A federal gun probe erupted into a manhunt in a rural stretch of Valrico on Monday, as authorities attempted to arrest a man accused of building unregistered destructive devices as part of an end-of-times plan to kill government agents.
Martin Howard Winters, 55, remained at large late Monday. He and five other people were indicted June 5 by a federal grand jury on sealed charges that arose from an investigation of a group called the River Otter Preppers, which Winters headed, according to court records.
The destructive devices — metal tubes designed to fire 12-gauge shotgun shells — were intended to function as booby traps, according to a 24-page search warrant affidavit that lays out the government's case.
Winters and the River Otter Preppers "are preparing for an end-of-times event as prophesied by the Book of Revelations in the Bible which he believes will occur in the near future," the affidavit states, "which will require individuals to rely on themselves for food and protection from other individuals and the federal government."
Last October, Winters told an FBI undercover employee that he had spent $200,000 on his preparations and that he had buried 60 AR-15 firearms in four barrels in the ground, the record states. They toured the neighborhood, and Winters pointed out bunkers that he keeps on three east Hillsborough County properties, two on Williams Boulevard and one on Spring Road.
He talked about shooting government agents in the back, first snagging them with fishhooks that would pop out of air-pressured pipes mounted on the eaves of porches. "Winters will then shoot the agents while they are entangled in the hooks," Special Agent Ronald Monaco wrote in the affidavit.
An unidentified FBI employee spent months in talks with Winters and wrote that he also talked of shooting tanks of propane gas to kill government agents as they entered his property.
The indictments, kept secret until Monday, also name Michael Bonta, 49; Jason Swain, 33; Nicholas Hall, 23; James Beebe, 56; and Desiree Beebe, 23. Bonta, like Winters, was charged with crimes related to the homemade destructive devices. The others were charged with being felons in possession of firearms and making false statements.
Only Winters was still free late Monday. He fled in his vehicle when agents arrived, and he then disappeared into a wooded area, the FBI said.
"We're hoping for a peaceful resolution to this," said FBI spokesman David Couvertier. "Nobody's looking to do him any harm."
In 2011, Winters was featured in a Tampa Bay Times story about a 130-foot flagpole he had erected on his 10-acre Valrico homestead. At the time, Winters said residents in his Williams Boulevard neighborhood supported the project and that many volunteered time and labor. He said he was motivated to complete the project out of respect for soldiers serving overseas.
"I did it because I have respect for the people who die for you," Winters said.
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or [email protected]