– In Michael Hari, the young men found a purpose and a cause that many neighbors in this rural Illinois village are still trying to understand.

Last week, Hari, 47, and two other men were charged in connection with the August bombing of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington. The FBI said that one of the men arrested, Michael McWhorter, 29, told agents that he, Hari and Joe Morris, 22, also planted a bomb that failed to detonate at a Champaign, Ill., women’s health clinic in November 2017.

McWhorter’s 18-year-old stepson, Ellis “EJ” Mack, was also arrested on federal weapons charges filed against the four men in Illinois.

All four men were members of a militia group, the White Rabbits 3 Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters, that met regularly in a small brick building owned by Hari. In the days before his arrest, he posted a video plea for other militia groups to come to his aid.

White Rabbit members call for assistance from other militias after the FBI raided their homes.

“When these people come to seize people’s children or haul off firearms, you need to be there,” he said. “You need to be there with a rifle in your hand if you can. And we need to stop the tyranny today right now.”

None did, but some residents worry that Hari’s case could inspire other like-minded anti-government groups.

“Normally, in a small town like Clarence, there’s no way that you would figure that it was this far-reaching,” Ford County Sheriff Mark Doran said. “If we’re having this problem in little Ford County, you know nationwide there has got to be a lot of other people involved in this same type of violence.”

In Clarence, a town of fewer than 100 people scattered between barely two dozen homes in various stages of remodeling, Hari was a well-known figure who had a long history of confrontation with authority. He attended college in Texas, and protested at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco during the deadly 1993 standoff between the religious separatist group and federal law enforcement. He later told a newspaper in Illinois that the event, which led to the deaths of more than 75 Branch Davidians, had “galvanized” his beliefs.

Back in Illinois, he worked as a corrections officer and deputy sheriff before being let go in 1997 for what Doran called “odd behavior.” During one incident, Doran said, Hari stopped to help a woman whose vehicle broke down before searching her bag, handcuffing her and driving her to school in the back of his squad car.

He joined the Old German Baptist Brethren community, a religious sect with beliefs similar to the Amish, according to John Hess, the presiding elder of the church’s North Fork district, who last saw Hari in 2016.

“We could see that he had some different beliefs toward the end,” Hess said. “He didn’t talk a lot about them, and we didn’t know a lot about him and his everyday life.”

During a custody dispute with his ex-wife, Hari fled to religious communities in Mexico and Belize with his teenage daughters in 2005. The case spawned several TV appearances on the “Dr. Phil” show, and resulted in a child abduction conviction and 30 months of probation.

In the ensuing years, he self-published books espousing his viewpoints on religion, local history, even one co-authored with one of his two daughters with advice for women on how to buy their first gun.

Two people who know the family well said he introduced Morris, the adopted son of Hari’s family friends, to his religion and moved to Mexico with him about two years ago to try to establish a religious commune and grow watermelons.

A building that housed Michael Hari's business in Clarence, Ill.

A building that housed Michael Hari's business in Clarence, Ill. By Stephen Montemayor/Star Tribune

The commune soon failed and both men found their way back to Clarence. Hari built his own solar-powered home, eschewed running water for collected rainwater, and bought an old grain elevator office in the middle of town for his food inspection business. Last year, he added an office next door for his new global security firm, Crisis Resolution Security Services, Inc., through which he submitted a $10 billion bid to help build President Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border. Hari claimed in a financial affidavit that Equicert, his food inspection business, was worth $100,000. It’s unclear whether Crisis Resolution Security Services made money. The business ventures could play an important part in Hari’s motives, said JJ MacNab, a fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism who closely monitors anti-government extremism.

“He came up with these two business schemes to make himself massively wealthy as a government contractor,” she said. “There could be a certain expectation in his head that he’s smart and should be successful and he’s not. It’s the government keeping him down.”

Court records in Ford County listed Morris as a resident custodian and night watchman at the building that houses Hari’s office, and indicate that he began living there three days after the bombing at Dar Al-Farooq. A clerk who once worked with Morris at the Village Market convenience store in the county seat of Paxton remembered him being happy to leave the convenience store job for a new opportunity last summer. But she said Morris asked for his old job back the day before the men’s arrests.

“He said, and I quote: ‘The Feds have my phone, so I have to go get a new one,’ ” the clerk said.

Before their arrests, Hari and Morris had wanted to open their own grocery store in Hari’s office building. Now, a large board covers the front door of CRSS from this week’s FBI raid.

Planted explosives

A busy day for the Ford County sheriff usually means responding to calls of animals running loose or trying to curb speeding along country roads. Described by its sheriff as “very rural, very quiet, very conservative,” Ford was the last Illinois county formed in the state.

“That’s why the shape is what it is,” said Doran, making an L shape with his thumb and index finger. “Nobody wanted it, so we were the leftovers.”

Anyone who still moves into Clarence is often coming back home, like Hope O’Neil, who moved into a home about 100 yards down from Hari’s shop last year with her husband and their three daughters. Like a handful of the yards in town, and for a while on Hari’s office building, a Confederate flag waves in front of the family’s home.

To most residents, Hari kept to himself, often socializing only with the men now thought to have followed him into his “White Rabbit” militia. Neighbors reported seeing as many as a dozen malnourished dogs and a horse roaming Hari’s property or escaping to forage for food at other homes.

But Hari flew into a rage last summer when he learned O’Neil’s husband, Jon, came to his property looking to discuss the horse and dogs that kept getting loose, she said. Hari now has a pending criminal case against him in Ford County after allegedly holding Jon O’Neil down and sticking an airsoft gun to his head until police arrived.

The federal charges this week revealed that Hari was allegedly behind an anonymous tip to federal authorities in February accusing Jon O’Neil of storing explosives in a shed on his family’s property.

In interviews with FBI agents, McWhorter admitted to helping plant the explosives, which authorities later detonated. O’Neil said they were stored in a shed in which the couple’s daughters often play.

Year-old Facebook videos of McWhorter goofing off with his wife and stepchildren mark a stark contrast with the men seen wearing ski masks in YouTube videos that also feature a logo of a white rabbit and the slogan “Ain’t No Fun When The Rabbit Got The Gun.”

Hope O’Neil said she remembers riding the school bus and running in the same circles as McWhorter growing up. When she saw his mother at the nearest Walmart this week, O’Neil wrapped her in a hug and told her she loved her.

“He just brainwashed these kids,” O’Neil said of Hari. “I mean, they had their whole damn lives ahead of them.” When a reporter visited McWhorter’s home, his wife and two other relatives appeared on the front porch.

“Nope. Get off my property right now,” his wife said. Dogs howled, piles of trash were strewn about in the back and the front of the home, and a large, tattered Confederate flag blew in the breeze.

Calls to action

Last December, the sheriff helped set in motion the beginning of the White Rabbits’ unraveling when he passed along photos to the FBI snapped from inside the home of Hari’s parents. Inside the garage were stacks of weapons, bomb-making materials and a copy of “The Anarchist’s Handbook,” which includes instructions for creating the thermite used in pipe bombs, according to charges.

A month later, a member of the White Rabbits went to law enforcement after seeing a cache of weapons that included explosives and modified fully automatic assault rifles stored in a safe at Hari’s office. He agreed to turn informant, and told investigators that three other White Rabbits were behind the bombing of Dar Al-Farooq and the women’s clinic, according to federal charges. The informant said he was told by Morris that Hari had promised to pay him and McWhorter $18,000 for participating in the mosque bombing, according to the complaint.

McWhorter later told FBI counterterrorism investigators it was Hari’s idea to target the mosque. Though it is unclear why the group singled out Dar Al-Farooq, McWhorter told agents that they wanted to “scare [Muslims] out of the country … because they push their beliefs on everyone else.” He added that they didn’t want to kill anyone but wanted to “show them hey, you’re not welcome here, get the [expletive] out.”

Online, Hari had cultivated an image of a movement with tentacles throughout Clarence, ramping up posts to a website he appeared to run and on a YouTube channel. In one March 4 video, a little over a week before his arrest, Hari laments the fact that the FBI came to Clarence, searched their homes and seized their weapons.

“We’re asking for militia support to come help us with this situation,” he said.

Three other men appear on camera with the same plea — although none appear at the same time because it appears they are sharing one mask.

Just two days before the group’s arrest, Hari posted “one last cry for liberty” on YouTube. He posted calls on a mymilitia.com message board for other groups around the country to take up arms and rally in Clarence.

As many as half of Clarence’s households sympathized with the White Rabbits, the group claimed.

But neighbors say otherwise. “That’s a lie. I know that much,” Gage Tjarks said. “Those were the only [men] in town I know of that wanted anything to do with him.”

Regardless of how little support they may have had, it didn’t stop Hari, McWhorter and Morris from allegedly inflicting fear and damage on the morning of Aug. 5, 2017, in Minnesota in what Gov. Mark Dayton called “an act of terrorism.”

“I definitely think it’s radicalization,” Doran said. “And a lot of times this attracts the people who are on the fringe of society: They have poor living conditions, poor life experiences and you have somebody who leads them toward, I guess, what they would say is setting things right. Whatever that may be.”

Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report.