VALRICO — Those closest to Martin Winters know him as a “neighborhood guy.”
He runs a free produce stand for the benefit of everyone on Williams Boulevard, said John Kuntz, a longtime friend.
On Halloween, the two men used to set up a “haunted trail” along a 1-mile stretch on Winters’ property for the enjoyment of the neighbors. Whenever a neighbor was out of work, Kuntz said, Winters would set them up with a job at the scrap yard he operated on his property.
“He’s been a civic kind of leader and a helper his whole life in that neighborhood,” said Kuntz, 52.
But this week, newly public documents have painted a more sinister picture of Winters’ leadership.
He heads a group called the River Otter Preppers and is accused of manufacturing destructive devices and illegally purchasing AR-15 rifles in preparation for “an end-of-times event as prophesied by the Book of Revelations,” according to the FBI.
Agents have been searching for Winters, 55, since Monday morning, after he fled from authorities when they approached his car near S.R. 60 and Dover Road.
Winters sped off and nearly injured two law enforcement officers who had to jump out of the way, said Dave Couvertier, spokesman for the FBI’s Tampa division. Authorities struggled to keep up with him during their pursuit and lost Winters completely when he abandoned his car and fled on foot into a wooded area near Turkey Creek Road and Cheryl Court.
Based on what investigators know about him, authorities are assuming he is armed, Couvertier said. They are interviewing his friends, family and neighbors to figure out where he may be hiding.
“Nobody has been hurt,” Couvertier said. “We’re hoping that stays the case.”
Everyone investigators have spoken to have said good things about Winters, he said.
“We’re hoping that somebody who cares for him, somebody that really believes in him, can help us resolve this peacefully,” Couvertier said.
The FBI is offering a $5,000 reward for anyone with information that leads to Winters’ arrest.
Authorities began investigating Winters late last year, according to an affidavit released with a warrant to search his home at 3032 Williams Blvd. Over the course of several months, Winters met with an undercover FBI employee multiple times and described his plans for an apocalyptic event, according to the affidavit.
He told the investigator about barrels buried on his property that were packed with AR-15 rifles, ammunition and bullet-proof vests that he purchased through straw buyers. Winters said he had buried about 50 rifles and spent more than $200,000 on his preparations, records show.
Winters showed the agent several booby traps he had built to use on federal agents, according to the affidavit. One device was made of plastic piping that used compressed air to shoot out fish hooks to trap and immobilize intruders. A second booby trap consisted of metal pipes that were designed to fire 12-gauge shotgun shells.
He also outlined his plans to defend his home from government agents using propane gas and pistols, according to court records. He told the undercover agent there were 40 armed men in the neighborhood willing to help him defend the property during his “last stand.”
On Monday, authorities arrested five other people they said were members of the River Otter Preppers. James Beebe, Desiree Beebe, Jason Swain and Nicholas Hall were charged withbeing felons in possession of firearms; Michael Bonta was charged with making and possessing destructive devices without permission of registration, the same charges Winters faces.
Winters was arrested in 1979 for hunting deer out-of-season and received probation in 1985 after he was arrested for larceny. In 1989, he was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Those charges were dismissed.
The investigation is not personal, and has nothing to do with Winters’ legal firearms or his views on the government, Couvertier said. He said the charges are strictly because an undercover agent saw the homemade booby traps and witnessed felons in possession of firearms.
“He is making this more than it is,” Couvertier said.
The situation doesn’t sit right with Kuntz, who said he has known Winters for 40 years. Winters is capable of protecting himself and his family, but he would never hurt anyone unprovoked, he said.
They grew up in the same neighborhood and used to baby-sit each others’ daughters, Kuntz said. Occasionally, the two men would go hunting together or drink a beer on the front porch.
Winters was always a hard worker who went out of his way to help anyone he could, Kuntz said.
“If you were hurting, Marty would help you,” he said.
He never laid a hand on anyone, and he wouldn’t talk to a stranger about plans to shoot federal agents, Kuntz said.
“That just ain’t the man I know,” he said. “They’d have to play me a tape of that before I’d buy it.”
He said he spoke to Winters a few months ago, and while he mentioned the River Otter Preppers and saving food and supplies, he never mentioned guns or booby traps, Kuntz said.
“He’s not that kind of guy,” he said. “He’s not a nut case. He’s become a very devout Christian, and he lives it.”