When Trudy Sherburne returned to her desert home near Victorville after a short trip on Easter weekend in 1998, she thought her house was on fire. Government vehicles with flashing lights surrounded the place.
She quickly realized her mistake. The house was being raided.
Sheriff's deputies, bomb squad specialists and military investigators were rummaging through each room, under the assumption that Trudy Sherburne and her husband, Christopher, were right-wing extremists with ties to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. They believed they might find a cache of weapons and explosives hidden among the inventory of the Sherburnes' military surplus business.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Trudy and Christopher Sherburne -- A headline in Wednesday's Section A incorrectly suggested that federal officials initiated the investigation of Trudy and Christopher Sherburne, a couple accused of stockpiling illegal weapons. The case was launched and pursued by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
At the end of the five-month investigation, the Sherburnes -- a deeply religious couple with six children -- each pleaded no contest to one felony count of possessing 10 tracer bullets, which illuminate the trajectory and are legal in several states but not California. Prosecutors never proved a link between the couple and McVeigh.
But by that time, their home was demolished and their business in ruins. Trudy Sherburne went to jail for five months. Her husband started a prison term that lasted five years because he refused to accept parole conditions that barred him from seeing his wife.
The ordeal has turned the Sherburnes into folk heroes among some religious fundamentalists and gun rights activists. They see the couple as innocent victims of overzealous law enforcement, itching to nab home-grown terrorists in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing. Gun Owners of America, a gun-rights lobbying group based in Virginia, raised thousands of dollars for the couple's legal defense, and conservative radio commentator Jane Chastain, among others, has taken up the Sherburnes' cause.
The tactics used by officials only fed the outrage. Investigators, who portrayed the couple as dangerous outlaws and weapons suppliers for militia groups, even searched the home of the Sherburnes' pastor and the Christian school their children attended.
"We weren't trying to overthrow the government or take out the president," Trudy Sherburne said. "We had no ill intent."
Were the Sherburnes anti-government extremists or simply an eccentric family living a survivalist existence in Southern California's desert frontier? And if the couple were so dangerous, why did prosecutors succeed in getting a conviction on only one count each?
The answers may be revealed this year when a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge considers a lawsuit Trudy Sherburne filed against the county. The suit seeks $2 million in damages, arguing that multiple raids of the family home were unreasonable and based on weak evidence. The suit also accuses sheriff's deputies of ruining the couple's military surplus business by leaving the inventory -- shoes, pants, ready-to-eat meals -- in piles on the ground, where it was exposed to the elements and thieves.
The county has filed its own lawsuit, asking a judge to fine the Sherburnes $250,000 for using their home to stockpile the military surplus inventory in violation of county zoning codes. The county has also billed the family $25,000 for the cost of demolishing the house in 2001 for building code violations. No court date has been set for either lawsuit, and the Sherburnes have yet to pay the county bill.
Marjorie Mikels, an Upland attorney and friend of Trudy Sherburne, said the couple had "nothing there that was of any import -- certainly nothing worth destroying their lives and their home."
David Hardy, a Tucson attorney who wrote about the Sherburnes' case on a Gun Owners of America website, agreed.
"I think they [investigators] assumed the worst out of the available evidence, and when it wasn't the worst, they didn't back off an inch," he said.
But county officials insist the searches were legitimate and resulted in the destruction of dozens of dangerous weapons.
The investigators say their suspicions about the Sherburnes were confirmed when they found five videotapes titled "Militia of Montana First Aid Series" and a handwritten diagram showing a tunnel system beneath the home. Following the diagram, they discovered the remains of a 5,000-gallon cistern that Christopher Sherburne had expanded and fortified.
Inside the underground rooms, investigators found a stockpile of ammunition, five 55-gallon water drums, a portable bathroom and six industrial-size batteries, according to court records. The entrance to one of the rooms was hidden behind a false wall in the house.