Thursday, March 10, 2005

New feathers for old hats

Seems we've had a spate of bad pennies cropping back up around Seattle lately. First it was Keith Gilbert getting busted.

Now John L., Kirk -- who shook out a few nickels with a "common law court" operation back in the 1990s, before he was busted for building pipe bombs for the Washington State Militia -- is back in the news with a fresh scam: taking advantage of the naivete of young girls and grieving widows.

You see, back in 2003, a police officer named Patrick Maher was slain with his own gun when it was taken from him by a teenager during an altercation in Federal Way, a suburban city midway between Seattle and Tacoma, an incident that left a deep mark on the community.

So when it came time to name a new middle school being built in Federal Way, a 13-year-old named Kara Dameron decided naming it after Maher was a good idea. And it probably was.

Problem is, the school district has a policy to name its middle schools only after "peoples, places or events from Native American literature." Maher was Irish.

So she went to work and collected signatures for a petition and appeared before the school board, hoping to overcome their objections. So far, there's no indication her pleas have come to any avail.

So far, so good. As Robert Jamieson put it in a laudatory column for the P-I:
I'm in the kid's corner. She's smart. She has moxie.

But then there was this:
And now, she's got a whole other kind of support.

An Indian tribe calling itself the Sovereign Government of Little Shell Pembina has rallied to Kara's side. The tribe -- with North Dakota roots and composed of Pembina Chippewa Native Americans -- is not federally recognized. But that didn't stop a tribal representative from bestowing a posthumous honor on Maher, a Certificate of Adoption.

Actually, the "tribe" has not "rallied to Kara's side." Rather, her cause has been taken up by the aforementioned John L., Kirk. (That's how he insisted on punctuating his name when he ran the "Justus Township" of King County. It's a Patriot thing.)

A recent KOMO TV report had a little more on this, though it too was oblivious to the nature of the "tribe" which had ostensibly adopted Maher:
A Chippewa tribe from North Dakota is adopting Officer Maher.

"We honor Patrick Maher as a great warrior," said John Kirk of The Little Shell Pembina Band Tribe.

"It's really overwhelming," said Renee Maher, Patrick's wife. "I think Patrick would be so proud and so honored to be part of the tribe."

The adoption could be critical because Federal Way School Board policy says middle schools can only be named for a person, place or event in Native American literature.

"And if that is one of the stumbling blocks to the school's policy that has now been eliminated, officially and on the record," Kirk said.

First, a little bit about the "Little Shell Pembina Band". It is not a real tribe; rather, it is a right-wing activist group with a history of issuing bogus license plates and other antigovernment activity associated with white supremacists.

The "band," which appears all over the Web, seems to originate from a group of con artists who organized around one or more former (and discredited) tribal judges from a legitimate Pembina tribe. They are known to sell spurious tribal "memberships" and associated paperwork at Ramada Inn-type seminars -- the kind at which we saw militias organized in the 1990s -- and tell their customers these papers enable them to assert "immunity" from legitimate court prosecutions, traffic citations, foreclosures, and tax judgments, all on the grounds that the "tribal" courts have exclusive jurisdiction.

It's apparently quite popular in North Texas, having drawn many present and former Republic of Texas members as customers. (I'm told that some arrests were just made recently in Tarrant County based on "retaliation" charges, but I don't have details.)

The group that appears closest to being a legitimate representative of the tribe, such as it is, completely disavows these con artists:

We urge all that are members to use your common sense and see what is going on for what it really is; a scam, prepetuated by a few that want power and your money. You are not helping the Tribe or yourself.

For those who have been victimized through the mail we urge you to contact the United States postal authorities at the following Web Site.

What is going on here is an interesting permutation of the kind of right-wing scams we saw occurring in the 1990s, which themselves were kind of fresh takes on old right-wing monetary scams of the 1970s and '80s. It's the Freemen go Native.

Those who've read In God's Country are familiar with the milieu: Cobbling together a string of legal gobbledygook and odd citations from a bizarre range of sources, the scam artists will tell their angry, so-suspicious-they're-gullible taxpaying customers that they have figured out a way to place themselves above the "phony" laws of the mainstream -- namely, by becoming a "sovereign citizen." Once so anointed, you're no longer obligated to bother with such mortal nuisances as taxes, insurance, foreclosure laws, speed limits, traffic tickets, or library fines.

The Montana Freemen kind of perfected this scam in the '90s, though many others perpetrated a version of it and continue to operate freely. The "Little Shell Pembina Band" scam is an original take on this: By becoming a member of the tribe, one can claim such "sovereign citizenship." And just think: No more worries about gold-fringed flags, either!

John L., Kirk, as it happens, was one of these men. He didn't operate altogether freely, though -- not after he was arrested in 1996 and eventually convicted of felony bomb-building.

I attended his first trial. It was quite an experience.

Kirk, you see, has a long history of both unsavory behavior and right-wing extremism. He was one of eight men arrested and charged with conspiring to build bombs intended to be used, among other things, against federal agents at the Jordan, Montana, standoff involving the Freemen. He was one of the four clearly convicted by that original jury in the first trial, and got one of the stiffest sentences. For good reason.

As I explained in Chapter 11 of In God's Country, he was closely associated with another of the four self-proclaimed "Seattle Freemen" arrested, a shadowy fellow named William Smith who claimed a close friendship with Montana Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer:
While Smith was the man with the ideas, it was John Kirk who made them reality. Kirk, who had pleaded guilty in 1980 to molesting his daughters, met Smith through the same gatherings as Gene Goosman. This community was the remnant of the old McCarthyite anti-communist groups of the 1950s and 1960s that had floated about Seattle's fringes; Goosman had been been an official of Homer Brand's old Duck Club, the Seattle constitutionalist group whose paranoid style had convinced David Rice in 1986 that the entire Goldmark family was comprised of Communist conspirators, which in turn inspired Rice to hideously murder David and Annie Goldmark and their two children in their Madrona home on Christmas Eve that year. Since that incident, the radical right in Seattle kept an extremely low profile, and appeared to have drifted into virtual non-existence -- until, that is, John Kirk and the Freemen came along.

Kirk, who told his friends he had been in Special Forces in the Army, used to have work as a television repairman for J.C. Penney but had been out of a job since the 1980s; the couple got by on Judy's income from her job at Boeing as a data technician. John had taken to wearing a beard under his chin and talking about the big government conspiracy, and had become an active member in Goosman's community of Christian Patriots.

Kirk first made a splash as the co-founder of a Justus Township in rural Snohomish County, in the town of Sultan. With Bill Hardisty and another Patriot named Clayton McFarlan, they filed papers in Snohomish County declaring themselves "sovereign citizens" and establishing their township. The trio also turned up at a common-law court training session in Boise on December 14, 1995, convened by Gary DeMott's Idaho Sovereignty Association. Kirk told the gathering he intended to announce the court's formation the old-fashioned way -- by having a crier announce it from the steps of the post office. If such a crier actually did so, his appearance went unreported.

As Bill Hardisty later explained it, the "Justus Township" they had created was meant to encompass the entire "Washington republic," with all of that title's implications for the court system as well. He described it as "a geographical and political township that covers Washington state and a hell of a lot more." Evidently, the township also incorporated a common-law court.

Two weeks later, Kirk -- who actually lived with his wife, Judy, in the southern Seattle suburb of Tukwila -- presided as the "Referee/Magistrate" of the first recorded session of "our one supreme court Common Law, Washington republic." According to the document itself, the court was convened on Mercer Island at the home of James Gutschmidt, a Patriot who was attempting to stave off foreclosure on his property, who claimed in the document he was "not a Fourteenth Amendment citizen or subject ... not a resident, but a Citizen as described in the Holy Bible and in the Constitution prior to the Fourteenth Amendment."

The genuinely distasteful aspect of this is that Kirk is now championing the posthumous cause of a law-enforcement officer. But he was convicted of building bombs that were intended, at least originally, as part of an armament for dealing with federal agents in Jordan had that situation erupted into "another Waco" (it did not). He and his mates in the militia often expressed an eagerness to gun down law-enforcement officers themselves, as in the day they all went target shooting, and an informant named Ed Mauerer happened to have a tape recorder rolling:
The following week [after their first meeting], the training for the Seattle Freemen began in earnest. Six of them -- Kirk, Smith, Burton, Rice, Ross Tylor and another man who was never identified -- drove up from Seattle to meet Marlin Mack and Ed Mauerer for some target practice. They arrived an hour late; Smith was apologetic, explaining that it was his fault.

... The group drove out to a gun range and set up targets. Marlin Mack and Mauerer started explaining weaponry and how to use it -- which types of guns were most effective, and the conditions for using pistols as opposed to rifles or shotguns. Then they began firing away at human silhouette targets with the letters "ATF" printed on them. After awhile, Mauerer pulled down one of the chewed-up targets and joked about it with the Freeman who wouldn't give his name.

"That poor ATF guy's already dead a couple of times,’’ he laughed. "Been hit in the head, the nuts, the gut."

The Freeman had a better idea: "Should bring a couple of real ones and hang 'em up there."

The most chilling moment in the trial came, though, when prosecutors showed the videotape from the day that John Kirk showed up at Ed Mauerer's place and proceeded to build him a pipe bomb in his garage. Outside in the back yard -- with just a thin wall between them and the pipe bomb -- a group of young girls, gathered for a birthday party, squealed and played. An undercover FBI agent was present as well.
Finally, on June 14, all the pieces fell into place. It was a sunny day. Mauerer and German had agreed to rendezvous with the Freemen at a gas station on the edge of town, ostensibly to go up to test out some "toys" Kirk said he had for them. The Freemen were late, as usual, which gave Mauerer a chance to create some cover. When Kirk and Richard Burton arrived an hour after the anointed hour, Mauerer went to a phone and pretended to call the owner on whose land they were going to conduct the practice. He went back to the group and said they couldn't go up there now, because the owner's disapproving wife had returned from a shopping trip. Instead, Mauerer invited them over to his house.

When they arrived there, a birthday party for Mauerer's young daughter was under way in the back yard. The four men went to Mauerer's garage, where he had a workbench, to take a look at the "surprises" Kirk had for them in his bag. When they closed the door, Kirk set the bag down on the bench and pulled out some pipe bombs.

There were two completed pipe bombs, constructed of short, wide pieces of pipe and end caps with a fuse; Kirk also had the components to build another one, and the makings of a couple of pill-bottle bombs. When Kirk pulled them out, [undercover FBI agent Mike] German instinctively walked to the window to place himself between the bombs and the girls playing outside, whose squeals and laughs could be heard through the thin pane of glass separating them from the garage's interior. He stayed there for most of the demonstration.

Kirk himself scarcely blinked an eye. He proceeded to go through the steps of putting the bomb together, from selecting the right powder and tamping it down properly, placing the detonator squarely, to ensuring that no powder remained on the threads. If they weren't properly brushed out, Kirk warned the men, then even tiny amounts of powder could ignite in tiny flashes as the caps were being screwed on and set off the explosive inside: "You're holding a bomb," Kirk said, "and believe me, it'll take your head clean off." German shifted his position nearer the window.

It was clear Kirk expected one of the two "students" to learn bomb-making in a hands-on way; he asked the men which of them was going to do it. German was palpably reluctant -- "Ummmmmm...," he said -- and Mauerer was less than eager, but the informant quickly realized that German couldn't be in the position of building a bomb, so he stepped forward. He brushed out the threads some more and screwed the cap on slowly. The sound of laughing girls continued to filter through the window. When he was done, Mauerer let out a gasp and set the bomb down.

When the lesson was over, they packed the bombs into a box. The four men went back in the house and talked further. Kirk told German he had another bomb at home just like the one they had built, and could get that to them as well. German said he could come down the next morning and pick it up.

"Let me do this, Rock," Kirk said, "I'm not going to be there, but my wife is."


"So I'll tell her you're coming and I'll put this in a bag."

The next morning, German and Mauerer made the two-hour drive south to Tukwila. On the way down, German called Mack and told him he had a buyer. They made arrangements to meet that night.

When the two men arrived at the Kirks', no one answered the door, but it was open. They walked around to the back yard and found Judy playing there with a couple of her grandchildren, who were playing in the yard on a broken-down playset. "Rock" [German's nom de plume] introduced himself and they exchanged pleasantries. Judy Kirk went over to the barbecue grill, opened it, and pulled out a brown paper sack with the bomb inside.

"This was to keep little hands off it," Judy said, pointing to the grill and to the nearby children.

... When FBI agents later examined the bombs Mack and Kirk had made, their experts decided the militiamen had been extremely lucky. All the bombs had traces of powder in their threads; all could have gone off in their makers' hands, or even as they were being transferred. Twice, it had happened with children nearby.

None of this, of course, should reflect badly on poor Kara Dameron. She's clearly a sincere and well-meaning middle-schooler who's trying to do a good and right thing. Frankly, the district's policy sounds foolish, especially in the face of the kind of community support she's mustered.

But she has been snookered by a very skilled and adept con man with a truly vile track record, and no sign of having changed an iota: the current scam is just an update on the old one. What does he get out of scamming Kara Dameron? Legitimacy for his scam, which relies on drawing people into a belief system and then soaking them for large sums when they achieve True Believer status.

If the School Board has any wisdom at all, it will go ahead and name that new middle school after the heroic Officer Maher. But it will decline to do so on the basis that he has Native American affiliation. He does not. And the people trying to claim they can give it to him should receive some attention from genuine Native Americans.

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