Others made a living with maintenance work and used furniture sales. They had formed a clique of like-minded gun enthusiasts with the name SHF -- Suicidal Hippie Fucks -- and even had t-shirts made with an SHF logo, according to contemporaneous press accounts.
None of which sounds so scary, until you consider the group's stockpile of
unregistered submachine guns, over 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, an "adapter for a grenade launcher," a riot smoke grenade, dynamite, detonation cord, gas masks, body armor, a machine gun, 550-yard range rockets, and how-to manuals for grenade launchers and propellants.
All of that was seized by the Feds, noted in inventory lists submitted in court, and reported by the press at the time. And keep in mind, the case was unfolding soon after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people.
The federal probe into the Vipers started when a deer hunter reported an encounter with a group of camouflage-clad, heavily-armed men in Tonto National Forest north of Phoenix.
An informant infiltrated and secretly taped the Vipers, who were committed to resisting the "New World Order." He participated in a session in which militia members detonated explosives and used illegal automatic weapons in the desert outside Phoenix. The group members took an oath to "enter into mortal combat against enemies of the U.S. Constitution."
The Vipers were arrested in July 1996.
They were initially charged with plotting to blow up government buildings around Phoenix. But the charges were reduced to various firearms and explosive charges. At the same time the charges were reduced, the AP noted in October 1996, "A videotape showing militia members touring federal buildings in Phoenix and allegedly explaining how to destroy them already has been withdrawn by prosecutors after defense lawyers noted that it was made in 1994, before most of the Vipers even knew one another."
Ultimately, 11 of the Vipers were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to six years.
Like today's gun-wielding anti-Obama protesters, the Vipers feared government encroachment by a Democratic president The father of a one militia member recalled him saying, "You should be happy you won't be around in 30 years. The way we're going, we've got to stop it. I hope we'll change presidents and stop the One World Order."
Sometimes the militia members' paranoia degenerated into anti-Semitism. One Viper Militiaman "would talk about conspiracy theories behind gun control laws, and how the world was being run financially by this secret conspiracy composed of Jews," recalled a former teacher of his from a Phoenix weapons academy.
Libertarian Reason magazine published a lengthy piece in late 1996 arguing the charges against the Vipers were overblown.
"These guys were more likely to show up late for a shooting match than to blow up buildings," the chair of the Arizona Libertarian Party told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1996. "It's a Keystone Kops kind of thing."
Anti-Obama activist Ernest Hancock, who helped run a Web site, the Viper Reserves, dedicated to defending the Viper Militia and getting their story out (see a cached version here) was quoted in the same story. He told the Inquirer: "These people were really, really, really ready to go up against the federal government," he said. "Were they actually going to do it? No."