Ozark County has seen its share of religious sects, police say

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/May 20, 2000
By Doug Johnson

Gainesville, Mo. -- The remote and rugged Ozark hills blanketed with dogwoods and oak trees provide an ideal backdrop for hunters, hikers and others wanting to get away from bustle of larger cities.

But it also draws more than its share of religious sects and hate groups, authorities say.

This past week, police arrested the Rev. Gordon Winrod -- a man who preaches that Jews should be killed -- for allegedly kidnapping six of his grandchildren in the mid-1990s and hiding them at his tiny farmhouse in the hills since then.

On Saturday the children, ages 9 through 16, ended a four-day standoff with police by peacefully leaving the secluded home after urging from their grandfather.

Sheriff Steve Bartlett said negotiators took it "slow and easy" with the children, working day and night to try and coax them from hiding in the basement of the house. But the youngsters had been taught by their grandfather to distrust authorities, Bartlett said, so negotiating wasn't easy.

"It was a matter of gaining their trust," Bartlett said Saturday, adding that the children had enough food in the house to last for months.

Winrod, 73, and his followers had gained a reputation in Ozark County for his mass mailings of hate literature, which calls law enforcement officers and prosecutors "Jewdicials" -- a play on the word judicial -- and claims they cover up Jewish ritual murders of "whites." He calls anyone who disagrees with him "a Jew," Bartlett said.

While the mailings are disturbing, residents say, it's not uncommon to find that kind of sentiment in some areas of the Ozarks, known for drawing hate groups and people connected to the Christian Identity movement -- a loose group of churches which considers whites superior to Jews and nonwhites.

The movement has more affiliations in Missouri than any other state, primarily in the Ozark region, the FBI and state officials have said.

"We are rich in these types of groups down in this part of the country for some reason," Highway Patrol Sgt. Marty Elmore said. "They seem to like this rugged and remote terrain where they can buy up lots of cheap land and get back there where people won't bother them too much."

In 1985, members of a white-supremicist group called "The Covenant, the Sword and Arm of the Lord" (or CSA) were arrested in a raid on their compound near Pontiac, 15 miles southwest of Gainesville.

Several members of the group were convicted in connection with the murder of a black trooper and a pawnshop owner in Arkansas. In the compound on the shores of Bull Shoals Lake, police found automatic weapons being stockpiled and a 50-gallon barrel of poison.

Bartlett, who was a highway patrol officer at the time, recalls writing the first intelligence report on the CSA when it first organized in 1974 in Elija, Mo., in eastern Ozark County.

"We knew off the bat that this was a group we needed to watch," Bartlett said. "I think they moved to this area because there aren't very many law enforcement officers here and they feel like they can intimidate us."

The same week that the CSA members were arrested, a man linked to the Arian Nation was arrested in connection with the death of a trooper in Branson, Elmore said.

Many residents say they have felt intimidated by groups like the CSA and Winrod's. Most residents decline to be interviewed, and those who do ask not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

"It was a scary ordeal when the CSA lived down here," said one woman, who has lived with her husband in Pontiac for 25 years near the former CSA compound. "We used to see them walking around in fatigues with knifes strapped to their ankles. They would click their heels and salute each other, very military-like.

"When we heard about Winrod getting arrested, I turned to my husband and said, `Good, they got another one out of here."'

Winrod and other group leaders have refused to be interviewed, claiming the media is controlled by Jews.

Winrod is the son of the late Rev. Gerald B. Winrod of Kansas, a notorious anti-Semite whose pro-German activities earned him the title "Jayhawk Nazi." The father was charged with sedition during World War II.

The younger Winrod began buying land in the hills just south of Gainesville, a town 255 miles from Kansas City, in the 1960s.

He later opened his church, called Our Savior's, which consisted mostly of his six adult children, their families and a few other followers, and began distributing his "Winrod Letter" to every resident of the county, Bartlett said.

"He would send out some 40,000 letters at a time two or three times a year," Bartlett said. "People would call and complain about it, but there is nothing we could do, he had First Amendment rights. We could only keep an eye on him."

Now, Winrod is accused of abducting several of his grandchildren from his former sons-in-law and hiding them on his 400-acre farm. They disappeared one by one from their North Dakota hometowns in 1994 and 1995, and their mothers are serving prison terms in that state for kidnapping.

Winrod and two of his 11 children -- Steven Winrod, 33, and Carol Winrod, 27 -- were arrested Wednesday morning as they picked up their mail. The children ran into the farmhouse and calmly went down into the basement, apparently as they had been trained, authorities said.

"These kids have been through a lot, and their grandfather had a tremendous influence on them," Bartlett said.

A concern for authorities now is having the Winrod case attract attention from other affiliated groups.

"It happened back in 1985 (during the CSA raid). There are groups like this all over the country, people who maybe aren't closely affiliated with one another but who share similar beliefs, and they decide they want to come and get involved in these situations," Elmore said. "We don't want that to happen this time."

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