The Martyrdom of Michael Hill: A Description of a Militia Memorial Service
by Mark Pitcavage
Last Updated July 11, 1996. This article is an expanded version of a story originally appearing in The Columbus Guardian, July 11-17, 1996.
At Patrick Air Force Base in Florida on Sunday, June 30, families and associates grieved during a memorial service for slain American airmen, victims of a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. Two thousand miles away, on a remote farm in Ohio, another group of people assembled to honor the memory of a man they claimed was the victim of domestic government terrorism.
This second gathering was my destination: the Golden Nugget Ranch, deep in the Wayne National Forest in rural southeastern Ohio. Here relatives and friends of slain militia leader Michael Hill were gathering to mourn his death one year ago at the hand of a Frazeysburg, Ohio, sheriff's deputy. Hill had been an important local leader in Ohio's growing right-wing "patriot" movement. Not only was he the first chief justice of an Ohio common law court--a vigilante court where "patriots" go to express their frustration with government and creditors--but he was chaplain to an Ohio militia unit.
That position with the militia led, indirectly, to his death. On June 28, 1995, after a common law court meeting in Columbus, Hill got into his 1972 Ambassador to drive to a house where he would spend the night. His car sported a homemade license plate that read "Ohio Militia 3-13 Chaplain," and it was this illegal plate that Frazeysburg police sergeant Matt May spotted as Hill drove by. May pulled Hill's car over at 2:15 AM. Hill jumped out of the car, arguing that May had no right to pull him over; May ordered him back in the car. Hill complied, but then astounded the deputy by driving off. May pursued for several miles while calling for back-up. Finally, Hill stopped his car again. The two got out of their cars.
What happened next is unclear. May claimed that Hill had come out of the car holding a gun. Several friends of Hill's, who had been following the chase in their own car at some distance, claimed that Hill was unarmed. May fired at Hill a number of times, hitting the militiaman three times and killing him almost instantly. Police who had been nearby setting up a roadblock to catch Hill arrived less than a minute later.
The shooting became a rallying cry for the militia. During the ensuing investigations, militia supporters claimed that May had shot Hill in cold blood, then the various policemen conspired to make it seem as if Hill had had his gun out. However, the coroner's report seemed to disagree. One of May's bullets had struck Hill's gun, sending metal fragments into Hill's hand and arm; this could only have happened if Hill's gun had been out. The grand jury decided the shooting was justified.
The verdict from the patriot movement was quite different: conspiracy and terrorism. Michael Hill became a martyr for patriots in Ohio and beyond, a symbol of government oppression of the movement. He was murdered because he had dared to speak his mind. His widow, Arlene Hill, was outspoken in his defense. And it was largely because she wanted to keep his memory alive that one year later a service was being held for him.
I drove out to the Golden Nugget Ranch, where the Hills had raised golden retrievers, following winding country roads. I had no idea when the service was to take place. I arrived at the ranch--easy to spot because of the san-o-cans along the road for the memorial service--and drove my car past the farm buildings into a field designated for parking. Many of the cars parked in the field had homemade license plates or defiant bumper stickers. Walking back to the buildings, I passed by Hill's gravesite. A massive granite stone, weighing some four tons, had been brought up from North Carolina to serve as the grave marker. The grave itself was covered with flowers and plants, with a bench and a podium situated nearby. A picket fence surrounded the site. The organizers of the service had set up rows of folding chairs on either side of the memorial where people could sit as they listened to the speakers.
The visitors who had already arrived were congregated at a shed near the memorial. In front of the shed were a group of patriots earnestly discussing the mystical procedures of common law. Nearby were eight or so militia members in camouflage outfits, but most people had dressed for the very hot and muggy day in shirts and shorts. I discovered that the militiamen (and women) were from the Stark County militia, a unit with an Internet presence, which meant they would probably be aware of who I was, were I to introduce myself. So I decided to remain incognito, not formally interview anyone, and just be a bug on the wall.
In front of the shed were several tables; one held life-saving gallons of tea and lemonade, while another offered t-shirts for sale sporting the refrain on Hill's license plate. A third table was later set up to sell patriot calendars and literature, including the anti-semitic Spotlight and the racist Christian Identity Jubilee. All proceeds, as well as those from a donation box, would go to the Hill family. It was ironic to see this material at a militia gathering, given that J. J. Johnson, the African-American leader of the Ohio Unorganized Militia until very recently, had made a career of asserting that the militia was not racist. I wondered what he would think of this gathering.
I had arrived just in time, at one o'clock; the proceedings would start at two. A large number of speakers had been promised, among whom two in particular were noteworthy: Jack McLamb and Pete Peters. McLamb was a former Arizona police officer who had become famous in patriot circles for railing against the "New World Order," and for promoting "Operation Vampire Killer," a plan to infiltrate police departments with patriot ideology. Pete Peters, of LaPorte, Colorado, was one of the most well-known figures on the racist right, a Christian Identity preacher whose newsletters and tapes were widely distributed. Christian Identity is a small, fragmented sect whose beliefs permeate much of the patriot movement. Its major tenets are that white Europeans are the true Israelites, while Jews are actually non-semitic descendants of a sexual liaison between Eve and Satan. Blacks and other minorities are "mud people," created before God made the perfected Eve and Adam.
I had time to kill before the proceedings started, but had help in killing it, for I ran into a small, wiry person named Bob and struck up a conversation with him. He invited me to come back to his pickup truck in the field and get out of the heat. We walked back past the memorial to his black truck, which had been baking in the sun, where after we got in he carefully positioned a tiny battery operated fan very democratically so that whatever meager breeze it generated wafted right between us, missing us both.
Bob, it transpired, was not from the local area, nor a member of the militia or common law courts, but had come down from Coshocton, Ohio, purely in order to see Pete Peters. By this I deduced that he was a follower of Christian Identity, which he later confirmed. He owned many of Peters' audiotapes and wanted to see the pastor in person. Bob was quite circumspect in revealing his beliefs, as he asked cautious questions about my own. "What do you think of the Federal Reserve?" he asked at one point, feeling out my opinions on Jews. My noncommittal reply was enough to cause him to tell me about a book he owned, The Talmud Unmasked, which purportedly revealed the truth about Jewish holy writings. "If what's in there is true," he said, "It's really scary."
Fear was also what motivated Bob to travel here from Coshocton. He was very cautious about joining groups or even revealing his beliefs. Already his brother had reacted with dismay to the sentiments he'd expressed. Bob didn't want to get involved with some organization that would get him fired or into trouble. He wasn't even sure about whether or not he should show up at meetings, where someone might take down his license plate number. But the way America was going downhill had come to make him feel as if he needed to do something, even if it was just to show up at a memorial service. "I was afraid to come," he said, "but I was afraid not to come, you know?"
We passed the time talking, generally about politics, while we waited for the proceedings to begin. The temperature rose into the 90s, but Bob had a cooler of Cokes, which he graciously shared with me. A few reporters showed up, generating indifference or cynical amusement on the part of the crowd. When one camera crew left, later in the afternoon, an audience member shouted, "Get it right!" at the departing vehicle, to general laughter.
At two o'clock, we thought things were finally going to begin, but it was announced that there would be a lunch first, and that speeches would not start until three-thirty. Bob and I, equally impatient, groaned. For a five dollar donation, though, you were treated to quite a spread of home cooking, and it was a bargain for any patriot. It was possible that the organizers hoped more people would show up during lunch: although they had predicted between 250 and 500 attendees, and according to one militia member there were 200 people who had "confirmed" they would show up, the actual crowd numbered between only 80 and 100.
I had eaten on the trip over, but Bob eventually wandered over to grab a bite to eat. He returned not only with a plate of food but with news about our speakers: neither Pete Peters nor Jack McLamb had been able to show up for the memorial service. Bob was quite disappointed at not being able to see the man he had driven all this way to see, and I felt sorry for him. Instead, we would have to settle for what one might consider the second-rank speakers, punctuated by interludes of song, which included our boisterous rendition of "America the Beautiful," and a rather fumbling attempt on our part to fit the words of the never-sung fourth verse of the national anthem into the familiar-but-difficult tune.
Finally, at three-thirty, the first speaker stepped up to the podium: Ernie Sanders, the outspoken anti-abortion activist and radio talk show host from WCCD radio in Cleveland. "A man you love to hate," the Plain Dealer characterized him in 1994, "His saving grace is that he is vastly entertaining in his narrow-mindedness."
Sanders, who had apparently never met Hill, gave a brief but boisterous sermon filled with references to his anti-abortion efforts, punctuated by an occasional (and well-received) reference to biblical passages mandating killing homosexuals. Sanders appealed to the militia and common law courts to join forces with anti-abortion activists, who, he suggested, were on the front lines every day (the "front lines," for Sanders, were the entrances to abortion clinics, in front of which he and his supporters picketed with large placards displaying photographs of aborted fetuses while they verbally harassed those who tried to enter the building).
Following Sanders was perhaps the most colorful person among the assembly, Nord Davis, the North Carolina militia leader who had delivered the memorial stone to the ranch. Davis, a leathery bundle of braggadocio, runs "Northpoint Tactical Teams" out of his home in Topton, North Carolina. Five parts bluster and one part radical racist, Davis writes articles on Christian Identity theology, to which he subscribes, when he isn't busy inventing stories about his accomplishments.
To hear Davis tell it, Northpoint Tactical Teams is a nationwide group of committed cells of activists, capable of doing almost anything. Over the years, he'll inform anyone willing to listen, they ended the Vietnam War, ran guns to the Contras in Nicaragua, and intervened in the Gulf War. Somehow Davis took time from this busy schedule to write Desert Shield and the New World Order, which identifies Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller as the secret rulers of the world. Davis claims the book has sold 300,000 copies.
More recently, Davis injected himself into the Montana Freemen siege, heading up to Montana with the notion that he was going to be part of a negotiating team that included Colorado State Senator Charles Duke, Dr. Eugene Schroder of Colorado, and Dr. Walker Todd of Ohio. The FBI was interested in Duke as a negotiator, but not the others. However, Davis, calling Duke's actions "treachery," decided to act as if he were a negotiator anyway, and traveled around the desolate landscape, trying to talk to people. This remarkable state of self-delusion caused one frustrated FBI agent to complain to him in late May, "Nord Davis, you are not a negotiator. You were never part of any negotiating team." Undaunted, the next day Davis notified the FBI that he had decided that he would "no longer [be] in a negotiator status."
Amazingly, but entirely in keeping with Davis' peculiar ability to disregard reality, the militia leader took as the subject for his talk the principle of humility. One should never brag, Davis counseled the assembled crowd, who then proceeded to do so in an extended anecdote designed to illustrate his point, which dealt with his reputation as being a crack shot with a .45.
Somebody had tried to frighten an old woman, Davis related, by killing a woodchuck and putting it on a pole in front of her house. So Davis took a target and peppered it full of holes with his gun. Then he took his team of loyal companions to the house of the person he had deduced was the culprit and set up a pole with a woodchuck on it. The entire team blazed away at the poor animal corpse with their weapons. Then Davis took out his target, set it up a long distance away, then fired shots at it. The team left. The culprit went down to the target, saw all the holes in it (that had been shot from close range earlier), and spread the rumor that Davis was a crack shot. This was how Davis demonstrated humility. Well, you have to give him credit for trying, but even some of the militia members present were uncomfortable with his bragging.
By the time the final speaker took to the podium, it was late in the afternoon and the drumlike beat of an approaching thunderstorm heralded an imminent end to the gathering. But the gaunt figure that began to speak, a Christian Identity minister named Bruce McCarthy, was easily the most entrancing of the people who talked that afternoon.
Soft-spoken, with a Maine accent, McCarthy in looks and voice bears an unmistakable resemblance to Jimmy Stewart. If you can imagine the hero of "It's a Wonderful Life" delivering a tirade on the Federal Reserve (on which McCarthy is a self-proclaimed expert), you might be able to catch a glimpse of the impression that McCarthy gives. "If you can tell me what your money' is based on," he likes to say in the speeches on the monetary system that he frequently gives, "I'll give you a hundred pounds of it." He tones down the Identity message, speaking merely of racial separatism and only occasionally mentioning Jews, in order to capture the widest possible audience for his argument that the Federal Reserve violates God's law.
At the service, McCarthy's folksy demeanor and his sometimes self-mocking humor seemed far from the "Christian warrior" pose many Identity figures (including, at other times, McCarthy himself) prefer to adopt. He gave a talk with a general theme that the Lord would provide for the faithful. Were it not for an occasional reference to the Federal Reserve, and to having been arrested often, one could easily imagine his talk as a sermon in some quiet country church.
As soon as the final speaker stopped speaking, the rain started, causing an abrupt end to the affair as people scrambled for the shelter of their cars. Bob and I exchanged phone numbers and we left. The memorial service was over; it had been a pleasant picnic of laughing, smiling members of an extremist movement, presenting as striking a study in contrasts as one could ever hope for.
But as I left the Golden Nugget Ranch, it dawned on me that ironically, amidst all of the talk and hoopla, Michael Hill himself had largely been forgotten. At different times, the various speakers waved a general hand at the direction of his memorial stone, and uttered lines beginning "Mike Hill would have thought..." or "People like Mike Hill...", but none tried to capture what Michael Hill might really have been like, or what his death might have stood for. Only one of the speakers, Nord Davis, had ever actually known Hill, and Davis preferred to talk about himself. No close friend or relative took to the podium to talk about Michael Hill the human.
All that remained was Michael Hill the symbol.