For more than a year, Sandpoint has been plagued by racist propaganda, including flyers targeting city leaders, CDs left on cars in a high school parking lot and anonymous letters mailed to minorities.
Police now believe they have found a man responsible for some of that, although it’s unlikely the hateful speech will get him charged with a crime.
The same man, Scott D. Rhodes, also has captured the interest of police in Alexandria, Virginia, a home base of influential white supremacist Richard Spencer.
Alexandria investigators asked Sandpoint police for help after Alexandria city leaders began receiving threatening, anti-Semitic phone calls last fall, according to a Sandpoint police report. Investigators determined that one of those calls was a recording of Adolf Hitler and traced the phone number to Rhodes and one of his Idaho-registered business entities.
The Alexandria Police Department’s public information office did not respond to a message seeking comment on Friday, but a spokeswoman told the Sandpoint Reader, an alternative weekly magazine, that the agency was looking into harassing phone calls made to Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg and several City Council members.
The Spokesman-Review contacted Rhodes by phone, and he responded in an email. He claimed he had been targeted by local media and “extreme leftists” because of his opposition to refugee settlement in North Idaho and said he might try to sue them for libel. He did not explicitly deny making a call to Virginia.
“There has been an outrageous attempt by two small town papers to mislead readers to infer that I have something to do with actual crimes,” he wrote. “Further, a single phone call to a public office holder, if truly made from my shared offices as alleged, is not a crime if the content was as they describe.”
Rhodes did not respond to a list of specific questions about his involvement in racist propaganda in Sandpoint, much of which has targeted Mayor Shelby Rognstad.
During his 2015 election campaign, robocalls branded Rognstad as a feminist who would purge blue-collar white people from the city. And an email distributed in September showed Rognstad in a Nazi gas chamber with the cartoon Pepe the Frog – a caricature that has become a white supremacist symbol – manning the switch.
Other mailings have targeted Muslims, African Americans, local journalists and members of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force.
Ben Olson, publisher of the Sandpoint Reader, said the onslaught is different from the rise of the Aryan Nations in the ’80s and ’90s, when racist leaders like Richard Butler were outspoken and unabashed.
“It’s a little different thing when you have somebody operating under the cover of night,” Olson said. “It’s created a lot of division and a lot of fear in the community.”
Cameron Rasmusson, the magazine’s editor, said, “I think that a lot of people are really happy that some answers may be coming to light.”
Banned from schools
Sandpoint police say Rhodes, 49, was captured on surveillance video pulling into the parking lot of Sandpoint High School and leaving CDs on the windshields of 56 vehicles on Nov. 30. Each disc was in a protective sleeve labeled “What They Are Hiding From You” and promoted a website that traffics in racism and far-right conspiracies.
The next day, School Resource Officer Spencer Smith and Detective Mike Aerni confronted Rhodes at his office in Sandpoint. Body-camera footage of the encounter was obtained through public records requests and published by the Sandpoint Reader and the Bonner County Daily Bee.
During the encounter, Smith informed Rhodes that police had him on video visiting the school parking lot in his red Jeep and distributing the CDs.
“No, I don’t think you do,” Rhodes responded. “Not me.”
He repeatedly told the police any questions would have to go through his attorney.
During the exchange, the officers informed Rhodes that he also is suspected in a rash of a racist flyers and emails that have been circulating in Sandpoint.
“We know that it’s you,” Aerni said. “We’ve had you on our radar. We know you’ve been handing out the flyers, putting them on the lawns. We know you went to the school. Got you on video.”
Rhodes was insistent. “I’ve never handed out flyers,” he said, “so I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Rhodes is not charged with any crime, as hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. But the police informed him that, per the request of the superintendent, he is banned from all Lake Pend Oreille School District properties for one year. If he sets foot on school grounds, he can be arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge.
In his email to The Spokesman-Review, Rhodes wrote, “The issue the very professional Sandpoint Police Department spoke to me about was not a crime, and I stand by what I have already stated to them.”
Months of harassment
One evening last summer, Lee Hardin, a black man, was returning to his car in front of a sandwich shop in downtown Sandpoint with carryout from a nearby Thai restaurant in hand.
A red Jeep had been parked beside his car, and the driver was making a three-point turn to leave.
“As he pulled off, he screamed the N-word at me,” Hardin, 43, recalled in a recent interview. “I turned around and was like, ‘What?’ ”
Hardin said he shouted back, and the driver repeated the slur while speeding away. “And then I was looking, trying to get his license plate, but I never got it.”
Hardin didn’t immediately report that incident to police. But soon afterward, in mid-August, he held a grand opening for his mortgage-lending business and a photo of him appeared in the Daily Bee.
Soon after that, anonymous letters started arriving at his office in intervals of about a week.
Hardin said each envelope had “weird” handwriting on it and contained a single letter on a sticker one might buy from a stationery or craft store.
The first was an “N,” the second an “I,” the third a “G,” and so forth until the letters spelled out the same racial slur. Hardin was on vacation in Hawaii when his business partner texted him a photo of the last letter to arrive, an “R.”
It didn’t stop there. Around the beginning of November, Hardin said, he began receiving catalogs and magazines addressed to “Stu Pidkune.”
Hardin said he’s sure the letters and the magazines all came from the same person because each misspelled the name of his business. It’s Guaranteed Rate – singular – not Guaranteed Rates.
He turned over all the materials to Sandpoint police and asked the letter carrier to stop delivering all magazines.
According to a police report and court records, a detective showed Hardin a photo lineup, including body-camera images from a July 25 traffic stop in which Scott Rhodes was pulled over in a red Jeep.
Hardin said he’s almost certain Rhodes was the man who shouted at him outside the sandwich shop. And he has little doubt Rhodes sent all those letters and magazines.
Hardin moved to Sandpoint from Chicago in 2007 and lives with his wife and their 2-year-old son. He said he had never experienced such racism in Sandpoint before, and his family has received an outpouring of support from the community.
“I’m not going to let that jade my outlook on the people in this community, because I know it’s just a couple of ignorant idiots that are spewing this hateful information,” he said. “I’m not going to let that run me away.”
Rhodes, who is also known as Scott Platek, has lived in Connecticut, Oregon and California, where a number of state and federal tax liens were lodged against him in the 1990s and early 2000s.
He appears to have moved to Sandpoint about two years ago. He was listed as the registered agent for American Discovery Publishing based in Santa Rosa, California. The business was registered in Idaho from May 2016 until its license was canceled in August 2017.
According to its bare-bones website, American Discovery Publishing specializes in “timely and relevant consumer research.” A toll-free number listed on the site repeatedly led to an answering machine, and a message was not returned.
Dates and times on the report were redacted, but Alexandria police Sgt. Wil Salas contacted Sandpoint police late last year. Sandpoint Detective Eric Ryan wrote that Salas emailed him copies of “several anti-semitic/nuclear weapon fliers and a handwritten note” that had appeared in Alexandria.
The note contained a vulgar reference to bestiality, followed by a threat: “Get ready for your bombs! We are coming.”
Ryan wrote that the flyers were not the same as those being distributed in Sandpoint and that the handwriting in the letter did not match the writing on the envelopes addressed to Hardin.
Olson, the Sandpoint Reader publisher, who doubles as a reporter, said he had made several trips to Rhodes’ office to inquire about the CDs, the harassment of Hardin and the call to Virginia, but Rhodes declined to comment each time.
“He said he didn’t want to talk,” Olson said, recalling a visit last month. He said he was able to give a business card to Rhodes, and then, “He kind of shut the door in my face.”
The day after Christmas, Olson received an anonymous card with a bizarre message written on it, and he assumed it came from Rhodes. He said he and magazine editor Rasmusson are trying to discern if Rhodes has any connection to Richard Spencer, Spencer’s think tank in Alexandria or any other sizable racist organizations.
“That’s the one question for me,” Olson said. “He’s being instructed to do that by somebody, it seems. I think it’s pretty weird that Scott Rhodes, here in Sandpoint, Idaho, seems to have a connection to that.”
Olson said he believes that racists make up a tiny yet vocal fraction of the Sandpoint community.
“Sandpoint has no place for racism,” he said.
Correction: This story was changed on Jan. 16, 2018. A previous version misstated when Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad was the target of racist robocalls. The story also has been updated to clarify Scott Rhodes’ affiliation with American Discovery Publishing.