IN THE END, the would-be bombers of Wise County went out not in a blast of Oklahoma City infamy, not in a surreal Republic of Texas—style standoff, but quietly, in a series of plea bargains. On the morning of October 8, just five and a half months after their arrest, two Klansmen and a Klanswoman stood in a Fort Worth courtroom before federal judge John McBryde and cratered, just as a fourth Klan member had done earlier. Yes, they’d planned to rob two drug dealers to bankroll the bombing, cover up an armored car heist, finance the race war, and who knows, maybe buy a new Chevy truck or two. But given their politeness in not putting the government to its proof, would His Honor be so good as to shave a few months off the thirty-year sentences they faced?

The feds, always on the lookout for positive PR, rejoiced in their triumph. “It was a crackerjack job,” says Paul Coggins, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas. Indeed, Operation Sour Gas, the FBI’s four-week investigation of a plot by the True Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to blow up a chemical plant where a lethal substance known as “sour gas” was stored, was impressive in a military-parade sort of way. The operation—upon which the FBI bestowed “major case” status—deployed more than one hundred agents, many of them borrowed from elsewhere in Texas and Oklahoma. They employed bomb-disposal units and airplanes equipped with forward-looking infrared technology, body mikes and tiny cameras, and 24-hour listening posts that produced more than two hundred conversations. “I’ve never seen so much stuff, not even when I was a Texas Ranger,” marvels Wise County sheriff Phil Ryan, who was a member of the North Texas Joint Terrorism Task Force. “The equipment. The people. The planes. We’re used to po’boying it around here.”

Yet the tale of Sour Gas is much less of a law enforcement coup than the feds were eager to let on—and it is infinitely more comic than the straight-faced media coverage led one to believe: The operation netted the goofiest gang of terrorists this side of a Carl Hiaasen novel. “They weren’t the brightest bulbs,” concedes Bob Garrity, an assistant special agent in the FBI’s Dallas field office, though he and other G-men maintain that the four who pleaded—Carl Waskom, Jr., Edward Taylor, Jr., and husband-and-wife anarchists Shawn and Catherine Adams—were still dangerous. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to explode a bomb,” says special agent John Fraga, who supervises the North Texas task force.

Regardless, Sour Gas was a success in that it produced something the task force desperately needed: the only criminal case it has brought in which charges have been filed. Comprising twelve local and federal agencies and overseen by the FBI, the task force was created in April 1995, the month that Timothy McVeigh dropped his deadly load of fertilizer and diesel fuel, though it was in the works long before. Like the fifteen other terrorism task forces around the country, the North Texas task force has received a massive boost of money and manpower in the past thirty months, during which time Congress has increased the FBI’s anti-terrorism budget by half a billion dollars since 1995. Unlike its South Texas counterpart based out of Houston, the North Texas group primarily targets domestic terrorists, though for almost two years it couldn’t find any—or at least any who could be charged with a crime.

And then, in March 1997, Fort Worth FBI agent Morgan Bodie got a call from Robert Leslie Spence, Jr., the Imperial Grand Wizard of the True Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. At the time, Bodie wasn’t even assigned to the task force, but the bearded, motorcycle-riding maverick had developed a close relationship with Spence after the two worked together to investigate a sexual misconduct case at the LBJ National Grasslands near Decatur. For months Spence had been telling Bodie that the True Knights were planning something big, though the details were a bit fuzzy; now he was in a position to be specific. Spence’s story, which he related to me over tea at La Madeleine in Arlington (“Someplace with a lot of people,” he stipulated), was that he first learned the particulars of his followers’ plot on the afternoon of March 24 while getting yet another tattoo at Shawn and Catherine Adams’ doublewide trailer in southeastern Wise County. By the next morning, he says, he was sitting in Garrity’s office relating the details.

Why? Spence says he was concerned that innocent lives might be lost. Beyond that, as he himself admits, he has long been a part- to full-time informant for everyone from the FBI to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Charming and eager to please, with a corresponding tendency to exaggerate, he is a classic stoolie: a law enforcement wannabe with more than a passing knowledge of the criminal trade, much of it gained firsthand. The dark-haired, green-eyed 52-year-old told Garrity that the True Knights needed a fifth man for the plot and suggested that the FBI send in an undercover agent. Garrity responded enthusiastically. The next day, he introduced Spence and Bodie to “Biker Bob,” an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent on loan to the task force. Bob was to be the mole.

The operation, however, got off to a bumpy start. “We went to a Bennigan’s there in Dallas,” Spence recalls, whereupon Bob, he says, proceeded to suck down three beers in fifteen minutes before suggesting they repair to a strip club and smoke some weed. Like any good drug-despising Klansman, Spence was offended. “I told him right up front, ‘No way am I going to work with you,’” he recalls. After a quick reshuffle, Spence was tapped to be the mole, and Bodie was transferred to the terrorism task force as his handler. Beginning on March 27, Spence recorded the plotters’ meetings with the aid of a body mike wired to a microcassette recorder in his boot. The wiring was done by Bodie each day, usually at Spence’s rotting trailer on the outskirts of Newark.

The resulting tapes tell an amazing story. At times the True Knights seem to view themselves as the last line of defense against gangs and drug dealers in a world where the police have been emasculated by minority rights. More often, though, they come off as run-of-the-mill gun nuts and novice thieves. Instead of ideology, they focus on mundane matters like finances, fretting about inflation, bemoaning the high cost of ammunition and empty grenades ($9, plus $3.50 per fuse). Exalted Klan nomenclature aside, the would-be bombers were the poorest of working stiffs—when they worked. Carl Waskom, who lived in a trailer near Boyd, had exactly $6.34 on hand, and creditors, including the local vet, were hounding him. Eddie Taylor, the Grand Dragon, had $15 to his name and owed $10,000 in medical bills from a job-related accident; he lived in a trailer near Bridgeport. Shawn and Catherine Adams, the Imperial Knighthawk and the head of the Ladies’ Auxiliary, respectively, were relative high rollers: They had $20 in the bank. Spence, meanwhile, had been unable to work since an automatic door at a supermarket closed on him in May 1996, according to a personal-injury suit he filed in Tarrant County.

To bankroll the bombing, the five of them are heard planning to stick up two local drug dealers. They set out to hit “number one” on April 1 and again on April 8, only to be dissuaded each time by the deliberately stepped-up presence of donut-munching, coffee-quaffing state troopers in the area. Yet the tapes suggest that even for this first robbery, their plans were not terribly concrete. They talk about posing as bounty hunters in search of a bail jumper; a few minutes later they ponder posing as agents for the Drug Enforcement Agency. They never do decide whether to kick in the door or knock first and let the “druggies” come out with their hands up—or, for that matter, whether to rob them or “take them out.” One thing is settled, though: They will bind the dealers together with duct tape, which they hail as the Klansman’s favorite tool.

They spend most of their time puffing outrageously. Waskom says he is getting two 55-gallon drums filled with super-duper explosives from Chicago, via his uncle in the mob. They tell tall tales, like the one about the neighbor who accidentally microwaved two sticks of C-4 plastic explosive that looked like burritos. Shawn Adams brags about converting an SKS assault rifle to fully automatic; Taylor jokes about buying a flat of grenades. They laugh about the stupid crimes of “niggers,” then decide to spray-paint a gang logo on a wall to throw the law off their trail. They contemplate leaving a note tying the gas plant explosion to Oklahoma City. On a trip to the LBJ grasslands to experiment with Coke-bottle bombs filled with black powder, they proudly mug for Spence’s FBI-supplied video camera.

Eventually, at Spence’s suggestion, they postpone “number one” until April 22. On that afternoon, the Adamses, Taylor, and Spence set off to cruise targets one more time. When they pulled into Bridgeport (population: 3,700) to get gas, seven unmarked government cars peeled out from a funeral home parking lot. The tiny video camera planted in Spence’s FBI-supplied pickup truck shows Taylor idly wondering where five speeding black-and-whites are going. Catherine Adams was the first to figure it out. “Oh, shit,” she says, craning to look over her shoulder.

At first it seemed a spectacular save. The feds had believed that Wise County was where Mitchell Energy Corporation had been storing hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous chemical by-product of natural-gas distillation commonly known as sour gas. In a press conference the afternoon of the arrests, special agent Garrity explained that the would-be terrorists had been poised to “wipe out” half the county. For 48 hours, major news organizations scrambled to determine just how close the True Knights came to pulling another McVeigh.

Two days later, however, the answer was clear: not very. In what turned out to be the first joke on the government, the target of the big bombing, Mitchell Energy, released a statement denying it had ever stored sour gas in Wise County. The FBI was embarrassed and incensed at the ingratitude. “I saved their plant,” an FBI official bitterly complained in an interview four months later. “We pulled in agents from Houston, from San Antonio, from Oklahoma City. We worked around the clock. For twenty-one days those people didn’t fart without us knowing it.”

Far from disavowing their case, however, the feds were sending out an aggressive message: They were here and policing right-wing groups with a vengeance. “A lot of these militia groups are getting out of control,” says one federal prosecutor assigned to the case. “We’re going to be doing a lot more of these cases. Some of these militia guys are more radical than even the radicals like.” Indeed, at a preliminary hearing the following week, the government unveiled its most spectacular evidence: videotape taken by a tiny camera planted in Spence’s ashtray as Spence and the others were scoping out Mitchell Energy and discussing the bombing plot.

It was troubling, to be sure—and yet, somehow, not as troubling as portions of the government’s case. Part of it was the fact that Spence, the government’s informant, was the only member of the conspiracy with a criminal record. Part of it was what was recovered, or not recovered, by officers who searched three trailer homes and one storage unit maintained by the True Knights: They found plenty of robes, hoods, and Klan manifestos but only a small fraction of the firepower the government claimed; no 55-gallon drums of supernitroglycerin, no fully automatic Chinese-made assault rifles (though they did find eight dummy hand grenades). And part of it was the silliness surrounding the secret identity of the government’s snitch, even though half of Wise County knew it was Spence. “Ray Charles coulda seen through it,” says Sheriff Ryan.

But the most troubling part of the feds’ case was their assertion that Spence knew nothing of the bombing plot—which his underlings had supposedly hatched without his knowledge or input—until Taylor called him on March 24 and asked him “to participate.” At least two FBI informants who attended one of Spence’s meetings in February 1994 say the plot was already afoot back then. “There was going to be no more talking about things—they were going to be doing things,” recalls one informant. “Everybody was talking about blowing stuff up and about robbing an armored car. They already had the route and the plan.”

The government charged all four defendants with conspiring to commit armed robbery and possession of illegal weapons (the bottle bombs they set off at the LBJ grasslands). All four pleaded guilty and will be sentenced on January 23. It was probably a shrewd move, in light of not only the tapes but also the zeitgeist; in a nation terrified by the newly discovered threat of domestic terrorism, anything other than a guilty plea was going to be a tough sell.

For its part, the FBI is still backslapping over the success of Operation Sour Gas and refusing to divulge how much it cost. And the U.S. attorney isn’t entertaining questions about whether it was all really necessary. “If the bomb had gone off, you guys would have been the first ones yelling,” Paul Coggins says from the fortress of the Earle Cabell federal building, which has been on a heightened security alert since April 1995.

Meanwhile, Spence, who declined to be placed in the formal witness protection program, remains in the Metroplex, receiving rent plus $1,750 a month until the sentencing. He has fallen out with the FBI, whom he accuses of withholding some of the promised bonus in the case. He is still gathering intelligence for Morgan Bodie, although he refuses to work with most other FBI agents. He and his lawyer are panning for TV and book deals, visions of mobster-turned-informant- turned-memoirist Sammy “the Bull” Gravano dancing in their heads. And he’s finally beginning to tell the “truth” about the violent rhetoric of right-wing groups.

“Most of the time it’s idle BS,” he says. “It’s when you don’t hear anything that you’ve got to worry. The only way to stop these people is with money. Offer a reward—enough that they never have to stick their necks out again. Because as much as they talk about Jewish people, movement members love a buck as much as anybody.”

Christine Biederman is a staff writer at the Dallas Observer.