I was a 20 year old college kid working a grindingly-boring Sunday afternoon shift at KQDJ Radio in Jamestown, ND on February 13, 1983.
I was doing what I usually did on those boring Sunday shifts; playing records, doing homework, taking transmitter readings.
Then, the police scanner in the “newsroom” next door, which normally burbled with the desultory reports of DWIs and bar fights and traffic stops that make up the lives of most small town cops, suddenly erupted. There’d been a shootout; officers were down; cops and sheriff’s deputies were being dispatched to Medina, a town of about 400 people about 35 miles west of Jamestown on I94.
It took hours to untangle the story, which became perhaps the most famous crime in North Dakota history, the Medina Shootout.
Two US Marshals, dispatched from Fargo to try to arrest a group of tax-protesters affiliated with the neo-Nazi-sympathetic “Posse Comitatus”, had been killed in the shootout that ensued. Their leader, Gordon Kahl, and several others fled the scene. The scanner reported ambulances on their way to the hospital in Jamestown bringing the wounded, which included Yorie Kahl, criticially injured by a gunshot; in one of the many ironies that day, Kahl’s life was saved by the doctor on duty in the Emergency Room that day, Dr. Evan Kostick, father of my high school pal David (himself a doctor today), and one of Jamestown’s tiny Jewish community.
News organizations in North Dakota today are remembering the 25th anniversary of the shootout – the Fargo Forum led and leads the coverage; others from the Bismark Trib pitched in; former Forum staffer James Corcoran wrote “Bitter Harvest”, the definitive book on the event, relating not only the shootout and the apocalyptic trial of the survivors, but the social sturm und drang that the event caused on the Northern Plains.
Times were brutally tough in the Dakotas in the early ’80s. The rest of the US was slowly recovering from a recession; it’d be hard to call what happened on the Plains anything less than a depression. What the foreclosure crisis is to the inner city today, the farm crisis of the ’80s was to the Great Plains.
Some farmers – and some of the workers whose livelihoods depended on agriculture, which in North Dakota back then accounted for pretty much every job in the place – did what human nature naturally bids some people to do; blame someone else. And for some – like Kahl and a thin film of like-minded people – it wasn’t a big leap from “losing your farm to the bank” and “losing your farm to Jewish Bankers”. The Times’ review of “Bitter Harvest” notes:
The book that turned his head at an early age was ”The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem,” and it was written by Henry Ford.
It is based on a 1918 treatise called ”The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which purported to be the minutes of a cabal of Russian Jews plotting to destroy Christianity and the white race and take over the world. Ford wrote ”The International Jew” in 1920, and it was not until 1929 that he finally conceded that ”The Protocols” was a fabrication concocted by czarist Russian anti-Semites.
Even so, as a young man in the 1940’s, Mr. Kahl believed it totally. He had considerable encouragement. He came of age at a time when the velvet voice of the Rev. Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who reached into almost as many homes with his weekly radio show as Fred Allen, broadcast some of the nastiest anti-Semitic propaganda ever heard on the airwaves; when Gerald L. K. Smith established the Jew-baiting Christian Nationalist Crusade in Arkansas and gained a national following, and when Gerald Winrod, an apocalyptic fundamentalist preacher in central Kansas gained tens of thousands of adherents to a movement that came to be known as the Jayhawk Nazis.
Winrod’s son, George Gordon Winrod, kept the ministry alive. I remember his followers leaving corrosively anti-semitic leaflets under the windshield wipers of cars in the church parking lot when I was in ninth grade.
Nobody in my circle bought into it, of course – but we all knew people for whom it rang true. There was an audience, out there.
And they – like Kahl – weren’t necessarily easily identifiable:
When Mr. Kahl came home from World War II, he was 25 years old, and he was regarded as a hero. He had shot down 10 enemy planes as a turret gunner on B-25’s, and he had won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, two air medals, a Presidential unit citation and two Purple Hearts. That was not all the metal he brought home. Surgeons never did get out all the shrapnel he took in the jaw, chest and hip.
So the combination of hard times and ready scapegoats found some adherents.
Kahl escaped that day; with two federal agents dead, the federal law-enforcement machinery sprung into place. Two blocks from the house where my father still lives in Jamestown, in Stutsman County’s then-brand-new courthouse, the FBI and an alphabet soup of other federal law-enforcement agencies set up their command post; local hotels were jammed with brusque men and women in sharp suits and/or, occasionally, battledress utilities.
And they were not happy. Rumors began to circulate; the Feds were tramping about the prairie with big, nasty boots; they were conducting no-knock raids, presuming the locals guilty until proven innocent, acting like a hostile occupying power – or so said the rumors.
The previous summer, I’d worked at KDAK, a little station in Carrington, a town of about 2,000 about 40 miles north of Jamestown. The station had also just hired a new “News Director”, a pretty mid-20-something named Peggy Polreis who’d just come from Carrington’s newspaper. One of my jobs had been to make her broadcast-worthy. I did a good job.
One day, a few days after the shootout, Peggy got a tip from a source that the Feds were going to search a farmhouse near nearby Fessenden. She arrived on the scene to find that the press were being cordoned away from a farmhouse located a solid half-mile up the road, behind a shelter belt.
Peggy slipped away from the group, and crawled – so the story went – a quarter of a mile along the shelter belt, keeping out of sight of the cops. She was, apparently, the only non-cop to see what happened.
The police – and, as I recall, a North Dakota National Guard armored personnel carrier – had surrounded the farmhouse. A dog darted from an outbuilding; a policeman shot the dog dead. The gunshot sparked more gunfire, and before long the farmhouse was completely riddled with bullet holes. Finally, the police moved in…
…to discover the farmhouse empty.
It was one of many incidents that angered, and occasionally alienated, the locals from the Feds.
How you look at the events of that winter (and the ensuing spring and summer, when the manhunt for Kahl led to a final shootout in Arkansas that left Kahl and another Christian Identity supporter dead) depends on who, and where, you were back then.
If you were a local, you knew that North Dakotans tend to be good, law-abiding people; they’ve voted Republican in pretty much every Presidential election since statehood, making them marginally less conservative than Utah. And yet the Posse, and Christian Identity, found recruits and adherents – and it was no mystery why. Radical fringes were no stranger to the plains; the Non-Partisan League, the Grangers, the Bund and other fevered activists had gestated in the area in response to other crises since the 1890’s.
So we weren’t surprised that some of the locals were sympathetic. It was a minority – a small one – but it drew attention. One of them even wrote and recorded – on a home cassette player, I think – a song praising and rooting for Kahl, during the manhunt and before the final fatal shootout in Arkansas. It got a little play – mostly from news organizations who were reporting on the acceptance Kahl, the Posse and other extremists got from the area.
If you weren’t from the area, and didn’t understand it, it must have seemed odd. And maybe a little scary.
Hollywood certainly knows nothing of the area, and understands less about it. But that didn’t stop it from making a made-for-TV movie, based rather loosely on Bitter Harvest, in 1991. Line of Duty: Manhunt in the Dakotas starred Rod Steiger as Kahl, and Michael “Family Ties” Gross as an FBI agent from New York who flew to the state to help solve the crime.
The show got the basic facts right; the names, the places (most of the show was putatively set in Jamestown), the timeline (sort of).
But the Hollywood take on the area, and the locals, was bemusingly warped. Part of it was the Central Casting version of small-town people; although North Dakota is a place where you can hear the Fargo accent (“Yah, sure, you betcha”) in a hundred little main street cafes and bars, the show had the local farmers speaking with cornpone Arklahoma drawls. The locals, to Hollywood, were out of Gomer Pyle or, given the sinistry of the subject matter, maybe Deliverance.
Worse? While there was support for Kahl (and even more criticism of the Feds’ heavy-handedness, arrogance, and occasional contempt for due process in the way they carried out the manhunt in the immediate wake of the shootout), Manhunt in the Dakotas showed something that was almost an active guerilla movement, with rocks and shots aimed at passing police cars, threats, Gross (and Larry Hunt as “Chief Walters”, a composite and sympathetic Jamestown police chief) being harrassed while driving in the countryside, and – in the movie’s climactic scene – the two walking, nervous, down “Jamestown”‘s main street as the “local radio station” played the pro-Kahl song (with a cheery intro from the DJ), both of them keenly aware of the hateful gazes of the locals (by now all of them seemingly Kahl-sympathizers) boring through them both, as if they were fully-bedsheeted Klansmen scurrying through Compton.
It was crap, of course, factually (no station in the state played the song, except as news) as well as socially (Jamestown is a college town of 16,000 that hosts a state hospital, and a school for the profoundly disabled, where Kahl had little traction; Kahl’s base of support was out on the isolated drift prairie). But it was interesting, seeing how inscrutable “flyover land” was to the people who actually produce these things, and the almost-superstitious fear the place engenders.
That part of North Dakota is a huge place in terms of the land and the sky; the human geography is much smaller. In the 22-odd years since I left the place, whenever I meet other expats, it’s hard to go more than thirty seconds without finding a common acquaintance.
It’s the same with events. Besides Dr. Kostick, and Peggy Polreis, I knew Darrell Graf – Medina’s police chief at the time (and Graf has actually turned up on this blog) and people in his family. Scott Kopp was another – a guy I remember as a Stutsman County deputy who lost a finger from a Kahl shot that could have done much worse. Another guy – a Medina cop who was on the periphery of the action – was my friend’s sister’s boyfriend (and, the last I checked, husband of about twenty years).
The internet can make you acquainted with even more people. Scott Faul – one of the Posse members who was arrested, tried and did prison time for his role in the shootout – has a blog.
Twenty five years is a long time, even out there. But memories are longer still.