Emily Welker, Published February 09 2013
Gordon Kahl shootout, 30 years later: Fears of anti-government groups surface again in region
And despite holding some views that mirror those of Kahl – a tax dodger who killed two federal agents in a shootout in Medina, N.D., on Feb. 13, 1983 – Sorem is taken aback by the story of one of the region’s most infamous crimes.
“I’m at peace,” said the 57-year-old Perham man. “I don’t war with anybody. The ones that are warring are the police. You get pulled over, they’re not cordial.”
Those who study anti-government groups are worried about the prospect of a different kind of war.
Thirty years after U.S. Marshal Ken Muir and Deputy Marshal Bob Cheshire were shot to death by Kahl, experts on so-called “patriot groups” – those with extreme anti-government beliefs – are more concerned than ever about their growth, hoping the combination of a weak economy, apocalyptic views and a renewed gun control debate is not a tinder box about to ignite.
“Right now we are at an extremely worrying moment,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate and patriot groups in the United States. “It feels like the run-up to the Oklahoma City bombing.”
Numbers on the rise
Statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center – an Alabama-based civil rights nonprofit that tracks extremist organizations – suggest the interest in such patriot groups is taking off in the U.S.
In 1996, at their formerly highest point, there were 858, Potok said. For a dozen years, there was a decline down to a low of 149 groups in 2008.
In 2009, with the recession taking hold and President Barack Obama entering into office – the number of groups identified by the SPLC went up to 512. They’ve grown steadily each year since then, with a record high of 1,274 in 2011. Potok said the new numbers for 2012 will come out soon and will show another increase.
“Patriot groups always had an idea Obama was going to take their guns away,” said Potok. Since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the subsequent debate over potential new gun laws, he said, “there’s been an absolutely white-hot reaction.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by John Helgeland, a professor of history, philosophy and religious studies at North Dakota State University who has researched the Kahl case.
“We are due for a flare-up,” he said, along the lines of Ruby Ridge, Waco, or the Kahl shooting.
He said the common characteristics of the anti-government groups include an end-of-times religious outlook and heavy gun ownership, although there are numerous variations.
“The government is evil. Kahl thought the IRS was Satanic,” Helgeland said. “That kind of cosmology – that there are evil people out there – that sells a lot of guns.”
SPLC’s most recent list of active patriot groups includes 11 in Minnesota and eight in North Dakota.
‘The awake ones’
One of the groups not on the SPLC’s list for either state is the Sovereign Citizens movement, which Potok says is an underground group known for conducting seminars on how to bilk the government out of money from public assistance programs, how to evade foreclosure and other financial schemes.
Potok said Sovereign Citizens are notoriously difficult to track, “an extremely worrying group.” The FBI links them to the killing of several law enforcement officers in the U.S.
Law enforcement officials in the area have been aware for about 15 years that some members of the group live in Minnesota lakes country, said Otter Tail County Sheriff Brian Schlueter.
Wayne Sorem takes exception to being linked with mainstream perceptions of the Sovereign Citizens, which, he said, are being used as an unfair political label meant to distort the movement’s meaning and mislead the public.
Sorem easily cites U.S. history and Minnesota state law in conversation and says he keeps on his desk a copy of Minnesota’s “blue book” – a reference manual of government officials and information. He believes the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the only legitimate laws of the land, and that lower courts are “kangaroo courts.”
And as for the police?
“We’ve turned into a police state. ... If you ask them questions, they call it resisting arrest.”
Sorem also believes that the world is in a time of conflict and ultimate redemption, based on Western religious readings.
“Biblically, this is called the great awakening. We’ve already gone through the Age of Aquarius. You’ve seen the shows that are out now about zombies, right? That’s all the folks on Prozac and all those other drugs. Sovereigns – I would fall into that group – are the awake ones. The true Sovereigns.”
Though Sorem has had some brushes with the law, none were violent. His prior felony conviction – one that he said is the reason he gave up his guns – was for a single count of perjury, in a plea deal for a welfare fraud case based on his failure to report income. The conviction was later reduced to a misdemeanor, according to court records.
Sorem is also on unsupervised probation for one count of obstruction of a peace officer in Otter Tail County court. He said he was arrested in a case of police brutality after asking to see the deputy’s warrant, a warrant which he termed “illegal.”
Court documents state the deputy tried to take Sorem into custody after he failed to fill out a financial disclosure form. During a struggle between the two men, an officer used a stun gun on Sorem.
No ‘thought police’
Schlueter doesn’t view the Sovereign Citizens as a threat.
“We don’t want to be the thought police,” said Schlueter. “Most of these peoples’ rub is with federal agencies. The one thing they will honor is with the sheriff, because that’s more of an old constitution, that’s an elected position.”
Schlueter said that the Sovereigns he sees in the county, and their related group, the Republic for the United States of America, identified as the largest subgroup of the Sovereign Citizens in the country so far, have not been violent.
The SPLC list of patriot groups doesn’t include any militias in Minnesota or North Dakota. Nationwide, about one-fourth of the 1,274 groups identified by the nonprofit as patriot groups in 2011 were also deemed to be militias.
But extremist groups are definitely on the radar of local and federal law enforcement agencies.
On this anniversary of the murders of Muir and Cheshire – what the FBI coined the Marmurs – present-day North Dakota U.S. Marshal Paul Ward isn’t willing to get specific about any anti-government groups in the state, but he does say the Marshal Service gets a steady flow of intelligence and information from the public about them.
“We try to keep it amongst ourselves,” he said. “If we were to divulge techniques (it) defeats the purpose.” Ward said if there were a specific threat to public safety, it would be publicized.
This year, as they do each year on the anniversary of the shootings, he and his staff will hold a meeting that focuses on operations. He said they’ll talk about what happened and what they’ve learned from it. For instance, Ward said if they were to serve a warrant on a member of a group like Kahl’s, they would send in considerably more men.
Diane Wigglesworth, the widow of Carl Wigglesworth, a marshal who survived the fatal shootout, works in the marshals’ office in Fargo – just as much a constant reminder of the tragedy as the photos of Muir and Cheshire that hang in the foyer of the office in the Fargo federal courthouse.
“I would say it could happen – any time, any day, anywhere,” Ward said. “If their deaths prevent another, it’s well worth it.”
U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said that he doesn’t see much activity from anti-government groups in North Dakota, something he attributes to the strong economy in the state.
With eight groups identified by the SPLC in the state, North Dakota ties for the state with the fewest number of groups – along with Vermont, Wyoming and Hawaii. Minnesota ties for the eighth-least among states, along with Rhode Island and South Dakota. The state with the most groups is Texas with 76.
St. Paul-based spokesman Kyle Loven said the FBI is not doing anything differently now in dealing with such groups than it was before the Connecticut school shooting and the recent gun control debate.
“Some of these individuals engage in federally protected speech, and we’re not interested in any of the political aspects,” he said. “We’re always mindful of these kinds of groups, that there are dangerous members … (but) the FBI simply is not interested in infringing on anyone’s right to have an opinion.”
Opinions, after all, are not actions. Potok agrees that the vast majority of patriot group members are law-abiding and not dangerous.
And so, Sorem said, is he. Even when asked why, if he believes the courts have no real legitimacy, no real say-so over him, why did he get rid of all his guns? After all, isn’t a felony only a felony if you believe it is?
Sorem pauses for a moment before he answers.
“You have to pick your battles,” he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541