Militias see treatment of Idaho family as example of intrusive government

Carol Asher, stationed across from the courthouse in Sandpoint, Idaho, last week, protests the way officials handled the JoAnn McGuckin situation.

The Associated Press/June 17, 2001
By Nicholas K. Geranios

Sandpoint, Idaho -- The fading militia movement - searching for a cause to rally members the way Ruby Ridge and Waco did - hoped the government standoff with the McGuckin family would provide a spark. But mother JoAnn McGuckin has made it clear she wants no part of a movement that produced the likes of Timothy McVeigh.

"I am one of the original north Idaho independents," she wrote to protesters marching outside the Bonner County Courthouse seeking her immediate release. "You all are most welcome to make your own political ideas known, of course, as you wish. Please not in my name. I cannot honor your cause." But some of the two dozen protesters insisted McGuckin was speaking under duress, hoping to win back custody of her children. They vowed to keep protesting.

"I think she's penned up there and being manipulated," said Larry Coles of Sandpoint. For those who scan the skies for black helicopters, the McGuckin case offers plenty of anti-government ammunition.

The family's home and land were seized by Bonner County officials last year and sold for $53,000 to cover $8,000 in back taxes. Under Idaho law, the county keeps the rest. JoAnn McGuckin was lured out of her home May 29 with the promise of food for her six children and then arrested and thrown in jail. Officials said the children were home-schooled by parents who were paranoid and held anti-government beliefs.

The children, trained to use firearms, sicced the family's dogs on deputies and holed up in their house for five days before surrendering. "Her land, her children, her gun, her dogs and her life have been taken from her," charged protester Leonard Browning of Spirit Lake, director of a group called the Center Against Corruption. "A pretty shady deal went on here."

Before the McGuckin standoff earlier this month, the militia movement was widely seen as in decline. Energized in 1992 by the siege at nearby Ruby Ridge and the 1993 shootout at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, the number of so-called patriot groups peaked at 858 in 1996, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. That was down to 194 groups in the center's most recent count last year.

Joe Roy, who monitors patriot groups for the law center, doesn't see the McGuckin case giving the movement new life, despite a flurry of activity on Internet sites. "They've been dragging it out and flogging it," Roy said. "They call everybody to arms, and nobody shows up."

Actually, the five-day McGuckin stalemate near Sagle and the protests outside the courthouse have featured a who's who of Northwest militia leaders. Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler and Militia of Montana co-founder John Trochmann showed up during the stalemate. Attorney Edgar Steele, who has represented anti-government groups in court, tried vigorously to become the lawyer for the family until JoAnn McGuckin fired him. He contends officials pressured McGuckin into retaining a court-appointed public defender.

Monday's rally at the courthouse featured Jack McLamb of Kamiah, an associate of patriot legend Bo Gritz. Also on hand was Don Harkins, editor of The Idaho Observer, a conspiracy tabloid based in Spirit Lake. "Our computers have been set on fire by this," Harkins said. "For some reason, it's struck an emotional chord with people."

Carl Story, a co-founder of the 11th Hour Remnant Messenger, an anti-Semitic organization in Sandpoint that preaches that white people are the true children of God, hollered support to the protesters. To those who distrust the government, the conflicting statements on the family's living conditions are proof of a conspiracy. Initial reports that the family home lacked electricity and water, that the children were starving and lived among 27 half-wild dogs proved to be wrong or much exaggerated.

Officials portrayed JoAnn McGuckin as mentally ill, but there has been no clear sign of such an impairment. Doctors who have checked the children report they are healthy. There were only about 15 dogs, many of them puppies. What is emerging is a picture of a family suffering from poverty brought on by the lengthy illness and then death of father Michael McGuckin.

Sheriff's deputies arrested JoAnn McGuckin last month on a child-neglect charge and tried to take the children into custody at their home, believing they were malnourished, cold and living in unhealthful conditions. Michael McGuckin, 61, died May 12 after a lengthy bout with multiple sclerosis. County Prosecutor Phil Robinson has said that the house was filthy with feces and rotting food, and that the children had been forced to sleep outside in tents and cook over a campfire.

Many of the details were provided by a 19-year-old daughter, Erina, who was estranged from the family. Sheriff's deputies who visited the family May 17 found the children eating grass and wearing filthy clothes, Robinson said.

He criticized those who said the county's actions were unjustified. "I invite anybody who feels that way to go live in that house for three days," Robinson said.

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