Crime & Courts

‘War hero’ gets 22 months for anti-government gun crimes

A decorated Gulf War veteran who risked his life for his country but last year plotted a violent defense against a government seizure of his guns was sentenced to 22 months in prison Tuesday for violation of federal firearms laws.

In the early 1990s, Walter Eugene Litteral of Gastonia won a Bronze Star for bravery in Operation Desert Storm. Tuesday, he stood before a veteran of the later Iraq War, U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney, who had to decide Litteral’s punishment for trying to buy an assault rifle for a convicted felon and drug addict.

Whitney thanked the retired Marine for his service and described him as a “war hero.”

“But just because you are a war hero doesn’t make you immune to the laws of the land,” the judge said. “The day you enlisted you assumed a responsibility to uphold the Constitution of the United States …. You had a duty to uphold the rule of law, and you defied that.”

Dressed in a baggy, orange jail jumpsuit, Litteral, 51, stood a few feet from his Bronze Star and a row of his family members and apologized.

“I just didn’t hurt myself,” he said quietly. “I killed my family.”

Litteral is one three Gaston County men who, fueled by an apocalyptic vision of a military takeover, plotted to use whatever violence necessary to fight off martial law.

Two of the defendants already are in prison. On Tuesday, the tall, stocky Litteral blew a kiss to his family, told his wife he loved her, and joined them.

Given the 11 months he already has served, Litteral will spend about a year in federal prison, minus any reductions for which he might qualify.

His sentence came against the backdrop of growing concerns about the emotional state of military veterans and a renewed debate over gun laws, particularly on whether the government should do more to keep high-powered weapons out of the hands of would-be terrorists or convicted criminals.

Litteral pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit offense against the United States, making false statements during the attempted purchase of a firearm, and aiding and abetting the possession of ammunition by a prohibited person.

That person, prosecutors say, was co-conspirator Christopher James Barker, 43, also of Gastonia. Barker, a convicted felon and prescription drug addict, was sentenced in January on conspiracy and firearms charges to concurrent 21-month prison sentences.

Christopher Todd Campbell, 31, of Mount Holly, the owner of a Belmont tattoo parlor who authorities say was working with Litteral to build bombs, received the same sentence.

The defendants, who were arrested last August, are believed to be part of a growing community of potentially violent anti-government zealots whose numbers are increasing. In its 2016 report on “Hate and Terrorism,” the Southern Poverty Law Center says “conspiracy-minded, anti-government ‘Patriot’ groups” increased more than 14 percent from 2014-15.

According to an FBI affidavit, Litteral began preparing for a government takeover in March 2015. By that June, he had begun amassing his materiel, using a Gaston County gun dealer, turned FBI informant, for his orders of gunpowder, sniper-grade ammunition, and a long list of other military and survivalist items.

In court documents, Litteral bragged of arming himself with destructive devices, from pipe bombs and coffee cans filled with ball bearings to tennis balls packed with explosives and taped with nails.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Savage said Barker and Campbell pleaded guilty shortly after their arrests and provided more cooperation than Litteral, who Savage said forced the government to take his case before a grand jury for an indictment before he, too, admitted guilt.

Whitney cut Litteral’s sentence because of his military service and mental state but made it a month longer than what his co-conspirators had received. He gave Litteral 22 months for each charge but made the terms concurrent, meaning they will be served at the same time.

Under Litteral’s plea agreement, three other charges, including conspiracy and illegal possession and distribution of powerful prescription drugs, were dropped.

Defense attorney John Parke Davis argued that Litteral had spent enough time behind bars and needed treatment more than a longer prison sentence. Because of his front-line military service, Litteral suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, was addicted for a time to prescription painkillers, and once had attempted to take his life, Davis said.

Litteral was not planning an attack on the government “unless he was attacked first,” Davis said, and should not be considered a domestic terrorist. He asked that Whitney arrange psychological help for his client, which the judge granted.

Savage, who was in the Air Force for more than 30 years, sought a 27-month sentence. He said Litteral amassed “a virtual arsenal” of weapons at his home and swore to kill FBI agents if they came for his guns. He also said Litteral knew his friend Barker was a felon and an addict who is banned from legally owning a gun. But Litteral went to a Gastonia gun shop to buy him an assault weapon anyway. Savage asked Whitney to hand down a sentence showing that the country’s gun laws have consequences and meaning.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS