BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - On his website, militia leader-turned-blogger Mike Vanderboegh writes about fed-up Americans responding to government violence with guns and grenades. It's an attempt to warn the government that people are armed and angry, he says, just like last year when he urged those upset with President Barack Obama's health care plan to toss bricks at Democratic Party offices.
A few people shattered office windows then, and federal prosecutors now say his online novel about a militia making war against the U.S. government inspired a group of four retirement-age men in Georgia to plot an attack on unnamed government leaders using guns, the highly deadly toxin ricin and explosives.
Vanderboegh said he doesn't know the suspects. He ridiculed the men's plans and chuckled at the notoriety he has gained for his online rants.
"It comes with the territory," he said in an interview from his home in a Birmingham suburb. Vanderboegh hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing.
The four suspected militia members allegedly boasted of a "bucket list" of government officials who needed to be "taken out"; talked about scattering ricin from a plane or a car speeding down a highway past major U.S. cities; and scouted IRS and ATF offices, with one man saying, "We'd have to blow the whole building like Timothy McVeigh," a reference to the man executed for bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Federal investigators said they had them under surveillance for at least seven months, infiltrating their meetings at a Waffle House, homes and other places, before finally arresting them Tuesday, just days after discovering evidence they were trying to extract ricin from castor beans.
The four gray-haired men appeared in federal court in Gainesville, Ga., Wednesday without entering a plea. Frederick Thomas, 73; Dan Roberts, 67; Ray Adams, 65; and Samuel Crump, 68, were jailed for a bail hearing next week. They apparently had trouble hearing the judge, some of them cupping their ears.
A grand jury indicted the men Thursday. Thomas and Roberts are charged with conspiring to possess an explosive device and possessing an unregistered silencer. Adams and Crump are charged with attempting to make a biological toxin.
A Department of Justice spokesman said that if convicted, Crump and Adams could face life in prison, while Thomas and Roberts could face up to five years.
Relatives of two of the men said the charges were baseless. The public defender assigned to the case had no comment.
Vanderboegh, a big man with thinning gray hair and glasses, was raised in Ohio and moved to Alabama years ago for work. He was a former Alabama Minuteman leader but said he no longer considers himself as a leader of the movement.
He lives in Pinson, north of Birmingham, and gets by on disability payments, blogging from his modest home. He described himself and like-minded people as "Three Percenters," referring to the idea that only 3 percent of the American colonists fought against the British in the Revolutionary War.
Vanderboegh said he has never advocated violence against the government yet recognizes it's possible - even likely - if the government attacks citizens first.
"I say no more Fort Sumters. Another thing I've always hit on is, `No Oklahoma Cities," Vanderboegh said, referring to the place where the first shots of the Civil War were fired and McVeigh's deadly bombing of a federal building in 1995.
In the introduction to `Absolved,' first posted in 2008, Vanderboegh writes: "If this book is to operate as a `useful dire warning,' then both real sides in my imaginary civil war ... must be able to recognize the real threat to avoid it.
"In this, I am frankly writing as much a cautionary tale for the out-of-control gun cops of the ATF as anyone. For that warning to be credible, I must also present what amounts to a combination field manual, technical manual and call to arms for my beloved gunnies of the armed citizenry. They need to know how powerful they could truly be if they were pushed into a corner."
Last year, Vanderboegh was denounced for calling on citizens to throw bricks through the windows of local Democratic headquarters. He has also appeared as a guest on Fox News Channel.
Vanderboegh wrote on his blog that his book was fiction and that he was skeptical a "pretty geriatric" militia could carry out the attacks the men were accused of planning.
But Kent Alexander, a former U.S. attorney in Atlanta, said he wouldn't write off the men as harmless just because of their age: "Crime doesn't have a retirement age. These guys are older than one usually sees, but criminals come in all ages."
Donnie Dixon, another former U.S. attorney, said: "I would find it extremely difficult to think they could carry out a plot of such grandiose design, which doesn't mean they should not have been nipped in the bud just like they were." He said it would not have required anything grandiose "to cause a lot of problems or hurt a lot of people."
Thomas' wife, Charlotte, told The Associated Press the charges were "baloney."
"He spent 30 years in the U.S. Navy. He would not do anything against his country," she said. "He loves his country."
Roberts' wife, Margaret, said her husband retired from the sign business and lives on a pension. "He's never been in trouble with the law. He's not anti-government," she said. "He would never hurt anybody."
Ricin is a castor-bean extract whose potential as a deadly biological weapon has long been known. In 1978, Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov was assassinated in London with a poison dart that was believed to have been fired from an umbrella.
Prosecutors wouldn't comment Wednesday on exactly what steps the men took to get their hands on ricin. But they pointed out in court records that the two men allegedly assigned to obtain or make the ricin had useful backgrounds: Adams used to be a lab technician for a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency, and Crump once worked for a contractor that did maintenance at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Crump said he "knew people everywhere," and Roberts claimed to know a former U.S. soldier who was a "loose cannon" and might be able to help them make ricin, according to court papers.
An informant saw lab equipment and a glass beaker at Adams' home in October, and a bean obtained by the informant was later tested as positive for ricin, prosecutors said.
Thomas is also accused of driving to Atlanta with an informant to case buildings that house the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the IRS and other agencies. During the trip, Thomas allegedly said: "There's two schools of thought on this: go for the feds or go for the locals. And I'm inclined to consider both. We'd have to blow the whole building like Timothy McVeigh."
Court documents also accused Crump of suggesting ricin could be dropped from an airplane or blown out of a car along an interstate highway to attack people in Washington; Newark, N.J.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Atlanta and New Orleans.
Bluestein reported from Gainesville, Ga. Associated Press writers Dorie Turner and Leonard Pallats in Atlanta, and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., contributed to this story.