By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Mike McGrath's knuckles look as if they've been scrubbed with grit, sanded down, and then healed back over with machine grease under the scabs. When he waves them over a stack of documents on his desk, punctuating a discourse on the federal government's "program of fraud and deception" or what he considers to be the unconstitutional theft of property deeds by local tax officials here in Burnett County, Wisconsin, his hands seem to be weaving a web from thin air.
McGrath didn't want to talk about this at first. He didn't think any story could, as he put it, "be true to the truth about what those in charge are putting over on citizens today." It's hard to fathom the extent of it all, hard to uncover the salient facts. But working out of the back room of his unmarked small-engine repair shop just off Highway 70 outside Grantsburg, McGrath--like the rest of his local study group--has gotten "hooked in": to the short-wave broadcasts from Montana and Ohio and Nebraska regarding Fort Knox's empty vaults and the right way to put a lien on a district court judge; to the facts about the IRS's racket in Puerto Rican offshore accounts and the black helicopter surveillance and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm's secret dossier on the Oklahoma City bombings; to the covert camera monitoring on American freeways and the secret agenda behind those fluorescent white Vs being painted on the backroads of Burnett County. They're hooked in by fax, and by phone, and by mail-order copies of a paper called Veritas, published out of Arizona by an ex-military man who, it is said, once held top-level security clearance in the upper echelons in D.C.
"But before we really get down to basics," McGrath says, gesturing to a chair near his paper-strewn desk in the corner, "I might ask you a question: Are you a governmental agent?"
I hand McGrath my card and he studies it a moment, then sets it aside in the meticulous file of assorted contacts he keeps. "We've learned to be careful with this, OK. There's government people coming around here, always trying to infiltrate these different issues. What they're doing is discovery work; they want to lock you up for speaking truth. If you're just one of the normal 'Sheople'"--the network's term for the herd of Americans still being corralled into voting booths and onto taxpayer rolls--"well, I guess you'll jump over the fence like you're supposed to. We don't follow that program, OK. That's why my good friend Paul Ekblad is a political prisoner behind bars today."
His good friend, a 67-year-old strawberry farmer and beekeeper with land in the Pine Barren area just south of Grantsburg, is two years into a 10-year prison sentence for filing "false and frivolous" personal property liens against 14 members of the Burnett County Board of Supervisors in 1994--the logical response, Ekblad believes, to county tax officials seizing all 200 acres of his "paid for, free and clear" land. The courthouse paper trail on him has grown into a waist-high stack of complaints and interrogatories and rulings over the past decade. Mention his name to anyone local--the guy at the Pheasant Inn Bar and Grill, the pharmacist on Main Street--and the response is typically a quick snort or a low, polite curse.
Popular opinion has it that Paul Ekblad and his likes have worn out their welcome in the county courts. Their highly publicized tactics (suing and countersuing public officials, arguing in favor of common and constitutional law against "extorted" property taxes, refusing to apply for irrigation and building permits on private land; the list is long) have cost local taxpayers thousands of dollars over several years--a result, in the scheme of things, pretty near the intended mark. Hit where it counts, McGrath says, in the pocketbook, and raise enough smoke to grab some attention for the larger agenda. The larger agenda is what he and Paul Ekblad and the other scattered members of a loose-knit group known as the Wild River Patriots are all about.
This handful of self-styled "constitutional fundamentalists" first came together in 1981 during a series of meetings at the Rainbow Cafe in Grantsburg, aided by the promptings of recruiters and "researchers" dispatched by the Patriot Network, which claims over 3,000 registered members across the upper Midwest and into Montana. Since then, the Wild River association has been the regular target of county prosecutors and tax collectors, beginning with one of the Patriots' main figures, Ken Edaburn, who was charged with tax evasion in the 1980s. Several have been arrested repeatedly on contempt of court charges after refusing to appear at or cooperate with legal proceedings. Several (including Larry Zschokke, former owner of the Rainbow Cafe) have been evicted from their land, with the tax deeds to their farms and businesses auctioned off at public sales and the profits deposited in the county's accounts. In the past decade, the original Wild River members have scattered, gone underground, or taken their argument into the courts, starting with a refusal to pay property taxes on the grounds that government has no legitimate jurisdiction over "allodial lands," and lately with a multimillion-dollar spate of personal liens filed against public officials and other "Oath People" who have failed in their sworn pledges to uphold the spirit and letter of the U.S. Constitution.