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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

A civil conversation with an accused doomsday prepper

You had to like Martin Winters. He was — and is — what we call a “good ol’ boy.” He also had that tough “my way or the highway” streak that suggested there might be times when he wasn’t so likable; times when you might not want to be in the same place with him.

Winters turned himself in to the FBI this week, which was a better outcome than a lot of people might have guessed the more they learned about him.

He was the subject of a two-day manhunt after being approached in Plant City and then bolting into the woods. This followed a lengthy FBI investigation of Winters, who authorities say owned and hid a large amount of assault weapons and possibly other devices, such as pipe bombs, at locations across Valrico.

Authorities say he is the leader of a group known as the River Otter Preppers that believes the end of time is approaching.

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I went out to see him three years ago — or more to the point, his flag, which I had been told was pretty impressive.

I found him sitting in a lawn chair along with a few buddies in a lot that was empty except for the flag, which was mounted on a pole. “Pole” doesn’t do it justice, either. There was a small building halfway up the 130-foot shaft where he could store his 60-by-30-foot American flag, which is one honker of a banner.

Winters also was fairly well known in the area for his annual Halloween trail that ran through a nearby forest. Now I wonder if that’s the same trail the FBI is checking for booby traps and buried weapons.

Anyhow, we chatted for a while about his junk business, which is where he gathered a lot of the equipment he had used to build his flagpole with that house halfway up. He hoped to turn the empty lot into a park and put in a baseball field for kids.

He offered up something cold to drink, and we talked about how our country was getting pushed around and this flag was one way he was pushing back.

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I left thinking Winters was a likable crank but that I was glad he didn’t live in my neighborhood.

Then, this week, came the story about the FBI investigation and that Winters was hiding out in the woods. On Wednesday he peacefully turned himself in.

What’s fascinating — and troubling — in all of this is that you don’t know how many other Martin Winteres are out there.

A number of sources suggest there are more than 3 million “doomsday preppers.” Sounds about right to me.

Have you ever seen the cable show that documents these people? Some of them look at least as dangerous as Winters.

Jim Bakker — remember him, the TV evangelist who went to prison after ripping off so many people? — is into this stuff. He’s back on the air, and one of his sponsors is prepper food supplies.

I recently saw him sitting there with huge buckets of what he said was food. Bakker was urging people to buy it to get ready for the coming disaster, whatever that might be.

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Unfortunately, it’s a tough call when it comes to the difference between those who stash away food for some global emergency and those who turn their homes into armed fortresses and believe the commies or Uncle Sam is about to come crashing through the door.

Everyone has a right to believe whatever they want.

But if you’re going to live in our society there are rules, and setting up booby traps or shooting anyone who comes onto your property is not a smart thing to do.

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