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How an Undercover Exotic Dancer Captured America’s Most Wanted Terrorists
Rebecca Williams spent five years infiltrating extremists.
Photograph: Thomas Ingersoll
Rebecca Williams always dreamed of fighting crime like her father, who was a cop and a Baptist minister. But in her early 20s, she found herself dancing at a rundown strip club. The downward slide started when her parents divorced, when she was just a toddler. She moved with her mother from rural Willits, California, to the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. It was a rough area and violence often exploded on the school bus. When she stood up to bullies, students elected her sergeant-at-arms. “I put myself in situations that most people wouldn’t, just wanting to do the right thing,” she said, “I’ve always had the investigative eye.” After school she binged true crime television instead of homework and dropped out without a diploma.
At 15 Rebecca fell in love with Rodney, an 18-year-old grocery store manager. They moved in together and adopted a boa constrictor named Rufus. “We started wholesaling reptiles to pet stores from our carport,” she recalled. She spent her profits on a glamorous Farrah Fawcett hairstyle. A neighbor said she looked like “a sailor’s dream,” and at the Italian restaurant where she worked, men tipped better when she flashed her ice-blue eyes.
When she was 19, Rebecca gave birth to a daughter via emergency C-section. Amanda was deaf, autistic and unable to talk. “I was really protective of her,” she told me. “I didn’t want to risk anybody doing any weird stuff to her, and her not being able to tell me.” She and Rodney scraped by with odd jobs, until 13 months later, when they had a son, and money got even tighter.
Left: Rebecca as “Stevie,” an exotic dancer. Right: Rebecca with Charlie Sheen on the set of “Beyond the Law”
Photographs: Rebecca Williams
Rebecca discovered bigger tips working as a cocktail waitress at various nightclubs. At Tiffany’s Cabaret, she jumped on stage during “amateur night”—dance classes in school had boosted her confidence—and was quickly promoted to exotic dancer. She loved the thrill of transforming each night into Stevie (after Stevie Nicks, of course), a blonde bombshell who whizzed around the pole to AC/DC’s “Fast Machine,” wearing glittering rhinestones she called “eye-catchers.” Men were obsessed. One paid for four dances at a time, just to talk to her. “When my husband and I got married, he loaned us a Camaro,” she recalled.
She spent her crumpled dollar bill tips on batteries for her daughter’s hearing aids, and still longed to fight crime. Between dances, she made her bosses nervous by scribbling in a notebook—she liked to theorize about local unsolved murders. She bought a Magnum .357, and won a green belt in Korean martial arts.
She tried modeling, and even appeared as an extra in “Beyond the Law,” a Charlie Sheen movie about an undercover cop who joins a deadly biker gang. But soon she was hanging drywall to pay the bills. In 1999, after 14 years together, she and Rodney separated.
Fearful that the school system was failing Amanda, Rebecca enrolled her in a residential home for deaf children, seeing her only on weekends. By 2003, she was earning less than $3,500 a year cleaning toilets. She lived with her teen-aged son in a double-wide trailer. Her brother Phillip lived in a smaller trailer in her backyard.
“Krusher” was a career criminal with a handlebar mustache and an easy smile. After selling drugs to an undercover officer, he had agreed to go undercover with the Hells Angels (not unlike the plot of “Beyond the Law.”) “He turned his life around when he started doing undercover work,” Rebecca said. “My mom was proud.”
One day federal agents came to visit Phillip and noticed Rebecca. “His handler asked me if I was interested in undercover work,” she recalled. “It sounded cool at the time…and I guess it was sort of sexy, you know, the whole spying game.”
As a test, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives dispatched Rebecca to investigate a drug ring, sending her undercover as a patron in a strip club, a role she played with ease. She would not wait long for her first assignment.
Left: Rebecca with her daughter, Amanda. Right: Phillip, aka “Krusher.”
Photographs: Rebecca Williams
ON FEBRUARY 26, 2004, 144 miles away, in Scottsdale, Arizona, Don Logan finished his lunch and strolled back to the city’s Office of Diversity & Dialogue. He enjoyed his job organizing a Martin Luther King Day celebration a month earlier, and, as a Black man in a predominantly white city, was perfectly placed to address the conflict that often arose between Scottsdale’s police force and the community. “My job was to create an environment where diversity is valued and encouraged,” Logan told me. It was 1 p.m. when a colleague at reception handed him a curious package the size of a shoebox.
“It’s got to be a bomb,” laughed the colleague.
Logan, always ready for a joke, gave the box a little shake.
“Well, I don’t hear anything ticking,” he chuckled.
Logan carried the box to the second floor and asked his longtime secretary Renita Linyard for a pair of scissors. When he opened the box, he heard a loud pop. Time slowed; a floor-to-ceiling window shattered; debris fell from the ceiling; and the room filled with smoke and screams. Logan thought he’d been shot. Through blood-stained glasses, Linyard watched Logan stagger to the door, blood gushing down his arm. “I couldn’t get over the stinging sensation that I was feeling in my finger,” he later recalled.
Photographs: Don Logan/YouTube
An ambulance raced Logan, Linyard, and another injured co-worker to the hospital, and doctors fought to save Logan’s forearm using skin grafts and screws. Soon the crime scene was crawling with investigators jostling for jurisdiction. “It’s my scene,” announced a pale, 40-year-old man with curly hair tinged with gray. A.T.F. Special Agent Tristan Moreland had started his career making undercover drug buys for the Drug Enforcement Administration, thanks to the fearlessness of youth, and, he told me, a “bitchin’ mullet.” He had spent the next 21 years working undercover for the A.T.F., and investigating thousands of explosions, including the bombs detonated at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996, and Columbine High School in 1999.
Moreland knew he was in a race against time. His specialist arson and explosive team rushed fragments of the pipe bomb to the U.S. Postal Inspector’s lab in Dulles, Virginia, where experts discovered it was made from hobby rocket motors and igniters that were impossible to trace. Moreland ran through a list in his mind of terrorists capable of such an atrocity. Then came a clue. Five months earlier someone left a warning on Logan’s answer machine. Incredibly, the caller left his name:
“This is Dennis Mahon. The White Aryan Resistance is standing up.”
“Dennis and Daniel Mahon are twin brothers from Illinois,” Moreland later told a court. “They began their white supremacist career as members and Grand Dragons of the K.K.K. They evolved during the ’80s and began membership with a group called W.A.R.…the White Aryan Resistance…to my knowledge they’re into all kinds of causes, anti-abortion of white children, anti-tax, tax protesting, anti-government in general.” Dennis was an associate of Timothy McVeigh, who detonated a truck bomb outside a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children.
“These two brothers could be the greatest serial bombers that ever lived in this country,” Moreland told me, “and I’m not talking magnitude of the bombings, I’m talking the number of actual bombings and arsons these guys committed.” In a 1994 interview published online by an anonymous blogger, Dennis admitted: “In south Florida, ’83 or ’84, I did a lot of midnight activity…I did some pretty serious vandalism, some pretty serious bombings. Pretty serious shootings…we also did some major activities against abortion clinics.” Dennis, an aircraft engineer, and Daniel, an aircraft mechanic for Alaska Airlines, had access to the tools needed to make bombs. “They had a motive. They had opportunity…they had the knowledge. Everything seemed to fit,” Moreland said.
The brothers had been living in a trailer park in Tempe, before fleeing Arizona just after the Scottsdale bombing, Moreland discovered. He also knew Dennis had an Achilles’ heel. “Dennis is a guy that likes a lot of praise, he’s a guy that likes to puff himself up a lot,” he said. During the Oklahoma City investigation, the A.T.F. planted a confidential informant to get close to him. Dennis fell in love with the pretty skinhead, boasting to her about his terror activities, yet it was not enough to charge him with the deadliest domestic terror attack on American soil. Moreland planned to send in another female C.I. to see if Dennis would brag about the Scottsdale attack. He needed a woman who was not only alluring, but brave, because it would be fraught with danger. “When I was assigned to D.E.A. in San Diego back in the ’90s,” he recalled, “we had an informant killed in Mexico.”
IN JANUARY OF 2005, the A.T.F. summoned Rebecca Williams to its Phoenix office. Moreland ran his eyes over her. “She’s lived a little in life, she has a lot of street smarts, and she’s run with some rough crowds,” he recalled thinking. She had an edge and would be believable, he concluded. When he told Rebecca there had been a bombing that seriously injured a Black person, she was intrigued. “They said they needed me to just go and talk to a couple of guys and everything would be recorded. They said that I could get up to $100,000.”
Here was a chance to fight crime and make money. Still, she told Moreland, she needed to go home and think about it. Moreland had shown her photos of Dennis and Daniel Mahon, but warned her not to look them up. Naturally, Rebecca started digging. Dennis Mahon was “one of the scariest guys around” in the 1990s, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
A day later, she called Moreland back. She’d do it.
“I feel that I was asked to do it. It was a calling,” Rebecca told me. “I feel that things come in our path as a test, and God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle. It was an honorable thing to do to save lives.” She signed an agreement to become a C.I., in exchange for $100 a day. A neighbor, a sheriff’s deputy, agreed to watch Rebecca’s son, and soon she was on a flight to Oklahoma.
Onboard, Moreland gave her a cover story and a driver’s license in the name of Becca Stephens. She was a woman on the run from the law, a Separatist. Imagine, he told her, that “you hate people.” She had to transform into a totally different person. “Rebecca Williams is a very caring person who went out of her way to help people and Becca Stevens hated anybody of color,” she said.
Moreland told her that she needed to be comfortable using racial slurs, she recalled. But they felt wrong in her mouth. She had been just one of two white girls at her grade school and had gotten along with her fellow students. “Hating somebody based on color is ignorant,” she said. Growing up, she was taught that everyone was a child of God. She had loved watching “In Living Color” on television, and she had friends who were immigrants.
They drove from the airport to an abandoned Walmart, where 40 law enforcement agents were milling around a trailer attached to a blue Dodge truck. The A.T.F. had confiscated the vehicles during a drug bust. Inside the trailer, a light switch above the stove turned on pinhole cameras in the ceiling. “They said there was cameras everywhere except for the bedroom and bathroom,” she recalled.
Moreland introduced her to “Shelly,” a brunette A.T.F. agent from Georgia, who would play her friend. “I was like, ‘Okay, this looks like it’s gonna be fun,’” she recalls. Rebecca had packed spaghetti strap tops and a T-shirt that read: “Do me, I’m Irish.” From her belt swung a keychain hiding an audio recorder. The trailer transmitted live audio and video to a hotel room at a casino on a nearby American Indian reservation, where several A.T.F. agents lay in wait. As she and Shelly drove toward an RV camp, Rebecca was buzzing. “There was an adrenaline rush going for sure,” she said.
Rebecca, with Dennis and Daniel Mahon
Photograph: Rebecca Williams
IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for the Mahon brothers to notice two attractive women parking their trailer next to theirs, with a Confederate flag hanging in their window. Daniel offered to hook up their sewer and water connections while Dennis cracked jokes. Rebecca casually studied the brothers’ pale, Irish skin. They were 54-years-old and shared the same goofy smile. Dennis was shorter by three inches. He had a squarer jaw and was the more dominant brother.
“He told me that he was the Grand Dragon of the K.K.K.,” Rebecca recalled. To prove it, he dashed back to his trailer to fetch a photograph of him wearing a green ceremonial hood. In another image, he performed Hitler’s Sieg Heil salute. Rebecca invited the brothers into her trailer, flicked the light switch, and soon they were chatting over beers and Everclear, a 190-proof spirit that is banned in some states.
“Dennis showed me a picture of him and a girl that was an undercover informant that he ended up falling in love with.” This threw up a red flag for Rebecca. She felt left in the dark about previous investigations. “You could tell the disdain in his voice when he talked about her,” she said. Dennis also gave her his copy of “The Turner Diaries,” an incendiary novel that has inspired several domestic terrorists, including McVeigh. “He talked a lot about overthrowing the government with an underground revolutionary war,” she said.
Daniel boasted about drive-by shootings and blowing up cars, according to transcripts of the secret recordings later heard in court. “We thought we were doing the right thing. We were just trying to send a message,” he told Rebecca. “When I would take someone’s car out, it wasn’t anger. It was a sense of duty. It is like a military operation. You plan for it. Equip for it.”
Rebecca, hoping to captivate the men the way “Stevie” did customers at the strip club, stayed quiet, even standoffish. Dennis was smitten. “I just want to cuddle with you. You’re so beautiful,” he told her, but as the night wore on, Rebecca made it clear she wanted to go to bed—alone. “Your day may come someday,” she teased, before steering him out the door. Hidden microphones recorded Rebecca as she slipped into bed.
“Motherfucking weirdo,” she whispered.
Dennis Mahon in full K.K.K. regalia.
Photograph: Rebecca Williams
The next day, the brothers couldn’t wait to hang out with Rebecca and Shelly. “I finally told him—I think about three days in—that I was on the run, and had a warrant out for my arrest,” Rebecca recalled. That night she and Dennis found themselves alone in the trailer. She broke down in fake tears. “I tried to bomb a car in California of a child molester,” she confessed. Dennis touched her arm and suggested she call his lawyer, or the cops, or even the D.A. But Rebecca wanted blood.
“I want to hurt him real bad,” she said.
Soon, Shelly checked into the casino’s hotel, leaving Rebecca alone. A.T.F. devices recorded Dennis telling her how to send a mail bomb, and blow up a car using a condom and liquid explosives. “Dennis told me he was a ‘master of all disguise,’” she said. She says he boasted about wearing a postal uniform, and using shoe polish to conceal his identity. “He would color his face and arms…he would put stuff in his mouth…so it looked like he was a Black person.” He hoped, she said, to start a race war.
Rebecca encouraged Dennis to show her how to make a mail bomb, but he was more interested in propositioning her. She says he wanted to have a baby with her, but, because he was impotent, he suggested that she have sex with his twin. Rebecca was disgusted, but didn’t tell him no. She had to keep him on the hook.
As Rebecca showed more interest in extremism, Dennis promised to introduce her a man who ran an extremist training camp in rural Missouri. Robert Joos (pronounced “Joes”) was the first person Mahon telephoned after the Scottsdale bomb exploded, investigators learned.
On February 5, the brothers took Rebecca to a local gun show. Playing her role as a fugitive, she wore a cap and sunglasses. “We were looking for electric matches and fuses, blasting caps, and stuff like that…materials that I needed to make a bomb,” she said. When Rebecca asked if Dennis had worked on bombs that had worked, he leaned in close and whispered: “Yes, the goddamn diversity officer…Scottsdale Police Department, had his fingers blown off.” Then he caught himself and said he had told “white cops how to do it.” She had got her confession.
Assuming that the operation was a success, Rebecca started slipping out to the casino after the twins fell asleep. Now it was her time to be smitten. “I locked eyes on this guy, and he’s like 6-foot-2, and he’s a 100 percent Absentee Shawnee Indian,” she recalled. Soon Rebecca was sleeping at Brent’s house and sneaking back to the campsite before the brothers woke up. The A.T.F. didn’t seem to care, or even notice. But she dreaded to think what the brothers would do if they saw her kissing a person with dark skin.
By now, Dennis had fallen “completely in love with her,” his lawyer would later admit. “You’re the general,” she liked to tell him, “I’m the private.” When he begged to ‘spank her ass,’ she teased him: “Maybe someday I’ll let you.” But inside she thought him a coward. “There were several times I just wanted to bash his face in.”
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After 12 days, Rebecca left the campsite, telling the brothers that she needed to keep moving to evade the law. She said she was taking Dennis’s advice, and moving to Kingman, Arizona, to find other extremists. She promised to write, and drove away, with Shelly pulling the A.T.F. trailer full of secret video footage, its Confederate flag fluttering in the wind.
Rebecca expected to receive a six-figure check for her work, believing it done. But the A.T.F. wanted her to stay in contact with Dennis and, what’s more, help them get close to Robert Joos, and his extremist training camp. She hoped her work might prevent another Waco, the 51-day siege in 1993 where nearly 80 people were killed.
The A.T.F. gave Rebecca a raise: A monthly stipend of $400, and $200 for each day of personal contact with the suspects. Undercover work also brought her closer to her brother. “Phillip was one of the only people that I could talk to at the time,” she recalled. She told him her fears of being compromised, or killed. Watch your back, he told her, and keep a log of everything.
By May she and Dennis were frequent pen pals. She continued the flirtatious behavior, in December mailing Dennis a Christmas card with a suggestive photograph. “Thought you’d love the butt shot,” she wrote. Dennis, whose love language was hate, mailed Rebecca books called “Creative Revenge” and “The Manual of Urban Guerilla Warfare.”
Their penpal relationship carried into the new year, 2006. He asked Rebecca to mail him press cuttings about the Scottsdale bombing, but said he couldn’t talk about it on the phone. “I’ve enclosed the articles for you like you asked,” she replied in a letter ghostwritten by Moreland. She even included a picture of Logan holding the bomb. “He was on the news waving it around like he is some sort of expert.” Don Logan had returned to work, after just 30 days, permanently disfigured, but refusing to let the bombing stop his work as a diversity officer. When the A.T.F. briefed him about their undercover mission to catch his attackers, it felt surreal. “This isn’t something that I’m watching in a movie, this was my life,” he told me.
Rebecca posing as ‘Becca Stephens,” during an A.T.F. photoshoot.
Photograph: Rebecca Williams
In May, Moreland summoned Rebecca to the desert for a photoshoot. She dressed in German camouflage and a white lace bathing suit, and he snapped pictures as she blasted automatic weapons. She posed with a live grenade dangling between her breasts as a swastika flag fluttered nearby. The photos titillated Dennis, who recommended that she visit Joos at his weird church, the Sacerdotal Order of David Company, where he preached to “apocalyptic Christians.” Moreland agreed she should go. “She’s a pretty feisty person, and I felt like she could hold her own,” he said. “My biggest worry with her was that she would make a mistake with her mouth.”
By 2007, Rebecca’s two-year undercover assignment had destroyed her personal life. Dating was impossible. By now, Dennis believed she had joined a terror “cell” in Arizona and needed training. “One boyfriend thought I was cheating,” she recalled. She decided to dedicate herself entirely to the cause, and become Becca Stephens right down to her roots. She dyed her hair jet black. “I think there’s something a bit more mysterious about having dark hair,” she said. Dennis loved it, too.
Moreland still wanted Rebecca to get close to Joos. The former Eagle Scout and Air Force Academy cadet was still on parole supervision after serving a two-year sentence for driving without a license. (This was a felony because it was Joos’ third such offense—he claims he answers to God and not the government.) A Joos henchman had tracked down the Missouri State Trooper who had arrested him and shot him through his kitchen window. Joos was untouchable. “He’s a brilliant guy. He’s frickin,’ you know, a Mensa guy. His I.Q.’s well above mine,” Moreland said. No cops could get into his remote compound without risking an ambush. But for a $100,000 reward, Rebecca was willing to go into the belly of the beast.
THE BIGGEST TERROR threat to Americans today is not Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, but home-grown extremists. In 2020, domestic terror attacks hit an all-time annual high, and on January 6, 2021, after white supremacist and militant right-wing groups stormed the Capitol, F.B.I. Director Christopher A. Wray warned Congress: “The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon.” The A.T.F. operates on the front line of this battle. Between 2012 and 2015 the agency spent approximately $4.3 million annually on its C.I. program, handling nearly 2,000 active informants like Rebecca Williams.
“Confidential informants are the lifeblood of covert, proactive, law enforcement,” said Jay Dobbins, a retired A.T.F. agent who did not work on Rebecca’s operation, but spent decades undercover with groups including the Hells Angels. Critics say that informants are often authorized to commit crimes with little government oversight, and placed in mortal danger. “I had a case where the informant was put under pretty severe questioning,” Dobbins told me, “to the point where he was kidnapped.”
By 2008 a meeting with Joos had been arranged and Rebecca flew to Chicago, the first leg of her trip. In an airport bathroom, a female A.T.F. agent gave her a warning: “Be very careful about wearing a wire. Not sure if you heard about the C.I. that had her wire detected…unfortunately the agent couldn’t get to her in time before they killed her.”
It was January, and there was a dusting of snow on the road as Rebecca steered a rental car through the Ozarks, following a map to Joos’ 200-acre-church compound near Powell, Missouri (population: 49). The church had registered a logo consisting of two capital “Ns,” side by side, that looked like the lightning bolts in the Nazi “SS” logo. Rebecca met Moreland for a roadside briefing. He had bad news. Due to the remote location, surveillance was impossible. She was going in alone. No backup.
“I was not happy about the conditions,” Rebecca recalled. Moreland told her to wear a pink ribbon in her hair to help aerial teams identify her. An argument erupted. “There were a lot of heated arguments,” Moreland told me. “I think she might have even punched me a couple times.” He says he felt responsibility for her life. “Look, this was scary shit,” he said. “This was like intense stuff. These were bad, bad characters.” Moreland, tired from nearly a year without a day off, snapped at Rebecca.
“He reminded me that I could get an additional $100,000 reward for going through with this—if we got an arrest and conviction,” she said. Furious, Rebecca sped off. The agents knew she wasn’t going to give up. She tried to focus on the reward. Two hundred thousand dollars would buy her a house and a car, and leave enough money to care for her daughter full time.
The meeting place was a Sonic burger in Joplin, Missouri, and Joos was easy to find. Wearing prayer beads, a long beard and a royal blue bandana holding back his long gray hair, he looked like Charles Manson.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had a lady around to open a door for,” Joos said, when they reached her rental car. When Rebecca dropped into a curtsy, he blushed crimson.
Joos called out directions as Rebecca weaved through country roads until they arrived at a large gate. After she drove in, he locked it behind them. “At that moment, I realized I am truly in the grace of God,” she recalled.
They drove through a graveyard of broken-down vehicles, as stray cats mewed and dogs howled. Inside rickety buildings, Rebecca noted several long guns, and as they strolled among the walnut trees, Joos chatted about survivalism and conspiracy theories. As casually as someone on a YouTube cooking channel, he taught her how to make napalm using household soap.
Rebecca firing a weapon in a photoshoot staged by the A.T.F.
Photographs: Rebecca Williams
Joos led her deeper into the woods, showing her distant caves where he hid supplies. “He said if he ever found out that somebody was trying to infiltrate them, that they would disappear,” she recalled. She thought about her keychain secretly recording them, and imagined her dead body decomposing in a cave. She wondered if the pink ribbon was to help agents identify her body. When it was time to leave and Joos opened the padlock and said his goodbyes, she was relieved. “I hope I didn’t freak you out too much,” he wrote in a letter not long after she left. “I know Dennis would really like you to participate in what we are developing here.”
Later that month, Rebecca met with the Mahons in Illinois. After dinner, they dropped her at a Motel 8, where the A.T.F. had booked side-by-side rooms, having wired Rebecca’s room for sound. When Dennis announced he was staying the night, Rebecca panicked. She was wearing a secret recorder in her bra. A text message arrived from Moreland, listening next door. Was she okay letting the terrorist sleep in her room? “Sure I’m sure,” she typed. Moreland asked her to think of a safeword, something she could say aloud to summon A.T.F. agents to rescue her. She typed: “Disneyland.”
As Dennis showered, she unloaded his handgun, buying her precious seconds. He returned completely naked. Rebecca tried to throw a towel over him, but he fell onto her bed and talked her into giving him a massage. “Don’t feel guilty about it, just enjoy it,” she told him. She noticed there was no hair on his hands and wrists. He told her it was burned off while fire-bombing an abortion clinic, she said. “I asked him about a scar on his shoulder, and he said that one was from a synagogue bombing attempt…a security guard that shot at him.” She wondered if his stories were real.
Dennis kept her awake all night, telling her how good her body felt up against his. “I kept him at a distance, and rarely let him touch me,” she said. The next day, he drove her to the Mahon family home in Illinois. Inside a neat, two-story farmhouse, Rebecca saw a tender side of the brothers. Daniel fed their ailing mother spoonfuls of puréed food while Dennis walked around “like a servant.” They were not the backwater idiots the A.T.F. assumed. “I felt they underestimated the brothers a few times,” she says.
About a month later, another A.T.F. informant heard Dennis say that he believed Rebecca was “a plant.” She felt her life was in danger and demanded more money from Moreland. Their relationship had totally soured. “I remember her being frickin’ pissed at me and wouldn’t talk to me for a couple of days or, you know, she’d slam the phone down,” Moreland recalled. “But we both believed in what we were doing. And in the end, I think that carried us through some of the difficulties.”
Moreland helped her write a long email to unsettle Dennis. “The worst thing people told me about you,” she wrote, “is that you are an informant of the F.B.I. and maybe the A.T.F…. Dennis, tell me it isn’t true!” Dennis denied it, and Rebecca’s paranoia somehow made her seem more believable. “It was a constant battle,” Moreland explains. “I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many times during the wiretaps…that they would say, ‘Oh, she’s with the Fed, she’s got to be an informant.’ But like anything else, they would let it go.”
In May 2008, the Mahons announced they were headed to Arizona, and Moreland hatched a plan to get them talking about the Scottsdale bomb. “I provided her a traffic ticket court notice from the City of Scottsdale,” he later recalled. Rebecca asked the twins to drive with her to the courthouse—next to the bombing site. Moreland wired a truck with recording devices and a transponder. Moreland followed the truck in an A.T.F. car, one eye on a video screen, while a D.E.A. fixed-wing plane buzzed overhead.
“At some point, Daniel noticed that there’s an airplane flying fairly low…and they kept looking up at it…and talking about it,” she recalled. Rebecca was furious. The brothers were airplane obsessives and suspected they were being followed. She tried to distract them by striking up some sexual banter. When Dennis talked about having “the balls” to bomb someone, she reached over and grabbed his crotch. “He giggled like a schoolgirl.”
When they passed the building where the bomb exploded in Don Logan’s face, “they both automatically flinched and kind of ducked down into a fetal position,” Rebecca recalled. A.T.F. tapes later played in court captured Daniel Mahon saying: “That’s where Logan is from,” before Dennis told Rebecca: “I didn’t plant the bomb, I helped make it.” After paying the parking ticket, they stopped at a liquor store before returning to their hotel in Tempe. The brothers abruptly canceled a barbecue at Rebecca’s rented house.
The day’s events had rattled the Mahons. Later, the A.T.F. recorded Daniel telling his brother that Rebecca “had an agenda.” She was certain she was compromised. “They threatened that if they knew that they were being investigated or set up, or whatever, that the people would disappear. And that there’s ways to do it,” she said.
The next day, Rebecca appeared at the brothers’ hotel pool wearing a Confederate flag bikini that seemed to lift the fog of suspicion. Dennis talked about how much he loved Rebecca, and how he wanted to settle down with her. He talked about raising Rebecca’s son, and teaching him to hunt.
“I remember Dennis talking about ‘progressing to the action phase,’” she said. It was a saying she had read somewhere: before the Oklahoma City bombing, McVeigh had allegedly told friends he was moving to the “action phase.” She said Dennis told her his plan: “[He] knows how to destroy the U.S. electric power grid during the coldest part of winter, or the peak summer and once they do that the non-whites will destroy each other.”
By now, Rebecca’s three years as a confidential informant had taken a toll on her family life. It was exhausting lying to her mother, and to her teen-aged children. She hated being away from Amanda, and she couldn’t relax. At any moment she might have to snap into character, dropping n-bombs, or chatting about napalm, or the New World Order.
In July 2008, she got a telephone call that her brother, then 51, had been in an accident involving an electric forklift. “He died immediately. He got electrocuted,” she said. She opened her own investigation—it was her only way of coping. She took photographs of the scene and filed a lawsuit. She kept a log of everything, just like Phillip told her. And then she found his diary. She read how he hoped becoming a confidential informant would give him “a new way of life.”
By September, Rebecca wanted to quit. She felt the A.T.F. did not respect her, and she was exhausted from being in a “hyper-vigilant” state. “Friends tend not to trust you, acquaintances think you’re a liar, and both look at you like you’re a stranger,” she said. She shared her secret with one friend from a belly dancing class, who asked if she was suffering from shock after her brother’s death. When she confessed to an ex-boyfriend, he accused her of living a lie. “Who the hell are you?” he yelled.
Photograph: Thomas Ingersoll
BY JANUARY OF 2009, Rebecca had gathered hundreds of hours of video and audio evidence that linked Dennis Mahon to the Scottsdale bombing, and proved that Joos was stockpiling weapons on his compound. But Moreland needed more. He and Rebecca returned to Missouri, where he announced he needed to go with her into the compound. “Hey, if this breaks bad, we’re on our own here,” Moreland told her. “I mean, Christ, you’re wearing wires in the middle of nowhere.”
As they drove through the Ozarks, Moreland thought about the video he had seen of Dennis staging a mock execution of an F.B.I. agent. In the passenger seat, he transformed into his alter-ego, Rebecca’s cousin, Jimmy “the Wolf” Foster. “Jimmy’s a radical,” Moreland told me. A “hardcore” extremist who was packing a $10,000 semi-automatic rifle that would give him instant credibility with gun-loving Joos. A female A.T.F. agent, “April,” played his “girlfriend.” Joos opened the gates.
“[I told him] that I was with a small group, cell, in Arizona,” Moreland later told a court. “My affiliations were with W.A.R., that I was a white supremacist. I dealt guns. I messed around with explosives.” To prove his point, Jimmy unleashed his weapon on an old, rusty car. Rebecca took a turn too. Later, they drove to a Chinese restaurant, and Joos slipped his arm around Rebecca’s shoulder. “I asked him a lot of questions about explosives and weapons and tactics and snipers,” Moreland recalled. Joos bragged about his compound.
“All you need is one gun and a lot of ammunition,” he told Moreland.
But Joos had more than one gun. Moreland spotted a number of long weapons, while Joos boasted of piles of ammunition hidden in caves. When he invited them all back to the compound in February, Moreland spotted a 12-gauge shotgun in Joos’ living room while they all watched the Vietnam movie “We Were Soldiers.”
“I was ultimately able to get Robert Joos to teach me how to build a bomb that was going to be used in a fictitious bombing,” Moreland told me. Joos had totally fallen for Jimmy the Wolf’s story and Moreland was invited to join The Order, a murderous white supremacist group. “I got hired by The Order to kill Judge Matsch, who was the presiding judge in the Timothy McVeigh trial,” Moreland told me. “Those guys reached out to me through an informant in the prison to go blow him up.”
“It was difficult being Jimmy,” Moreland says. “That was a lot of work and a lot of stress to maintain a relationship with Joos and Mahon. We used a lot of cross vouching. I had undercover teams from the East Coast that knew people that would throw my name around.” But his “cousin,” Rebecca, was the key to getting close to Joos and the Mahons, who seemed to be planning something. On March 29, Dennis left Rebecca a message: “Once my mother passes away, I go back to my radical bomb-throwing, sniper-shooting realm. Look out ’cause, I’ve got nothing left to lose.”
In April, Rebecca drove Moreland to meet Dennis and Daniel at their home in Illinois. The Brothers also fell for his Jimmy the Wolf routine. “Don’t get into a skin fight with a Black person, you will get 10 years in prison,” Dennis told Moreland. “Don’t put a swastika on a synagogue, bomb the son of a bitch if you want to do something about it.” When they passed an out-building, Dennis told Moreland: “This is where I make my bombs.”
In May, A.T.F. agents arrived at the Mahon house armed with cotton swabs and warrants. After they gave D.N.A. samples, the brothers spun conspiracy theories. According to court testimony, A.T.F. listening devices recorded Dennis asking his brother: “I wonder if our little bitch had something to do with it.”
At 7.a.m. on June 25, armed A.T.F. agents surrounded the Mahon house and demanded the brothers step outside. Inside, Dennis left Rebecca another voicemail. “Becca, they are outside with a search warrant, they are trying to arrest me,” he sighed. “Them sons-of-bitches…they know I’m in here taking care of my mama.”
As Moreland recalled, “The first 30 minutes they kind of barricaded themselves in the house, and we thought we were gonna end up with a violent encounter.”
Agents smashed down the door, handcuffed the twins, and ransacked the house. Hidden among piles of model airplanes they found high explosives, improvised bombs, assault weapons, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, bullet-proof vests, a Nazi armband, and a photo of Osama bin Laden inscribed “our hero.” When Jimmy the Wolf read them their rights, Dennis said: “We knew. We knew…you and the girl. We knew.” Agents loaded the brothers into a van they had wired for sound.
“I knew this day would come,” Daniel told his brother.
“I thought it’d come a long time ago, though, Danny.”
Dennis thought for a moment, and said, “We should have had a shootout.”
Rebecca was relieved to hear that the Mahons, Robert Joos, and other associated white supremacists were arrested in simultaneous raids. She could finally return to ordinary life. She took a job at a motorcycle rental store in Flagstaff, not far from her old strip club. On July 4, she rode on the store’s float at a big parade. “Children were waving flags, people were throwing candy,” she recalled. As a band fell into the national anthem, Rebecca thought of the terrorists she had put behind bars, and swelled with pride. That night in Chicago, fireworks exploded above the Metropolitan Correctional Center where Dennis Mahon sulked in his segregated cell, next to a cellmate accused of mail fraud. Alan C. Scott later told the A.T.F. that Mahon confessed that night to planting the bomb “as a payback” for the City of Scottdale’s firing of three white police officers.
Rebecca believes her cover was blown when a newspaper did a story about the motorcycle shop, and printed her photograph. Private investigators descended on the shop to dig up dirt on her past. Rebecca started to sense she was being followed, and one day she came home to find her dog mysteriously dead. “I grabbed a shovel, drove into the woods, and I buried her,” she said. She called Moreland, and said: “I’ve been compromised!”
The A.T.F. recommended the witness relocation program but Rebecca refused to cut off contact with her children. Instead, she bought a trailer and vanished. “I was not going to be a sitting duck,” she said. She took Phillip’s ashes and put them on a toy sailboat. “I lit the boat on fire and sent it out to sea.” It was the Viking funeral he had requested.
Robert Joos decided to represent himself in court, frustrating the judge with legalese from prison library law books. The letters he wrote to Rebecca about extremism did not constitute a crime, he argued, spouting Bible verses about sins and plagues. For the prohibited possession of firearms he received the maximum sentence of 78 months in prison. His compound, once a fortress of white supremacy, fell into disrepair. He can never again legally own a weapon.
On the first day of the Mahons’ trial in January of 2012, someone discovered a suspicious package and the court house was evacuated. After a brief delay, the court heard for six weeks evidence from Rebecca’s undercover audio and video tape. Prosecutors also presented video from 1993 in which Dennis described himself as a “terrorist,” and said that “the time for whites to become violent is overdue.” The jury also heard about his urge to create a race war, and his admiration for Hitler.
A court artist sketched Rebecca wearing a business suit, as defense attorneys trawled through her past, and even her tax returns. “They tried to discredit me as a witness and tried to make it look like I wasn’t paying taxes or that I wasn’t honest,” she said. One attorney called her “the trailer park Mata Hari,” a reference to a Dutch exotic dancer who was convicted of spying for the Germans during World War II. Rebecca became a media sensation in England’s Daily Mail, while Fox News called her undercover role “award-winning.”
Daniel Mahon wanted to “pop” and “cap” diversity officer Don Logan, the court heard, and he warned his brother not to look up news about the Scottsdale bombing. But Daniel’s lawyer argued that his client was just a braggart, and he was found not guilty of any crime. Dennis’s lawyers tried to implicate a number of other people in the crime—including disgruntled Scottsdale police officers, and Dennis insisted in court: “I didn’t do this bombing.”
“They never would look at me,” Logan told me. “Wouldn’t even look my way.” When he retold the story of opening the mail bomb, his mother in the audience wept. “I gave them all the details…the blood that was coming down my arm…I looked out and both Dennis and Daniel Mahon were looking directly at me for the first time.” He says he saw curiosity in their faces. “I didn’t need a jury to tell me that they were guilty.”
Dennis Mahon was found guilty on three counts.
Rebecca was nervous about attending the sentencing, but needed closure. She donned a blonde wig and arrived in court disguised as a pregnant woman, with a half-inflated beach ball stuffed beneath a maternity dress. The courtroom was so full that Rebecca had to stand at the back, as Dennis, 61, was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
“Congratulations,” Rebecca told Don Logan, as he left the courtroom.
Logan didn’t know who she was until she whispered her name. He reached out and shook her hand. “This is a disguise,” she explained, pointing to her fake bump. Logan appreciated the joke, and thanked her for her sacrifice, as they were swept into the hallway. Suddenly Rebecca heard hollering, and footsteps racing toward her. It was not an extremist seeking revenge, but a woman in a purple dress. Logan’s mother threw her arms around her, and said: “Thank you.”
“She was laughing and crying at the same time,” Rebecca recalled.
“We couldn’t solve the crime without her and her courage,” Logan told me. He is still working in civil rights for a government agency, and as basketball official in his free time. Sometimes he thinks about the bomb when he opens his mail, but he’s never afraid. “I’m fortunate…it could have killed me. Now I got grandchildren…they call me Paw-Paw,” he said. Sometimes they ask what happened to his arm. “They’re still too young to fully appreciate or understand.”
The Anti-Defamation League of Arizona honored Tristan Moreland with an award, which he accepted in-person. A reporter from the Phoenix New Times called Moreland’s operation “the French Connection of white supremacist collars.” He retired in 2014 and is now a drummer in a band. “It worked out in the end,” Moreland told me, about his work with Rebecca. “I think a combination of the skills she brought to the table, and then of course, her ability to learn and adapt… you know, she was fearless.”
In a letter from prison published online, Dennis Mahon complained in 2016: “They…spent six million dollars of your tax money, and used a young, beautiful, sexy lying, highly-paid informant/ provocateur of the [A.T.F.] to entrap me.”
Rebecca, in the wilderness near her off-the-grid home.
Photograph: Thomas Ingersoll
Rebecca received a check for only $75,000 not $100,000, as advertised on a government flier. “They didn’t give me an explanation,” she said. “No lawyers would take the case.” She was upset to get nothing for her role in convicting Joos, but too tired to fight. She wanted her old life back—and her blonde hair. “A salon tried to lighten it back up and in the process fried my hair,” she recalls. “It was kind of a traumatic experience, but I had to cut it off.”
When we met in June of 2022, Rebecca was living at the off-the-grid property she bought with her A.T.F. money, with Amanda. (She asked that I not use her daughter’s real name to protect her privacy.) Solar-powered security cameras often capture them brushing their ponies, or making ice-cream from their goats’ milk. At night, behind reinforced doors, they often throw dance parties. “Amanda has a speaker, and she likes to hold it and feel the vibrations,” Rebecca explained.
Rebecca revealed that she’s currently working on a cold case, a mysterious double murder in a nearby ghost town called Bumble Bee. She ordered copies of the autopsy reports and has shared her theory with the victim’s mother. She thinks she can use her skills as an undercover informant to solve the case. “The police have come to a dead end on this, and it’s because they haven’t done any fieldwork,” she said. “My dad still thinks I should become a detective.”