20 years after Ruby Ridge siege, extremists are fewer in northern Idaho but still remain

The Oregonian/August 27, 2012

Couer d' Alene, Idaho - About 15 neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan demonstrators showed up outside Atilano's Mexican restaurant in this resort town of 44,000 in May carrying signs that said: "Keep Coeur d'Alene White."

"My staff was in tears," recalls 22-year-old restaurant manager Patricia Gonzales. She became frightened when she noticed a holstered handgun on the hip of one skinhead.

"Trust me, you don't want that kind of people in front of your place," she says. "It's amazing that in 2012 people still do that."

The May 19 protest ended in a scuffle between the white supremacists and restaurant patrons, some who carried anti-KKK signs and threw eggs at the demonstrators. Police ended up arresting one of the counter-protesters on charges of assault and intimidation.

It's been 20 years ago this week since the siege at Ruby Ridge 70 miles to the north of here and 12 years since Richard Butler was forced to sell his notorious Aryan Nations compound in the adjoining Idaho panhandle community of Hayden Lake.

But the white power movement lives on. Extremists are fewer these days, but their presence still contrasts jarringly with the lighthearted vacationers who come to swim, boat and relax under pastel hanging flower baskets in Coeur d'Alene's sidewalk cafes.

Butler sold his 20-acre Aryan Nations and Church of Jesus Christ Christian compound after losing a $6.3 million civil rights lawsuit in 2000, brought by a Native American mother and son who were harassed at gunpoint by his followers. He died four years later at age 86. A local fire department burned the compound's buildings for practice.

Likewise, nothing remains of white separatist Randall Weaver's plywood shack near Naples, Idaho, in Boundary County. It was there that the deadly gun battle and 11-day siege raged in August 1992 and claimed three lives.

Winter snows in the Selkirk Range have flattened the Weavers' unpainted two-story cabin and the lumber has been trucked away, leaving nothing to mark the place where the standoff occurred.

Today, northern Idaho's neo-Nazis and white supremacists have scattered.

"There is kind of a Nazi Diaspora going on," says Coeur d'Alene attorney Norman Gissel, spokesman for the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. The group brought the lawsuit that forced Butler to sell his compound. "They don't have a homeland or a place."

Butler's estimated 200 followers dispersed, migrating to Florida, Alabama, Pennsylvania, upstate New York and the Midwest, Gissel says.

But some remained. The Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Ala., last year counted 18 active hate groups in Idaho, 16 in Washington, 15 in Oregon and 10 in Montana among 1,018 nationwide.

Tattooed young supremacists occasionally patronize Kip Schlinker's Coeur d'Alene sidewalk sandwich stand near Atilano's restaurant. His savory Philly steak sandwiches are favorites with both the supremacists and a group of black basketball players from North Idaho College, he says.

"Whoever buys my sandwiches, they are my friends," says Schlinker, 26. "I just hope they don't show up at the same time."

Gravitating back

Some white supremacists and separatists cluster around tiny apocalyptic churches in northern Idaho's backwoods. Such congregations are typified by the Yahweh church attended by the Weavers, and they often interpret Old Testament biblical admonitions against adultery as ordinances against interracial marriage. Interracial marriage is viewed as a Satanic plot to destroy the white race.

White supremacists tend to believe whites are a chosen, superior race. Separatists believe in living separately and not mixing races.

"We know there are people out there with those beliefs," says Kootenai County sheriff's Maj. Ben Wolfinger in Coeur d'Alene. "It's when they act out on them in an illegal fashion that we get involved."

He says newcomers claiming allegiance to neo-Nazis and white supremacists sometimes show up here, drawn by Butler's now-gone compound and the region's reputation as an extremist stronghold. They often leave when they discover their beliefs are unpopular here, he says.

"At the very least, what Richard Butler brought here was a gathering point for these folks" that no longer exists, Wolfinger says.

Butler's dream was to balkanize the nation, transforming the Northwest into a five-state, whites-only "Aryan Nation," while New York City would become a racial enclave for Jews, Florida for Cubans and Texas for Latinos, says Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Potok believes extremists are gravitating back to northern Idaho, northeastern Washington and western Montana, viewing the region as "the last best place in the face of a world they cannot bear."

Still, the extremist focus could be shifting away from its previous fixation on Jews, blacks and other minorities, says retired Green Beret Lt. Col. James "Bo" Gritz of Sandy Valley, Nev. That's suggested by the Aug. 5 attack on a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee that resulted in seven deaths, including the shooter, Wade Michael Page. Page was identified as a member of two white supremacist rock bands. Gritz believes he mistook the Sikhs for Muslims.

Gritz, long associated with the anti-government "patriot movement," negotiated the Weaver family's surrender. The siege made worldwide headlines, touched off a national outcry over the federal use of force on American citizens and exacted a frightening toll in death and suffering.

Difficult to spot

Weaver's wife, Vicki, 38, was shot to death by an FBI sniper while standing in the cabin door with her 10-month old daughter, Elisheba, in her arms. Sammy, the Weavers' 14-year-old son, was killed by gunfire, as was U.S. Marshal William F. Degan, 44. Randall Weaver and friend Kevin Harris, who fired the shot that killed Degan, were wounded.

"This was hell on earth, and we were living it," Sara Weaver-Balter wrote in "The Federal Siege at Ruby Ridge," co-authored with her father in 1998. Now 36 and living in Kalispell, Mont., the eldest Weaver daughter also wrote a volume of poetry and journal entries entitled "Dawn over Ruby Ridge," plus a book published this month entitled "From Ruby Ridge to Freedom."

The federal rules of engagement in force during four days of the Ruby Ridge siege later were sharply criticized in a U.S. Senate report as "virtual shoot-on-sight orders."

Greg Sprungl, sheriff of Boundary County and a longtime Idaho lawman, says the siege was triggered by a federal effort to entrap Weaver into informing on the extremist Militia of Montana or face allegations that he'd sawed off a shotgun barrel to an illegal length. Other sources claim the entrapment effort by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was geared to making Weaver inform on Butler.

When Weaver didn't show up for a Feb. 20, 1992, court appearance, a federal judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest. Informed that Weaver had been notified by letter that the trial would start March 20, not Feb. 20, the judge refused to withdraw the warrant. A grand jury indicted Weaver for failure to appear and the U.S. Marshals Service was ordered to pick him up.

Sprungl says the situation grew progressively more dangerous, moving from standoff to gun battle to a siege of the Weavers' shack by federal officers. Degan and Sammy Weaver were killed in the initial firefight near the cabin.

The family surrendered Aug. 31. Randall Weaver was sentenced to 18 months behind bars and fined $10,000 for missing his original court date and violating his bail conditions. Most of his sentence was credited to time served before and during a trial in Boise.

Weaver's three daughters each received $1 million in a settlement with the government and Weaver, now living near Kalispell, was awarded $100,000. Harris, despite protests by federal law enforcement officials that he'd killed Degan, was acquitted of all charges and awarded $380,000 in a government settlement.

These days, northern Idaho's supremacists tend to be more difficult to spot than they used to be. Warm-weather attire tends toward T-shirts, black and olive-drab cargo trousers stuffed into combat boots, shaved heads, tattoos and, in nippy weather, aviator jackets.

The problem: Tattoos and shaved heads have become fashionable in non-extremist circles.

Jacob Garrison, 36, a clerk at the Naples General Store near Ruby Ridge, says the radicals he meets are splintered and "don't like to be noticed." He, too, senses an evolution happening in the mountains around Naples. The rough-looking men who come down these days to buy supplies often aren't neo-Nazis or white supremacists, he says.

"They are survivalists, old Vietnam vet-types off in the woods," Garrison says. "They want to be left alone."

He's got that right, says waitress Diane McClure, a longtime Naples resident who still has vivid memories of helicopter gunships zooming over her house during the Weaver siege.

Some things don't change much up here, she says. "I wouldn't suggest going up in the woods and knocking on any doors," McClure says. "You might be met with a gun."

Recent activity

White extremists surface from time to time around the Northwest: Examples:

- Self-styled Aryan Nations leader, Paul R. Mullet of Athol, Idaho, proposed relocating the white supremacist movement's headquarters to John Day two years ago. Mullet was attracted by rural Grant County's remoteness, relatively low-cost property and proximity to the mountains for survival training. Almost 400 angry Grant County residents showed up at a public meeting to protest, and Mullet and his followers decamped.

- White supremacist Kevin W. Harpham was sentenced to 32 years in prison in 2010 after attempting to bomb a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in Spokane with an explosive device armed with fishing weights coated with rat poison.

- Shaun Winkler of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan made an unsuccessful bid this spring to be elected Bonner County sheriff in Idaho. Before the election, Winkler and a group of followers burned a cross on his property outside Priest River. Police say he was involved in the demonstration at Atilano's Mexican restaurant in Coeur d'Alene on May 19, and was slapped and punched in scuffles with counter-protesters.

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