THEY WORE SANTA hats and Richard Nixon masks. But their mission was deadly serious. The gang allegedly robbed banks, planted bombs and swindled businesses, and are believed to have funneled large sums of money to militant white supremacists.
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's 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. 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 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 during the 1980s.
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 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, said 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.
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 Kmart 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.
The bombing plot that destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building 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.
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. His attorney in Columbus, Kevin Durkin, said Langan tried to cooperate with the Secret Service for a while.
But Langan's sister, Leslie Maloney, said that he disappeared "two Thanksgivings ago" from his home in Cincinnati.
Guthrie was taken into custody in Cincinnati on Jan. 15 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.
Langan was arrested here on Jan. 18 in a white van behind the $350-a-month flat Guthrie had recently rented under a false name. He has pleaded not guilty to resisting arrest and is awaiting arraignment on an indictment charging him with two bank robberies in Ohio.
U.S. attorneys in 19 districts are weighing robbery and weapons charges against the pair. Thomas Lusby, who heads the FBI office in Omaha, Neb., and is coordinating the Mid-Western Bank Bandits probe, alleges that from 1994 until late last year, the two were responsible for 18 robberies in seven states.
The Mid-Western Bandits often bought used cars with cash in the city where they planned to hit a bank, the FBI said. Pipe bombs - some active, some inert - often were left in banks and in the glove compartments of their getaway vehicles. No one was ever injured, but police pursuits were delayed.
They posed as construction workers and, on one day in December 1994, as Santa.
Langan, 37, was born in the Marianas Islands and also lived in Vietnam. His father worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. At 16, Langan ran away from home.
Guthrie, 38, joined the Navy and apparently failed in an attempt to join the elite Seals, who work with explosives, the FBI's Nelson said. He was court-martialed and left the service in 1983, records show.
From April 1994 until the fall of 1995, Langan and Guthrie shared a house in Pittsburg, Kan., with a third man, the FBI's Lusby said. Last December, each was seen in an apartment Guthrie rented here.
After their arrests, according to court documents, Langan's van was found to contain a small arsenal of weapons, one of which was in a hollowed-out Bible.
In the house were 13 pipe bombs, seven handguns, yellow smoke grenades, police uniforms, FBI hats, wigs and the amateurish two-hour videotape called "the Aryan Republican Army presents: the armed struggle underground."
The group's goals, as explained on the tape by a man wearing a hard hat and Richard Nixon mask, are these: "Eliminate the government, from the federal government to the county seats. . . . Repatriate all nonwhites to their homes. Return the country to the Bible - these laws."
Langan rented a storage locker under the name Donald McClure in Shawnee, Kan. There, the FBI found more pipe bombs and two semi-automatic shoulder weapons, President Clinton and Nixon masks, a Santa Claus suit, ATF and U.S. Marshal Service clothing and a book about a group of Iowa bank robbers.
Last month, a St. Louis County policeman stopped a weaving car on Interstate 44. The driver was Guthrie's 72-year-old father, Richard L. Guthrie Sr., of Sterling, Va.
Hillerbrand asked to look in the trunk. He found a rocket launcher demonstrator designed for target practice, shotguns, rifles, Army fatigues, boots and notary seals for all 50 states. There was another video that court papers said contained footage of banks in Columbus and an armored car.