Scary Paramilitaries

Behind a Seamless Facade, the Fractures of Discontent

New York Times/November 12, 1998
By Jo Thomas

ST. MARYS, KAN. -- To a passer-by, this small town has an idyllic air. Its wide main street is packed with pickup trucks by day, empty and serene at night. Many of the women and little girls wear long skirts, even for riding bicycles. Crime is so rare that the police statistics include "cat bite."

But in 1995, amid rumors of anti-government paramilitary groups and hidden caches of guns, federal and state agents combed St. Marys and its surroundings for links to Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who had traveled in the area just before the Oklahoma City bombing. The town of 2,000 people quickly became stereotyped as a hotbed of heartland discontent.

Three years later, the business that the two Oklahoma City bombers had here is still unknown. Talk of paramilitary groups has gone underground and camouflage fatigues are generally out of fashion. A closer look at St. Mary's, with some of the glare of the bombing faded, reveals something about the environment that helped create the right-wing movement, but it is also clear that St. Marys was never quite the way it was often portrayed.

Rather, this town that was known at the time as the last civilized stop on the Oregon Trail, is a peaceful mix of passionately held and often conflicting visions of American life.

St. Marys lies 30 miles northwest of Topeka on the banks of the Kansas River amid miles of corn and pasture land. From the very first, it was a place where dreams were made and broken.

The town began in 1848 as a Jesuit mission for the Potawatomi, a tribe driven out of Indiana and forced to walk to Kansas, more than 600 miles, along what became known as the Trail of Death. Then, during the Gold Rush, 300,000 adventurers passed through.

These days, said Larry Teske, a St. Marys builder, "It hasn't been a covered wagon, it's a station wagon or a van," and the families in them have come to stay. Teske has designed more than 100 new houses, many large enough to accommodate families with 9 or 10 children.

While the farm population has been shrinking for decades, that of St. Marys has grown. Some newcomers are government employees and factory workers who commute to Topeka. But the main attraction is a religious community established 20 years ago when the Society of St. Pius X, a schismatic Roman Catholic group, bought the Jesuit seminary and founded St. Marys Academy and College.

The St. Pius families, committed to the old Latin mass, speak of the need to return to traditional ways, without television, without feminism, without welfare, without interference from the state. It is they who give the town the appearance of a small-town America that does not exist anymore.

St. Pius members in and around the town have come to outnumber the people in St. Marys itself, many of whom belong to another large Roman Catholic church. The splits and silences between the two groups are often acute.

"You've got regular Catholics in this town, and you have this other outfit on the very conservative side," said James Mees, a member of the City Commission. "You get a disproportionate number of right-wingers, a disproportionate number of John Birchers, pro-gun and anti-government."

In the months before the Oklahoma City bombing, Michigan and Kansas paramilitary groups were recruiting in the St. Marys area, and rumors flew that weapons were hidden on the academy grounds and that paramilitary groups trained there.

The Pottawatomie County sheriff, Anthony Metcalf, said with some exasperation that he had "walked every inch of the campus" without finding anything. After the bombing, the academy's headmaster, the Rev. Ramon Angles, denounced paramilitary groups in his sermons.

Several members of his congregation, however, joined the Freemen, who refuse to acknowledge the authority of the federal government and the banking system. For a brief time, they had a compound north of town, with a "Keep Out" sign warning that the property was not part of the United States.

That compound was instantly abandoned after the FBI raided the Freeman compound in Montana. But the local group, which included two prison guards, a former guard and an former police officer, had written $1 million in fraudulent Freemen checks on nonexistent accounts.

Then last year Richard Keyes III, a bookish young factory worker, left St. Marys to join the separatist Republic of Texas. When its leaders surrendered in a siege by the police, Keyes vanished into the mountains. Caught months later, he is now serving 90 years in prison on charges that include kidnapping and burglary.

"It was not the town's fault, and it was not the family's fault," Dorothy Hoobler, who writes for The St. Marys Star and is the town's unofficial historian, said of Keyes. "I may not condone what he did, but I don't think it should be a reflection on the entire town, and that was the way it was made out to be."

The Newcomers: What Is Appealing Isn't Always Found

Leo Petit, 38, a self-employed plumber, moved here 11 years ago from Glen Falls, N.Y. "A lot of people thought that I was crazy, packing up the family and moving halfway across the country," Petit said. But "the old ways were good enough for my mom and dad, good enough for my grandparents and for the saints and martyrs."

Petit, his wife, Denise, and their 10 children live in Belvue, a small town west of St. Marys. "I liked it here from the beginning," Mrs. Petit said. "Everyone has always been very, very friendly."

Her daughter Heather, 17, who graduated this year from St. Marys Academy, said she had no regrets about the school's strictness, including a policy that only boys can play high school sports. "It doesn't help form the feminine nature," she said.

Petit said: "Is it heaven here? No. Are there problems here? Sure. I'm just trying to hang on. You never know what the future will bring."

Karl and Helga Konecy would agree, for entirely different reasons. Konecy quit his job managing a power plant in Colorado, sold the family's home with an orchard, a lake and enough land to keep horses, and moved his wife and two daughters to St. Marys in 1981.

The only thing they knew about Kansas was tornadoes, so the Konecys built their house into the side of a hill on an expanse of land overlooking the power plant where Konecy found a job. But in 1984, they parted ways with the St. Pius X community, which they now regard as a cult, and found themselves stranded here.

"There's no way to return to what we used to have," Mrs. Konecy said. "We paid a price. We paid a heavy price."

For all its quaintness, St. Marys is part of mainstream America. Families drive to Topeka to shop in the malls, and teen-agers Rollerblade in the park and complain of nothing to do. The public high school embraces all kinds of opportunities for girls as well as boys.

Next to the town park are a road and picnic shelter named for a pioneer family, the Urbanskys. Sidney Urbansky, twice elected mayor, was the last of the line. When he died in 1977 at the age of 94, no rabbi was available for his funeral, so a Protestant minister read from the Old Testament.

Two years later Warren and Diane Sickel arrived in St. Marys and found they were the only Jewish family in town. They still are.

Sickel, the music teacher at St. Marys High School, has organized a community band and participates in the town's annual interfaith Thanksgiving service. But they also regularly make the 30-mile drive to Temple Beth Shalom in Topeka, and during what they call the "December dilemma" each year, they put a lighted Star of David in front of their house.

Mrs. Sickel, an elementary teacher, said she likes the sense of continuity -- "I've taught all eight kids in the same family" -- and the security she feels.

The Society of St. Pius X has been criticized for anti-Semitism in remarks its leaders have made about the Holocaust. But the Sickels said they had not felt those sentiments here, and Mrs. Sickel said she knew what she was talking about. "My mother had a swastika burned to the ground on the lawn of her condominium in Shawnee Mission," she said.

The Farmers: An Embittered Few In Declining Breed

Kansas had its second largest wheat harvest on record this year, but the price of wheat has been going down. To stay in business, farmers have to keep cutting costs, said Doug Musick, the county agent for the Cooperative Extension Service of Kansas State University.

The profit margin is so low and land prices are so high -- $2,000 an acre for river-bottom land -- that "if you don't have land given to you or a relative to help you, you probably can't start farming and be successful," Musick said.

Charles Ronnau farms 1,600 acres just west of St. Marys, including 475 acres his grandfather bought in 1896. He rents land from 10 farms that could not survive after their owners grew old or died. "Every house you see, a farmer lived in it and farmed that ground," Ronnau said quietly. "Now the people who live in the houses don't have anything to do with the land."

Seventy-six percent of Pottawatomie County's population is still rural, but 75 percent of its $300 million tax base comes from the coal-fired Jeffrey Energy Center, which generates one-third of the state's electricity. Its 600-foot stacks can be seen for miles.

Signs along highways here say, "One Kansas Farmer Feeds 128 People Plus You." Those are fighting words to Dee Matzke, 62, who keeps some dairy cows on land near the county seat, Westmoreland, where she lives in a trailer with her husband, Alvin.

"Eighty-five to 87 percent of the population today are parasites," she said over a glass of iced tea. "I've really got to work to feed these other people."

Her first husband, Arthur Kirk, was shot dead by a police special weapons team in 1984, after a face-off with sheriff's deputies serving foreclosure papers on his farm in Cairo, Neb. Kirk fired on the police and they shot back.

Matzke, too, lost his farm to foreclosure, and in 1985 he went to prison for selling cattle that secured a loan from his bank. His first wife died of cancer a year after his release. He met Dee at farm protest meetings, but these days they expect nothing more from angry farmers. "At this point, they've lost it, survived and moved on with their lives," Mrs. Matzke said.

Matzke said: "I fought the government five to seven years and came out a loser. You never win."

The Changing Face: Defining Folks In Changing Times

The decline of small family farms in places like Kansas, with its consequent depopulation and anger, is the backdrop for the rise of radical right-wing groups, but it is not the cause, said Leonard Zeskind, the president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights in Kansas City, Mo., who has studied such groups for 20 years.

Most farmers, he said, have not taken up arms, working instead through organizations like the Farmers' Union to press for change "along legitimate and realistic ways."

What caused the reemergence of anti-government sentiment, paramilitary groups and the Freemen in places like St. Marys was the shift in the nation's political climate "in which the issue of 'Who is an American?' is much more up for grabs," Zeskind said. "It used to be that Americans were the people who were not Communists," he said. "Now communism isn't around to differentiate ourselves. Who are we now?"

Zeskind added that Common Law theories, embraced by right-wing groups, "construct a white Christian nationality."

In Pottawatomie County, like many other areas of the United States, that also happens to define the population. St. Marys is overwhelmingly Christian and white. The American Indians were pushed out more than 100 years ago, and there are no blacks and few Hispanics residents.

But questions about who belongs here have existed "from the very beginning,' said Mrs. Hoobler, the town historian.

"The town was settled by different groups of immigrants," she said. "It probably is not that much different now."

The ancestor of several St. Marys families was Theresa Slavin, a Potawatomi who made the walk from Indiana at the age of 3. At 12, she was orphaned and brought to St. Marys. At 25, she married James Slavin.

Most of the Potawatomi in this area moved to Oklahoma after 1870. The rooms in which they received final payment for their land, in what a journalist called "one of the most utterly forlorn, dismal, and miserable spectacles ever witnessed," are preserved in a museum here.

But only recently have some families felt able to acknowledge their Potawatomi forbears, said Marjorie Guerich, a great-granddaughter of Theresa Slavin. Just this fall, she helped organize a re-enactment of the Trail of Death.

Eric Pearl, who works in his family's farm equipment and agricultural chemical business, is another of Mrs. Slavin's descendants. He works at something that might be expected in a place when old ways of life keep changing and no one knows the shape of the new. He is using tractor-mounted computers and global positioning devices to help farmers map the soil quality of their fields.

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