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Domestic Terrorism

A country chemist from rural Tennessee dreams of mass destruction.

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JACKSON, Tennessee -- With his 4-year-old daughter sitting behind him, Demetrius "Van" Crocker calmly told an undercover FBI agent how he planned to strike "a hell of a mighty blow" against the government with a homemade bomb.

Warming to his topic, Crocker boasted of outdoing Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and was later caught, convicted, and executed. "You detonate a thermonuclear device, there ain't nothin' left to trace," Crocker says, as the undercover agent expresses skepticism that Crocker can build such a thing. "I think I can," Crocker says, chuckling into the agent's hidden microphone.

Redneck whacko or homegrown terrorist? Crocker, a divorced 40-year-old father of two and farm worker from the West Tennessee town of McKenzie, is on trial this week in federal court in Jackson. He is charged with attempting to make a chemical weapon loaded with deadly Sarin, a nerve gas that killed 12 people and injured more than 1,000 in an attack in a Tokyo subway in 1995. The government also alleges that Crocker acquired C-4 explosives in order to bomb a federal or state courthouse.

Crocker defies the modern stereotype of a terrorist. He is a bald, stocky, medium-sized white man who wore glasses, slacks, and a plaid shirt to court, where he sat quietly between his two public-defender attorneys. He has a high school education.

In the opening day of the trial Monday, U.S. attorney Fred Godwin played tapes of Crocker's secretly taped conversation with undercover agent Steve Burroughs in the parking lot of a McKenzie convenience store in 2004. Burroughs was posing as a rogue employee of a security contractor at an arsenal in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where one of the ingredients to make Sarin was stockpiled.

On the tape, "Steve," as Crocker knew him, claims to share Crocker's neo-Nazi views. Introduced to each other by an FBI informant, the two men adjourn from the convenience store to the agent's vehicle with Crocker's little girl in tow. For several minutes they palaver about medical ailments, doctors, wisdom teeth, and the agony of dry sockets. Then, as the girl squirms in the back seat, they get down to business.

Steve says "they ain't no accounting" in the arsenal and he can access various deadly materials. Crocker says he lacks formal education but worked in an electro-plating facility and is a self-taught chemist who has made mustard gas and knows how to make chlorine gas and Sarin if he can get his hands on the raw materials.

"You better have a friggin' tank on," Steve says, cautioning Crocker to wear an oxygen tank as well as a protective suit when he experiments. Crocker says he does not have an immediate target but needs chemical weapons for the day when the "sorry-ass government" or "the beast" falls apart or pushes him over the edge. "You got to get Washington, D.C., when the House and the Senate are in session," he confides.

Steve professes admiration. "You got more vision than most people I talked to."

As they plumb the depths of right-wing lunacy and Crocker's paranoia, their dialogue sounds like a redneck parody of the hit television program 24.

Steve says he "ain't in it for the money." Crocker counters that "I ain't want to be no ruthless murderer," but collateral damage and the death of innocents "can't be helped." If Crocker had a plutonium bomb, "I'd have detonated that son of a bitch" at the courthouse in Dresden, Tennessee, after he was jailed on minor charges.

"I want the feller down the road to know me," says Crocker, whose trial is expected to last the remainder of the week.

Radical right-wing groups that hated the federal government were popular in parts of northern Arkansas and Tennessee in the 1980s. Crocker was involved with neo-Nazi groups during that time, according to court testimony. In 2004, Lynn Adams, a burly former corrections officer and sheriff's deputy, contacted local law enforcement about Crocker, whom he had known for about two years. Convinced that Crocker posed a serious threat, they contacted the FBI.

A jury of eight women and four men is hearing the case in U.S. magistrate judge Thomas Anderson's courtroom. In the wake of the sensational minister-shot-by-his-wife story in nearby Selmer, there has not been any local media coverage so far.

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