msnbc.com news services
updated 11/9/2011 5:56:30 PM ET 2011-11-09T22:56:30

The Waffle House booth often used by three local men arrested in a domestic terror plot was empty on a recent morning but the case that has unnerved this former textile town was on the minds of the breakfast crowd.

Linda Evert peered into her cup of coffee and shook her head in dismay over news that the men, according to federal authorities, were part of a militia group that planned to buy explosives and make a deadly toxin to carry out their attacks.

"Where is all this anger coming from?" said Evert, who noted that one of the accused men once spent an afternoon in her basement repairing electrical sockets. "It's really kind of creepy, knowing what I know now, that there are people in this town that belong to militias."

A man sitting at the nearby counter, who wouldn't give his name, offered a different view.

"I don't condone violence," he said without turning his head, "but the militias are not such a bad idea. The founders of our country didn't trust the government either. And our government now is taking away our rights, one by one."

A federal indictment returned last week described a murderous plot sounding more like the work of a villain in a James Bond novel than four weather-beaten, aging mountain men.

The four men appeared at a bond hearing at a Gainesville federal courthouse Wednesday. Prosecutors allege the men talked of assassinating U.S. Attorney General and former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, among others. They

Prosecutors have accused 73-year-old Frederick Thomas and 67-year-old Dan Roberts of conspiring to obtain an explosive and possessing an unregistered silencer. Authorities also charged 55-year-old Ray Adams and 68-year-old Samuel Crump with conspiring and attempting to make ricin, a biological toxin that can be lethal in small doses.

If convicted, the men could face more than a decade in prison. Attorneys and relatives of the men say the charges are baseless.

Prosecutors have accused 73-year-old Frederick Thomas and 67-year-old Dan Roberts of conspiring to obtain an explosive and possessing an unregistered silencer. Authorities also charged 55-year-old Ray Adams and 68-year-old Samuel Crump with conspiring and attempting to make ricin, a biological toxin that can be lethal in small doses.

If convicted, the men could face more than a decade in prison. Attorneys and relatives of the men say the charges are baseless.

While there is widespread revulsion over the accusations made against the four, the seeds of anti-government fervor can still sprout rage and paranoia in this isolated swath of Appalachia 95 miles from Atlanta.

Some people here say they can understand why their fellow residents, however misguided, join extremist movements out of a patriotic reaction to perceived tyranny.

"We're living in a very negative and angry time," said David Harris, a technical writer. "Maybe it's that the great American dream isn't happening for a lot of people."

'Highly illegal'
The foursome's inflammatory words, secretly recorded on tape and relayed back to the government by at least by one informant who infiltrated the group, may be the prosecution's most damning evidence.

There is a reference to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and vows to incinerate the buildings that house federal agencies such as the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, considered by militiamen to be their bitterest enemies.

According to the criminal complaint that led to their arrests, the men planned to disperse ricin along interstate highways, killing anyone exposed to it, whether or not the victims were federal employees.

"There is no way for us, as militiamen, to save this country, to save Georgia, without doing something that's highly, highly illegal: murder," Thomas was quoted as saying in the complaint.

Largely overlooked before 1995, militias became famous overnight after McVeigh, who had attended a Michigan militia meeting, set off a bomb that killed 168 people at the federal building in Oklahoma City, a crime for which he was executed.

One expert says she believes the horror of Oklahoma City served only as a temporary setback for the extremists who share McVeigh's views.

"After the carnage in Oklahoma City, much of the militia activity seemed to subside," said Eileen Pollack, author of "Breaking and Entering," a novel about the militia movement. "But I knew the extremists were still out there."

Mixed impressions
The outskirts of Toccoa, a Cherokee word that means "beautiful," nearly touch the South Carolina state line. The city of 27,000 people used to be part of America's textile belt until the industry moved its factories overseas.

On an autumn afternoon last week, the observatory at Toccoa Falls, one of the steepest in the state, teemed with families.

Shielding his eyes from the sky, resident Mack Evans groused to a reporter, "You want to ruin this beautiful day asking about those guys?"

Other visitors derided the men as "weirdos," "kooks," "pot-bellied weekend warriors" and "all-American Osamas." Some dismissed the men's railings against the government as nothing more than bravado.

Those who spoke up for the militias as a bulwark against the power and conspiracy in Washington were careful to draw a distinction between free speech and violence.

"People can see the handwriting on the wall," said resident Paul Weir, accusing local and national law enforcement of "a Gestapo mentality."

"It smells like what happened in Germany. Are we going to wait until the horses are all running down the street before we close the barn door?"

If the allegations against the four Georgia men prove true, it will be a stunning outcome in the eyes of Sheila Rayburn.

She said the Adams she knew was the burly man with a long, luminous white beard whom locals often called upon to play Santa at their holiday gatherings.

"He was just perfect, and the children adored him," she said. "I can't believe this is the same man who would blow up innocent people."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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