William Keebler, 57, of Stockton, Utah, was arrested by the FBI in Nephi, Utah, on Wednesday, a day after undercover agents watched as he pushed the detonator button on what was an inert bomb placed against a building at the BLM’s Mount Trumbull complex in Arizona.
Charging documents outlining the FBI sting operation say Keebler and Finicum “had conducted reconnaissance on the BLM facility in Arizona in October 2015,” accompanied by an undercover FBI agent who took photographs.
The criminal case is yet another tentacle growing out of the landmark April 2014 standoff at the Bunkerville, Nev., ranch of Cliven Bundy, where armed militia groups threatened violence against federal agents who retreated. Arrests in that case didn’t occur until February when a federal grand jury indicted Bundy and 18 others, including his four sons.
Like Finicum, Keebler spent several days at Bunkerville, but was not among those indicted. He calls himself the “commander” of a citizen militia group called the Patriots Defense Force (PDF), headquartered in Stockton, Utah. Court documents indicate the Patriots Defense Militia has ties with another militia group in Washington State.
The documents don’t disclose the size of the PDF, but suggest a fair number of its members are undercover FBI agents who have infiltrated the group and monitored its activities, including what members call “FTX,” so-called field training exercises.
“For several months, FBI undercover employees (UCEs) have been members of the PDF,” the court documents say, adding that undercover agents “have had face-to-face interactions with Keebler as well as cellular telephone conversations and communications.”
The court documents say that during PDF militia trainings organized by Keebler, members would “practice shooting at targets and receive instruction regarding firearms and military and survival tactics.”
That instruction, as well as other communications, suggest there also was angry rhetoric directed at the federal government and its agencies managing vast holdings of public lands in the West, the documents disclose.
“Keebler has continued to recruit, organize, and prepare the PDF for the day when they can take part in an anti-government action with other militia groups similar to the event in Bunkerville,” the court documents say.
Keebler initially discussed “targeting” the BLM office in the Gateway Mall in Salt Lake City and “conducted reconnaissance” at the facility, but abandoned that idea because of “high commercial and homeless activity in the area,” the documents say.
At a militia meeting in March, Keebler “said the government had been allowed to harass people, but the repercussions were going to start.”
Like Bundy and his sons, who now face serious federal charges for their roles in the Nevada and Oregon events, Keebler contended the “BLM was overreaching [its] authority to implement grazing restrictions on ranchers.”
He expressed the view, court documents say, that federal lands “belong to the people” and to enforce that philosophy he and the Public Defense Force militia would begin targeting BLM facilities “in the middle of nowhere.”
At a militia meeting in April, an undercover FBI agent showed Keebler a video of a 6-inch pipe bomb blowing up office furniture in the mountains of southern Utah. Keebler asked the undercover agent to build more bombs –– twice the size of those he’d seen in the video –– to detonate at the cabins at the Mount Trumbull facility that he and Finicum had conducted reconnaissance last October. He wanted a backup pipe bomb to use against law enforcement agents if they attempted to stop the militia group, the documents allege.
In mid-May, the court documents say, Keebler talked to PDF militia members about putting teams together and “going on the offensive.” The main target for the group’s bombs, he said, was going to be the BLM facility at Mount Trumbull.
On Monday, court documents say an unspecified number of PDF members, including Keebler drove to the BLM site in Arizona, with the plan of detonating a bomb outside a federally owned cabin. Keebler’s plan, the documents say, was to drive “directly back to Salt Lake City to put as much distance as possible between them and the damage they caused at the BLM facility.”
“The weekend of June 20, 2016, was chosen as a good day because a militia group in Washington State would be conducting a gathering that weekend,” court documents say. “The PDF thought they could get someone attending the Washington State gathering to create an alibi for them if needed.”
Late Tuesday, after conducting reconnaissance at Mount Trumbull, an inert explosive device was placed against the door of one of the BLM cabins in Mount Trumbull.
“After the device was placed against the door, Keebler was handed a remote detonation device [before he] pushed the detonator button multiple times in order to remotely detonate the inert explosive,” the documents say.
When the device failed to explode, Keebler returned to Utah where he was arrested the next day.