremism. “They miss that community, so the militias kind of feed into that.”
As for the sovereign citizen movement, MacNab and others say it also has exploded. MacNab put the number of “hard-core” members at 250,000, with a total of about 400,000 believers.
She credits in part the growing diversity of the movement.
“The older generation is extremely hard right,” MacNab said. “The middle generation is libertarian and the youngest is liberal. It’s a big mess.”
And that’s not even including a branch of African-American sovereigns, sometimes called the “Moorish” movement.
The FBI now considers sovereign citizen extremists to be domestic terror threats. And although a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service said that “neither militia membership nor advocacy of sovereign citizen tenets makes one a terrorist or a criminal,” it noted that those ideologies can drive members to commit crimes.
Sovereign citizens believe that even though they reside in the United States, they are separate or “sovereign” from the country. As a result, they refuse to acknowledge government authority, including courts, taxing agencies, motor vehicle divisions or law enforcement.
Some issue fake money orders and bad checks, fail to pay taxes and file fraudulent property tax liens against their enemies. Such acts create huge expenses and paperwork nightmares for both the courts and the victims.
“We’ve certainly been seeing quite a bit of it,” said Dan Nelson, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri.
And while those actions aren’t violent in themselves, Nelson said, they sometimes end up in violent confrontations.
“Anytime you see a group of people that espouse an angry rhetoric, it is a potentially dangerous situation,” he said. “And we’ve seen situations where sovereign citizens have taken up arms and aggressively engaged and fired on law enforcement officers. That doesn’t mean all of them are like that, but there’s definitely an underlying violence in some of those theories.”
On Feb. 8, a sovereign citizen ambushed four deputies outside a supermarket in Orlando, Fla.
Joseph Paffen, 46, opened fire on the Orange County deputies as they drove into the parking lot to investigate a report that he had violated a protection order. One deputy was hit in the leg and another was struck in the face by flying glass. Three deputies returned fire, killing Paffen. He had a Smith & Wesson pistol in his hand and was carrying six magazines that held more than 100 bullets.
They call each other names, bash one another’s organizations and argue over leadership and strategy. Sometimes they even sue each other.
To put it mildly, domestic extremists don’t always get along. And Miller’s shooting rampage has only intensified the division.
Miller already had been banned from the Stormfront forum because he’d agreed to testify against other white supremacists in a federal sedition trial in 1988.
The forums lit up the night of the Overland Park shootings and still do as members debate Miller’s actions.
Vanguard’s Linder posted about Miller after learning that none of Miller’s three victims was Jewish.
“I know you certainly didn’t intend to kill white people,” he said, adding that Miller should apologize for that. But Linder went on to call Miller “an honorable man.”
On Stormfront, however, Black expressed outrage.
“All the work done by David Duke and I, along with many others here, telling the truth about Jewish supremacists, the most hate-filled ‘racists’ in the history of the world, working to destroy all other races, gets lost because some nutjob siegheiler kills three people, including two Christians,” he wrote the night of the shootings. In fact, all three were Christian.
Another Stormfront user said those posting on both forums shared the blame: “To a typical decent White person, both sites would simply exhibit a lunatic degree of Jew hatred that would repel him.”
Sometimes disputes turn personal. That’s what happened in a bitter feud between some KKK groups.
The North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights claims on its website that Frank Ancona of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is Jewish and that he formed his Klan in order to make a profit. Others have piled on. Charles Murray, leader of the New Empire Knights, claimed last summer that he had proof of Ancona’s Jewish ancestry.
Ancona, who lives in Missouri and is no relation to the Olathe car dealer of the same name, told The Star the allegations are absurd.
“I’m Italian,” he said. “But you know, if I was Jewish, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I would embrace my Jewishness.”
In turn, Ancona said the New Empire Knights was a fake organization.
Experts say the acrimony among the groups is not surprising. Indeed, they say, it’s the nature of the beast — those who join tend to be predisposed toward violence.
“I’ve never seen such anger,” said MacNab, who has testified before Congress.
She noted that the standoff last year between federal authorities and Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher, attracted hundreds of armed supporters and energized the anti-government movement.
“There’s a dark underbelly of people who would like the revolution to start and will do whatever they can to make it start,” she said.
Vanderboegh, a Patriot leader who joined the Bundy rally, said Americans need to understand that his movement is done giving up ground.
“We are not going to be pushed back any further from the exercise of our civil liberties,” Vanderboegh said. “We spent a lot of years after Waco trying to figure out what we might have done, feeling guilty that we didn’t do anything.
“We’re not going to allow any more free Wacos.”