In a small trailer park in Catoosa, Okla., in 2005, an aging white supremacist made a startling claim to a woman he had met only earlier that day.
He told her he was a serial bomber.
According to federal court records, Dennis Mahon, was thumbing through an album of old pictures for the woman, showing off his Ku Klux Klan robe and other artifacts of his life when he began to tick off a list of places he claimed to have bombed since the early 1980s.
There was an abortion clinic, a Jewish community center and offices of the IRS and immigration authorities. He told the woman he liked to use a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. He said he added powdered sugar to the mix for an extra bang. He would set off the bombs at 2 a.m., he said, so that no one was hurt but a message was still sent.
What Mahon didn’t know was that the woman he was bragging to was an informant working for federal law enforcement. And the trailer she was staying in was rigged with hidden cameras and microphones to catch every word.
Today, the former KKK leader and his twin brother, Daniel, are scheduled to go on trial in federal court in Phoenix, thanks to the conversations they had with that informant, Rebecca Williams, over four years.
The twins are accused of sending a mail bomb in early 2004 to a government diversity office in Scottsdale, Ariz., injuring the office’s director and two of his employees. Both are charged with conspiring to blow up a government building while Dennis Mahon is also charged with carrying out the bombing as well as teaching someone else how to make a bomb.
The case is extraordinary for many reasons, not the least of which is that it may be the first time federal investigators have been able to seriously infiltrate a network of so called “lone wolf” extremists, a loose-knit group of racists and anti-government types who seem to always be looking for ways to start or win an ever-coming race war. It’s the same type of network that produced Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Led by a veteran investigator with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the probe into the Mahon twins also targeted Tom Metzger, one of the preeminent leaders of the white supremacist movement in the US, as well as Robert Joos, a Missouri survivalist who stockpiled weapons in caves on his farm near the Ozarks.
“It’s certainly one of those high water mark cases,” said the director of the Arizona office of the Anti-Defamation League, Bill Straus, who has followed the case since its inception. “It reminds the community that guys like this, guys that created and sent that bomb are a threat to the entire community. Period.”
It all began on Feb. 26, 2004 when a cardboard box arrived at the Scottsdale Office of Diversity and Dialogue. It looked like a perfectly normal package, with $3.95 postage paid. It was addressed to the office’s director, Donald Logan. When he opened the box, it exploded, tearing flesh from his arms and nearly costing him his fingers. His assistant, Renita Linyard, was also seriously injured. Another staffer in the office, Jacque Bell, suffered minor injuries.
Scottsdale police immediately called the ATF in for help. The federal agency had more resources and reach to investigate a bombing. The agency put special agent Tristan Moreland in charge of the case. A smart, dedicated investigator in the agency’s Arizona office, Moreland had worked on some of the toughest cases in the state, often going undercover to solve them.
Given the target’s job and race — he is black — Moreland and his team began looking at extremist groups that may have had ideological reasons to carry out the attack.
They didn’t need to look far. A national gathering of white supremacists, neo Nazis and KKK members had taken place just a few weeks earlier at a park about 10 miles north of the city. The event was called Aryanfest 2004.
Dennis Mahon was in attendance, bragging about having known the Oklahoma City bomber. Metzger was there, too, acting the part of an elder statesman.
Metzger ran a group called White Aryan Resistance, or WAR, and was well known in extremist circles. The group has since changed its name to The Insurgent. Metzger is a proponent of “lone wolf” tactics, encouraging his fellow racists to carry on the struggle by themselves or in small cells to avoid exposing the rest of the movement to law enforcement. Mahon was once an organizer for WAR and had been friends with Metzger for decades.
Their attendance at the festival wasn’t the only thing that aroused suspicion. Five months before the bombing, Mahon had called the Scottsdale diversity office and left a disturbing voice mail about the city’s Hispanic heritage week. It was bad enough for the office to call police and report it.
“You guys, you, you, rich white people you really, you really are something else. If, if I had my way I’d sic about hundred thousand illegal aliens right into Scottsdale and see how you like your damn heritage,” Mahon said in the message, according to court records. “The White Aryan Resistance is growing in Scottsdale. There’s a few white people who are standing up. Take care.”
The ATF decided to take a closer look at Mahon and Metzger. The investigators discovered that Mahon and his twin brother had been living in a trailer park in neighboring Tempe, Ariz., in the months before the bombing, but the pair packed up and left just a couple weeks after it occurred.
In the following months, Moreland was able to track the Mahon brothers to the trailer park in Catoosa. But without the ability to get closer, the investigation would have gone cold.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com