TOCCOA -- This time of year, people come to this small city in North Georgia to enjoy the mountains and peaceful vistas of changing fall colors. Toccoa, located near the South Carolina line and nearly 100 miles from Atlanta, typically isn’t a place that creates giant headlines. Residents kid that most of the news is really just gossip.
But this city of 8,000 people rocketed into national attention after three of its residents were charged this past week with allegedly planning domestic terrorist strikes that would have included assassinations of government officials, blowing up federal buildings and spreading the highly toxic poison ricin along the highways of major cities.
“Toccoa is not a big terrorist conglomerate,” said Todd Chapman, 40, who described his hometown as “a little bigger than Mayberry.”
Residents still don’t know what to make of the arrests of Samuel Crump, 68; Dan Roberts, 67; and Ray Adams, 55 -- three men who some said led unassuming lives among them. The fourth suspect, Frederick Thomas, 73, is from Cleveland, a half hour away. People are concerned that these men they’ve seen on the street and waved to allegedly conspired to create a deadly substance, fearful of the potential harm it could have caused here.
Chapman, who works at a local car dealership, is unnerved by it all. He said the arrests left him scared for the safety of his daughters, Abby, 6, and Katy, 4, whom he took for Sunday breakfast at the Waffle House near the Wal-Mart. The Waffle House is one of the places the men allegedly hatched their scheme.
It’s a place where people gather to socialize. Crump and Adams were regular customers, so familiar their orders were known before they sat down. Waitresses kidded Crump about the trouble he had with riding his motorcycle -- he fell a lot. Crump once took one of the waitresses and her husband out for dinner on her birthday.
“Sammy drank coffee, and Dan had a biscuit and sausage,” worker Jamie Amerson said. “They were just these old men who drank coffee and rode motorcycles.”
Amerson never heard them rant about the government or plot anything destructive, and she never expected any of them to be called terrorists. “Never, never, never, never,” she said.
On Woodlawn Drive, neighbor Lisa Knight recalled that Crump often visited a residence, a white mobile home, owned by his sister, before moving in full time about three months ago. He was known as the old man who drove a church bus, she said, and someone who enjoyed giving presents to neighborhood children on Christmas.
Once Crump took up permanent residence at the mobile home, the one with the 10 Commandments on a sign in the window, things changed. “They just kind of kept to themselves,” said Knight, 44.
According to the search warrant served for Crump, an FBI informant recorded a meeting in September in which Crump suggested a scenario in which the militia group could spread ricin along I-285 in Atlanta.
Phil Gruber, another neighbor, said he was shocked when he saw workers in haz-mat suits going through Crump’s mobile home on Tuesday. He once lent Crump a ladder to fix his roof.
Toccoa and surrounding Stephens County struggle with poverty, which could breed a lot of anger toward the government, Gruber said.
“Whether he would have gone all the way, that’s the big question,” Gruber said of the alleged plot.
Merle Jones lives across the dirt road from Adams’ residence, and the two men worked together years ago at a textile mill. Adams stopped by last summer to drop off some of his tomatoes with Jones. Authorities said they seized castor bean plants, which are used to make ricin, from Adams’ property.
“He’s kind of easy going,” said Jones, 66. “I never heard him say he would hurt anybody.”
In a more suburban part of town, Sue Gainous envisioned trouble when she saw a big Confederate flag hanging at Roberts’ property on a 20-foot pole. Roberts never caused much trouble as a neighbor, though his dogs could be a nuisance, she said. Now, Gainous is afraid to talk about him.
“If he is a terrorist and I say something, it could get back to him and they could blow up my house,” she said.
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