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"Patriot" Profiles #2:
Patriot Purgatory: Bo Gritz and Almost Heaven

Copyright 1996 by Mark Pitcavage

Last Modified March 26, 1996

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Introduction: What do you do if you're a right-wing leader who covets acclaim from both mainstream opinion and the radical right? The answer is that you engage in a delicate balancing act. You dance with both, but duck out on the slow dances. But what happens if your dance partner gets miffed? You might just have to suffer the consequences. That is what has happened to the Patriot movement's most mainstream leader.

Bo Gritz and Almost Heaven

When balancing on the razor's edge, it is usually wise to drop down onto one side or another, lest one be sliced in two. American "patriot" leader Bo Gritz is in this unenviable position these days, the natural consequence of his on-again off-again romance with the rad-rad right. Gritz, who likes to have his field rations and eat them, too, embraces the radical fringe but tries to stop short of heavy petting. Sometimes such skittishness produces a sulky suitor and nowhere is this as evident as with the frustrated patriots of "Almost Heaven," who are clamoring for less talk and more action.

"Almost Heaven" is the patriot land development near Kamiah, Idaho, pioneered by Gritz, friend and fellow foe of the New World Order Jack McLamb, and Gritz follower Jerry Gillespie, the former Arizona state legislator beginning in early 1994. But it is also a logical culmination of the patriot career of former Green Beret Gritz. Gritz, a highly-decorated Vietnam veteran and Special Forces agent, spent time unsuccessfully trying to find alleged American POWs in Southeast Asia in the 1980s before coming to roost in the right-wing "Christian Patriot" movement. Gritz agreed to become the vice-presidential candidate of the "Populist" Party in 1988, playing second fiddle to former Klansman David Duke, but dropped out quickly once he "realized" what Duke's racial views were, as if they had ever been a secret. Gritz surfaced again in 1992 as the Populist candidate for president (he won about 100,000 votes on a platform to end income taxes and foreign aid and to dismantle the Federal Reserve), but gained more notoriety for his role in negotiating the surrender of white supremacist Randy Weaver to federal agents at Ruby Ridge. The plaudits he won for helping to end the violent impasse were, however, overshadowed by the Nazi salute he gave to the watching skinheads who had congregated at Ruby Ridge during the standoff. Gritz called it a "special salute" or "special wave."

Such ambiguity also has surrounded his other political activities. Operating a "Center for Action" out of Nevada, Gritz has published a newsletter which echoes many of the standard Patriot themes--only without the refreshing frankness of the committed rad-riters. Gritz's newsletter talks about the international banking conspiracy and the Federal Reserve owned by "eight Jewish families," but it shies away from the more overt anti-semitism that other Christian Patriots display. Gritz explains how to apply for "allodial titles," a old (and invariably unsuccessful) trick used by tax resisters, but claims not to be a tax resister. Gritz told a Kamiah audience in August 1994 that he does not file a federal tax return, but told an Associated Press reporter that he had never failed to file one. Gritz denies being a racist or white supremacist, citing his two half-Chinese children and an African-American godchild, and yet accompanying Gritz on many of his frequent speaking engagements is Richard Flowers, who sells racist materials at the locations where Gritz speaks, including "The Jews and Their Lies," which warns people to "Be on your guard against the Jews. They are the real liars and bloodhounds. From childhood, they have been brought up with poison and hatred." Gritz has distanced himself from the militia movement, yet conducts classes in paramilitary training called SPIKE (Specially Prepared Individuals for Key Events) classes. Over and over again, Gritz has shown a willingness to embrace the vision of the far right, but a considerable reluctance to accept the dark side that comes along with it.

Yet despite this lack of ideological backbone, in early 1994 Gritz embarked upon a scheme that frightened many with its implications: a hideaway "Christian Covenant Community" in remote Idaho, where patriotic Americans fearful of a coming cataclysm could congregate in a 1990s version of 1980s survivalism. Gritz, through agent Jerry Gillespie, purchased 200 acres of land near the tiny town of Kamiah, Idaho (population less than 2,000). Jack McLamb purchased an adjoining 80 acres. Gritz's vision was to subdivide the land into smaller parcels to sell to interested patriots. Wrote Gritz, "I observed a pouring out of virtuous people from the metropolitan centers into the hinterlands. I beheld covenant communities standing separate from a tyrannical government...It was Armageddon. Millions of massed soldiers--both men and women--were slaughtered, but the homeland was spared."

When the Portland-based Coalition for Human Dignity, a tiny human-rights organization, broke the story of Gritz's purchase of land near Kamiah, residents of Idaho County became nervous about what the patriot community portended. Some Nez Perce Indians feared conflicts with tax protesters or other radicals, while others feared a strain on the not-too-healthy local economy. "I think that sooner or later Almost Heaven will become another Waco, Texas," said Rosemarie Thibault, manager of a motel in Kamiah, who gained no love for Gritz after he informed her that he and his supporters might boycott the hotel because she was critical of him during a town meeting earlier in the year.

Indeed, enough Idaho County residents were concerned that Gritz felt it necessary to publicly explain his projects to them, which he did in August 1994 at Kamiah High School. Seven hundred people attended the meeting, which was organized by local newspaper editor Bill Glenn, who became a dedicated defender of Gritz. Gritz also repeatedly told reporters that his goal was not to establish a complex like that of Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler at Hayden Lake, Idaho. His community, he said, would obey all laws "unless they go against the laws of God and common sense," and that a council would be set up to govern the community. But Gritz made it clear that the governing would be according to their principles, and not necessarily those of the outside world. "I want a community where if the FBI looks at us, they'll end up saying it's more trouble than it's worth," he said of the possibility of conflict with authorities.

The idea of Almost Heaven, popularized in Gritz's newsletters and speeches, caught on. The Almost Heaven parcels quickly sold, as did lots on a second property (400 acres), named Shenandoah. People were slower to move on to the property than they were to buy it, however, and the population of Almost Heaven grew more slowly. Nevertheless, by the fall of 1994 there were already several families living there. And Idaho County's new residents--not only those at Almost Heaven but also elsewhere--seemed to be radical indeed. The Idaho County auditor's office reported people filing documents declaring themselves "sovereign citizens," not beholden to the federal government. In February 1995 Jack McLamb made a public appearance at Kamiah High School, to speak on how he had been, according to a flyer, "fighting the globalists' plan to use them to disarm fellow Americans and enslave them under the Anti-God United Nations Socialist One World government." The same month, Jerry Gillespie announced a third development, Woodland Acres. But Gritz denied that he was in any way trying to make a real estate killing.

Indeed, by the summer of 1995 Almost Heaven still seemed to be Almost There. Although the lots were selling well, only a handful of people had moved in. Among these were Jerry Gillespie himself, but not Jack McLamb or Bo Gritz. Two early residents were Dan and Barbara Fuller, a retired couple from St. George, Utah (itself, along with nearby La Verkin, Utah, a haven for the far-right). The Fullers, like Jack McLamb, believed in an imminent one-world government brought about by a media-controlling conspiracy. They built a log cabin with a $20,000 solar power system and stocked it with plenty of food. Another resident, Stewart Balint, was angry at the IRS for taking away his family farm. At the root of his loss was an "international banking conspiracy." Balint, a "sovereign citizen," and his family lived in a secondhand trailer. Jan Astwood moved to Almost Heaven from New York City in April 1995 so that he could home-school his two daughters.

Some lived in less comfortable circumstances than log cabins or trailers. Ed LeStage, from Arkansas, moved with his 14-year old son to Almost Heaven where he spent $600 to build a "house" made primarily from 130 bales of hay. Without plumbing, heating or power, the straw house could boast only a hideaway bed, a couple of cafeteria chairs, a camping stove, an AK-47, and two portraits of Jesus. LeStage didn't have the money for a lot of his own, but was living on the lot of Michael Cain in exchange for helping to build Cain's house.

It was with the less affluent and more desperate people such as LeStage that Bo Gritz's attempt to build his own private Idaho ran afoul. By early 1996, LeStage had grown frustrated with what he perceived as dilly-dallying by the patriot leader. Gritz himself had not even moved onto Almost Heaven (he told reporters he would do so in the summer of 1996), and whatever vision LeStage had of what Almost Heaven should be was certainly not coming to fruition. Nor was LeStage alone in his irritation. Another put-off Patriot was Chad Erickson, who had in the summer of 1994 gained a measure of notoriety of his own by pushing for a "constitutional rule initiative" in Idaho that would remove authority from the hands of most levels of government and place it with the individual. Erickson, a former surveyor in Alaska, became angry at the federal government after buying property in Washington that he could not develop as he saw fit because of government regulations. He moved to Idaho County in January 1994, adjacent to Gritz's Woodland property, where he introduced his version of right-wing legal anarchy and spent a year trying to get a petition drive to place it on the ballot, with little success. "We saw Idaho County as a very free place...but I guess people would have to lose it and they will before they appreciate it and want to do something about it," Erickson said. Erickson spent at least $34,000 by his own estimate pushing his initiative. In October 1995, Erickson, Ed LeStage and Michael Cain filed a declaration with the Idaho County clerk warning government officers that they would defend themselves against infringements on their civil rights. What sort of infringements were they foreseeing? In January 1996, Erickson wrote a letter to Kamiah's newspaper in which he warned that "through a conference with patriots in Montana, one being an ex-government agent with ties intact, we have learned that federal agencies are planning a strike against the patriots in the Kamiah, Idaho, area. Reportedly it will involve helicopter-borne microwave weapons that fry households without photogenic smoke and flame."

With these paranoid visions of apocalypse, Erickson, LeStage and Cain, along with several other of like sentiment, formed a group called the Freemen Patriots, with an apocalyptic ideology loosely based on "old-time' Mormon doctrine. "We all feel we've been led here not to hide, but to act," LeStage said. Action was just what they felt was lacking from Bo Gritz. "Really, the difference between us and the rest of the covenant community is that we stand on faith," LeStage said. "We, as Freemen Patriots, understand the battle to be between good and evil." Michael Cain agreed: "Just let me say, we will take our government back. It has become a democracy where might rules and we want the republic back." Here Cain referred to the traditional Patriot notion of distinguishing between a democracy and a republic. The Patriots, who went around constantly armed, began their campaign with a barrage of letters to and interviews with the local media. And much of it was aimed at Bo Gritz. "Bo talked the talk and walked the walk," said LeStage, "But he has changed the talk and the walk." LeStage and the Patriots were vague on what path they wanted their walk to take, but it was clearly a path that did not eschew confrontation or violence.

Bo Gritz could only sputter in reaction to Almost Heaven's spawning a few rebellious devils. "I'm disappointed that Chad [Erickson] would not have better sense," he said. "And the other guy [LeStage] is probably a bum who should be sent packing. And as for [Cain], I'm sorry he's come under that kind of influence." Gritz revealed that far from protecting individual liberties, his covenant communities call for oversight committees to buy property back from people who cause problems. "There's no question I will move out of their way," Gritz said, "but they're going to be moving off of Almost Heaven." As in the past, whenever radical politics threatened to give Gritz an image problem, the former Green Beret who never retreated from enemy fire nevertheless wilted under the heat of the public eye.

But however much Gritz would like for the Freeman Patriots to crawl back underneath their rocks (or straw houses), he cannot push the issue aside, for the patriot leader must reap what he has sown. By calling for the creation of his covenant community, he cast the seeds of extremism into the winds and a few kernels took root and sprouted in the fertile Idaho ground. Erickson, Cain and LeStage are not weirdos and bums so much as they are merely the reflection of Bo Gritz's dark side. Bo Gritz has always shied away from looking into the mirror but perhaps it is about time he did.

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