These are not easy times for Norman Olson and his splinter group of self-described patriot guerrillas, the Northern Michigan Regional Militia.
Winter will be settling in before long, and not far behind it the worldwide chaos and lawlessness that Olson believes will be triggered by the Year 2000 computer bug. The statewide armed force of militant patriots he co-founded five years ago is in disarray, riven by internal squabbling and defections following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995.
Now Olson, whose gun-toting and camouflaged-bedecked image flashed on network television in the days after the disclosure of tenuous links between one of the Oklahoma City bombers and his movement, finds himself unable to organize an armed standoff between the remnants of his once 12,000-strong militia and law enforcement. He thought he had his flash point on an apocalyptic millennialist family's farm that local zoning officials have ordered dismantled.
"We're itching for a standoff someplace," Olson said in an interview in his modest ranch house in Alanson, on the mainland just southwest of this idyllic tourist island in Lake Huron. "Any movement needs a good and noble rallying point, an Alamo or a `Remember the Maine,' and this could be it."
Olson's frustration underscores a situation faced not only by his own struggling militia faction but also by the militant armed wings of the patriot movement across the nation. The groups often depend on publicized confrontations with law enforcement for the legitimacy they crave among like-minded sympathizers, but for several years have found themselves without them.
Dressed in Army fatigues and interrupting his conversation occasionally to greet visitors to his at-home gun shop, the Alanson Armory, Olson, 51, mused about the publicity opportunities of a police siege in northern Michigan.
"The FBI and state police show up, and hostage negotiators, a crisis management team and television satellite trucks are all there. I'd have militia people from Washington state and North Carolina and you'd have another Waco or Ruby Ridge," Olson said, referring to two of the most infamous armed standoffs to stain the reputation of federal law enforcement.
Then, referring to Attorney General Janet Reno's embarrassment over the FBI's and Justice Department's failure to disclose the use of potentially incendiary devices in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., Olson said: "Right now is the time to strike, while . . . Janet Reno is in hot water over Waco and all."
But survivalists Mike and Chris Stitt aren't cooperating. They moved to this 12-mile-long island near the Straits of Mackinac with their six children 3 1/2 years ago to ride out the millennium apocalypse. When the Stitts had Olson and 15 of his uniformed followers to their farm for a chicken barbecue three weeks ago to talk about how the militia could help them, the couple became frightened by all the talk about Waco and Ruby Ridge.
"Now I'm thinking, `Wow, you guys are going to stand here on my property and defend it with guns with my 10-month-old baby and the lives of my children at risk,' " said Chris Stitt, 37. "I thought, some publicity would be okay, but Commander Olson, you've just been given your walking papers. Are you willing to risk the lives of my children for media attention?"
The Stitts decided last week to sell their 37-acre farm, put their horse, peacock, three pigs, 150 chickens, four goats and three emus on the island ferry and get out of harm's way.
The Stitts' capitulation to local officials they claim are hounding them off the island because of their religious and survivalist lifestyle is only the latest in a series of setbacks for the militia movement in conservative northern Michigan, which along with Montana and the Pacific Northwest traditionally has been home to anti-government paramilitary groups.
Olson, a retired Air Force master sergeant, co-founded the Michigan Militia Corps in Wolverine, about 40 miles south of here, in 1994 and commanded it for a year during a period of rapid growth. In that short time, he said, he organized 83 well-armed county brigades comprising 12,000 active members and many more followers.
However, after Oklahoma City bombing suspect Terry L. Nichols was reported to be affiliated with the group, the organization began to fall apart. Even though Olson repeatedly insisted that Nichols had attended only one meeting and was forced to leave because he was "too radical," defections snowballed.
"There was so much fear. About a third of the members quit when they realized this wasn't just shooting paintballs in the woods. Another third went underground into leaderless resistance cells, and the rest became extremely aggressive," Olson recalled.
He said Christian Identity white supremacists came into the militia and began to criticize him for admitting members of all races and religions, leading to a schism.
"I said the heck with it all and came up here to get away from it all and form my own militia," said Olson, who also is pastor of the "unregistered" Freedom Church in Wolverine, which blends fundamentalist spiritual beliefs with strident patriotism.
Militia expert Chip Berlet, senior analyst for the Boston-based Political Research Associates, said the Michigan militia is only one such group that has "fallen on bleak times but not gone away" since Oklahoma City. He said that as militia membership has shrunk, many of the ideas of the movement -- such as opposition to gun control, the IRS, the Federal Reserve and the United Nations -- have become mainstream issues for some conservative Republicans.
"A lot of these people have taken their ideas into the ultra-conservative political movement and drained it away from the militias," Berlet said. "That's not necessarily good, but it's different."
But Olson was one who stayed with the militia movement. As he sought a new cause he began issuing communiques alleging a massive campaign of Japanese espionage against the United States. He said that in retaliation the Pentagon sent "secret teams" to release sarin gas in Tokyo's subway a month before the Oklahoma City bombing and that Nichols's accomplice Timothy J. McVeigh, possibly acting under the influence of implanted mind-control microchips, was a Japanese "operative" in a counter-retaliation.
Olson said that such conspiracy theories turned the media away from his group and that since moving here from Wolverine he has concentrated largely on organizing "wolf packs" and holding weekend training camps in which as many as 50 members at a time practice "ambush sniper skills, combat hand-gunning, guerrilla squad maneuvers and battlefield medicine."
The purpose, Olson said, is to prepare militiamen for the "Y2K catastrophe," which he says inevitably will trigger food panics and lawlessness, followed by a declaration of martial law and then a violent revolution.
That is why the Stitts, who moved here to prepare for the apocalypse, looked like the ideal cause for rallying like-minded people, Olson said. "A lot of people are taking Y2K seriously and this is why they are violating ordinances like the Stitts, to gather food and survive."
The Stitts said they felt a "spiritual pull" to move here from the Muskegon area, about 200 miles southwest of here, and a need to become totally self-sufficient for the economic "meltdown" they are convinced will occur after Jan. 1. "We wanted to teach our children to be survivalists," Chris Stitt said.
She said that at first the 40 or so year-round island residents and the township officials welcomed them as they laid out their new farm set in a lakeside pine forest, which they named "Poverty Knob." But as they began to build a barn, a greenhouse, a root cellar and a chicken coop, township officials told them to remove the buildings because their property was zoned for residential use.
The couple said they agreed not to expand their farm beyond the existing outbuildings, but that tensions began to rise when a circuit judge, whom Chris Stitt described as a "sodomite," ordered them to dismantle the buildings. The judge ordered them to appear in court to show why they should not be held in contempt of court for failure to comply.
The Stitts said they believed the reason behind the order was town officials' resentment of their religious and millennialist views, and their outspoken opposition to what they called "immoral behavior" by town officials who smoked and drank in front of children. They said their troubles began when they turned in a neighbor to the police for growing marijuana.
Township attorney Lyle Peck, calling the Stitts' assertions "utter nonsense," said they had defied the zoning ordinance by publishing legal notices in an area newspaper declaring their refusal to comply.
The Stitts say they are looking for a new farm site on the mainland. "We stood up to the immorality here, and now we're saying, `Okay, we'll leave your island. It's not worth going to jail for,' " Chris Stitt said.
That leaves Olson and his militia once more without a rallying point, or an Alamo, as he says.
"It's a shame. [Stitt] could be the Noah for that ark out there, and we could have been there to help him," Olson said. "I don't know how to stop tyranny like that, except with the force of arms."