A plot to bomb an MLK Day parade route in Spokane and evidence of anti-government stirrings in northwestern Montana prompt fears of a resurgence of white-supremacist and militia groups in the region.
Three sanitation workers found it along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march: a nest of wires in a backpack.
The homemade bomb was equipped with an unusual remote-controlled trigger and stuffed with more than 100 heavy fishing weights coated in rat poison.
The Spokane County bomb squad disarmed it hours before the march last year. If the device had detonated, the poison would have prevented victims’ blood from coagulating, all but ensuring their deaths, lab analysts concluded.
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A manhunt led authorities to a remote cabin in the pine-shrouded hills north of Spokane. In it lived Kevin W. Harpham, an Army veteran who had posted venomously for years on a white-supremacist website, the Vanguard News Network.
“Those who say you can’t win a war by bombing have never tried,” he wrote. “I can’t wait till the day I snap.”
Harpham eventually pleaded guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and a hate crime and was sentenced in December to 32 years in prison.
A decade after the dissolution of the Aryan Nations compound in northern Idaho and the arrest of the Montana Freemen, white supremacists, far-right militias and radical patriots have revived their dream of a Northwest homeland.
In 2010, residents in several parts of Idaho found Easter eggs tossed on their lawns — courtesy of the not-yet-dead Aryan Nations. The eggs contained jelly beans and solicitations to “take back our country and make it great, clean, decent and beautiful once again.”
In October, a federal jury convicted Spokane-area resident Wayde Kurt of firearms violations in a case prosecutors said stemmed from his membership in the white-supremacist group Vanguard Kindred.
In a memorandum, federal prosecutors said Kurt discussed with an informant a plan for what he called an act of terrorism “of the worst kind,” comparable to the Oklahoma City bombing, that “would mean a death sentence if he is caught.”
“The defendant stated that he needed to make sure that everyone is fed up with (President) Obama,” the memo says.
Meanwhile, prominent white nationalists, radical constitutionalists and other apostles of the far right have established beachheads in northwestern Montana. They include April Gaede, who is appealing to white “refugees” to establish a Pioneer Little Europe; Karl Gharst, a former Aryan Nations member who has been screening Holocaust denial films at a local library; and Ronald Davenport, a Washington state man convicted in November of filing more than $20 billion in false liens against government officials seeking to collect $250,000 in unpaid taxes.
Conservative preacher and radio host Chuck Baldwin, the Constitution Party’s 2008 presidential candidate, moved to Montana from Florida in 2010 to help establish an “American redoubt” for “liberty-loving brethren” and is a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.
“We know there’s a fight coming,” Baldwin told supporters last year. “We know there is a line being drawn in the sand, and we want to be in the right place. The good ground is right here in Montana.”
In a recent report, the Southern Poverty Law Center said “a new round of anti-government stirrings” was evident in northwestern Montana, especially around Kalispell.
“We’re seeing a real resurgence of the idea once again of retreating to the Pacific Northwest, the last best place, as they say,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the center.
The new arrivals have not made overt threats of violence. Many say they came to establish a quiet line of defense against rising crime in cities. Yet Travis McAdam, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said the militant right poses a different kind of challenge.
Instead of doing most proselytizing online, as in the past, he said, the groups now sponsor public meetings, bringing in guest speakers such as David Irving, an internationally known writer who challenges the Holocaust, and Paul Fromm, a well-known Canadian white supremacist.
“The idea that they just want to move here and be left alone — we’ve seen in the last 2 ½ years that that’s not what these folks are about. They’re about pushing their agenda, trying to recruit people if they can,” McAdam said. “It’s definitely about establishing a presence and saying basically, ‘We’re here.’ “
In the case of Baldwin, he added, “They’re engaging mainstream political institutions and trying to accumulate power.”
The near-disaster involving the backpack bomb at the MLK Day march in Spokane evoked comparisons to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, another below-the-radar radical, and Buford O. Furrow Jr., a former Aryan Nations guard who drove to Los Angeles from Washington state in 1999 and opened fire at a Jewish community center in Granada Hills, wounding five, then killed a Filipino-American postal worker in Chatsworth.
Harpham, the MLK Day bomb builder, “was what we feared most, the prototypical lone-wolf extremist who didn’t foreshadow the event in any way,” said Frank Harrill, the FBI’s lead agent in Spokane. “There had been nothing that would signal that he would conduct some vicious attempt like this.”
The rush to identify a suspect — and an elaborate arrest plan involving a SWAT unit disguised as road workers — reflected the fear that whoever was responsible might detonate a bomb elsewhere.
“We all felt, although the timeline was uncertain, that this could be a race against a second device in some venue somewhere … so it was all hands on deck,” Harrill said. “… We didn’t even know if it was an individual” or a group.
One thing FBI supervisors knew after identifying Harpham as a suspect: They did not want to try to arrest him at his cabin — not after the disastrous 1992 siege of the Idaho cabin of white separatist Randy Weaver. That assault killed Weaver’s wife and 14-year-old son.
Instead, agents learned Harpham was looking to buy a car, and devised a plan to grab him.
On March 9 — 51 days after the attempted bombing and 22 days after agents had identified him as their suspect — Harpham drove down the narrow, mountain road from his cabin to a small bridge. Awaiting him were the FBI’s hostage rescue team and an FBI SWAT unit from Seattle, disguised as road workers.
Harpham’s father, Cecil “Bill” Harpham, said his son was “a real good kid” who fell in with skinheads in the Army.
“They more or less brainwashed my son into thinking that this hate group is going to better America, that they’re getting stronger every day and a bunch of stuff like that,” he said, then sighed. “Oh, I cried an awful lot. But he brought this on himself. I told him not to mess with those skinheads. Stay away from ‘em. But he wouldn’t do it.”