Commander Pedro didn't command much of an army, just three full-time soldiers: a tattooed skinhead, a white-power rock drummer and a balding bank robber. But the commander and his racist Aryan Republican Army had all the necessary slogans and munitions. They had pipe bombs and guns galore, even a rocket launcher. They had a "high command." And a plan for "ethnic cleansing."
They could play war just like the big boys.
"Linger on this continent at your own peril," the Commander warns his foes in a videotaped communique. "We have endeavored to keep collateral damage and civilian casualties to a minimum . . . but as in all wars, some innocents shall suffer. So be it."
That video -- "Rated: Extreme Hate," according to its label -- is part of the evidence filed in federal court here against Peter Kevin Langan, a Wheaton High School dropout and wayward son of a foreign aid official. In the video the speaker's face is shrouded by a black ski mask, but it's clear that Pete Langan and Commander Pedro are one and the same. They share the same deformed finger, the same flinty brown eyes, the same cutting rhetoric.
At 38, Langan faces life in prison for bank robbery, weapons violations and the use of explosive devices. Convicted here on Monday, he fancies himself a prisoner of war, snared but not broken by the "federal whores" of the vile New World Order. In a twisted way, for him this represents success. All his life, Langan aspired to prove himself as a warrior. And also as a man.
Federal agents say Langan and his cohorts pulled off 22 bank jobs in seven states over two years -- a run worthy of Jesse James or Pretty Boy Floyd. Like Old West outlaws and Depression-era gangsters, the Aryan soldiers had a theatrical bent and populist sense of purpose -- they dubbed themselves the Midwestern Bank Bandits, donned Santa Claus suits and Richard Nixon masks during holdups, sent letters to newspapers taunting FBI agents, and once left a bomb in a lunch pail along with a pack of Twinkies. Part of their modus operandi parallels the plot of "Point Break," a B-movie starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze that features a gang of bank robbers who disguise themselves as former presidents.
Langan's 107-minute propaganda video, titled "The Aryan Republican Army Presents: The Armed Struggle Underground," unspools like an overly long "Saturday Night Live" sketch. It's interrupted by phony commercials for "Blammo Ammo" and "Second Chance" body armor. At times wearing a gas mask, waving a pistol and displaying his gang's "plunder" -- $50 and $100 bills stuffed in Mason jars -- Pedro issues pronouncements in fractured Spanish while minions in military garb goose-step to his desk.
It would be great parody if it weren't so rabidly racist: The ARA members' adolescent sense of humor camouflages a dead-serious brand of anti-government, anti-black and antisemitic spew. The bank robbers advocated terrorist acts against what they called the "Zionist Occupied Government," and may have crossed paths with Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh.
One source in the white-power movement who knew some of the robbers claims that ARA loot helped fund the 1995 blast. But federal prosecutors say they have not been able to link the gang to the bombing.
"If you are going to look for ideological connections, there are plenty -- and there is an overlap of certain people being in similar places," says Michael Levy, first assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, one of three jurisdictions where indictments have been issued against Langan and others involved in the ARA robberies.
Langan, for his part, says he had nothing to do with the bombing. "Most of my family, my siblings work in federal buildings," he says. The Commander admits only to being an "eccentric," and, well, maybe a white separatist.
"I don't think I'm any more racist than any person who's really honest with himself," he says in his first extensive interview since his capture by the FBI in January 1996. "If I am a racist, I come by it honestly."
Actually, he arrives at this point in life through a combination of dishonesty, self-delusion and pure pathology. But as criminals go, Langan is more intellectual than most: He reads Kipling and Shakespeare, can quote from "The Merchant of Venice." With his dyed, flowing hair and long, carefully tended fingernails, he impresses you as a prissy aesthete, not a hardened thug.
As a psychological specimen, Langan is fascinating: a changeling of ideology and identity. He's the imaginative, multilingual boy who grew up in Saigon amid a privileged community of U.S. intelligence agents and military advisers; the pre-teen hippie who spouted leftist slogans and marched for peace and brotherhood; the runaway who had been shot and served prison time by the age of 21.
Years later, he's a weapons fetishist and neo-Nazi government hater -- who's slick enough to convince the feds that he's on their side. In 1993, the U.S. Secret Service sprang Langan from jail, allowing Commander Pedro and his ragtag revolutionary army to launch their bank-robbery spree.
" Bizarre' puts it mildly," says Mayes Davison, one of Langan's former attorneys. "This would make a novel like you wouldn't believe."
"Gosh, there's a wealth of material," agrees the Commander, smug in his loose-fitting prison khakis, pleased to have your attention. The Criminal Element
"This was never about money for us. It was about us against the System." -- Bodhi the bank robber in "Point Break"
They preyed mainly on small banks, in friendly towns where the tellers weren't barricaded behind plexiglass. In Ohio, Missouri, Iowa and elsewhere, the Midwestern Bank Bandits followed the same MO: One or two of the masked gunmen would leap over the teller's counter and grab cash from the drawers, while another guarded the lobby. The goal was to get out within 90 seconds. Don't go to the vault -- don't get greedy. The vault takes too much time.
The haul was never huge -- $7,500 to $10,000, once as much as $28,000 -- but this method was efficient and relatively safe. It was the same drill used by the gang in "Point Break" -- right down to the bandit in the lobby checking his watch and calling out intervals of elapsed time.
The Aryans added another twist: They left decoy pipe bombs and grenades to distract the police. The bombs were supposed to be duds, but were packed with real gunpowder and festooned with wires. (FBI experts later testified that the bombs could have exploded.) The devices were planted in the bank lobby or in an abandoned getaway vehicle -- a "switch car" that the robbers left behind to further confound the cops.
Besides Nixon, Reagan and Clinton masks, the Aryans also wore jackets and hats emblazoned with "FBI," "ATF" or other law-enforcement acronyms. Langan carried a silver and gold deputy U.S. marshal's badge and ID card. The robbers tweaked the Man whenever possible, mailing postcards to a local sheriff ("Sorry to hear that your county is bankrupt"), nominating FBI spokesmen for community service awards, and sometimes registering getaway cars in agents' names.
Depending on the season, they left their bombs in Easter baskets or Christmas stockings. "Ho, ho, ho, get down on the floor," Santa ordered customers of a bank near Cleveland. (That was Langan, according to testimony.)
The Aryan bandits never shot anyone, but aspired to a greater goal: "to commit terrorist acts against the United States government," one former member testified. Authorities say the gang was inspired by the tactics of the Order, a 1980s neo-Nazi ring that stole millions and murdered Alan Berg, a Jewish radio host in Denver.
In closing arguments here, a prosecutor made the point that Order leader Robert Mathews used a Spanish code name too: Carlos. In his video, Commander Pedro praises Mathews, who became an anti-government martyr after dying in a fiery shootout with the FBI in 1984. "Learn from Bob," Pedro says.
Required reading in both the Order and the ARA was "The Turner Diaries," a blueprint for an end-of-the-century race war whose main character belongs to an underground cell that robs banks to support itself. The book is said to have been a favorite of Tim McVeigh, too.
The Aryan Army's total take between January 1994 and December 1995 is estimated at $250,000. Very little was recovered. Some of the loot apparently was distributed to sympathizers; a lot was plowed back into the robbery enterprise itself.
They lived cheaply, but the four-man army didn't skimp on business needs. Testimony and evidence shows that Langan established a separate cash trove dedicated to what he called "the Company" to cover expenses: getaway vehicles, police scanners, bulletproof vests, pagers, phone cards, walkie-talkies, phony IDs, hotel rooms, safe houses, storage lockers and, of course, weapons.
The Company name resonates on two levels. It's the code word Bob Mathews used for the Order, and Langan believes his father, Eugene, was a CIA agent: "Yes, the Commander grew up in the Company," he says in the video. (Other Langan family members say this is true, though the CIA won't discuss anyone's employment.)
Pete Langan ran the Company with his longtime friend Richard Guthrie -- a holdup man and fraud artist who liked to be called "Wild Bill." Langan and Guthrie grew up within blocks of each other in Wheaton, although they didn't become close until years later. "They were more than friends -- they were brothers," says Norman Smith, a felon who knew them both.
Some say Wild Bill was even more unstable and politically extreme than Langan -- a bad influence, if that's possible. Guthrie was kicked out of the Navy in 1983 -- for painting a swastika on the side of a ship and threatening superiors, Smith says.
Guthrie attended gatherings of the Aryan Nations, a white-supremacist group in Hayden Lake, Idaho. He and Langan also espoused the beliefs of its Christian Identity religious wing, which preaches that Jews are the spawn of Satan and that blacks are "mud people."
A tireless proselytizer, Guthrie traveled the country distributing propaganda, a Johnny Appleseed of hate. He appears in the video as "Commander Pavell," affecting a Russian accent, brandishing an HK-91 assault rifle and declaring, "So much to revolt against, so little time."
Langan and Guthrie enlisted two younger bandits: Kevin McCarthy, now 19, and Scott Stedeford, 28, who knew each other through the Philadelphia-area skinhead music scene. Stedeford, a drummer, ran his own music studio and once led a speed-metal band called Cyanide.
A bassist, McCarthy sported Nazi tattoos and gigged with Stedeford in a white-power band, Day of the Sword. They hung out at an Aryan Nations enclave near Allentown, Pa. They covered Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" but changed the lyrics to say: "Way down in your heart, you know the system sucks. You got a whole lotta nothin'."
While on Company business, they toted their HK-91s in guitar cases. They all went by code names; they traveled in beat-up vans, rendezvoused at malls or at safe houses in Pittsburg, Kan. (where they shot the video) and in Columbus. The robbers' other hole-in-the-wall hideout was Elohim City, a heavily armed Christian Identity community in Oklahoma near the Arkansas border.
One of the enduring mysteries of the Oklahoma City bombing investigation is why, two weeks before the blast, Tim McVeigh placed a 1-minute 46-second phone call to Elohim City. Whom was he calling?
Stedeford and McCarthy were hanging out at Elohim City then, but there is no proof that McVeigh knew the Aryan robbers.
He may have shared their ideals, though. Jennifer McVeigh told FBI agents in a sworn affidavit that Tim gave her three $100 bills in December 1994 -- cash that he said came from a bank robbery he helped to plan. He didn't supply details.
Jennifer McVeigh says her brother also once sent her a letter fulminating about powerful Jews and bankers. "Banks are the real thieves," she says he declared. "Persons who rob banks may not be criminals at all." A Childhood Loss
The Commander lays down the ground rules. He will not talk about his criminal history. He will not talk about his ARA associates.
He will not disclose why his pubic hair was shaved and his toenails were painted pink when he was captured by the FBI. ("I'm going to be real coy," he says.)
Finally, he will not be tape-recorded, because tapes "can be altered." But for more than two hours, he discourses on philosophy, his family history and, mostly, his youth.
"When my memory starts, it starts in Saigon . . ."
Summer 1963: As the Diem government of South Vietnam totters, the capital is inflamed by civil and religious strife: riots, bombings, a wave of self-immolations by Buddhist monks, martial law. Eugene F. Langan and his wife, Mary Ann, are at the center of the crisis. So are their six children.
A retired Marine Corps major, Langan is a public safety official attached to the International Cooperation Administration (the forerunner of the Agency for International Development). He provides intelligence and helps to train local police. Mary Ann is a receptionist in the U.S. Embassy annex; she narrowly escapes injury when the building is bombed.
For the Langan kids -- three boys, three girls -- these are times of excitement and terror: watching riots from the rooftop patio of their stucco villa, fleeing tear-gas shells lobbed on the lawn.
Stationed in Saigon since 1960, the family has known good times, too. It has the requisite maids, gardeners and cooks. Pete, the youngest, is enrolled as "enfant de membre" in a Saigon sports club (and decades later still carried the card to prove it). He has a driver who picks him up at the French Catholic kindergarten and always made sure to stop for a treat of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice on the way home.
Like most boys, Pete aspires to be like his dad -- a career soldier of the Great Santini school who imposed military discipline on his family to the extent that each member had a rank. Gruff, but capable of warmth, and somewhat mysterious -- that was Eugene Langan.
"Before anyone told me, I had in my mind that he went on secret missions," Pete recalls. "I don't know whether it was a typical childhood fantasy, but I felt it was true."
By 1964, the father relocates his family to the safety of Wheaton, a Cleaveresque neighborhood of mostly government workers. Eugene Langan goes back to Vietnam; Pete pines for his father to come home. Finally, in 1967, Dad returns -- suffering from stress, asthma and emphysema exacerbated by too much time in a tropical climate.
In the woods along the creek, Pete plays soldier, enlisting other boys. "We used to involve the whole neighborhood in large-scale army battles," he recalls with a wistful smile. This is how he bonds with his father: "I used to go and hunt down the Viet Cong, then come in the living room and give him the body counts."
Within a few months, everything changes. Maj. Langan, much-decorated veteran of World War II and Korea, dies of a heart attack at age 50. Pete gets to keep his father's Marine Corps ring.
But there will be be no more rides in Dad's Austin-Healey 3000. No more fishing trips.
"I was 9 years old," Langan says.
He will never forget losing his father. He will never forgive, either. Against the Law
By age 10, Pete Langan is establishing a lifelong pattern of defiance. He's the baby of the family. His mother indulges him.
"Being the youngest, I could get away with it," he concedes. "I knew how to get away with it and milked it the most."
At 12 he is caught joyriding in a stolen car. He's sent to military school but goes AWOL. He sews peace signs on an old Army jacket. He steals a copy of Abbie Hoffman's yippie tract, "Steal This Book."
At Wheaton High School -- "a dope mecca," in his memory -- he samples an array of drugs. "If there was something I wanted to do, I just did it."
He drops out of 10th grade, runs away from home, lives in the woods.
In the memories of friends and family, one incident seems prophetic:
Pete and a buddy are casing cars in a parking lot. A Montgomery County policeman sidles up to investigate. Pete pulls a gun and tells the startled officer, "You're under arrest."
He handcuffs the cop to a car and takes off in his cruiser. Somehow, he gets away with it. The law -- to Pete, it's nothing but a big joke.
He heads for Florida, pulls stickups to survive. His first criminal conviction comes in 1974, for robbing a man of $78. Fleeing police, he suffers a bullet wound to his left hand. A Florida judge hammers the 16-year-old with an adult's sentence: up to 20 years. Racism Takes Root
Langan was raised in a household where the N-word wasn't uttered. His parents, Scottish and Irish, respected other cultures. During holiday open houses, a Langan family tradition, Hispanics, Asians and blacks came to call.
After five years in prison, Pete emerged as a racial separatist. He tried the straight life -- college, marriage, honest labor -- and failed at them all. His siblings pursued military careers and jobs with federal agencies. He struggled as a handyman while raising a son after his divorce.
"He felt the world was against him," says Norman Smith, 38, one of Langan's closest friends. "He never felt he could measure up to his brothers and sisters."
In the 1980s, Smith, Langan and Rick Guthrie would ride motorcycles, hold target practice and talk politics. "We all marched under the banner of white survival," Smith says from a Maryland prison, where he's serving 11 years for assault and larceny.
Langan moved to Ohio, where he converted to Mormonism in 1988 but later became an ordained minister in what authorities describe as a Ku Klux Klan-affiliated church. He lived with his sister, Leslie, an IRS employee in Cincinnati. He then moved in with a girlfriend, Faith Ford, who also worked for the IRS and described herself as a "white Christian."
At Ford's house, Langan stockpiled guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. He dressed his young son in military camouflage.
In October 1992, Guthrie and Langan hooked up to rob a small-town Pizza Hut in Georgia. That puny-paying job (about $900 each) whetted their appetite for bigger jackpots and grander accomplishments. Double Cross
"As through this world I ramble, I seen lots of funny men/ Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen."
-- Woody Guthrie, "Pretty Boy Floyd"
By August 1993, Georgia authorities had Langan cold on the Pizza Hut holdup. He faced a potential life sentence. Ohio also wanted him on weapons violations. Then the Secret Service intervened.
The deal was unbelievably sweet. The local prosecutor would let Langan out of jail free, recommending that his bail be lowered from $150,000 to $8,000, allowing him a signature bond. The local cops deferred to the Secret Service, which put Langan on a bus back to Ohio and gave him $50 traveling money.
All he had to do was look for Richard Guthrie.
The Secret Service wanted Guthrie for supposedly making threats against President Bush during a campaign swing through Georgia about the same time as the Pizza Hut job.
"I don't envy y'all the task of finding him," Langan told a Carnesville, Ga., sheriff's investigator in a taped interview. "He's got friends, associates, contacts all over the country. . . . He can obtain identification and registrations 10,000 different ways."
By Sept. 2, Langan was riding, without handcuffs, in the passenger seat of a Secret Service agent's car, bound for the bus terminal in Atlanta. After he arrived in Cincinnati, the feds paid to install a phone in his home so he could try to "contact" Guthrie.
The local agent assigned to the case checked in with Langan several times, but after Nov. 12, never heard from him again. Langan's cooperation had lasted all of six weeks.
By January 1994, Langan and Guthrie were back in the robbery business. They hit a bank in Ames, Iowa -- the first in their long string of Midwestern holdups.
"Pedro sends his regards," Guthrie wrote in a note that summer to the Georgia sheriff. "As a seditionist, I remain . . . Rick." Captured
By the winter of '95, the other gang members were having problems with Wild Bill. He was sloppy, acting crazy. They cut Guthrie out of an Ohio job that December.
So Wild Bill went solo, pulling two bank robberies in Cincinnati. The FBI got a tip and captured Guthrie after ramming his van into a snowbank there.
Almost immediately, he ratted out his buddy Pete. He allowed the feds to tap his voice mail. He told them to look for a man with shoulder-length dyed red hair. In mid-January 1996, Guthrie led agents to Langan's door -- with a warning for them to wait until the Commander emerged, or else there'd be "another Waco."
A team of heavily armed FBI men and U.S. marshals surrounded Langan as he got into his white van, parked that morning behind the safe house in Columbus. Langan froze at the wheel, raised his hands slightly, then hesitated. His eyes shifted; he dove between the driver and passenger seats. In the rear of the van, he sought cover in a wooden tool box.
Some agents later swore they saw Langan going for his gun, heard shots, felt a bullet whiz by and saw puffs of smoke. They emptied their shotguns, pistols and rifles into the Chevy van -- some 50 rounds. They all missed.
The evidence showed that Langan never fired a shot. He emerged, miraculously, with minor scrapes -- and a piece of felt from a shotgun shell lodged in his cheek.
At the hospital, though, Langan believed he was mortally wounded -- shot in the brain. Doctors X-rayed his skull. He pointed in alarm to a piece of metal detected on the film.
Calm down, the doctors said. That's just part of your ponytail holder. Jailhouse Death
Richard Guthrie agreed to plead guilty to 19 bank robberies and testify against his fellow ARA soldiers. In due time, the feds brought in the others: Stedeford, who has since been convicted in Iowa and sentenced to 10 years; and McCarthy, who also rolled over and is awaiting sentencing.
While in jail, Guthrie started calling and writing reporters, telling them he was working on a book. He had secrets to reveal. For starters, he said the ARA had donated money to certain extremist causes -- wouldn't give names, though.
In July, he was found dead in his cell. Authorities said he hanged himself with a bedsheet. He was 38.
"Sometimes it takes something like a suicide to settle a problem," he'd written in a note to his attorney. "Especially one that's like . . . mine." The Badge The Commander collected memories, packed them in briefcases. One seized by the FBI was found to contain old bingo cards, an "I Love Faith" button, a fortune cookie message and one AAA School Safety Patrol Badge.
During a pretrial hearing, a prosecutor quizzed Langan about that last item.
"It was a badge for crossing guards," he explained. "In elementary school we had a safety patrol. And you were given an orange belt and sash, and you put a little badge on there, and you instructed children when it was safe to cross the street. Because this was before busing and we all walked back and forth to school."
But it wasn't you who wore the badge, was it?
"No," Langan replied. The shiny little badge, which he carried with him for more than 30 years, belonged to one of his brothers or sisters. Uncle Adolf Had It Easy' We are at war with the System, and it is no longer a war of words.
-- "The Turner Diaries"
The Commander's video was part of a recruiting effort -- it was seized in an envelope addressed to the Hayden Lake neo-Nazi compound -- but even its makers conceded that they were facing an overwhelming enemy.
"Uncle Adolf . . . he had it easy compared to us," Langan says, referring to Hitler. "The Aryan Republican Army has dared to take on the most powerful nation in this wretched world . . . with the most powerful army and police forces."
As a performer, though, Pedro is captivating. He blusters about ARA's "nuclear, chemical and biological warfare program." He threatens to unleash its "large quantity of TOW missiles." He draws a machete, toys with a grenade, laments how the war has separated him from his wife and child.
"Daddy will be home soon," he promises, "as soon as he sets things right in the world."
Langan's friends will tell you that one thing hasn't changed: Pete always wanted to play general, be in control, give the orders. As a boy in Wheaton, he commanded the neighborhood army during its skirmishes with BB guns, down by the creek.
His fantasy world is an homage to the last officer to preside over the Langan household. The oil portrait always hung front and center, given an honored place, on the wall above a mirrored case holding his many medals. A portrait of Maj. Langan.
But there was something Pete Langan could never change about himself. Though he could go to war, he would never be like his father. Another Secret Life In the final days of Langan's trial in Ohio, a mystery woman appeared. She wore suit jackets and men's ties and made goo-goo eyes at the defendant.
That's my lover, Cherie Roberts told reporters, pointing to Langan. They were engaged.
Roberts objected when U.S. marshals wouldn't allow her to approach Langan. She caused a scene.
"I can't even talk to my wife!" she sobbed.
Yes, Roberts explained. In their relationship, Pete Langan dresses as a woman and assumes the female role. He's a preoperative transsexual.
Roberts met Langan in Kansas City in a group called Crossdressers and Friends. Roberts is a transsexual too. Langan prefers not to comment.
Roberts told reporters she has her own special name for the Commander: "Donna." I'd Do It Again' Langan faces a minimum 35-year sentence for his two Ohio bank robberies. He faces a later trial for alleged assault on federal officers. And he will be put in the dock in Philadelphia on charges of conspiring to rob banks to finance the ARA. It's likely he'll be caged forever.
But the Commander has few regrets. As a kid he ran away to prove himself, and he thinks he has. "I paid a price for it, but I'd probably do it again."
Besides, he's not really to blame for his delinquency. The government is. Who stationed his dad in Vietnam? Who forced him to grow up amid a civil war? "I didn't need to be in Vietnam in the first place," he says.
Commander Pedro: America's youngest combat veteran. Staff writer Peter Carlson contributed to this story. CAPTION: Extreme close-up: Richard Guthrie, bottom left, and Peter Langan, above, as they appeared in police mug shots and in the Aryan Republican Army video "The Armed Struggle Underground." CAPTION: We don't want you: a scene from the Aryan Republican Army's video. CAPTION: Future partners in crime: Peter Langan and Richard Guthrie in the 1974 Wheaton High School yearbook.