When two dozen constitutionalists caused a commotion recently while a man stood trial for driving without a license, sheriff’s deputies responded with patience instead of force.
Shoshone County deputies listened politely while right-wing supporters of Joseph Stevens’ recited excerpts from the Constitution. Deputies kept their cool when protesters made sheep and cattle noises at the jury.
Instead of evolving into a violent clash that May day, exchanges between law enforcement and Benewah County Safety Committee members remained “friendly,” said Capt. Spike Angle.
He attributed the successful encounter to training that the deputies received from Bill Litsinger, who was hired by Idaho’s five Northern counties more than a year ago to gather information on and monitor right-wing extremist groups.
Litsinger has spent the past 14 months teaching officers how to react to extremist views, a skill becoming increasingly important as encounters with patriot, militia and constitutionalist groups mount.
Authorities said Litsinger’s knowledge about right-wing groups has increased officer safety and led to a better understanding of the philosophies behind extreme beliefs.
“They say the first thing you do about an enemy is educate yourself,” said Kootenai County sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger. “I don’t necessarily think those people are our enemies, but we certainly have to be aware of them.”
The brush in Wallace was one of many Shoshone County deputies have had with members of right-wing extremist groups during recent months. In Bonner County, sheriff’s deputies interact with members of right-wing groups almost daily.
Although there has been no domestic terrorism in the Inland Northwest during the past year, members of right-wing groups continue to make headlines in North Idaho.
Last week, a jury in Sandpoint convicted Faron Lovelace of shooting fellow white supremacist Jeremy Scott during a 1995 execution-style murder. This week, trial is set to begin for the fourth North Idaho man implicated in last year’s Spokane Valley domestic terrorism attacks.
State charges were filed last month against Kevin Harris and FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi in connection with their roles in Randy Weaver’s standoff at Ruby Ridge five years ago.
Officers say Litsinger’s lectures about the history, philosophy and ties between extremist groups help them deal with antigovernment sentiments they are sure to encounter.
“A lot of these people are good people,” said Wolfinger. “They just have a little different view on things. Our only concern is when they express themselves violently.”
Interest in Litsinger’s program has grown markedly since its inception.
“When they first started this, I thought, ‘Yeah, we’ll sign on with you, but a fat lot of good it will do us,”’ said Bonner County Sheriff Chip Roos. “But I think it really has done a lot of good. It’s one of the few things you can look back on and say it was worth the money.”
Most of Litsinger’s research has been gleaned from media reports. The rest has been gathered from encounters by officers with members of the area patriot, militia and constitutionalist groups.
“None of this was covert,” Wolfinger said. “There’s no sneaking and creeping.”
Litsinger, a retired Los Angeles police officer and Lewis-Clark State College instructor, declined to be interviewed for this story. He was hired as a civilian employee and is being paid using a three-year $60,000 federal grant, which covers his salary, office expenses and training.
The Inland Northwest has been inundated with right-wing activity, both civil and criminal, during recent years.
So-called patriots increasingly have used idiosyncratic interpretations of the U.S. Constitution to try to justify filing bogus liens against public officials. Others have tried to pay property taxes with promissory notes.
Meanwhile, a pair of Spokane Valley bombings and bank robberies last year linked to an Aryan Nations splinter group sparked a public outcry against right-wing groups. But authorities insisted Litsinger’s hiring was not a kneejerk reaction.
“We’ve needed it for years,” Angle said.
Charles H. Barbee, Verne Jay Merrell and Robert S. Berry, all formerly of Sandpoint, have been convicted of domestic terrorism in connection with those Valley bombings and robberies and face mandatory life prison sentences without the possibility of parole. They are scheduled to be sentenced in late October and early November.
A fourth North Idaho man, Brian Ratigan, 38, is accused of participating in the July 12 bombing of a Planned Parenthood office and a bank robbery that same day in the Spokane Valley. His trial is scheduled to begin Thursday.
“Those kind of violent acts, we as a society can’t tolerate,” Wolfinger said. “But we need to find out what motivates them.”
Boundary County Sheriff Greg Sprungl said that although his officers have not encountered many right-wing extremists in recent months, law enforcement wants to be prepared.
“We want to know what’s going on around us,” said Benewah County Sheriff Joe Blackburn. “We’d like to think we’re isolated from this, but in the real world, you never know.”