I have watched the developing situation regarding Martin Winters, and the ensuing raid and manhunt, with great concern. I am very relieved that it ended without bloodshed.
Not wanting to make any assumptions, or possibly draw the wrong conclusions, I took the time to research the entire matter more deeply before making a public comment.
I reviewed all the publicly available information on the case. I read the charges in the Grand Jury Indictment handed down by the U.S. District Court. I read the FBI search warrant by Special Agent Ronald Monaco. I contacted a neighbor of Winters’ who knows him personally, and reviewed statements from others in the community. I contacted Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee’s office.
There are allegations in the media that Winters made threats to kill federal agents.
If those allegations were true, one would think that the FBI informant on the inside would have enough evidence for charges to that effect. Presumably, the indictment would include counts related to threats of violence, planning an attack, etc.
However, the actual indictment tells a different story. The charges handed down against Winters and Michael Bonta were as follows:
They made firearms, “without obtaining approval from the Secretary of the Treasury,” and possessed firearms “which were not registered to them in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record.”
There’s nothing about threats of violence, plotting to kill anyone, or expressing a desire to harm anyone…Just possessing unregistered firearms without permission of the Treasury Department. (Read the indictment here: Winters Indictment )
I spoke to one of Winters’ neighbors who said that, yes, the group is a bit odd in their beliefs. However, they also opined that Winters and the River Otter Preppers are the nicest and most helpful people in the community. I was told that Winters often provided free food to struggling neighbors, and was always the first person to help out in the community. Other neighbors reported having recently been on Winters’ property, and had seen no evidence of booby traps or other such hazards.
Online comments from people in Valrico seem very consistent in support of Winters. The overwhelming consensus is that he is extremely friendly, generous, helpful, and a bit eclectic. By all accounts, he is a respected and well-loved member of his community.
The people of this Valrico community did not seem at all alarmed or threatened by him or the prepper group.
In a word, it was overkill. There were “van loads” of FBI agents swarming the area, according to WFLA-TV.
One woman driving in her neighborhood reported that the FBI threw flash-bang grenades into her car with her children inside, and held her at gunpoint.
Helicopters have hovered over the area for days, according to neighbors, and there are unconfirmed reports that cellular service was cut.
The neighborhood was placed on lockdown. Some residents reported being terrorized by the FBI.
I question the FBI’s authority to conduct this operation without express authorization of State and county authorities.
HILLSBOROUGH SHERIFF’S REACTION
Given the seemingly minor and nonviolent nature of the charges handed down in the indictment, and the lack of corroborating evidence of any violent tendencies from the community, one would think this matter could easily be handled via a relatively routine warrant service by local law enforcement, or even just a notice to appear in court.
I contacted Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee to ask if he had authorized the FBI’s involvement in this warrant service, or authorized them to lead the entire operation. He wouldn’t speak to me directly. Instead, he had a S.O. employee convey this message to me:
“They’re the FBI. They can do whatever they want.”
Without knowing Mr. Winters or any member of the River Otter Preppers, I cannot know their character or their intentions. I can only draw reasonable conclusions from the evidence at hand.
It does not appear that Winters or the River Otter Preppers constituted a threat to anyone. It appears that the FBI reacted with unnecessary force. They terrorized and disrupted a peaceful neighborhood. They manipulated the local media with unsubstantiated claims and mischaracterizations. Sheriff Gee gave the FBI carte blanche authority to conduct these operations, and failed to uphold his oath of office.
Given the circumstances of the case, as governor, I would never have allowed the FBI to conduct this operation in Florida.
- Adrian Wyllie, Libertarian for Governor of Florida