Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Bad pennies

Old haters never die. They just reinvent themselves.

I'll be on the radio in Seattle later today, on Dave Ross's KIRO-AM drive-time talk show, at 5 p.m., discussing this case:
White supremacist charged with selling machine guns

SEATTLE -- Federal agents arrested three men on gun and explosives charges Tuesday morning, including a white supremacist who once served time for plotting to kill Martin Luther King Jr.

Keith Gilbert, 65 - who also gained notoriety for spitting on a mentally retarded black girl in the mid-1980s - was taken into custody at his home in Seattle's University District, FBI spokeswoman Robbie Burroughs said. His associate, William D. Heinrich, 50, was arrested at a nearby home.

They were scheduled to make their first appearance at U.S. District Court Tuesday afternoon, along with a third Seattle man, John P. Hejna, 44, who was arrested at the home of relatives in Grays Harbor County.

A federal court complaint unsealed Tuesday said Gilbert, a former follower of late Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler who later became Butler's rival in the supremacy movement, sold fully automatic AK-47 machine guns and other weapons to a confidential informant working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the past two years. Gilbert, who has criminal convictions for assault, distributing drugs and receiving stolen property dating to 1966, was charged in the complaint with being a felon in possession of a firearm, possession of a machine gun and possession of an unregistered gun.

The story goes on to cite my book, In God's Country, which includes a couple of brief sections on Gilbert's activities in Idaho. Here's the text of the passages on pp. 52-53:
Then there were the Minutemen. Not only did they preach a more rabid style of anti-Communist paranoia than the Birch Society, their activities also manifested, for the first time, the violent undercurrent of these beliefs.

Led by a Missouri man named Robert DePugh, the Minutemen not only believed that government had been infiltrated at its highest levels by Communists, but that a Communist takeover was virtually inevitable; therefore, they told their believers, you should arm yourselves with whatever weaponry would be effective as a counterforce to strike back when the takeover occurred. DePugh, a onetime associate of Robert Welch before DePugh was dropped from the John Birch Society, also told his followers to harass "the enemy," and compiled at his headquarters a list of 1,500 people he identified as members of the "Communist hidden government," with the intent to assassinate them in the event of the Communist coup.

The Minutemen soon became associated with groups like Wesley Swift's Church of Jesus Christ Christian, a Christian Identity church located in Hollywood. Swift preached the "two-seed" brand of Identity, holding that not only are white people are the true Israelites and descendants of Adam, but that blacks, Asians, and other non-whites thus are "pre-Adamic" people without souls, and Jews are either descendants of Satan himself (the offspring of conjugal relations with Eve) or practitioners of a Satanic religion. Among Swift's more notable adherents: retired Col. William Potter Gale, a former MacArthur aide who eventually became a key figure in Posse Comitatus; and a quiet-spoken Lockheed engineer named Richard Girnt Butler.

Also in attendance at Swift's Sunday services was Keith Gilbert, a gunshop owner who also was a Minutemen member. Gilbert was arrested in 1965 and convicted for the theft of 1,400 pounds of TNT that he later said was part of a plot to plant a bomb under the stage of the Hollywood Palladium during an Anti-Defamation League convention, and to detonate it during the keynote speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- a plot only disrupted by his arrest.

And from pp. 54-55:
After Minuteman (and would-be Martin Luther King assassin) Keith Gilbert finished five years of his prison term at Alcatraz in 1970, he moved to northern Idaho, where one of his acquaintances from Wesley Swift's church lived; with his friend's help, he set up a retail shop called AR-YA Electronics. He scandalized the locals by driving about in a swastika-enscribed Volkswagen van. [Note: This was slightly incorrect. It was actually a Volkswagen "Thing."]

Gilbert's old acquaintance at Wesley Swift's Hollywood church, Richard Butler, had meanwhile taken over the reins of the congregation following Swift's death in 1971. Butler, on a visit to northern Idaho in the early '70s, decided it was time to fulfill his dream of creating an all-white "Aryan Homeland," and the Northwest was where he wanted to do it. In 1974, he purchased a 20-acre tract surrounded by forest near Hayden Lake and proceeded to move the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian from Hollywood to Idaho. Along the gravel roadway leading to the compound he built, Butler erected a sign bearing the group’s crest and the words designating the church's new home: "Aryan Nations."

Gilbert quickly became a high-profile member of the Aryan Nations. But Gilbert apparently always suspected Butler of selling him out on his 1965 arrest; the tension erupted in 1977 with a public falling-out between the two, punctuated by Gilbert accusing Butler of a lack of will in confronting the "Zionist Occupation Government," and Butler accusing Gilbert of being a welfare cheat (correctly; Gilbert had done another short prison stint for welfare fraud since coming to Idaho). Gilbert promptly started up his own organization, the Socialist Nationalist Aryan People's Party, and started handing out flyers. Among them: "Hitler was Elijah," a two-page handout that expounded on the Nazi leader's place in history as a Biblical prophet. Still other flyers were examples of the white supremacists' idea of humor.

It seemed as though nearly everyone in the Panhandle saw these flyers, and they left a vivid impression. I received one in the mail at the Sandpoint Daily Bee. It was an "Official Running Nigger Target," a shooting-range-style silhouette target of a sprinting black man, replete with huge Afro and monstrous lips. The highest score listed on the target was on its feet, implying that the figure could take a shot in the head and keep going. Eventually, Gilbert confessed to distributing the posters.

Gilbert also made an appearance in my second book, Death on the Fourth of July, because Gilbert also played a key role in bringing about passage Idaho's hate-crime law, one of the first such laws in the nation. (I also excerpted this portion in this post.)
The threats and intimidation came to a head in September 1982, thanks largely to one of the more troublesome hooligans attracted to northern Idaho by Butler’s church: an ex-convict named Keith Gilbert. He had moved to the region after doing time at California's San Quentin prison for having 1,500 pounds of dynamite at his Glendale home, which he later claimed was intended to assassinate Martin Luther King at a 1965 appearance in Los Angeles. Gilbert had been a follower of Butler’s in California, but shortly after moving to Idaho they had a dispute, and Gilbert attempted to set up his own white-supremacist organization. Gilbert, who later admitted responsibility for distributing the "running nigger" targets, then began his own campaign of threats and intimidation.

His chief target was a Coeur d'Alene family headed by a white woman named Connie Fort who had been married for several years to a black man and had three mixed-race children. Gilbert began by walking up to the eldest boy and spitting on him, saying: "Your life is condemned. You shall be served in front of the devil." Having discovered where Fort's family lived, Gilbert began driving by the home and shouting threats and obscenities at the children. He mailed an envelope containing a death threat for "race traitors" who engaged in "miscegenation." Another mailing contained a news clipping about the corpse of a black man found floating in Spirit Lake, shot through the head.

Police were initially hesitant to charge Gilbert, partly because Idaho law made racial slander only a misdemeanor. But as the threats escalated, he eventually was charged and convicted of misdemeanor assault, and fined $300 with a 45-day jail sentence. Gilbert merely laughed it off.

The rest of the community, however, did not. Local churches circulated petitions in support of Connie Fort's family and managed to gather hundreds of signatures. And Fort herself decided that something had to be done about the failure of Idaho law to adequately address this kind of hateful harassment. The previous year, a coalition of church leaders, city and law-enforcement officials, and businessmen from throughout the county had already formed, calling itself the Kootenai County Human Relations Task Force. As Fort's story gained publicity in the local press, the KCHRTF took up the task of gaining public support for changing the law. It organized town-hall meetings to discuss the issue, and found that its support was deep and broad; at a panel discussion set up by the Idaho Human Rights Commission in 1982, other participants included the Justice Department, the American Civil Liberties Union, and law-enforcement officers.

Out of those discussions, the Human Rights Commission composed legislation -- similar to a law just passed in Washington state, also largely in response to the activities emanating from the Aryan Nations -- that would make it a felony to intimidate or harass another person because of their race or religion, either with physical assault or with threatening words. The bill was introduced in the Idaho Legislature's 1983 with considerable fanfare, and its advocates claimed the support of over a hundred voluntary organizations in the state that supported its passage.

However, the bill encountered considerable opposition among legislators from the state’s notoriously conservative southern half. Many voiced concern that the law would trample on constitutional rights to religious freedom and free speech. Others accused the sponsors of secretly supporting the United Nations genocide convention. Richard Butler testified against it: "This bill would take away sovereign, inalienable rights of white Christians," he told legislators.

The tide slowly turned in the bill's favor, however, as the breadth of support for it became apparent. Kootenai County Prosecutor Glen Walker -- a conservative Republican -- traveled to Boise and patiently explained to lawmakers why the law was needed, particularly as a tool for dealing with a kind of crime they all recognized had deeply corrosive consequences for their community. Walker also shepherded several compromises to the legislation, including a clause that would specify it was not intended to imply support for the United Nations.

The coup de grace, however, was delivered by Keith Gilbert himself. He created a phony "Anti Defamation League" lobby, concocted a letterhead and a nonexistent leader named "Rabbi Schechter," and sent letters to all members of the Legislature under "Schechter's" signature voicing full support for the bill. Gilbert assumed that such "Jewish" support would inspire legislators to oppose the measure -- but his ruse was discovered and publicized instead. Angered by his brazenness, legislators rushed to support the bill, and it wound up passing handily.

Since those days, Gilbert moved to Seattle and ceased the high-profile activism on behalf of white supremacism. Instead, as this article by Nina Shapiro described in detail in the Seattle Weekly a few years ago, Gilbert has been in the employ of two of Seattle's most notorious landlords, Hugh and Drake Sisley. He's been working as a thuggish enforcer for them:
To say that Keith Gilbert has a shady past is something of an understatement. In the 1980s, when he lived in Idaho, he was convicted of 35 counts of welfare fraud and state-income-tax evasion. While he was lying to the government, according to court documents, Gilbert was also whipping up hate as a member of the Aryan Nation, which he left to form his own white supremacist organization. He had a particular objection to an adoption agency that sometimes placed minority kids with white parents. In July 1982, he almost ran down a black adopted child--one of several incidents that earned him a federal conviction for violating the Fair Housing Act.

It is best to keep Gilbert's record in mind when you hear him declare that he's not a property manager for brothers Hugh and Drake Sisley, as is widely believed, but an agent for a nonprofit, religious "residents' club." And his ties to the far right, which he denies, make sense in light of his tendency to use lawsuits, the way the militia use liens, as a form of harassment--employed, in Gilbert's case, against tenants and city officials who give him problems. In the words of one city official, Gilbert and the Sisleys like to "run roughshod over people constantly."

... Then, when it comes to the Sisleys, there's also the intimidation factor. The brothers--particularly Hugh--tend to strike back at anyone who challenges them, be they tenants, attorneys, or city officials. Clay Thompson, a DCLU inspector, recalls his first dealing with Hugh Sisley some eight years ago when he came out to one property to find that Sisley had dug up a sewer line, leaving a rank open pit. Thompson issued an emergency violation order to fill the pit. "The next thing I know, I'm being sued for trespassing and violating the rights of tenants," he says. In the years that followed, he says, "It seemed that every time I issued a notice of violation, along would come a lawsuit." None have yet been successful, but they have been what Thompson calls a "nuisance"; even frivolous lawsuits gobble up time and money.

Gilbert, who has elevated the lawsuit-as-harassment to a high art, has proven enormously ingenious at flouting landlord-tenant law. In 1994, the 59-year-old former convict registered incorporation records with the secretary of state for "Acme Residents Club," described in its charter as an organization devoted to "providing services which include but are not limited to decent and affordable housing."

A portly man with a fuzzy gray beard and long ponytail who walks with a cane, Gilbert takes a reasonable tone as he gives a tour of some Acme buildings. (He claims he can't recall how many there are.) "These houses are in deplorable condition," he concedes after unabashedly showing off cracked floors, moldy ceilings, and grease-covered walls. But he portrays himself as trying to clean up buildings that were in even worse shape before Acme took them over; many, he says, are former drug houses. "Whatever money we get, we put back into the buildings."

He also says that Acme is trying to help its residents--many of whom are disabled, prison parolees, or former alcohol and drug addicts. "We function a little like how Oxford House works," he says, referring to the national chain of group homes for former addicts. The people who live in his house, therefore, are "members" or "guests" (not tenants) who pay a "membership fee" (not rent) that allows them to live in an Acme building. As for the religious component, Gilbert says it is nondenominational. "We advocate that people have faith," he says.

Some tenants do feel that, with his willingness to shelter all comers, Gilbert has done them a service. One woman released last month from prison says that Gilbert (and several people who work with him) took her in when few others would. "Knowing the position I was in, for them to reach out and help me means a great deal." Gilbert also let her hold off on paying rent until she got her first paycheck from a new job.

On the other hand, she continues, "they do need to put a little more work into the buildings. In a way I feel like they're taking advantage of people who can't complain and who have nowhere else to go. They can also raise the rent. My room is half the size of other rooms in the house, and my rent [at $350] is $50 to $70 more."

What's more, Gilbert apparently feels that if you're a "guest," you can be evicted at will, you cannot give permission for housing inspectors to enter the property, and you have no right to expect such amenities as a lock on your door--or even a door at all.

A lawsuit in federal court ties together several such cases. Twice, according to his own legal pleadings, Gilbert locked out people that city officials considered to be tenants. And Gilbert once removed what DCLU called the entry door to an apartment (Gilbert says it was a door to an interior passageway), ostensibly to paint the door jamb.

An array of city officials sanctioned him for such behavior: Prosecutors charged him with "harassing or retaliating against a tenant" for one lock-out; DCLU issued an emergency order to replace the missing door.

Gilbert's response in November 1994 was to file a federal lawsuit. Representing himself, as is his custom, he named seemingly everyone he could think of, including City Attorney Mark Sidran, the entire City Council, several DCLU inspectors, and a police officer. The charge: racketeering. By his reasoning, the conspiracy against him violated his right "not be made a real estate property owner against his wishes because such property ownership would violate the beliefs of the plaintiff which prohibit such property ownership." He says he is a "Nazarite," an archaic term used once by ancient Christians and Hebrews.

Gilbert also says that he is too poor to afford legal filing fees, that he is disabled with chronic bronchitis, that he is both black and Cajun. Indeed, in the federal suit and elsewhere, he claims racial discrimination by city officials.

The court ultimately proved unimpressed with Gilbert's claims. In two separate recommendations to the court considering motions to dismiss the case, US Magistrate Judge Philip Sweigert attacked Gilbert's credibility. At one point taking up Gilbert's claim to be both black and Cajun, Sweigert noted that Cajuns are descendants of the Acadians, mostly French immigrants who settled in Louisiana. "It goes without saying that the Acadians were white," Sweigert wrote. More important, he concluded, "It appears that the purpose of this incorporation [of Acme Residents Club] as a fraternal organization is to avoid the application of landlord-tenant laws."

I'm not a big fan of "three strikes"-type laws, but if ever they were needed, it would be for cases like Keith Gilbert.

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