Controversy swirls around Adrian minister and microbroadcaster

Toledo Blade/March 21, 1999
By Michael D. Sallah

Adrian -- Rick Strawcutter is a witty and engaging minister who's beloved by his flock, and whose teachings on values and the Bible have been shared with thousands.

He founded his radio station - without a license - to give the "little guy a chance to speak," he says.

And a legal victory over the government last summer to stay on the air has allowed him to keep broadcasting while the case grinds through the appeals court.

But the preacher with the easy grace and hordes of followers has been gaining notoriety for another reason - one that extends far beyond the borders of this quiet, rural community.

Several national watchdog organizations claim he has links to some of the most virulent hate groups in America - some considered so dangerous they're watched by the FBI.

While he oversees his congregation of 250 members, he has been quietly running a distribution center from a back room in his church that offers videos ranging from militia and anti-government rhetoric to Jewish conspiracy beliefs.

He was a featured speaker at the annual "Identity Super Conference" in Missouri last year - an event where white supremists gather to share ideas.

"He's a popular figure with people in the neo-Nazi movement," says Dr. John Nutter, a former Michigan State University professor who has infiltrated such groups.

Indeed, the 48-year-old minister who has pastored his church more than 23 years says he believes that whites and blacks should not marry and homosexuals in prison should be executed.

But he scoffs at his critics, saying they feed off hate as much as any group. "They are more paranoid than any of the people they supposedly watch," he says, shaking his head.

He says it's "pure nonsense" to label him as a Christian identity minister - believing that blacks and Jews are inferior - just because he sells such tapes or speaks to such groups.

"I believe in free speech," he says, "and if the Communist party asked me to speak at their functions, I would do so."

His video ministry has been placed on the lists of two national watchdog organizations - including the Southern Poverty Law Center - that track extremist groups.

And he is a well-known national distributor of anti-Semitic videos, says the Anti-Defamation League.

The accusations are a surprise to some members of his congregation.

"I just can't believe that it's the same person," says Denise Grothe, a mother of six who has been going to his church 12 years. "He is an excellent teacher of the word of God."

He can be controversial, yes, but a leading player in an underground hate group? Local civic and community leaders say they are unaware of the pastor's activities.

Politicians appear regularly on his radio show, which has become a campaign stop in Lenawee County.

"This is a surprise to me," says David Munson, president of the Lenawee Chamber of Commerce.

The accusations are casting storm clouds over a pastor who is otherwise a hero to his flock, and who is not one to back down from a fight.

"He's not like most ministers," says C.J. Gautz, 45, a member of Pastor Strawcutter's Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

For sure, the pastor has been embroiled in his share of controversies, some that have endeared him to his congregation even more than his down-to-earth interpretations of the Bible.

A decade ago, he went to jail for 13 days because he refused to remove an addition to his church that was built without a permit. Twenty-three members of his church carried picket signs while circling the Lenawee County Courthouse. The controversy ended when the city attorney found a way to grandfather in the new work.

He once appeared on the Phil Donahue Show to support a police crackdown on homosexual activity at a local park, incurring the wrath of gay rights groups.

And during his early ministry, he led a public burning of Playboy and Penthouse magazines that made national news.

In the last decade, no other minister in southeast Michigan has been in the news as much as Rick Strawcutter.

"He creates controversies, that's for sure," says Lenawee County Commissioner Lowell Eisenmann.

But no controversy has been as caustic as the most recent one encircling the popular preacher. And so far, he says he's perplexed over how to respond.

Since the early 1990s, he says he has been distributing a wide variety of videos - 500 titles in all - over the Internet through his Proclaim Liberty Ministry.

Some of the tapes, which cost between $12 and $25 each, are about UFO sightings, government atrocities in Guatemala, and the evils of the federal monetary system. Some are more disturbing videos of rabid anti-Semitic spokesmen Jack Wickstrom and Pete Peters - national figures who are known for their racist causes.

Wickstrom was a director of the anti-government group, Posse Comitatus, a violent group in the 1980s that called for hanging enemies from "all the telephone poles."

Peters openly proclaims that Jews pose a satanic threat to American civilization.

Pastor Strawcutter says he may sell the videos, but he doesn't believe they promote violence or hate.

He says he doesn't necessarily subscribe to any of the beliefs, but he does feel "they have a right to say what they believe.

"What I do believe in is free speech - the rights of people to say what's on their mind."

Pastor Strawcutter is also the producer of one of the most widely circulated militia videos ever made - America In Peril - which was taped inside the pastor's church in 1993.

The main speaker on the video: Mark Koernke, one of the leading spokesmen in the militia movement. The main theme of the tape: Take arms, because foreigners are conspiring to take over our country, and our own government is selling us out.

Mr. Strawcutter, the father of two grown children, says he made the video. But he says he never dreamed "it would take off the way it did."

He says he doesn't agree with everything that is said on the tape, but he does believe "We are losing our individual rights to a government is that is no longer American . . . we are living as communists, and it's getting worse."


No one knows why it happened, and the only people who could answer the question are dead.

But a bizarre action by the Heaven's Gate cult in California two years ago showed just how far Rick Strawcutter's ministry has reached.

The day before the 39 cult members committed mass suicide in a rented mansion, they did something strange: They sent a video and letter overnight to the Michigan minister.

"To this day, I have no idea why these people sent it to me," says Pastor Strawcutter. But it suddenly thrust his small church and video ministry into the limelight.

Part of the letter read: "By the time you receive this, we'll be gone - several dozen of us."

At the time, Mr. Strawcutter says he didn't know what they were talking about. But the day after the suicide, he went back to rewatch the tape. "I realized what they were going to do."

Much of it was rambling and in some segments, incoherent. And even Pastor Strawcutter's critics don't believe he had any ties to the group.

But what made the mailing significant was that Mr. Strawcutter was so well known across the nation. Some say Pastor Strawcutter's video service - and its advertising on the Internet - was what grabbed the cult's attention.

Even in a catalog two years ago, his Proclaim Liberty Ministry claimed to be the "largest, most efficient distributor of politically incorrect video tapes in America."

And it's that type of access that bothers so many of Pastor Strawcutter's critics.

"He has the ability to reach so many people," says Donald Cohen, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Detroit. Experts say the distribution of materials like the videos of Jack Wickstrom, Pete Peters, and Mark Koernke helps perpetuate a "culture of hate and exclusivity" that can incite fringe groups to violence.

It was the militia movement - spelled out in videos like America in Peril - that supposedly inspired Timothy McVeigh to look on his country as the enemy, say those who track these extreme groups. McVeigh was later convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people.

"People on the edge - people who take these things seriously - feed off these tapes and materials," says Dr. Nutter, who works as a consultant to law enforcement agencies.

People who are part of the Christian identity movement - a deep belief that northern European whites are the biblical "chosen people" - took part in the assassination of Denver talk radio host Alan Berg in 1984.

He was gunned down in his driveway several weeks after hosting a radio interview with identity minister Pete Peters and Jack Mohr, and hostile words were exchanged.

Two of the defendants in the murder case were known members of a Christian identity church.

Both Peters's and Mohr's groups have been under surveillance by state and federal law enforcement agencies for years. But Mr. Strawcutter strongly disagrees that any of the videos he sells - including those of Pete Peters - are harmful.

The American government - and its secret military operations - do more to provoke people to violence, he argues.

"The government is taking away our individual rights every day," he says angrily. "That's what provokes people."

He fumes at his critics for "bending the truth" about his ministry, and he rails against the groups that have put his name and ministry on their hate watch lists.

"They need the lynchings and hate crimes to feed their own missions," he insists. "It helps them raise more money."

Pastor Strawcutter says he once lived like "a scumbag," smoking marijuana, dropping LSD, and driving a beat-up sports car.

Born in 1950 in Grand Ledge, Mich., a suburb of Lansing, he was named after Ricky Nelson of Ozzie and Harriet fame.

Life in those days "was like Happy Days," he says, referring to another television show that portrayed life in the 1950s.

He says he was always searching, and many times, in places where he shouldn't have. By the 1960s, he was experimenting with drugs, driving to Mexico with his girlfriend to buy speed.

During the Vietnam War, he says he drew a high lottery number, and was never drafted.

At 21, he was an Amway salesman, spending the next two years "selling a lot of soap," he says.

While attending a sales convention in Grand Rapids, Mich., he says he went back to his hotel room and had a deep religious experience.

"I began talking to God, and demanding answers to what this world was all about," he says.

Slowly, the answers came, and he began studying to become a Pentecostal minister, he says.

He married his wife Betty by the time he was 23, and eventually was invited to oversee a small church in Adrian. His congregation at the time was about 18 people.


As his flock grew, he says he started to question seriously the role of the government. When the state of Nebraska cracked down on parents in 1978 for homeschooling their children, he became incensed.

"I realized that government was going places it had no business," he says.

He became a "rabble-rouser," so to speak, questioning his city and county on eminent domain powers.

In 1988, when he began to build an annex to his church, he was told he needed a permit. He refused, beginning a standoff with city officials that landed him in jail twice in two months.

His flock rallied around him. "He was standing up for principle," says Mrs. Grothe, a congregation member.

At the time, they said the church "belonged to Jesus Christ," and not "men who try to be gods."

Around the same time he produced his own video, Ten Planks of the Communist Manifesto, with his narration of how the nation and personal freedoms are being undermined everyday.

The recording, which sells for $20, remains "one of the most requested and biggest sellers," according to his catalog.

He produced another video program, offering his own version of how the lost tribles of Israel are really Northern Europeans.

He began to market hundreds of other videos, including those of Wickstrom and Peters.

By 1990, Mr. Strawcutter was the guest speaker at the Michigan Populist Party's convention, an extreme right-wing group whose national candidate was David Duke.

The pastor wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, calling for the execution of all homosexuals and murderers in prisons to decrease the inmate populations.

His other request: Christianity be made the official religion of the United States.


If Pastor Strawcutter is part of an underground hate movement, then he lives a double life.

"There's nothing but love in our church," says congregation member Denise Grothe.

On any given morning, the minister with the styled, gray hair and boyish looks is visited at his church by friends and followers as he co-hosts his radio show.

They bring doughnuts and coffee, and sometimes just drop in to say hello. "They're our audience," jokes Lee Alexander, co-host of the drive-time show at 6 a.m.

Two years ago, Pastor Strawcutter plunked down $10,000 to buy a transmitter and a 100-foot tower to raise in the rear of the brick, colonial church in Adrian Township.

Known as a "pirate" broadcaster, he did not ask for a license from the Federal Communications Commission. And for a brief period, he took his station off the air after he was accused of interfering with another signal.

"The airwaves belong to us - the people. They were created by God, and not men," he says.

Until his case is resolved in the courts, he says he will continue to stay on the air.

To spread the word about the station, members of his congregation traipse through downtown Adrian in the morning carrying signs: "Free Speech - Tune to 99.3 FM."

The 95-watt station reaches about 10 miles around the church in this once rural, farming community.

The station, which airs 24 hours, offers mostly conservative, right-wing programs, including the Christian Radio Network.

During the mornings, Pastor Strawcutter's on the air in his small, carpeted studio at the front of the church. He criticizes homosexuals and gun control laws, and he strongly believes parents have a right to homeschool their children.

He once said it is OK for a person to sell a body part - like a hand or foot - to someone who needs one. "We got a lot of calls on that one," he says, rolling his eyes.

The station has its own ads and jingles, and gets more than a dozen calls each morning from listeners.

He rarely, if ever, espouses any racist views on the air, and he does not talk about Christian identity movements.

That does not surprise his critics, who have followed his speeches on the Christian identity circuit for years.

"Pastor Strawcutter is not going to go on the air and start talking about white supremacy," says Michael Reynolds, a senior intelligence analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"You have to in some ways, be careful, and in many ways, live a double life. He knows what to say and what not to say."

As part of an investigation by the center, he says he quietly has attended several Christian identity conferences where Pastor Strawcutter has spoken.

"He uses a humorous approach, and he really gets the crowds going," says Mr. Reynolds, whose center tracks extreme groups.

He says the pastor's message is "softer" than the other, more virulent identity ministers.

"He's a funny, dynamic speaker with an ugly message." John Nutter, the former Michigan State professor, says he has also heard Pastor Strawcutter speak. "He talks about how the government gives to minorities, but forgets its own, and how the white race is forgotten, and needs to re-establish itself."

Pastor Strawcutter, described by those who know him as "laid-back" and unfettered, takes umbrage at the remarks.

He denies being a racist, and says he has the tapes from his radio show to p rove it.

He recently called for the execution of the white defendants who dragged to death James Byrd in Jasper, Tex. "They should be killed exactly the same way," he said.

He does not believe in marriage between the races, but he says he doesn't wish anyone any harm.

Of the 250 members of his congregation, most are white and between 10 and 15 per cent are Hispanic - reflecting the makeup of Lenawee County's 100,000 people.

No African-Americans are at the church, but they have been members in the past, the pastor says.

He adds that it's not fair, however, that other ethnic groups can talk about their pride, but not white people.

"The minute a white person talks about being white - and what it means - he's criticized as a racist," he says.

He says he has nothing against Jews, but he does believe they control "a large percentage of the mass media in this country."

During his earlier battles with the FCC, he used to keep a gun in his 20-foot-by-15-foot studio. On the wall is a Michigan Militia poster.

What are his feelings on gun laws? "Gun control is how many times the bullets can strike the target," he says.


Larry Richardson, president of the NAACP in Lenawee County, says he has never had any complaints about the minister.

"He's always been an upfront person with me," says Mr. Richardson, 53, an Adrian police detective.

"I've had people within the police department talk about Pastor Strawcutter's [video] activities, but like I say, I've never had a complaint about him." About 3 per cent of the county's population is black.

Mr. Strawcutter tries to support local charities, and he often goes on the radio to ask people to report local crimes, say members of his congregation.

The pastor says his best-selling videos are not even Christian identity tapes, but testimony on Gulf War illness and other events, like the Oklahoma City bombing.

"These are messages that you're not going to get from the mainstream media," he says. "You're not going to get them from the government.

He says his mission is not always easy. "We don't have any sacred cows," he says.

And if there's a cause, he says, "I'll go to jail tonight."

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