On April 6, Charles Alan Wilson, a wiry 63-year-old man with sun-spotted skin and graying red hair, was arrested at his home in Selah, Washington. The charges: leaving more than a dozen voice mails for the state's senior Democratic senator, Patty Murray, in which he allegedly parroted Tea Party talking points and called Murray a "Pike Street whore" who deserved to be killed over her vote in favor of health-care reform. "Somebody's gonna get to you one way or another and blow your fucking brains out," Wilson allegedly said. "If I have the chance, I would do it." While searching Wilson's property, FBI agents confiscated a pistol they found in Wilson's Bronco, as well as two .22-caliber rifles from inside his butter-yellow ranch house.
Two days later, on April 8, Kirk Groenig, 54, a leader of the Tea Party Patriots in Yakima, which is located just a few minutes' drive from Wilson's home, told me that Wilson "wasn't a member of our group"—even though, in the charges filed against Wilson, the retired carpenter is quoted describing his participation in a Tea Party protest outside an event Murray held in Yakima on April 1.
"Oh, you were in Yakima last week," Wilson allegedly said in a message left at one of Murray's offices on April 4. The message continued, laced with invective typical of the many messages authorities say Wilson left for Murray over the course of two weeks:
How come you didn't give a big speech to the people outside waiting to see you? Yeah, we were outside waiting for you, hopefully you would come out and explain to us how come this health-care bill that you railed on so highly is going to create the biggest drain in American history. It's going to cause so much pain and suffering... I want to thank you for the pain and suffering I am having. Fuck you, you fucking slut, you fucking cunt. I wish you the fucking pain I am going through. I wish it upon you. I hope that you had the worst fucking Easter of your entire fucking life. We are coming after you, bitch, taking you out of fucking office. We are going to remove you from doing any more damage to the people that you are supposed to represent, not rule. Fuck you, cunt, you fucking Pike Street fucking slut.
On the morning of April 9, James P. Hutton, a federal judge in Yakima, listened as an attorney for the U.S. government argued during a bail hearing that Wilson should be held in custody until a scheduled hearing in Seattle later this month. "The level of rage reported in those phone calls is troublesome," said the government attorney, Robert Ellis. (Alleged examples of the rage: "We're gonna take you out" and "There's people gonna come after you with fucking both fucking barrels, bitch.")
Judge Hutton, however, ended up siding with Wilson's attorney, who argued that Wilson wasn't a flight risk because he had no passport and had barely ever left Yakima County in his life, wasn't a threat to the community because he had no criminal history save for a 1970 drunk-driving arrest, and therefore should be freed. After agreeing to electronic monitoring, a home curfew, and the posting of a $20,000 bond, Wilson was released.
That afternoon, at his house in Selah, Wilson's son, Charles Jr., told me the family had no comment on the case. (Murray's office, too, has had little to say, other than the following April 6 statement: "As this is an ongoing FBI investigation, Senator Murray or her office will not make any additional comments.")
The morning after his release, in a public square not far from the Yakima federal courthouse where Wilson's bail hearing took place, Tea Party leader Groenig and about 100 members of the movement gathered for a rally. The basic ideas expressed there were nearly identical to those expressed in the voice-mail messages allegedly left by Wilson: The passage of health-care reform represents the end of the world as we know it, people need to take action, lives are in danger, dire times require drastic measures. "I am so worried about our country today," said Yakima resident Randy Ralph, 60, who then took the crowd on a tour through the history of presidential assassinations and suggested that being killed was the fate of any president who significantly tampers (like Obama has) with the nation's financial system.
As the blog Gawker noted in a recent post titled "An Annotated Guide to the Talking Points of a Death Threat Nut," it's also possible to connect Wilson's language to people higher up in the Tea Party movement. "Lots of his rhetoric and certain very specific phrases came directly from Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin," the site noted, citing Wilson phrases such as "You have awakened a sleeping giant" (which is almost exactly what Beck said on his August 3, 2009, show).
Still, Groenig and others in the Yakima Tea Party movement were adamant about putting distance between themselves and Wilson, saying they don't condone violence and want him prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. They also point to a voice mail Wilson allegedly left for Murray on March 23 that included the following statements: "I'm not a tea party bagger. I'm an independent U.S. voter. I'm neither Republican nor Democrat." Further, they say that Wilson wasn't actually at that April 1 anti-Murray rally in Yakima—an assertion flatly contradicted by Yakima Democratic activist (and former county party chairman) Tony Sandoval, who was at the April 1 event to support Murray and told me he saw Wilson among the Tea Party protesters. "He was there," Sandoval said.
Ever since it began, people—including even Glenn Beck—have expressed fear that some unstable, angry member of the Tea Party movement will take the movement's rhetoric as a green light to engage in violent behavior. If Wilson is ultimately found guilty of threatening to kill Murray, it seems likely that could have been the situation here.
The milieu alone makes a compelling case: Steve Edwards, a leader of Beck's 9/12 movement in Yakima, contends that "this is Armageddon as far as the United States is concerned" and then adds, in the same breath, that saying such things "is not inflammatory." At the Yakima Tea Party rally on April 10, Brad Tidrick, 55, owner of an auto-repair shop, listed for the crowd all the ways in which President Obama is indistinguishable from Adolf Hitler. Afterward, he told me he doesn't condone violence, but it's hard to predict what people will do given the times.
"There's so much frustration going on right now with people not being heard," Tidrick said. "And we see this country in a spiral downward. People are lashing out in different ways... You take somebody that's had a bad day and sometimes they may say things they regret later. But until things get straightened out, we don't have a lot to hope for."
A poster at the rally depicted Murray wearing what appeared to be a yarmulke above the words: "This old clunker has to go."
"It's all about hate and striking out," Sandoval, the Yakima Democratic activist, said of the local Tea Party movement. "That, naturally, attracts individuals like Wilson."
Which worries him.
"This is just the beginning," Sandoval told me. "One of them got caught. There are others."