I first encountered Cole in 1995. Then 27, he was an exceptionally angry young man from upstate New York who was living in Colorado and running his own militia unit, the Colorado 1st Light Infantry. I "met" him on the phone while writing about how rage over the federal government's actions at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco encouraged Timothy McVeigh to retaliate with the Oklahoma City bombing. Cole hadn't been near Waco during the 1993 siege - he was a college student at the time - but the episode radicalized him and set him on a seemingly permanent path of serious, dangerous antigovernment activism.
In terms of mobilized manpower, Cole was not a major militia player - the 1st Light involved only a handful of people - but he fascinated me from the start because he seemed different from a lot of characters on the far right. He wasn't a racist or an anti-Semite or a skinhead, but he was vociferously antigovernment, and he'd thrown away any possibility of a normal life to fight his fight.
For him, as for so many others, Waco was the catalytic moment: Cole considers it a clear-cut case of the mass murder of innocent people by an out-of-control police state. And though he rejected the wildest conspiracy theories that emerged after the fire on April 19, 1993, he had no doubt about two grave (and, to my mind, outlandish) allegations. One, that federal agents intentionally started the blaze to cover up lies and blunders about the initial raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. And two, that the government mercilessly gunned down men, women, and children as they tried to get out.
Cole dropped out of college that May, moved to Waco, and hung out with the survivors and conspiracy researchers who coalesced around the surviving Branch Davidians. He also started acting weird. He purchased a black 1968 Camaro - similar to the one David Koresh drove - and briefly tricked it out with a license plate that read KORESH. He got his hands on a T-shirt silk-screened with an image of Koresh playing guitar, a five-color illustration of a serpent described in Isaiah 14, and the words "God Rocks." Cole adopted much of the Branch Davidian theology, and he wrote a book, Sinister Twilight, challenging the government's version of events at Waco. His stated goal was to rebuild the sect, possibly creating a new headquarters for the surviving members.
He didn't pull that off, but he did generate some notoriety. For one thing, he had an indirect influence on the mind of Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh reportedly had another Cole book, God Rocks, in his possession when he was arrested. He was also a fan of a videotape called Day 51: The True Story of Waco, a documentary that featured Cole's theories about a government cover-up at Mount Carmel.
I caught up with Cole again in 1997, by which time he was living near Denver, where he was leading both the 1st Light and a new antigovernment group called the North American Liberation Army. Among the upgrades to his m.o. was a Web site where he loudly preached the need for international revolution against the US.
Now, as we sit in jail talking, he tells me he's poised to go international in a big way. Someday soon, he says, he will be "well funded" by deep-pocketed revolutionaries from overseas who want him to organize various forces - from the far right and far left - into an effective anti-US government umbrella group. "I have very specific and well-established plans overseas," Cole confides in a serious tone. "Very, very powerful friends. Very wealthy friends. We have mutual respect between us. The people I'm dealing with, they deal with billions of dollars. Regularly." Cole purchased a black 1968 Camaro - similar to the one David Koresh drove - and tricked it out with KORESH plates.
Not many terrorists have that kind of money. I lean in and ask: Who are these "friends"? He lowers his voice. "I've had to be very careful, naturally. The nature of this that I'm telling you is significant. Someone could say, 'Oh, my God, he's talking about Osama bin Laden.' Now, I know Osama bin Laden, but I've had no official dealings with him."
Osama bin Laden, of course, is the Afghanistan-based boss of Al Qaeda, the terrorist group that is blamed for the August 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Has Cole ever met him?
"No, I've never met him."
Then how does he "know" him?
"I have to be careful here. Initially, it started with an Internet communication with an organization in the United Kingdom, which at the time was in part representing bin Laden and other groups, insofar as they were publishing their writings and giving them essentially a voice in English."
After a moment, the conversation drifts elsewhere. Earlier, Cole had mentioned that he hopes to organize a superconference of America Sucks groups, in the hope that the combined revolutionary pressures will somehow break the government's grip, perhaps resulting in the balkanization of the country into a loose collection of free-states. I ask him to elaborate on what he seems sure will be a grand historical moment.
"The convention would be held in the year 2000 in Los Angeles," he says, conjuring the moment, a sort of entropy-themed millennial rave. "Top drawer all the way. We'll invite people from every movement there is: Mohawk Warrior Society, Nation of Islam, tax revolt, patriots, militia, whatever. Just to have all these people sitting in one banquet hall, my God, that's a dream come true from my perspective."
Some people laugh out loud when you mention Ron Cole's name. "Ron is just a clown," says Richard L. Sherrow, a contributing editor to Soldier of Fortune and a munitions expert who was hired by the defense lawyers for Cole and his fellow 1st Light defendants, Wally Kennett and Kevin Terry, to size up the evidence against them. "All those guys had a case of felony bigmouth. They were like so much of the rest of the patriot or militia movement. Most of them are decent people, but they're stupid."
Bob Glass, the owner of a Longmont, Colorado, gun store, hired Cole twice in the '90s before the two parted company for good when Cole took off to "check out" the Freeman standoff near Jordan, Montana. Glass, a patriot activist himself, says most righties who know Cole like him well enough - "Ron is a personable guy" - but scorn his leadership pretensions.
"The range of opinion is anywhere from 'This is folly' to disdain," Glass says. "Because I think a lot of people feel that these issues are far too serious for somebody like Cole to just sort of cartwheel onto the scene and start mouthing off. They say: He doesn't have any military training. He doesn't know what he's doing. There is no Colorado 1st Light Infantry. So where does this guy get off?"
It's a good question: What is he all about? Cole's revolutionary bluster notwithstanding, he might best be viewed as a prime example of how millennialist and utopian longings are currently playing themselves out in this country. Is Cole a millennialist? Sure. On the literal level, he believes in Biblical prophecy, and he still puts great stock in the complicated interpretations of the Book of Revelation - the New Testament's great work of apocalyptic clang and bang - as devised by David Koresh. More generally, Cole is a millennialist in that he believes mankind is heading for a period of violent upheaval that will be followed by a hoped-for period of utopian bliss.
Though Cole's aims may be different from those of other types of millennialists, the basic story line is shared, whether they're anticipating the return of Christ, or benevolent UFO pilots, or the onset of planetary disasters (earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes) that will kill off all but an enlightened remnant of humanity. The forecast is always extreme turbulence, followed by an eternity of righteousness.
The fact that the vast majority of people disagree with their worldview creates a delicate tension. And it doesn't help that deliverance has a way of eluding them. The most interesting part becomes, then, watching how they deal with the inevitable disappointments. This can happen in two basic ways: harmlessly and not so harmlessly. Most millennial UFO groups are like the Unarius Academy of Science near San Diego, a dotty, lovable outfit whose members are waiting for a fleet of flying saucers to start landing in 2001, and would never hurt themselves or anybody else. But you never know. Every now and then, along comes a group like Heaven's Gate, reminding us that millennial energies can be explosive. "The issues are far too serious for Cole to just cartwheel onto the scene and start mouthing off." Is Ron Cole explosive? That's anybody's guess. "Ron probably would never hurt anybody," says Wayne Laugesen, a Colorado journalist who profiled Cole just prior to Oklahoma City. "Is he dangerous? I don't think that's his intent, but on the other hand, the guy has been armed to the hilt most of his adult life, with fully automatic weapons - there has to be a reason for that."
"Ron Cole is a fantasy looking for fulfillment," says Michael McNulty, coproducer of Waco: The Rules of Engagement, a mainstream, critical-of-the-Feds documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award last year. "With a person like that you never know. It all depends on whether they have the chemistry to pull something off."
Cole was arrested on May 1, 1997, in a bust orchestrated by the FBI at the Aurora, Colorado, International House of Pancakes. The McVeigh trial was in progress, and Cole had set up shop in front of the federal courthouse in Denver, squawking out protests about the government. That same week, members of a right-wing separatist group in West Texas - the so-called Republic of Texas - invaded the home of some neighbors, wounded a man, and took hostages, touching off a dangerous standoff near the town of Fort Davis. According to Cole, the FBI contacted him about playing a mediator's role at Fort Davis.
Alas, it was a trick. An informant named Daniel McNasby (who briefly trained with the Colorado 1st Light Infantry) had told authorities that Cole's rented house in Aurora was full of guns, ammo, and explosives. According to McNasby, the boys seemed certain they would eventually be attacked, and they were primed. "The roommates have all told McNasby that they won't hesitate to open fire if confronted by law enforcement officers," the government's affidavit said. "McNasby has seen the roommates carry their rifles with them throughout the house and even take them into the bathroom when they relieve themselves."
Ron Cole, Wally Kennett, and Kevin Terry were apprehended in separate locations and cuffed. Inside the house, law enforcement officials reportedly found explosive booby traps, including a hand grenade attached to the front door, various illegally converted automatic rifles, what was described as rocket fuel, a pipe bomb, grenades, and some 20,000 rounds of ammunition. Cole had long flirted with trouble. Now he'd found it.
After Cole's arrest I decided to make a special project of decoding his motivations, partly out of simple curiosity about the workaday existence of a militia activist. (What do you do all day if your "job" is insurrection?) But I also wanted to pursue a larger question: Was Cole a hazard to the world, or just a hyperactive buffoon?
It was impossible to reach him by phone, but Cole would not be contained; he soon started churning out bulletins on his Web site, with help from friends on the outside. In one typical Web offering, he vowed to press on. "[I]n spite of it all, I regret nothing," he wrote. "We still believe as strongly as ever that civil rights and constitutional groups from the left and right will stand together against the enemy."
I wrote Cole, and we worked out a system. He would call collect; I would request details about specific episodes in his life; he'd follow up with a letter. He also forwarded excerpts from his unpublished autobiography-in-progress, What Wars Are Made Of: Waco, Texas to Oklahoma City, which the FBI had seized in its raid.
Together, this material helped fill in the gaps on the political and philosophical makeup of Ron Cole, a unique blend of sincere idealism, Christian beliefs, actual bravery, and other, stranger attributes. Among them: crippling guilt about the limits of his bravery, a sense of premillennial urgency about the need to defeat the government, an alarming taste for at least the idea of violence, malformed notions about American history, and a terrific yearning, crossing over into narcissism, for personal notoriety. "I found Waco survivors to be completely dependent. At Mario's Pizza we would have sat there all day if I didn't proclaim the toppings." Judging by his letters, Cole emerged from Seton Catholic Central High School in Binghamton, New York, with a bigger-than-usual chip on his shoulder about personal stature. He told me, for example, that during his schoolboy days he was "bullied" because he was different. He claimed he took proactive measures to show the school toughs that he would not be beaten down, organizing "smaller kids" into a cooperative that outgunned the big guys. "Sometimes we would surround bullies while they were alone, in an ambush, and suggest to them that they had better leave so-and-so alone," Cole wrote. "If that failed, we started our own harassment, glued shut lockers, pretty silly stuff, but it worked. They got the hint."
The teenage Cole also published a revisionist history magazine, called the Asahi [Rising Sun] Journal; his special interest was "the history of the Pacific War as written by the victors," the US. "I learned very early on that the history I was being taught in school was BS," he wrote, "and I wanted the truth ... the truth about FDR wanting an excuse to enter the war and using Japan as his trump card, the truth behind the unnecessary bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To make a long story short, I never 'believed in' the US government of the past or present."
He claims his paramilitary activism began in the summer of 1992, the summer of the Ruby Ridge standoff in Idaho, during which federal agents killed the wife and son of Randy Weaver, a white separatist. Cole was then a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, but says he spent those months in Fairplay, Colorado, where he fell in with a militia leader, supposedly a former Navy SEAL, whom he refers to only as "Jim." Cole put off his return to RIT; in January 1993 he moved to Melbourne, Florida, where he hung around at gun shows and continued his training as a militia guy. When Waco started that February, Cole, like most everyone else, didn't know much about the Branch Davidians, but the turn of events sounded all too familiar. "They were being made out as inhuman monsters ... the entire thing sounded like a textbook WWII-era propaganda and demonization campaign."
Communicating by phone, Cole and Jim decided to organize drastic action. They would hit a government checkpoint at Waco, seize an armored personnel carrier, and crash into Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidian compound. As they prepared for what Cole figured was a suicide mission, his sense of anticipation and fear tore him up inside. "Jim was a veteran, but I was untested," he wrote. "For brief instances I'd chicken out, then I'd get hold of myself and feel ashamed."
Was there really any chance of them carrying out this plan? One militia activist who knows Cole characterized his tough talk this way: "That's not a fabrication lie, but it isn't true either. It's an understandable rationalization for guilt - guilt that people all over the country felt because they didn't do something to prevent Waco."
But the salient point is that Cole believes it would have happened. He says the Mount Carmel siege ended just days before he planned to head for Waco - so he'd waited too long. In a darkened room, he sat staring for hours at a backpack he'd stuffed for the trip. If guilt is a motivator, he generated enough for a lifetime. "[I]t was as if it was looking back at me saying, 'You stupid, useless, cowardly bastard!'" Cole wrote. "I diverted my gaze and stared blankly at the carpet. My hands were cold and shook, I clenched them into tight fists. My cheek twitched uncontrollably as my vision blurred, I closed my eyes and swallowed hard.... 'Turn it into something else!' I croaked aloud to myself. 'Turn it into something else, damn you!'" Which is what he tried to do, by moving to Waco to live out what he calls, with a sense of humor about how bizarre it sounds, his "new David Koresh" period. Cole lived in Waco for various stretches in 1993, 1994, and 1995. Mostly it appears he was trying to be the Davidians' friend, and he assumed a short-lived leadership role among the survivors that for various reasons came to an end in early 1995. "Our mission is critical," Cole wrote, "We have chosen to defend ourselves. There are no women and children, only us 'Mighty Men'." He's not entirely forthcoming about why, saying only that he grew weary of the responsibility, especially since the survivors could be vague about their goals. As he told me in a letter, he loved the Davidians, but he was often baffled by their seeming lack of will in the absence of Koresh.
"[D]uring late 1994 I was taking care of so much that I can honestly say that I do know what things must have been like for David Koresh," he wrote. "Quite honestly, I found many of the survivors then in Waco to be completely dependent. When I'd take everybody to Mario's Pizza in Waco, for example, everyone looked to me to decide what was going to be on the pizza. If I did not proclaim the toppings, then we would have sat there all day. I found this disturbing ..."
Some people found Cole disturbing. In particular, he didn't mix well with Clive Doyle, a survivor of the Mount Carmel blaze who in early 1994 emerged from postfire imprisonment to become the de facto spokesperson for the sect as the survivors shuffled forward with their lives. Doyle, a low-profile sort originally from Australia, thought Cole's overwhelming urge to "do" something wasn't helpful.
"I don't know anybody who was looking to Ron Cole as a potential leader," he says. "He's a charismatic guy, very outspoken. At the time I got out of jail, he was hinting about starting a commune on some property in Colorado. When I got out and began asking people what they thought, I couldn't find one survivor who even thought about going out there. The more I got to know him, the more I felt he could be trouble."
"I remember Ron trying to help us any way he possibly could," says Sheila Martin, a survivor of the siege who still lives in Waco. "I think people assumed he wanted to be the new leader, but I don't think he wanted to be." Catherine Matteson, another survivor, lived with Cole for a period in a home owned by a Davidian sympathizer named Dewey Millay. Her memories are fairly tart. "He got a car that was like David's, and he was trying to be like David and there's just no way he could be. Then he got a place in Colorado. He wanted me to go there. He gave me a map of how to get there. But I never went there. I never would have stayed."
The more people you ask, the more back-and-forth you hear. "Ron was very productive at Waco," says Dewey Millay. "Barring some of his faults, he's a wonderful human being, he really is."
"Ron was a punk and not a very smart punk," says James L. Pate, a Soldier of Fortune writer. Pate lumps Cole in with other "wannabes" who washed up in Waco. Another was Wally Kennett - Cole's future 1st Light compatriot - a former Davidian who'd been kicked out of Mount Carmel, apparently for disciplinary reasons, before the siege.
Whatever else Cole was, he made a volatile match with Wally Kennett. In a 1994 incident that is a favorite tale among Cole watchers, Cole and Kennett got into an armed showdown with Amo Bishop Roden, the estranged common-law wife of a former Koresh rival named George Roden. Amo was (and still is) a squatter on the old Branch Davidian acreage, and one day Cole and Kennett decided to test her limits by escorting a friend who needed access to a shed on the property. The episode was inane, but it was also dangerous. Soon after they showed up, Amo jumped out of her squatter shack and fired a shot from a .22 pistol. Cole and Kennett were each armed with a 9-mm pistol, a more lethal sidearm. Judging by Cole's account, it's a miracle no one was killed before the cops arrived and broke it up.
"I stood up from behind the car, and attempted to talk to her," he wrote in What Wars Are Made Of. "She cocked the hammer back on her weapon and pointed it straight at my forehead! ... Amo screamed, 'God told me to kill you Ron Cole! If anyone is going to die here today it's going to be you.'"
It was almost her: "Wally, I discovered later, had his gun trained on her head all the time from behind Andrew's building. He nearly killed her at that crucial moment ... but he restrained himself." I recently talked to Wally Kennett - who is already out of jail and living in New Mexico - and he confirmed Cole's account. "I slept with a fully automatic M16," says Cole. "I would be on that thing before I even knew what was going on." "If she had continued to point at Ron," Kennett said, "saying the things she was saying, and I could see she was squeezing off a round ... Yeah, I would have done it."
Cole lived through one other paramilitary adventure of note: "the Gunnison Incident," a 1994 sideshow that took place prior to the Battle of Amo. The Incident perfectly captured the essence of Cole's career prior to his 1997 arrest. Again, nothing happened, though not because Cole and his crew weren't armed and ready. Cole, Kennett, and Terry were living in a rented house about 35 miles from Gunnison, Colorado, where they hoped to establish their safe haven for the Davidians. Right away, though, Cole began to fret about security.
"We figured we presented a juicy target, and Wally and I were still very jumpy," he wrote in his autobiography. "Jumpy, in fact, is an understatement." Soon, they began receiving "information" that they were being watched from a nearby ranch that the Drug Enforcement Administration had supposedly seized before they arrived. Cole decided it didn't smell right, and circumstantial evidence started piling up. A gun-store owner in t own told Cole that DEA agents had come in asking about his purchases. Later, Cole says, he was tailed by a government-issue vehicle - a white Jeep Cherokee - and got involved in a high-speed chase that ended only when he approached his property line. The guys discussed the situation and decided the government was closing in for the kill.
"'What do we do ... if that undercover house across the valley is a prelude to a government raid against us here?' Wally [said]. 'We can't ignore that possibility, it happened in Waco ... it could happen here.'
"'I have no intention of slackening our security!' [Cole] yelled. 'I just hoped we would be able to live in peace.'"
The 1st Light started preparing for mini-Armageddon, patrolling the grounds at night, complete with loaded AK-47s and night-vision goggles. The living room made for a solid redoubt - its walls were built with foot-thick logs chinked with cement - so it was here that the mini-militia created a command center for "a home under threat of imminent attack." They stacked ammo near the windows, bolted the doors, covered the windows in black plastic, and cut sniper slits. "I wore two level-three bullet-proof vests under my camouflaged shirt and tactical vest," Cole recorded. "All three of us had brand-new bullet-proof helmets."
"Our situation is critical. We have chosen, after a long meeting, to stay here and defend ourselves. There are no women and children here, only us 'Mighty Men,'" Cole wrote in his diary on June 15, making a reference to the Old Testament. "I hope we are being paranoid. God help us.
"'Banzai!' I said under my breath. 'Never surrender. I won't ever surrender.... I'll fight you arrogant bully scumbags to the bitter end."
There was no bitter end. The government, if it had ever really been there, never attacked, and the trio eventually moved on to the next stage in their odd journey.
And how did they interpret this outcome? As a victory. From Gunnison, Cole had called some reporters to fill them in on his situation and also sent out Maydays to militia units all over the country, whom he says gave ample assurance that troops were on the way: "It sounds to me like we'd better get down there!" Cole claims that John Trochmann, of the Militia of Montana, responded, "We've got 20,000 members you know!" Cole explains that the government, persuaded that an unsinkable horde was coming to the rescue, slinked back into the shadows.
"Have you guys ever heard of a time in the history of the United States when Federal law enforcement agencies were thrown to the mat by pressure from a home-grown paramilitary force?" Cole asked. "Not that I've ever heard of," said Terry.
"As of this moment," Cole concluded, "every ATF and FBI agent in this nation has, for the first time, had his authority challenged."
"You might say that the militias just won their first real battle," Terry said.
Were they ever under surveillance? Certainly, they were later, in Denver. But when I called the Militia of Montana, Trochmann's nephew told me they never considered rushing to Cole's support. I also called the sheriff of Gunnison County, Rick Murdie, and asked for his take on the Gunnison Incident. He started laughing. When he stopped laughing he assured me that there was never a stakeout, a car chase, or any other kind of official interest in Cole that he knew of. "I didn't even know he was out there until reporters started calling me saying, 'The Branch Davidians have moved into to your area.'"
"What did you do about it?"
"Nothing. Unless Mr. Cole broke a law, he was of no interest to me."
During my final minutes with Ron Cole at Englewood, we kick back and talk more casually about his future. He says he has a job offer to design products for an unnamed high tech company that has produced a superior foam-rubber substitute, and he shows me quite competent line drawings of designs for sports equipment. He's been getting heartthrob letters in jail, often from women who learned about his case on his Web site. He shows me a stack but won't let me peek at their steamy contents. He will say that, while in jail, he has developed a deep relationship with a woman who is waiting for him outside.
"She and I are a team," he says. "We're more than in love with each other."
My ears perk up at that. Over time, Cole and I have arrived at a strange, disjointed kind of friendship, and I keep holding out hope that the simple pleasures of normalcy will persuade him to knock off the marginal behavior. But I also doubt it. Up close, Cole strikes me as jangled and beyond edgy in a way I hadn't detected on the phone, and his love interest doesn't sound like the domesticating type. He says she is fully "on the team" about his revolutionary plans.
Which brings me full circle to my original question about where Ron Cole is headed. Is he a potential mad bomber? Even the government prosecutor, Gay Guthrie, won't go that far - the materials in the Aurora house didn't add up to a bomb. "If you were baking a cake," Guthrie says of the substances seized there, "they had the flour and sugar, but they didn't have the other stuff."
OK, so he's a pussycat? Well, no, I wouldn't go that far. On three occasions, at least, Cole put himself in situations where he might have killed or been killed. As he reiterates to me, he was perpetually jumpy during those days, so anything was possible. "I slept with a fully automatic M16 next to my bed," he says, "and I had myself literally trained that the moment I heard a sound, if it was a foreign sound" - he claps his hands - "I would be on that thing, you know, before I even knew what was going on."
Squinting at Cole, I decide that he is, essentially, an incorrigible bundle of calamitous energies, a diehard for the militia cause. I do find myself feeling very thankful that he's such a committed Web enthusiast - the Web gets ragged on a lot because righties network on it, but it doesn't get enough credit for the way it sucks up their energy as they produce sites, links, and rants.
As we part, Cole makes it clear he's going back into the world with a clear mission for the Web and beyond - and he is unsinkable.
"My job is to get rid of all the negativism that has been humped upon this movement, even if I have to establish a whole new movement," he says, fixing me with a can-do stare. "If I have an opportunity to change the world, why not go for it?"
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