A Separation of Church and Hate

Klan members argue that cross burnings are a religious ritual. Their neighbors don't buy it.

Times/September 1, 2001
By Stephanie Simon

Osceola, Ind. -- Railton Loy leans across the table and proposes a deal: You ignore me and I'll ignore you. But he is not an easy man to ignore.

He has the bifocals and wispy gray hair of a grandpa. He calls the waitress "hon." Yet he is dressed in all-black military garb. And his most sacred ritual is donning a pointed hood and setting huge wooden crosses ablaze.

Loy is the international imperial wizard of a Ku Klux Klan faction he calls the Church of the National Knights. And he has this little town in the Indiana cornfields up in arms. For Loy and his fellow Klansmen--a dozen, maybe more--like to practice their faith at their headquarters here in a rundown ranch house. This faith they practice does not call for quiet prayer. Rather, it demands hoods, burning crosses, gunfire and shouting devotion to the precepts they hold dear: Blacks have no souls. Jews are spawns of the devil. There will one day be a racial holy war that will leave only pure white Christians standing.

The Klan views such rituals as sacred. Neighbors call them scary.

So while the Klansmen trumpet their rights to freedom of speech and religion, their neighbors are fighting every way they can to get around the 1st Amendment.

"Yes, they have their rights. But so do I," said one man who, like many, was afraid to give his name. "Where do you draw the line? Tell me, where would you draw the line?"

He knows where he would draw it. He wants the Klan out of Osceola. The Constitution may protect them when they yell their hateful chants, but he does not see where there is a 1st Amendment right to set a friendly little town of 2,000 so on edge that some residents have taken to carrying guns at all times, even when they go jogging.

Property Value Burns With Crosses

The Klan's property is five acres, with a barn out back and a rusted-out van and old pickup in the frontyard. But it is hardly remote. The neighbors on each side are say-hello-from-the-front-porch close, and there's a new subdivision maybe half a mile away. Residents there can hear the gunshots, the shouts and the screech of the public-address system the Klan has used at some ceremonies. When the corn is low, several can see the cross burnings from their backyards.

Property values in this modest neighborhood are shot. "Our homes aren't worth a plug nickel now," one resident said bitterly.

Worse still is the fear.

Neighbors run into Klansmen in combat black at the lunch counter, at the gas station, in the grocery store; they have seen armed men in ski masks patrolling the KKK yard. One night, neighbors said, an all-terrain vehicle with its lights off ripped through their cul-de-sacs while the Klansmen inside whooped out threats and racial slurs. Another night, a few days before Adolf Hitler's birthday, the Klan set a huge swastika on fire next to the flaming cross.

Moms no longer let their kids roam free on bikes. Grandmas who live near the Klan house don't dare invite their grandkids over to play. A black neighbor said tersely that "things are a little tense."

They are tense indeed in the Kling household, two doors down from the KKK headquarters. Danny and Nancy Kling have purchased a rifle and a shotgun. Their adult son has bought a 9-millimeter handgun. "All loaded," Nancy Kling said. "All with a bullet in the chamber." At a recent Klan rally, Danny Kling said, a Klansman waved a noose at him and yelled: "I'm ready for you." The Klings now keep their guns at hand. Their faces are tight. Their voices weary.

"The Klan can believe what they want. They can have their weapons," Nancy Kling said. "But when their actions disrupt an entire neighborhood, you should be able to stop it."

Law enforcement officials respond that they're trying. The 1st Amendment, however, is powerful protection.

"Considering the history of the Klan organization, yes, there's concern about them . . . being in a neighborhood setting," Osceola Police Chief Tom Nowicki said. Especially since Loy's son, Richard, who has made the ranch house headquarters his home, "seems very, very confrontational"--and capable of violence, said Lt. Steven King, who retired last month from the Indiana State Police as commander of criminal intelligence.

But, added St. Joseph County prosecutor Chris Toth: "The mere fact that they're there" isn't grounds for legal action. "This is America," Toth said with a sigh. "You know, they have a right to be there."

The Church of the National Knights is a fairly small group, one of perhaps 50 organizations that have appropriated the Ku Klux Klan name. Loy won't disclose the membership, but local officials say there is a core of 10 to 15 true believers.

The group long has operated out of the ranch house here in far northern Indiana. But members have become much more brazen in the nine months since Loy inherited the property from his sister and allowed Richard to move in. That's when the gunfire started. And the shouted military commands neighbors hear echoing from the Klan's yard at all hours.

Police say the group has begun to attract skinheads and neo-Nazis to its conclaves. And, King added, Richard Loy "is very big at threatening bodily harm" to neighbors who dare oppose him and to business owners who refuse to put Klan literature on display. (Richard Loy would not consent to an interview with any reporter who did not meet his standards of racial purity.)

"I've never been scared out here. But I'm scared now," a neighbor said.

Railton Loy says she should not be.

True, he's accused of threatening a local reporter, a misdemeanor. And his son faces felony charges for allegedly warning a neighbor who opposes the Klan that he would rape her and slit her throat. Still, Loy insists the KKK is not out to make trouble.

The neighbors' fearful talk of "paramilitary exercises" in the Klan yard is overblown, he maintained: "There are no war games. They're meetings. Family meetings." Although he dreams of the day when all "subhumans" will be slain in racial conquest, he's not about to take on the few nonwhite residents of Osceola. "What I want to do and what I can do are two separate things," he explained.

In fact, if anyone should be afraid, Loy said, it should be him. Since prosecutors, police and local reporters began exposing his real name (he prefers to go by the "Klan name" Ray Larsen), he said, thugs have tracked him down to his house in a nearby town, splashed acid on his car, shot at his parked van and broken the windows of his computer room as he sat typing.

All he wants from the neighbors here in Osceola is the tolerance they profess to champion.

"We're a family-oriented group. We're just as you see here," Loy said, gesturing to his two bodyguards, one burly and stone-faced, the other thin and tense-looking with a handgun strapped to his hip. "What we want is to have our privacy and our religious rights respected."

There is little chance now of that.

The boldest neighbors have taken to harassing the Klan as they feel they are being harassed. They set up their own towering bonfire when the KKK lights a cross. And they counter the Klan's chants of "White power!" with the top-of-the-lungs rejoinder, "White trash!"

More effectively, perhaps, they have enlisted local officials to scrutinize Klan activities, resulting in a series of enforcement actions that have aggravated Loy to no end.

First, the sign proclaiming the Klan's property as its national headquarters was deemed too big and too close to the road. It violated zoning laws. The Klan had to take it down. Next, the makeshift backstop set up for target practice was declared an illegal firing range. The Klan received a cease-and-desist order and has reduced, although not eliminated, its gunfire.

Now officials are taking on the Klan's "religious ritual" of setting crosses on fire.

Loy's group is incorporated as a church in Indiana. But here in St. Joseph County, churches are required to have a certain number of paved parking spots. The KKK farm does not. Loy maintains his group is a church only in a spiritual sense; there is no physical building for worship, so there is no need for parking. Local officials respond that he can't have it both ways. If the cross-lighting is indeed a sacred ceremony, and if members of a church are gathering to perform it, then the parking requirement is triggered.

If the Klan tries to claim it is not a church but a club, bureaucrats are ready with another violation: The farm is not zoned for clubs.

Building Commissioner Donald Fozo insists he's not trying to run the Klan out of town. "We just want them to conform [to county ordinances] like anyone else."

Whatever the motivation, neighbors are delighted with the results. "When we started this, I never would have believed that the person with the most clout around here was the zoning commissioner," Danny Kling mused.

Ku Klux Klan Cries Foul

The KKK, however, is not backing down. Richard Loy has filed suit against Fozo and the Klan's four most vocal neighbors, accusing them of scheming to prevent him from "performing certain rituals of my religion." And Railton Loy makes clear the group has no intention of toning down its style of worship.

"They can have their cookouts and we can have ours," he said.

If they find the cross burning offensive, don't look: "I'm asking them to leave us alone. Ignore us. That's the best thing for them to do."

Loy's brawny bodyguard adds his assent--and plucks an example from his own life to make the point.

The bodyguard, who goes by the name Grizzly, weighs 270 pounds, with a shaved head and tattooed arms. He does not look like a man afraid of much. Still, he insists many sights frighten him just as much as the burning crosses frighten neighbors of the Klan house. For example: "I don't like to see a Mexican driving down the street flying the Mexican flag. That's intimidating to me," Grizzly said. "But I don't say anything to him."

Neighbors, he suggested, should follow the same live-and-let-live policy with the Klan. But experts who track hate groups say that's exactly the wrong approach.

The Ku Klux Klan, splintered into dozens of bickering groups, is no longer a major force in the white supremacist movement. Even so, the initials "KKK" remain a potent shorthand for horror.

So the presence of a Klan group in town "becomes a moment of truth for the community," said Richard Hirschhaut of the Anti-Defamation League. To ignore the Klan "would send all the wrong messages"--and might make this small rural county a magnet for hate groups. The wiser, although tougher, course is for the community to take a stand, to be "aggressive and affirmative in meeting the challenge of Klan bigotry," Hirschhaut argued.

Osceola appears ready to take on that challenge.

Local politicians are preparing a "nuisance house" ordinance that would let them lock the Loys out of their own property if they use it as a base for harassing neighbors. Another pending law would ban gunfire at night. Law enforcement officers, meanwhile, are heading to Los Angeles in October to learn more about handling hate groups from experts at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Neighbors vow to join the fight, any way they can. "It's hate and it's evil and we won't stand for it here," said Barb Franklin, who lives down the street.

A young mother a few blocks away echoed her words: "Evil has tried to scare everyone. Instead, it's pulled this community together."

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