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Doomsday prepper Martin Winters surrenders peacefully
With soiled shoes and soaked socks, the man who led federal agents on a two-day manhunt that stretched from Plant City to Valrico surrendered himself to the FBI Wednesday, June 18.
FBI officials believe Martin Winters, 55, spent the past days in woods near his Valrico home. He arrived at the FBI dehydrated and hungry, accompanied by two attorneys and a family member.
“He peacefully surrendered. … He was very cooperative the entire time,” said FBI spokesman David Couvertier. “His shoes and his socks were soaked, and one of our agents had a pair of sneakers and fresh pair of socks … so he gave those over to Mr. Winters.”
Couvertier also said Martin was given cheeseburgers, Gatorade and water.
“He seemed to be doing fairly well under the conditions,” Couvertier said. “Mr. Winters, in this situation, did the right thing. … We were hoping for a peaceful resolution, and, today, we got that.”
Winters is accused of building unregistered destructive devices as part of an end-of-times plan to kill government agents. During the manhunt, FBI officials expressed worries he had stashed weapons and supplies and perhaps hunkered down in a hidden bunker.
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 Revelation. He and five others were charged June 5 in a sealed indictment with possessing destructive devices without permission or registration, among other allegations. The indictments also name Michael Bonta, 49; Jason Swain, 33; Nicholas Hall, 23; James Beebe, 56; and Desiree Beebe, 23. They have been arrested. 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.
According to authorities, federal agents approached Winters’ vehicle at about 9 a.m. June 16, on Cheryl Court, in Plant City. Winters sped away, then fled his vehicle and ran into a wooded area near Durant High School. The school was placed on immediate lockdown.
“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.
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.
“The media has blown this up into something that it’s really not,” Winters’ ex-wife, Lori Thomas, said. “He’s a really good person. He gives a lot to people.”
Several of his neighbors shared similar sentiments about Winters on the Plant City Times & Observer Facebook page.
“We know him. … He’s a nice guy,” said Georgia Harper Holland.
“Yes, he is a nice guy, and he feeds a lot of older people and widows in the neighborhood,” Brenda Goodall said.
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.
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.
“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 has no significant criminal history in Florida, records show. He owns several properties in the area near his home. He also runs several metal recycling businesses including Metals and Materials Recycling in Plant City.
Following processing with the FBI, Winters was escorted to the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa, where he was scheduled to have his initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Thomas Wilson.
That appearance occurred after press time Wednesday.
Tampa Bay Times reporters Dan Sullivan, Victoria Jacobsen and Patty Ryan and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].