Since 1995, Potok has tracked the ebb and flow of organized patriot groups, which apparently were galvanized by the deadly 1992 standoff between federal agents and the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the 1993 raid by federal agents on the Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco, Texas. Some proponents are more extreme than others, but Potok says the number of groups in that broad subset of modern American revolutionaries peaked at 858 in 1996, the year after Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168, including 19 children. "The received wisdom is that they all went away after Oklahoma City," Potok says. "But in our opinion that's not what happened, because there was a widely accepted theory in the movement that the government actually blew up its own building. That added to the movement rather than detracted." Still, in 1997, the number of patriot groups began a steady fade to fewer than 175 by 2003.
Three things have happened to diminish the number and activity of patriot groups, Potok says. The apparently violent intentions of some groups--exposed in news reports about gun hoarding and bomb building--scared off some of the less committed. Also, the federal government began cracking down, sending a number of activists and plotters to prison. But the biggest blow came Jan. 1, 2001, when despite the dire predictions of the movement's Y2K doomsayers, nothing happened. No airplanes fell to earth as the result of a worldwide computer meltdown. Martial law was not declared. The much-loathed United Nations did not take over the world.
"The sun came up, just like the day before," Potok says. "And the people who had 4,000 pounds of lentils in their basements wanted to know what had happened. Since that day the movement has been pretty anemic."
A theory advanced by Idaho State University sociologist James A. Aho holds that antigovernment fervor flares in the U.S. on a 30-year cycle, with peaks in 1890, 1920, 1950 and 1980. The author of "This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy" does not expect the movement to fully ignite again until 2010.
"They're definitely in a down cycle," agrees David Neiwert, author of "In God's Country: The Patriot Movement in the Pacific Northwest." Still, he says, "the people who remain behind in these movements become ... increasingly desperate to recruit. They're looking for headline-grabbing stuff that will [resonate] with the mainstream."
So, at the start of summer, the patriot movement's faithful apparently were hungry for something, anything--another galvanizing government fiasco, perhaps, or a particularly compelling David versus Goliath story around which to rally and regroup.
At 6 feet tall and about 230 pounds, Marvin Heemeyer was, in many ways, ill-suited for the role of David. And Granby, with its roughly 1,500 working-class residents and town board made of up elected volunteers with day jobs, could not be considered a Goliath by even the most ardent antigovernment conspiracist. Such subtleties were overlooked by those who began trumpeting Heemeyer's martyrdom even as his bloodied remains were being hoisted from the cab of his homemade tank.
The roots of his 90-minute rampage went back more than a decade. The guy who described himself in notes found after his suicide as a "self-made single man" had moved from South Dakota to Colorado after having been stationed there while in the Air Force in the early 1970s. By the early 1990s, he'd parlayed a chain of muffler shops into a mountain lifestyle built around snowmobiling with a tight circle of friends. He moved to Grand Lake, a small resort community about 16 miles from Granby, and apparently restructured his business so he could live among the peaks and perks of a community in the shadow of Rocky Mountain National Park. He began leasing his four muffler shops in Boulder to other operators, and, according to his brother Ken, he opened Mountain View Muffler in Granby about 1992.
Heemeyer plunged into civic activity in his adopted hometown, focusing his early efforts on passage of a 1994 measure that would have legalized gambling in Grand Lake. "Marv had definite opinions about that," recalls Grand Lake Mayor Judy Burke, who was a member of the Grand Lake town board back then and a regular among those, including Heemeyer, who gathered most mornings for breakfast at the Chuck Hole Cafe or another restaurant along the town's main street. Heemeyer wanted to bring legalized gambling to town, and he wanted it so badly that he published two issues of a newspaper to promote his views. At one point during the campaign, Heemeyer became so passionate that he nearly came to blows with Cece Krewson, a reporter and editor for the Grand Lake paper, which was editorially opposed to gambling.