When William Mueller, his wife and her little girl vanished from their home in the wooded Ozark mountains of northwest Arkansas, his mother-in-law feared that they had gone underground with one of the white separatist groups that Mueller admired. But the truth was worse.
In June 1996, six months after the family disappeared, a man fishing near a lonely, windswept bridge over the Illinois Bayou near Russellville, 38 miles southwest of the family’s home in Tilly, sighted a leg floating in the water.
Police recovered the bodies of Mueller, 53, his wife, Nancy, 28, and her daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Powell, 8, dressed in their winter coats. They had been bound and then suffocated with plastic trash bags taped over their heads.
Nearly two years later, a federal grand jury in Little Rock charged that the Muellers had been murdered by white separatists. The case, among others outlined in a racketeering indictment handed down here last December, provides a window into the tangled, violent subculture that fascinated Mueller.
The killings, the indictment said, were part of a campaign by a white separatist group to start a revolution and set up an “Aryan People’s Republic” - through murder, assassination, kidnapping and theft.
The two men accused in the murders were Chevie Kehoe, 25, of Colville, Wash., and Daniel Lee, also 25 and a friend of Kehoe from Mustang, Okla. They were charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and robbery. The indictment portrayed Kehoe as the leader of the separatist group.
Last month, a federal judge in Little Rock, G. Thomas Eisele, imposed an order silencing lawyers and investigators in the Arkansas case, but court documents and the victims’ family and friends offered glimpses of what might have happened to the Muellers. The trials are expected to start this summer at the earliest.
In the cafe in Hector, Ark., across the mountains from Tilly, some men who were drinking coffee said Mueller had come to their tiny mountain community more than 20 years ago. He worked as an electrician and sold guns, mostly at gun shows.
“He offered to sell me ammunition for 3 cents a round if I bought 10,000 rounds,” recalled David Garrigus, who wanted to shoot gophers. “I told him I wouldn’t live long enough to shoot that with a bolt-action rifle.”
Among Mueller’s friends were the parents of Nancy Branch, a little girl who was crazy about horses and dreamed of becoming a nurse. But by 1989, she was Nancy Powell, newly divorced, and trying to take care of her infant daughter.
Mueller, who had also divorced, offered Powell, then 21, a job as his apprentice. He was a master electrician with a steady contract at a nearby Wal-Mart. She accepted the job, and shortly afterward, his proposal of marriage.
Her parents disapproved. Mueller was a Vietnam veteran twice her age, with two marriages behind him. Nancy’s mother, Earlene Branch, said she thought Mueller was “strange” and full of fears.
After the marriage, she said, Mueller was afraid his wife’s family might persuade her to leave him. Her mother, sister and niece said he told them not to drop by without an appointment.
In 1994, Mueller moved his family to a rented house near Tilly and devoted his time to attending gun shows, where he sold weapons, survival gear, anti-government videotapes and copies of “The Patriot Report,” an anti-government newsletter. During this time, his wife’s family believes that at least one member of the Kehoe family was a guest.
A chain of events that ended with the Mueller murders began in February 1995, when the Mueller home was burglarized. The thieves took all of Mueller’s guns and ammunition, as well as gold and silver coins, estimated to be worth $39,000 to $50,000. Mueller told close friends he suspected that local men were responsible, but he failed to keep appointments to discuss the theft with the Searcy County sheriff.
The Arkansas indictment did not say who committed the burglary. But it said that in March 1995, Kehoe and another accused member of the group, Faron Earl Lovelace, 41, now on death row in Idaho, picked up the stolen goods at Elohim City, a white separatist community in Oklahoma near the Arkansas state line, and took them to Spokane.
Back in Kehoe’s hometown in Washington, the Arkansas grand jury said, he and Lovelace robbed and kidnapped a Colville couple, Malcolm and Jill Friedman, on June 12, 1995. The Friedmans said later that the burglar who broke into their home was masked, armed and spouted “militia gibberish.” He took $16,000, they said, and told the couple, who are Episcopalians, that they were robbed because their surname sounded Jewish.
Seven months later, the Muellers visited Dr. Charles W. Turner, a retired physician who had befriended them. He was apparently the last friend to see them alive. They arrived at his home in Hector on the night of Jan. 11, 1996. The roads were icy, Turner recalled, and he had urged them to stay until morning. They went home and were not seen alive again. They left behind a half-packed suitcase, Mueller’s dentures and Nancy Mueller’s medicine.
The first arrest in the case had nothing to do with the Muellers. Lovelace, convicted of armed robbery, had escaped from prison and was being sought by the U.S. Marshals Service. The local authorities discovered that he was in a booby-trapped hideout in the mountains north of Priest River, Idaho.
Working together, the detectives and the marshals lured Lovelace into town in August 1996 with a false story that a Mexican drug dealer was exploiting local girls. Lovelace was arrested before he could get off his stolen mountain bike.
Within minutes, Lovelace offered to take his captors to the body of a man he had killed if they would promise to seek the death penalty for him. He said he could not face more time in prison. Then he led them to the grave of Jeremy C. Scott, 24, a skinhead he had killed with one shot to the head in July 1995. Lovelace said he thought Scott was a government informer.
Lovelace received two death sentences, one for murder and one for kidnapping, on Dec. 17, 1997, in a courtroom in Sandpoint, Idaho. Judge James Judd of Bonner County called him a “cold-blooded, pitiless murderer.” The Arkansas indictment also charges Lovelace in Scott’s murder, and Chevie Kehoe as well.
The hunt for Kehoe began in Wilmington, Ohio, on Feb. 15, 1997, when a state trooper pulled him over for driving with an expired license plate. On videotape later broadcast nationwide on the news, cameras on the trooper’s cruiser showed Kehoe’s younger brother, Cheyne, 21, jumping out of the passenger seat and opening fire. No one was hurt.
Hours later, Chevie Kehoe shot at two Wilmington policemen who pulled up behind him in a parking lot. No officers were injured. Both the Kehoe brothers vanished.
The break in the murder and racketeering case came on June 16, 1997, when Cheyne Kehoe surrendered at his home in Washington and told FBI agents where to find his brother, who was arrested the next day.
Cheyne Kehoe told investigators that his older brother had killed the Muellers. Paint from the brothers’ truck, seized when Cheyne surrendered, matched the light blue paint found on duct tape used to bind the family, according to court documents filed in the Arkansas case.
Cheyne Kehoe was convicted of assault and attempted murder in the Ohio shooting and sentenced to 24 years in prison on Feb. 24, 1998. His brother Chevie, who was charged in the Arkansas case with the attempted murder of Robert M. Martin, a Wilmington police officer, pleaded guilty on Feb. 20 to state charges in Ohio and agreed to a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
Kirby Kehoe, 49, the father of Chevie and Cheyne, was charged last year with possessing a handgun stolen from Nancy Mueller. After a hearing in September, he was released without bail and allowed to return home but was arrested on March 7, after a domestic dispute, for violating the terms of his release.
The Muellers’ family and friends in Arkansas say they are not sure what to make of the whole chain of events.
“I liked old Mueller,” Bill Parks, the constable in Hector, said regretfully. “He got mixed up in something he couldn’t get out of.”