A Storm On The Prairie

WASHINGTON, D.C.--As the trial of Terry Nichols begins to unfold in a small Denver courtroom this week, the public will get a glimpse of a weird corner of American life--the secretive world of the Posse Comitatus. If Tim McVeigh got his inspiration from the paramilitary right and the writings of William Pierce and his neo-Nazi National Alliance, Nichols comes straight out of the rural Midwest and the topsy-turvy world of the Posse.

Founded as a revolutionary group of right-wing anarchists in the late 1960s, the Posse became the symbol of resistance and revolution across the American heartland during the farm depression of the 1980s. It preached guerrilla war and argued for a return to a simpler government, where the county sheriff was the highest elected official and the posse's noose was law. Its adherents renounced their citizenship, declared their sovereignty under God, and promised to wage war against a Jewish-dominated government. In Michigan, where Nichols grew up, Posse supporters mixed with members of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, Minutemen, and other far-right groups to build an underground movement. During the 1980s a militant spin-off, The Order, burst onto the scene in a series of blazing shootouts culminating with the execution murder of Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg.

By the '90s, the movement was transformed into the militia movement. Today it has been reborn once more, this time in a proliferation of common-law courts and Freemen enclaves from Montana to Texas. And it continues to grow. The civil-rights group Klanwatch counts 137 active common-law courts in 35 states. That doesn't include scores of militias operating in 49 states. Most of the 858 anti-government patriot organizations draw from the Posse's worldview.

The Posse was organized in Portland, Oregon, in 1969 by Mike Beach, a retired dry-cleaning-store owner. Beach had been a state liaison officer for William Dudley Pelley's Silver Shirts, the storm-trooper group formed in the U.S. immediately after Hitler took power in Germany. Under Posse doctrine, the sheriff is the highest elected official in the land. He has the authority to empanel a posse made up of any able-bodied man over 18.

Many Posse members also believe that the Federal Reserve, income-tax system, and Supreme Court are all unconstitutional. The highest court in the land is the justice of the peace. Posse thinking is infused with Christian Identity theology, which holds that Jews and minorities--also known as mud people--are not really human, and in the case of Jews are the spawn of Satan. A 1976 FBI report put Posse membership at anywhere from 12,000 to 50,000 with 10 to 12 times that many sympathizers.

Through the 1980s, the Posse gained notoriety across the Midwest. A Michigan Posse member was convicted of attempting to pass counterfeit money. James Wickstrom, the Wisconsin Posse leader, ran for state senate. There were Posse training camps in various locations of the heartland. Groups of people calling themselves Posse blocked sheriff's sales of farm property. Three Posse members were convicted in Colorado of making explosives.

In 1983, more than 100 county sheriffs in Kansas got letters from the Posse ordering them to arrest 10 judges for unlawfully seizing personal property. And beginning in 1982, a Dodge City, Kansas, radio station ran two regularly scheduled programs featuring Posse speakers. In early 1983, Springfield, Colorado was the scene of a near-riot by Posse members trying to block an auction of a local member's farm.

Then on a foggy night in February 1983, in Medina, North Dakota, two federal marshals were killed and three others wounded in a shootout with several Posse members. The group's leader was Gordon Kahl, a decorated World War II hero, who'd grown up on the farm in North Dakota. He later spent some time in California and Texas, where he went looking for work as a car mechanic or in the oil fields.

Kahl got his feet wet in far-right politics by reading Henry Ford's International Jew. Ford owned a newspaper called the Dearborn Independent and he devoted several issues of it to a rewrite of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the supposed plot by which Jews masterminded control of the world. (In fact the Protocols turned out to be a concoction of the Czar's secret police in their effort to split and confound the forces of revolution gathering momentum in the early 20th century.)

In the 1960s, Kahl learned about the tax-protest movement in North Dakota, and then in the mid-1970s got involved with the Posse. He announced his refusal to pay taxes and was promptly arrested and convicted of tax evasion and sent to Leavenworth for one year. He was released on probation on condition that he stay away from the Posse. But he paid that instruction no heed and traveled about the Midwest preaching about the Jewish conspiracy. Eventually the government issued a warrant for his arrest for violating probation. U.S. marshals converged on Medina to take custody of Kahl as he was leaving a meeting to organize a Posse township.

Just north of Medina on a narrow country road, Kahl and his group, including his son Yorie, saw two cars parked on a hill with red lights on. Then they noticed other cars pulling up behind him on the road. Kahl was sure he was being ambushed and jumped from his car clutching his mini-14 rifle. A shot rang out. Kahl heard Yorie yell, "I'm hit. I'm hit." Seeing his son grimacing in pain, Kahl opened fire.

After the fight, Kahl slipped away into the countryside. Months later he was tracked down by federal lawmen in Arkansas and killed in a gunfight.

Almost instantly Kahl became the movement's martyr. News of his death spread like wildfire among the small Christian Identity compounds and across the Klan and patriot networks. At an Aryan Nations meeting that summer, the movement leaders made a declaration of war against the U.S. government. And within the Missouri compound of the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord--one of the most militant and righteous of all the underground groups--a plan was born: to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in an act of retaliation.

The group's weapons expert began to make the missile that would carry the war to the belly of the beast in Washington. But as if by an act of God, the plan had to be aborted when the weapon blew up in the maker's hands, badly injuring him.

Twelve years later on April 20, 1995, the editors of The Spotlight, the Reader's Digest of the far right, were going through their mail in Washington. It was the day after the bombing. The nation was in shock. One of them opened a plain envelope postmarked Oklahoma City, dated April 17, and addressed in a neat handwritten script to The Spotlight. Inside was a famous postcard--a photo of a 1930s prairie dust storm, an ominous black-wall cloud sweeping across the horizon. The card bears the caption: "Dust Storm Approaching at 60 mi. per hr. April 14, '35."

With the photo there was a clipping from The Spotlight in 1983. It was titled "A Modern Day Hero," the paper's own account of Kahl's death. At the time it had been widely read. It was The Spotlight that raised Kahl to hero status.

As the Spotlight staff sat there numbly staring at the envelope's contents, it suddenly dawned on them: This was a message. The letter was sent from Oklahoma City two days before the bombing to let the movement know the underground had finally struck back. Gordon Kahl was avenged.

Mark Lane, the Spotlight attorney, says he tried to call the FBI to tell them about the letter, which carries fingerprints. He got a busy signal. Later he put in a call to Attorney General Janet Reno, whom he'd met some years before in connection with his law practice. He sent her the letter; she acknowledged its receipt and passed it to the FBI, which some months later also acknowledged it had the material. Asked about the letter last April, a Bureau spokesperson said, "We have not publicly stated anything in regards to that."

There was no reference to the letter at McVeigh's trial. Stephen Jones, then McVeigh's attorney, said he had never heard of it, and after looking at a Xeroxed copy of the envelope, said the handwriting did not resemble McVeigh's. (McVeigh was familiar with The Spotlight: He'd once purchased a long-distance calling card from the magazine in the name of Daryl Bridges, and in August 1993 he ran an advertisement in The Spotlight selling an anti-tank missile-launcher replica.)

Kerry Noble, the leader of the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord who took part in the first plot to blow up the Murrah Building and went to jail for his actions, told a reporter last spring he remembered the Spotlight article on Kahl from 1983. "I would say it was a message," he said of the April 1995 letter. It might mean, he added, "Things were set in motion. There's another dust storm coming across."

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