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illustration of Mark Koernke

Mark Koernke's War

Dexter man inspires Michigan militias.

by Michael Betzold with Sara Versluis

From the June, 2010 issue

On the weekend that the FBI raided the Hutaree militia, the war that Mark Koernke had prophesied for decades seemed finally to have begun. From his bunker--a dilapidated farmhouse just outside Dexter--Koernke went online and on the air to lead the forces of liberty.

"I just left a shouting match about 20 minutes ago with a little over a hundred militiamen who are on the move right now," a user signing himself "mark_Koernke" wrote on an online message board. "The argument was over not if but rather where to hit them. Trying to calm them down was useless and they are not going to let this lie. They will identify the stragglers or pickets first and wipe them out...."

A few minutes later the same user reported: "just got off one of our back up phones with another militia unit commander...He told me that he was packing up his LBE [load-bearing equipment, a military pack] and weapons into the armored truck he has...he asked his wife to bring the congregation together to say a prayer for the militia that may be going to war this Sunday.

"His wife was crying in the background (I could hear her) and he said he had kissed his children good by and was now going out the door. He is a two war vet and young. He has killed many times before and she knows his moods."

Koernke had prepared for a moment like this for most of his life. He's engaged in his own battles with authorities, led followers in military training, and inspired sympathizers through his radio and Internet broadcasts, speeches, and videos. His message: federal agents will incite violence as an excuse to round up freedom-loving Americans, throw them into FEMA-run concentration camps, and join a secret global government called the New World Order.

When the FBI scooped up nine Hutaree members, including leader David Stone and his family, the last weekend in March and charged them with conspiring to kill police

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officers as a first step toward all-out war, Koernke and his followers believed that prophecy was being fulfilled. Though Koernke was not a member of Hutaree, he has been involved in a related Manchester-based group and has helped inspire a new generation of militia members.

Of the nine arrested from Hutaree, most are from Lenawee County or Ohio. One was from Indiana. Michael Meeks, known as the group's "heavy gunner," is a trucker from Manchester Township. A weapons cache was found in his home after his arrest. Meeks is a former Marine who served in Desert Storm. Also from the Manchester area was Tina Stone, David Stone's wife (since released, with three others, on an electronic tether).

Koernke's militia sometimes conducted training exercises with Hutaree, but remained independent--U-M militia researcher Amy Cooter thinks Hutaree's message was too overtly Christian for Koernke, and in any case, he doesn't like to submit to others' authority. Cooter doesn't know what Koernke calls his group at the moment--he keeps changing it--but one of its former names was the Grand Army of Manchester.

That title is typically grandiose. Koernke sees himself as larger than life, the leader of a huge resistance movement. He's convinced that equally powerful forces are arrayed against him, and sees the invisible hand of the New World Order at work in every clash he's had with authorities.

On a MySpace page, Koernke's son Eric describes his upbringing this way:

You really want to know about me? I grew up in an old farmhouse in Dexter, Michigan. Just west of Ann Arbor. I grew up in a military environment. My Dad was Army Intelligence until just about the time I was born. He then began OPFOR (opposing forces). I got to go to ARMY bases and play on tanks, all that jazz.

One of four grown children of Koernke and his wife, Nancy, Eric is a frequent and sympathetic commentator on militia causes. Another son, Ed, operates the online Liberty Tree Radio, which sends his dad's message (and other similar shows) out to the world.

Since the early 1990s, Koernke has been broadcasting from his ramshackle old farmhouse on Dexter-Pinckney Road just northwest of town. The property is a veritable junkyard of vehicles. Posted at the driveway entrance is a large sign warning against trespassing. On a roadside post is a handmade sign giving a website for his radio broadcasts: www.pbn.4mg.com (the Patriot Broadcasting Network). For decades, this has been Koernke's headquarters, from the days when he used shortwave to his current messages and broadcasts on the Web. Over the years, his rambling screeds have urged followers to take to the woods in camouflage. On a website, his "Intelligence Report" is advertised as "Information to prepare you for the war against The Free Men and Women of America."

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Though Koernke rarely shows his face in his hometown, he has been notorious nationally for many years. Once known as simply "Mark from Michigan," Koernke, the son of a Washtenaw County sheriff's deputy, was one of the early leaders of the modern militia movement in the 1990s. The militias took their name from the civilian defense force authorized in the Constitution, but instead of defending the government, they see themselves as defending Americans from the government--in particular, Democratic administrations.

According to a 1995 article in Time magazine, Koernke wore fatigues to school at Dexter High and joined ROTC, the military officer training program, as an EMU student in the mid-1970s. Though fascinated with weapons, he chafed at his lowly status as a cadet and soon dropped out. After working odd jobs for a while, he joined the Army Reserve and did short summer training stints as a noncommissioned intelligence specialist--experiences he later inflated into claims he'd held a top-secret clearance while working as "an intelligence analyst and counterintelligence coordinator." In fact, starting in 1982, he worked as a janitor at the U-M--a job he held until he was arrested at work in 1999.

Koernke has had a running battle with authorities for years, often centered on his love of guns. In 1984 he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit, but his conviction was expunged after he fulfilled the terms of a deferred sentencing agreement. He was arrested again in 1986 for felonious assault after he allegedly brandished a handgun at motorists who tried to pass him, but those charges were dismissed.

Koernke became locally famous after being pressed into a speech at a 1991 rally for America First Populist Party candidate Bo Gritz. With the rise of the militia movement in the early 1990s, videotapes of his speeches made him known among survivalists around the country.

By 1995, Time reported, the Michigan Militia claimed to be the largest in the country, with 10,000 members. Never a joiner, Koernke formed his own small offshoot, sometimes called the Michigan Militia at-Large.

Koernke made national news that year, when authorities briefly believed that he had advance knowledge of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It turned out he had merely sent out a communique about the attack from a fax machine with an incorrect time stamp--but both men convicted in the attack, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, had attended meetings of the Michigan Militia, and McVeigh was one of Koernke's listeners.

The attack turned the militias' anti-government fantasies into bloody reality: 168 people were killed, and hundreds more were wounded. The toll did much to discredit the movement. To this day, Koernke maintains that the federal government itself blew up the building.

He had a harder time distancing himself from his closest followers. In September 1994, three men who described themselves as Koernke's bodyguards were arrested in Fowlerville with loaded assault rifles in their vehicle; they were charged with weapons violations. Two of them fled to a farm owned by another Koernke supporter. The three feuded over which of them was most loyal to Koernke, and two of them killed the other.

Koernke was subpoenaed in the murder trial. Roger Gainor, a friend of the murdered man, volunteered to serve the subpoena. Met by Koernke at gunpoint on his porch, Gainor shoved the papers at him, and Koernke butted him with his gun. His followers were convicted of murder--and in November 1997, Koernke himself was arrested on assault charges stemming from the front-porch showdown with Gainor.

In a brief to the court, Koernke declared his intent to represent himself at trial. As "a public figure who is clearly controvershal," he misspelled, it would be "very difficult to obtain competent Counsel." He also claimed he was the victim of a "political witch hunt" because he was a "defender of the people's Constitution" and "very politically outspoken on numerous issues."

When the trial convened in May 1998, however, Koernke did not appear in court. He had disappeared into the woods with a fellow broadcaster, and from a hideout called on his followers to wage a war of retribution on the police.

No one did, and Koernke was eventually captured. When he saw a police chopper approach his hideout near Battle Creek, he panicked and fled--he'd often claimed that the world government conspirators operated a fleet of "black helicopters." The police were only looking for marijuana growers but gladly arrested their unintended quarry, fishing him out of the lake where he tried to hide. He'd shaved his mustache, dyed his hair orange, and claimed to be an Irishman named Mike Kearns.

The original assault charges were dropped when Gainor admitted in a deposition that he would lie in court if necessary to get Koernke convicted. Though Koernke was tried and convicted for absconding, he was sentenced to serve only eighty days--the time he'd already spent in jail awaiting trial.

In March 2000, Koernke and his two sons drove past a Dexter bank while it was being robbed. When a sheriff's deputy tried to pull him over, Koernke fled. A video clip taken from a state police car during the 40-mile pursuit is now posted on YouTube with the label "Mark Vs the Police State." A caption claims Koernke's "old cop car" won the chase. In fact, he ended up hitting a tree, then attacked the arresting officers; a judge later praised a state trooper's "incredible example of restraint" in not shooting him.

Koernke was convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon, resisting and obstructing an officer, and fleeing police. He was sentenced to three to seven-and-a-half years, and went to prison in 2001.

Koernke was released in 2007 and resumed his broadcasts--just in time for the new wave of militia activity that followed the election of Barack Obama. Cooter, who is writing her doctoral dissertation on the militia, estimates there are about thirteen groups in Michigan, with the average group numbering around a dozen, though she notes that inflating membership is common.

Three groups are active in Washtenaw County, Cooter says: the Hutaree, whose base is more to the south and west; the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, a more mainstream group with members in the Detroit area as well; and Koernke's group in Manchester.

The Manchester militia used to hold training exercises on the Manchester area property of Charles and Joanne Schiel. But Joanne says "no one is allowed on the property now; if we see anyone, we call the police." Their son Jimmy, long a contact person for the Manchester militia, has recently gotten married and is no longer active with the militia, his mother says: "He has other interests now."

Koernke broadcasts "the Intelligence Report" on Liberty Tree Radio and the Patriot Broadcasting Network. His wife, Nancy, who took up broadcasting in his stead when he went to prison, has her own show called "Kitchen Militia."

Since his release from prison, Koernke has resumed speaking and distributing videos and flyers at gun shows and other events--including a pamphlet, How to Start and Train a Militia Unit. On a list of forty "patriots" published this spring by the Southern Poverty Law Center--which specializes in tracking "hate groups" for the media--Koernke is ranked No. 17.

Despite his national ranking among subversives, Koernke once again exaggerated what the Hutaree arrests set off. The war he prophesized for so long failed to materialize. The 100 angry militiamen, if they ever existed in such numbers, apparently calmed down. The armored truck apparently never rolled into battle.

On the contrary, after the Hutaree arrests, other militias distanced themselves from that group. On MichiganMilitia.com, a post reads, "the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia and the staff of Michiganmilitia.com condemn attacks or threats of any sort directed against our elected representatives or law enforcement officials. We also condemn those who would use those attacks to further their agenda."

A deep strain of paranoia has always run through the militia movement, where global conspiracies and black helicopters are articles of faith. But just because they're paranoid doesn't mean no one is after them. At least since Oklahoma City, militias have often been infiltrated by law enforcement; an FBI informant was instrumental in the Hutaree arrests.

The arrests have deepened the fog of war that shrouds the militia movement. Many groups have become less cooperative with the press, and the Koernkes declined to be interviewed for this story. "I'm sorry, but all of our family has come to the conclusion that speaking with the media is pretty much a fruitless effort," Eric Koernke told an Observer reporter in a MySpace message. "Unfortunately more often than not comments are taken out of context, and made to sound ignorant or sinister."

Of course, in the Koernkes' universe, everything is sinister. The website of the We the People Radio Network, which carries Mark Koernke's broadcasts, promises to "expose the New World Order's plans for global domination. Mark's research has managed to come across actual photographs of one of the FEMA concentration camps located in the United States! Koernke has also figured out and exposed their plans to plant microchips into the bodies of children, to insert barcodes into dollar bills so we can use scanners to find out how much money people have, and to use FEMA to take over the country for the U.N."

On March 29, the weekend of the Hutaree raids, a commenter on a right-wing site predicted: "This is only the beginning and it is going to get really nasty, very nasty, really, really quickly..." Another asked: "Then what are we going to do about it." Eric Koernke replied: "Protect and defend. Stay sharp and pay attention to what is going on around you. If you see something (no matter how small) take note. Hopefully y'all know more people of like mind that will come to your aid if necessary. Continue to inform and tell people the truth about what is going on in and around our country."

As for the charges against Hutaree, Eric wrote: "The indictment is full of lies and half truths....I've known the Stones, and most of the Hutaree for over 10 years....These people aren't 'wackos.'" He went on to predict: They "likely will arrest more in other locations in an attempt to demoralize and hopefully disband us."

It didn't happen. There were no other arrests, though further weapons charges were brought against four Hutaree members. A judge originally ordered the release of all the Hutaree defendants; an appeals court will rule in June on a government motion to overturn the order. A November trial date has been set.

Once again, Mark Koernke's dire scenarios have failed to materialize. But in one way, at least, the Hutaree case further inflated Koernke's self-image. As part of her release order, the judge laid down a series of stipulations forbidding the Hutaree from a host of activities, including contacts with other militia members.

If the release order is upheld, one condition will be that "David Stone cannot associate with, contact, or communicate with Mark Koernke."    (end of article)

[Originally published in June, 2010.]

 

 
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