COLUMBUS, Ohio — For nearly two years, a gang of bank robbers roamed the Midwest, displaying a warped sense of humor, a fondness for pipe bombs and sympathy for the militia movement.
Depending on the season, they left their bombs in a Santa Claus hat or nestled in the grass of an Easter basket. In one holdup, they wore caps that said ATF, as in the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms--the agency involved in the fiery siege in Waco, Texas, in 1993. They rented a getaway car in the name of an FBI agent involved in the 1992 shootings at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
In letters and cartoons mailed to newspapers, they signed themselves the "Mid-Western Bank Bandits."
Now, with two suspects in custody, federal officials believe that the robbers went by another name as well: the Aryan Republican Army.
Law enforcement officials and trackers of the extremist right say the gang's story will open an important window on the financing of militant white supremacists. Authorities have suspected that some in the "patriot movement" are committing crimes to build up their treasuries, following the example of The Order, a right-wing revolutionary group that stole millions of dollars during the 1980s. If investigators are correct, the MidWestern Bank Bandits may provide the first solid evidence that large amounts of stolen money continue to flow to hate groups today.
The two suspects--Richard Lee Guthrie Jr. and Peter Kevin Langan--allegedly are dedicated to the overthrow of the government, the slaying of Jews and the deportation of blacks. Authorities believe that they and their partners have provided more than $500,000 in ill-gotten gains to notorious groups whose goals they share.
Special Agent Jim Nelson, who heads the FBI office in St. Louis, told The Times that the government is investigating whether at least $250,000 in unrecovered stolen bank money was funneled to the Aryan Nations and people who were affiliated with the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord, a paramilitary group active in Arkansas during the 1980s. Both groups believe that the U.S. government has become tyrannical and must be confronted. Members of both groups also once belonged to The Order.
In addition to banks being robbed, stores apparently were swindled. Guthrie previously was arrested in West Virginia in 1991 in connection with a bogus-refund scam at K mart stores through which, he told sheriff's deputies, he'd raised at least $250,000. At the time, he also told them that he sent the bulk of the money to the Aryan Nations. He disappeared after his father posted bond.
Half a million dollars "is a significant amount for a terrorist underground," said Mike Reynolds, senior intelligence analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which compiles information about the ultra-right.
The bombing plot that destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building, for example, has been estimated to have cost about $10,000--$3,000 for materials and $7,000 for other expenses.
At one point last year, the FBI was investigating whether the string of robberies attributed to the gang had bankrolled that deadly mission. No evidence emerged to link the two, Nelson said.
Still, Reynolds said, the Aryan Republican Army "appears at this point to be one cell of a larger underground." Over the past decade, he said, Guthrie and Langan have traveled to the Aryan Nations headquarters in Hayden Lake, Idaho.
Langan has referred to himself as "Commander Pedro" in front of reporters and prosecutors. That name is used by a ski-masked man on a videotape recovered in Guthrie's apartment here. On the tape, Commander Pedro declares: "We hope to finance every fighting revolutionary that comes along" to establish "an Aryan Nation."
Guthrie had been under investigation by the Secret Service since at least 1991 for allegedly threatening then-President Bush. The Secret Service will not disclose details, but was concerned enough about locating Guthrie that it recruited Langan--his longtime friend--as an informant.
To that end, Langan was freed in 1993 from a jail in Georgia, where he had been charged with robbery of a Pizza Hut. His attorney in Columbus, Kevin Durkin, said Langan tried to cooperate with the Secret Service for awhile.
But Langan's sister, Leslie Maloney, said he disappeared "two Thanksgivings ago" from his home in Cincinnati. She said federal agents searching for her brother have visited her numerous times.
She says she didn't find out where Langan was until January, when he and Guthrie were arrested and showed up on the news.
Guthrie was taken into custody in Cincinnati on Jan. 15, this time for a solo bank robbery. He has not entered any pleas, but has been talking with investigators while being held in Covington, Ky., law enforcement sources said.