Thursday, April 26, 2018
Public safety

FBI: Wanted Valrico doomsday prepper may have stashed guns for getaway

VALRICO — As the search continued Tuesday for a man authorities say intended to kill federal agents in an end-of-times plan, the FBI expressed worries he had stashed weapons and supplies and perhaps hunkered down in a hidden bunker.

Federal authorities announced a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the capture of Martin Howard Winters, 55, who they say is armed and dangerous.

"Mr. Winters is very familiar with this area, especially wooded areas," FBI spokesman David Couvertier said Tuesday. "He knows the terrain. He knows the best places to hide, the best places to track, to move, when to move. So we suspect that he does have specific sites that he's very comfortable with, and he may have supplies there or know the terrain so well that he can hide."

Agents had attempted Monday to stop the car Winters was driving to arrest him on federal charges. But he sped away, abandoned the car and ran into woods near Durant High School.

"The way it was described — there was steam coming out of the engine, so that tells you how hard he was pushing that vehicle," Couvertier said.

Winters is the leader of a group known as the River Otter Preppers, according to federal court documents. The group advocates survival preparations in advance of an end-times event foretold in the Bible's Book of Revelations.

He and five others were charged earlier this month in a sealed indictment with possessing destructive devices without permission or registration, among other allegations. The others have been arrested.

"The media has blown this up into something that it's really not," Winters' ex-wife, Lori Thomas, said in an interview Tuesday. "He's a really good person. He gives a lot to people."

A probable cause affidavit filed in federal court sought to search several properties near Winters' home at 3032 Williams Blvd., where he is alleged to have hidden various explosive devices and other weapons.

The document details conversations that an undercover FBI agent had with Winters in which he detailed his preparations and efforts to repel government forces during an apocalyptic event.

In one conversation in September, Winters showed the agent a map of what he described as his "neighborhood" and said that members of the River Otter Preppers would be stationed along a river to watch for government boats, according to the affidavit.

In another conversation in October, Winters explained that when government agents raided his property, he planned to barricade himself in his house, fill it with propane and run outside firing guns as the house exploded.

"Winters stated that if the government gives him enough time, it will be worse than Waco," the affidavit reads, a reference to the deadly 1993 government siege near Waco, Texas. "Winters also stated that if he is attacked he would run through the woods, circle back, and then flank the attackers in order to kill them."

Winters told the agent he had spent $200,000 on his preparations, according to the affidavit.

Winters has no significant criminal history in Florida, records show. He owns several properties in the area near his home, which he rents out. He also runs several metal recycling businesses including Metals and Materials Recycling in Plant City. A woman who answered the phone there said no one had spoken with Winters in the past few days.

Couvertier described Winters' decision to flee as "a bad judgment call" that endangers the safety of him and others.

"But nobody's been hurt to this point, and we don't want anyone hurt," Couvertier said. "So we're hoping a neighbor, an associate, a friend, call us and help us broker and we can resolve and let him come in peacefully."

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