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With Leaders in Jail, Posse Comitatus' Fate Is Uncertain

September 23, 1990|ROBERT IMRIE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

TIGERTON, Wis. — Delbert Larson scanned the empty woods where the Posse Comitatus once envisioned a paramilitary settlement for white supremacists, a haven from government regulations and taxes.

"Americans are blind and deaf," he says, explaining why the settlement failed. "We tried to do what we thought was a job to alert the people."

Larson, 66, is one of the few remnants of the Posse. Just a decade ago, they trained with guns, built underground shelters, vowed to rebel against government and caused a stir in this tiny central Wisconsin town.

He now lives alone in a makeshift home on the rolling countryside just east of Tigerton, a white-haired man with steely blue eyes who cuts wood for heat and reads the Bible for spiritual comfort.

Most of the Posse's militant leaders, including flamboyant businessman James Wickstrom and Tigerton farmer Donald Minniecheske, are sitting in prison after a government crackdown in the mid-1980s.

Townsfolk have pronounced the Posse dead since 1985, when officers swooped onto the hundreds of acres of property the group had assembled and removed some trailer homes that violated county zoning laws.

But Shawano County Dist. Atty. Gary R. Bruno isn't convinced.

Some evidence indicates that hate groups in the United States are becoming "bigger and badder," Bruno said, adding the Posse epitomized such groups with its loathing of Jews, blacks, taxes and government.

The group's activities petered out in Wisconsin because the leaders were silenced, the prosecutor said.

"You cut off the head of a snake and the rest of the snake can worm around, but it can't bite you anymore," he said.

The government considered the Posse dangerous lawbreakers, hatemongers and potential killers, something akin to organized crime. At least six Posse members have been convicted of crimes ranging from theft to tax evasion.

Wickstrom, 47, was sentenced Aug. 7 in Pennsylvania to 38 months in prison for conspiring to distribute $100,000 in counterfeit money. He left Wisconsin in 1985 shortly after serving 13 months for impersonating a municipal official in the Posse's self-created Township of Tigerton Dells.

Minniecheske, 56, upon whose farm land the Posse's compound was to flourish, is serving a nine-year prison sentence in Wisconsin for destruction of property, possession of stolen property and transfer of stolen property.

Gordon Kahl, a North Dakota tax protester linked to the Posse, was killed June 3, 1983, during the second of two shoot-outs with police seeking to arrest him for tax evasion. Those shoot-outs left three federal marshals dead.

Residents link the origins of the Posse to a day in the late 1970s when Minniecheske dumped two loads of sand along a river for a swimming beach, said Tigerton Police Chief Charles Gehrman. State officials objected--he had no permit--and his outrage against the government interference fueled a movement.

Some residents said the Posse had legitimate complaints about government, but the wrong approach to solving them.

"They had support until they started going crazy with stuff, when they started flashing those guns," said Kevin Maas, a logger who remembers seeing at least one Posse member in town with a pistol strapped to his hip.

The Tigerton Dells Bar and Ranch--the Posse's headquarters and home for the Minniecheske family--still displays a large picture of the late U.S. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.), the anti-Communist crusader of the 1950s.

"That's been here since 1964," Minniecheske's wife, Sally, explained. "He was a good friend of Donald's dad."

Up the road, the driveway to the former Posse compound is marked with ominous signs--"Private Property," "No Trespassing," "Keep Out."

A mailbox labeled "Life Science Church; Christian Liberty Academy" provides the only hint of the church building that once nestled in the trees. The government has alleged that the church was nothing more than a front used by the group to evade taxes.

Relatives visit Donald Minniecheske twice a week in prison.

"I don't think they have broken him. Not at all," said Minniecheske's son, James. "Prison will never change him."

Meanwhile, his wife, children and grandchildren host the church in their tavern. "We survive," Sally Minniecheske said, shrugging her shoulders. "The church takes care of what we need."

She estimated that 30 to 40 Posse members still live in the Tigerton area, farming and sharing financial resources. The government, however, is seeking to foreclose their property for back taxes.

Jeremy Erickson, 13, one of Sally Minniecheske's 19 grandchildren, remembers the military maneuvers and survival training at the compound.

"When the Posse was here, it was kind of fun," the boy said.

"These guys used to line up, in camouflage, and shoot their guns in the river. They really didn't scare us. All of them were pretty nice. They didn't want to hurt anybody. They were all against the government because our government is corrupt," he said.

James Minniecheske, 33, wonders whether the Posse should be revived.

"If it keeps my kids free from all this tyranny, let's do it," he said.

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