Home, home on the range … where neo-Nazis and skinheads roam

  • Edith Gronhoud at vigil against hate crimes

    Steven G. Smith/Billings Gazette

John Trochman calls himself a "Christian Patriot" and defender of the American Constitution. The soft-spoken man with a Robert E. Lee beard is also a field general in the "Militia Of Montana," a paramilitary survivalist organization formed to fight what it perceives as oppression by the federal government. The number one threat to freedom, Trochman says, is the recently passed Brady Bill, which bans the sale of semi-automatic assault rifles.

To some, the 50-year-old resident of Noxon, Mont., population 270, is a hero. To others, he is a fanatic, preparing fellow zealots for a bloody confrontation with law enforcement officials.

"Make preparation in advance," he preached to 100 people gathered at the Bozeman Public Library in May. "You never have trouble if you are prepared for it. In other words, if you want peace, prepare for war."

Trochman and his followers are one reason why Montana has become a nexus for Western factions of the radical right. While the rest of the country may view the state as a playground for tourists and reclusive Hollywood celebrities, Montana's rural topography and individualistic tradition have made it a magnet for the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nation, the American Nazi Party, the Christian Identity movement, and an array of tax protesters such as the Freemen, Constitutional Militia, and Posse Comitatus.

The proliferation of fringe groups worries many residents of Big Sky country. Last month, the Montana Human Rights Network, a private, non-profit organization formed to counter the radical right, issued a warning. "There is a very real danger of violent confrontation with law enforcement," the network said in a special report, A Season of Discontent: Militias, Constitutionalists, and The Far Right.

"The philosophy espoused by many of these groups is one which tells people that society is out to get them; that the system has been taken over; and that there is no way people can get justice through the processes currently in place," said the report's authors. "These groups urge people to take immediate action and arm themselves. History has demonstrated that individuals who subscribe to this ideology are capable of acting in a violent manner."

Hateful rhetoric is not directed only at the federal government and minorities. Environmentalism is also a target, in part thanks to talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Chuck Harder, who decry "pagan nature worshipers."

The radical right movement seems to be growing. Each of the dozen or so militia forums held around the state since February has attracted, on average, about 250 people. Leaders of the Christian Identity movement, which holds that white northern Europeans are God's chosen people, claim 70,000 members nationwide, and many have been encouraged to move to Montana. "Hate organizing" may also have risen to public consciousness because of the aggressive efforts of the Human Rights Network and its local affiliates to expose new groups as they appear.

David Roach, a spokesman for Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., says Montana's reputation as a haven for white supremacists does not bode well for the state's tourism and business economies. "If hate groups continue to prosper, it's not going to be a pretty picture," Roach said.

Montana Attorney General Joe Mazurek says it's hardly a mystery why an increasing number of Montanans - and Westerners in general - have embraced the radical right. Threatened with the loss of jobs and traditional uses of the land, they fear they are losing control of their lives, he says. Christian Identity and the KKK lure some in by promising a helping hand in battling the enemy, whether that enemy is the federal government, the local bank or environmentalists.

Mazurek says the Freemen group succeeds in agricultural areas where people have gotten in financial trouble with banks. "Our concern arises from their self-proclaimed ideas that they will establish their own courts and governments and appoint their own law enforcement officials," Mazurek says.

Many of the members of these protest groups were willing to take advantage of loans and government services, but they are not willing to accept responsibility for repayment of their part of the bargain, he adds. "They have a tendency to ignore any sense of personal responsibility while proclaiming the government to be corrupt and engaged in wide conspiracies."

"I think people are just sick and tired of the government interfering in their lives and telling them what to think," says John Abarr, leader of the "Montana Quest" or "Realm of Montana' - both names for the Montana chapter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, located in Billings.

"Eventually, I don't know if it will happen during my lifetime, but white people won't have as much political power. I don't know if that's being racist, but any black person can tell you that being a minority isn't a positive thing, no matter where it is. The minority people always seem to get the short end of the stick. I don't see any advantages to being a white minority. I'd like to see these trends reversed."

Pandering to paranoia while espousing the virtues of white motherhood, family values and the right to bear arms has been a standard marketing ploy for the Christian Identity group. At a meeting in Bozeman, Trochman first showed a video detailing alleged government complicity in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Then, as the featured speaker, he told how the United Nations is working to overthrow the U.S. government; how the British, using secret agents from Hong Kong, are trying to infiltrate the country and restore tyranny to their former U.S. colonies; and finally, how the Russian Army is standing by, ready to invade. "The conspiracy goes deep and it goes everywhere," Trochman claims. "Above all, firearms can ensure our freedom."

During a deadly siege in 1992 between white supremacist Randy Weaver in Idaho and the FBI, Trochman staged a vigil. Weaver was later acquitted of major charges, thanks to a defence mounted by famed Wyoming attorney, Gerry Spence.

These days Trochman invokes David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, as other examples of how the government is trying to squelch liberty.

Trochman returns to a table where pamphlets explain why militias must be formed before it is too late. Nearby, members of the Militia of Montana hawk dozens of videotapes. For $12, you can buy "Big Sister is Watching You." It goes with the subtitle "Hillary's Hell-Cats, or if you like, Gore's Whores." "They are unlike anything the world has ever experienced," we are told. "Recruited and empowered by their boss, Hillary, these are women who tell Bill Clinton what to do. Lesbians, sex perverts, child molester advocates, Christian haters, and the most doctrinaire of communists, whose goal is to end American sovereignty and bring about a global Marxist paradise."

Former Aryan Nation member Floyd Cochran knows the game that Trochman is playing. Four years ago, he watched him address the annual summer convention of the Aryan Nation Church of Jesus Christ Christian at its compound outside of Hayden Lake, Idaho. At that time, Cochran was an influential member of the Aryan tribe, traveling from town to town across the Northwest as its chief spokesman and recruiter.

The spotted owl issue was "affirmative action for birds," he told receptive audiences. "It set aside birds above hard-working white loggers." He says now, "Spewing this stuff got me in Newsweek, and everywhere I went made headlines. I must admit, it was a great method for fund raising."

In timber communities where sawmills were shutting down, he roused unemployed loggers by blaming their woes on environmentalists; in the countryside, where debt-ridden farmers were losing their land to foreclosure, he promoted solidarity by telling them the Internal Revenue Service was really a front for Jewish bankers.

"It was a tightrope I had to walk because you need to pacify the militant people and yet not get prosecuted for encouraging hate crimes," Cochran explains. "The key is to work subtly, to win their confidence. I would just talk with people, not shout racial epithets or carry a gun or make violent-sounding remarks or wear a uniform with swastikas. You want them to believe that you feel for them, that you are there to be their friend."

The Northwest, he said, has been a flash point for racist activity ever since Aryan church founder Richard Butler declared it the centerpiece of an all-white homeland in the mid-1980s.

"The Bible says that in the end time, Yahweh, God's people, will flee to the mountains," Cochran recites. "In Deuteronomy, Chapter 4, it also says that when you go into a land, you should exterminate the native people so they don't grow up to be thorns in your side and pricks in your eyes. It says some very violent things in the Old Testament and believe me, some people take it as God's word."

If Cochran sounds like a turncoat, it's because he quit his former colleagues in disgust and went out on a speaking tour decrying those who promote hate. The turning point came in 1992, when his son was about to have surgery to repair a cleft palate.

"I was getting ready to attend the Hitler Youth Festival, and the head of security for the Aryan Nation told me that when white supremacists come into power, my kid would have to be euthanized because he has a genetic defect. I was stunned."

His infidelity to the cause has earned Cochran death threats, and even though he lives now in upstate New York, he says he carries a handgun wherever he goes.

In May, the U.S. Secret Service said that it was investigating rumors of a possible plot involving the Aryan Nation and KKK to assassinate President Clinton. Debra Parmantler, who lives in Utah, told law enforcement officials that she documented the plan in her diary and that the plotters in New York, Idaho and Wyoming intended to gather July 10-16 in either Hungry Horse, Mont., or Seattle, Wash., the same week as the Aryan Nation conference in Hayden Lake, Idaho.

Cochran says violence is revered in many Aryan circles. In the early 1980s, a group of Aryans who are affiliated with a violent spin-off group known as The Order left the compound in northern Idaho and murdered Denver radio personality Alan Berg after he taunted white supremacists on the air. David Lane, one of the men imprisoned for violating Berg's civil rights, is, according to Cochran, the brother-in-law of Carl Franklin, the "archbishop" of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, in Noxon, Mont.

A few years ago, Gordon Kahl, a farmer loosely affiliated with Posse Comitatus, shot and killed three law enforcement officials in Medina, N.D., when they tried to arrest him for tax evasion. He escaped to Arkansas and died months later in another shootout with authorities. In Missoula, Mont., constitutionalist and tax protester Gordon Sellner, now a fugitive, is accused of shooting Missoula County Deputy Robert Parcell. In Hamilton, a black man found a cross burning on his lawn.

"We've been on the borderline of somebody getting hurt for a long time," says Clinton Sypes, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who now lives in Billings after doing time in the Montana State Prison for burglary. "Fortunately we've been able to curtail violence so far. That's because everyone is lying low and the skinheads have grown their hair out." He claims that several fringe groups have buried machine guns, grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles in the ground, waiting for a clash with authorities.

Sypes embraced the Klan as a teenager while attending reform school in Oakland. He says black kids beat him up every day. "Me getting beaten up reinforced my racist stereotypes and I left the city with a lot of resentment," he says.

In Idaho, in 1986, Catholic priest Bill Wassmuth went head to head with the far right and nearly lost his life as a result. During Aryan Nation's annual conference at Hayden Lake, Wassmuth helped organize a human rights rally in Coeur d'Alene.

More than 1,000 people showed up to decry white suprem-acists, and Wassmuth appeared on television, warning that hate groups in Idaho would not be tolerated. Aryan Church founder Richard Butler was reportedly incensed.

On Sept. 15, 1986, a pipe bomb blew up the back of Wassmuth's house. Within two weeks pipe bombs exploded at other locations. In a confession, the bombers said it was their original intention to throw a bomb through Wassmuth's bedroom window and assassinate him. At the last minute they changed their mind.

"There was no question this act was perpetrated by people who are part of the Aryan Nation," says Wassmuth, who today heads the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, based in Seattle.

In 1989, the Montana Legislature enacted a statute defining hate crimes as malicious intimidation or harassment relating to civil or human rights. This legislation was adopted in response to growing concern over the increased presence and activity of white supremacists in Montana. Mazurek said the statute has been used a handful of times.

The law makes it a crime to maliciously intimidate or harass a person because of race, creed, religion, color, national origin, or involvement in civil rights or human rights activities. A person convicted of malicious intimidation could be sentenced to prison for up to five years or fined up to $5,000 or both. Additionally, someone convicted of another crime may have their sentence increased up to 10 years if the crime was motivated by race or any of the other categories included in the malicious intimidation statute.

Billings police officials say they likely will use this law to prosecute those responsible for attacks last year against Jews, Native Americans and gay men. Equally troubling to Mazurek are the more recent fire bombings of abortion clinics in both Missoula and Helena. He is hopeful that a recent Supreme Court decision guaranteeing access to clinics will send a message to pro-life activists who have tried to bar women from entering the facilities.

"The most concerning thing about what's happening in Montana is the rather successful utilization of the anti-government sentiment in much of America, including rural America, to promote a Christian Patriot agenda," Wassmuth says.

The Montana Human Rights Network, which has closely tracked the family trees of hate groups, says that some ranchers and loggers have been duped by groups that claim to have moderate agendas.

"While all of the fringe groups may believe in different principles and tactics, the links between them are clear," says Network director Christine Kaufmann. "The most extreme elements in the far right are using more benign groups to recruit and radicalize a growing number of individuals. It is one thing when an individual joins a Klan group with a full understanding of the Klan's beliefs. That is clearly a right we all have, a right which is critical to our free society. It is another matter when an individual unwittingly joins a group he believes can help him with tax problems or help save his farm or because he is concerned about gun control, only to be "brought along" into increasingly extreme and radicalized philosophies which are destructive to the individual and society."

If the Christian Identity movement and constitutionalists needed a martyr to woo more ranchers into the fold, then their prayers were answered by Billings resident Martin "Red" Beckman. Fifteen years ago, Beckman refused to pay taxes and lost his property to a foreclosure sale. Although the new landowner, Getter Trucking Co., initially allowed him to remain on the property, the company recently decided to develop the tract and asked local authorities to evict Beckman. The maverick tax protester vowed to stand his ground.

In January, a rally titled "No More Wacos' was held on Beckman's behalf, and 150 people, including several individuals associated with hate groups, turned out in support. This spring, Beckman was evicted from his land by sheriff's deputies and his house razed by the owner.

Beckman's anti-Semitic views emerge in his 1984 book, The Church Deceived. "They talk about the terrible holocaust of Hitler's Nazi Germany," he wrote. "Was that not judgment upon a people who believe Satan is their God ... They (Jews) are still with us today, still worshipping their god, Satan, and they are still stealing from the people ... They are the ones who schemed and conspired to create a Federal Reserve Banking System."

One of Beckman's allies is Christian Identity minister Pete Peters from La Porte, Colo., who hosts a "Family Bible Camp" in Kalispell every summer. According to the Human Rights Network, some of Peters' past talks have featured "Skinheads, the S.O.S. Troops of the Right" and "Death Penalty for Homosexuals Is Prescribed in the Bible." Both Peters and white separatist James "Bo" Gritz made a pilgrimage to Billings last winter to show their support for Beckman.

"The Beckman situation in Billings was cause for very grave concern," states a background report prepared by the Human Rights Network. "Not only is it a situation which could have erupted into a violent confrontation, it is also a situation which activists from the hate movement have been using to garner public support. The Human Rights Network understands the temptation to portray this conflict as a confrontation between David (rugged individualist Beckman) and Goliath (the evil bureaucrats). Unfortunately, the end result is the romanticizing of individuals who promote some very bigoted ideas."

Within the lexicon of Montana constitutionalists, sovereignty is the key. Disciples of this philosophy claim that federal and state laws are not applicable to them, nor need they pay taxes. Only common law adopted by the county in which they live and enforced by the local sheriff need be respected.

Nowhere is this ideology more strident than in Garfield County and the small ranching town of Jordan, situated in the belly of Montana. Last year, when local rancher Paul Berger was arrested by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents for allegedly poisoning eagles, anti-government sentiment came to a boil. Although Berger admitted that he killed several eagles because they threatened his livestock, he later denied the confession (captured on videotape by a CNN reporter) and used the government raid as an excuse to attack the Endangered Species Act.

Eventually, Berger was acquitted, but his arrest fueled a group of tax protesters who staged a revolt that has spread to other Montana counties. Calling themselves Freemen and "Sovereigns' who are not answerable to federal jurisdiction, they formed their own grand jury and issued bounties on county officials who administer property foreclosures. Through a little-known legal tactic, they also started filing multimillion-dollar liens on the property of county officials in an effort to harm their credit ratings. Although the liens can be removed, they can cause major inconvenience.

At first, officials in Garfield and Musselshell counties laughed off the actions as pranks; then they realized the Freemen were unleashing a flood of paperwork to clog and sabotage the operation of government. By overwhelming administrators such as the county clerk, county attorney and local judges, foreclosures and legal action would be stalled.

"The documents are usually laden with Latin phrases, biblical quotations and numerous legal citations," wrote Clair Johnson in a special report for the Billings Gazette. "Court cases typically balloon to include as defendants the government attorneys involved in the action and the judges hearing the case. The result is that judges usually excuse themselves, and the case gets transferred to another county." Such changes are costly because it means judges and county attorneys in neighboring counties must take up the cases.

Judge Peter Rapkoch, who presides over a district court in Lewistown, told Johnson he was incredulous over the tactics and read the Freemen filings solely for entertainment. "Those documents are a bucket of snakes," he says.

James Aho, a sociology professor at Idaho State University in Pocatello, has studied right-wing groups and published a book on his observations, The Politics of Righteousness. "To some, virtually the entire government ... is biblically and constitutionally illegitimate, worthy of only armed resistance," he wrote. Aho says that Montana has the largest per capita concentration of right-wing extremists in the country, but he points out that only a small fraction are prone to violence.

"There is violence associated with right-wing extremism just as there was violence associated with left-wing extremism in the 1960s," he said, pointing to monkeywrenching and bombing of research centers by animal-rights activists as modern examples of hostility that transcends political boundaries. "Nobody has a monopoly on violence."

He notes that not all conservative religious organizations have embraced the radical right. "Even the people with the Christian Coalition dismiss the violent people as crazy; nevertheless there are a lot of shared beliefs with the groups it tries to separate itself from."

Soon after the emergence of the Christian Identity movement and constitutional militias, the Church Universal and Triumphant, led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet and located along the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park, informed the state it did not condone anarchy.

Prophet relocated her new-age sect to Montana from California in 1980, because the state offered the same seclusion from the mainstream of society that Christian extremists covet. The church has also had run-ins with the law. A few years ago, church members were charged with illegally purchasing semi-automatic weapons and caching them in fallout shelters built to withstand a nuclear war. Murray Steinman, spokesman for the church, says that is where similarities with the constitutionalists end.

"This whole constitutionalist movement is anathema to us," he said. "We've told our members they must avoid fanaticism. To live in our community, they cannot get involved in these fanatical causes. We choose to work within the political system, not outside of it. Red Beckman would still have his property if he just paid his taxes. His troubles are no fault but his own."

He adds: "We believe in paying taxes. It says in the Bible 'Render unto Caesar.' "

The Church Universal and Triumphant, headquartered at the 12,000-acre Royal Teton Ranch, represents the most diverse racial community in Montana, a fact that has attracted threats from white supremacists. Steinman, himself a Jew, said he is appalled by those like John Abarr of Montana Quest, an arm of the Ku Klux Klan, who try to raise doubts about the Holocaust. "My father saw a concentration camp when he was an American soldier during World War II," he says. "People who deny the Holocaust are not firing on all cylinders."

Across the Bitterroot Mountains from Noxon, in the north-central Idaho community of Kamiah, law enforcement officials have noted the arrival of white separatist Gritz, who recently purchased 280 acres to serve as a compound for his right-wing Christian Covenant Community.

A former Green Beret, Gritz was a presidential candidate in 1992, and briefly agreed to be the vice-presidential running mate of Louisiana KKK member David Duke. He is best known, perhaps, as the man who talked fellow white supremacist Randy Weaver out of his 11-day standoff with authorities in 1992.

Gritz, according to groups monitoring his actions, has maintained a close association with various hate groups, though he insists he is not a racist. During interviews, Gritz says his community near Kamiah will offer people refuge from the federal government and vowed to "defend our neighbors against any kind of predator threat."

"We're circling our wagons," he told one reporter recently. "That's what we're doing up here. We just want to live in peace and in the way that we want to live ... We're not here to teach any kind of weird religion."

Todd Wilkinson writes about environmental issues in Bozeman, Montana. His story was paid for by the High Country News Research Fund.

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- Montana organizes to fight the hate groups


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