A Place Apart

updated 02/13/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/13/1995 01:00AM

FOR SOMEONE WHO TENDS TO see nothing but doom—mounting social unrest and a government bent on squashing citizens' rights, not to mention the approach of worldwide Armageddon—James "Bo" Gritz can sound remarkably cheerful. Surveying a 900-acre spread in rural northern Idaho, the burly 56-year-old exults, "This is the best place in America!" Gritz, a much-decorated Green Beret officer in Vietnam who later led four unsuccessful POW rescue missions to Southeast Asia and ran as a minor-party presidential candidate in 1992, briskly explains why he and his partners have chosen the site for what they call "covenant communities" where "Christian patriots" will find sanctuary from the coming tyranny and chaos. "As the tide of government begins to rise," says Gritz (pronounced GRITES), "I think we're on the high ground here."

While that may be a relief to Gritz and his followers who will move to the development—which boasts three separate communities, named Almost Heaven, Shenandoah and Woodland Acres—it is a source of profound un-happiness to many residents of nearby Kamiah, Idaho (pop. 1,357). In recent years the Idaho backcountry has become home for numerous neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. Around town there are fears that Gritz—who acknowledges that he chose the area in part from a "guerrilla perspective" for its defensive features—and his overwhelmingly white flock will turn out to be yet another band of racists and anti-Semites. Never far from people's minds are memories of the bloodbath at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas, two years ago. "I wish Gritz was in Timbuktu or Taiwan," says Sue Breaux, a teacher at the Head Start school for local Nez Perce children, whose reservation encompasses much of the area. "We've got enough problems around here."

Certainly, Gritz has acquired a reputation for extremist views. In 1988 he was briefly the running mate of former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke when Duke was the presidential candidate of the Populist party. In his 1991 autobiography, Called to Serve, Gritz wrote that "eight Jewish families" control the Federal Reserve. And as he travels the country explaining his ideas, he is often joined by right-wing bookseller Richard Flowers, who customarily sets up a table at Gritz's seminars to market a wide range of anti-Jewish, anti-Mormon and anti-Catholic tracts.

Gritz ardently denies that he is a racist or anti-Semite, pointing out that one of his best friends—former Army Ranger Gary Goldman—is Jewish. "Gary is my brother," he says. (Insists Goldman: "Bo hasn't got a racist bone in his body.") Gritz also says he dropped out of the 1988 campaign as soon as he found out about Duke's background. "I had no idea who David Duke was," says Gritz. "It took me a week to find out." As for his connection to Flowers and his racist books, he says he disagrees with much of the material Flowers distributes but doesn't believe in censorship. "I abhor anything that stands for bigotry or bias," he says.

Moreover, despite what people say, Gritz contends he doesn't want to take up arms against the government. "You never have more rifles than they do," he says. Instead he believes that by banding together in strategically located covenant communities—all three of his developments, he feels, would be difficult to storm either from the ground or from the air—residents will discourage officials from meddling in their lives.

Gritz should know about peace through firepower, having served in the armed forces for 22 years. Raised in Oklahoma, he was the only child of an Army Air Force pilot who was killed over Europe during World War II. At 18, the younger Gritz also enlisted in the Army and became part of the newly formed Special Forces. He wound up in Vietnam, where he won 62 citations for valor, including hit-and-run missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the 1970s he served at the Pentagon and later as the Special Forces commander in Latin America, training local troops. Along the way he earned an undergraduate degree in law and corrections at the University of Nebraska and a master's in communications at American University in Washington. But none of that academic polish, Gritz wants you to know, has made him any less lethal. "A broom, a mop, a pair of chopsticks, a cane—almost anything can be used effectively as a weapon," he says with evident relish.

Given that it involved classified activities, much of what Gritz says of his derring-do is unverifiable. So is his explanation for becoming disillusioned with the U.S. government. Gritz says that after leaving the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1979 and teaming up with Ross Perot, he uncovered evidence that there were POWs still alive in Southeast Asia—information he claims intelligence officials ignored. But as Gritz tells it, the real souring came in 1986 when he was asked by the Reagan White House to go to Burma and check on reports of POWs. While there, he says, he learned that U.S. officials were involved in the heroin trade. When he presented videotaped evidence to his handlers, he was warned to "erase and forget it," says Gritz. "Up until then I would have done anything for the government without question."

Since then, Gritz has busied himself trying to expose what he sees as Washington's perfidy. Five mornings a week, from his home in Sandy Valley, Nev., he broadcasts a syndicated radio talk show, Freedom Call, heard by 1.5 million listeners a week, in which he takes aim at Washington—especially "President Hillary"—and rails against "Hollyweird." He also publishes a monthly newsletter, Center for Action (circ. 3,000), a brew of apocalyptic prophecy, antigay invective and old-fashioned flag-waving.

As a logical outgrowth of his beliefs, he started his so-called S.P.I.K.E. (Specially Prepared Individuals for Key Events) training seminars, at which men, women and even children, for $100 a session, receive survivalist instruction from Gritz in everything from home childbirthing to the use of weapons. During his lectures, which can sometimes ramble on for several hours, Gritz constantly harps on his belief that the arrival of the Messiah is imminent. He also hammers at his theme—obsession, really—that the authorities can no longer be counted on to protect the nation's citizenry. He points to the civil disorder following 1992's Hurricane Andrew in Florida and the disruption from last year's California earthquake as evidence.

All the same, Gritz has little admiration for the so-called militias—loose groups of angry rural dwellers vowing to resist federal foresters, tax collectors and law officers—that have sprung up around the country in recent years. "It's the blind leading the blind. An amateur cannot train someone to be a professional," he says dismissively. "It is dangerous." Indeed, on occasion, Gritz has even found himself cooperating with authorities, as in 1992 when he helped negotiate the surrender of Randy Weaver, a white separatist wanted on weapons charges who holed up for 18 months in a cabin near Naples, Idaho.

Nearly everywhere he goes, usually flying in from his home in his own twin engine Cessna, Gritz is accompanied by his third wife, Claudia, 37. The pair met 20 years ago when Claudia, then 16, was a student in the karate class that the recently divorced Gritz was teaching near Arlington, Va., while stationed at the Pentagon. Within five months they were married. "When I first met Bo," she says, "every week I'd learn something different about him."

That sense of adventure continues, though Claudia has few fond memories of her husband's most recent foray into politics, in 1992, when he was the Populist party's presidential candidate. (Gritz, who was on the ballot in 20 states, received 106,000 votes.) About the only other disappointment has been the couple's inability to have children. Gritz, who has three grown sons and one daughter from his previous two marriages, has failed twice in attempts to have a vasectomy reversed.

Nonetheless, the couple's nesting instinct is strong. Gritz has already picked a 10-acre plot at Almost Heaven where he and Claudia intend to build their dream house. He says that even though most of the 81 plots have been sold, at around $3,500 an acre, he doesn't expect to make a profit on the venture. He also insists that anyone—regardless of race or creed—will be welcomed. "I don't know who's moving here," he says, "but I don't think it's the white supremacists."

In recent months, Gritz has met on several occasions with local residents in an attempt to allay their misgivings. So far the results have been mixed. After hearing Gritz deliver soothing reassurances and seeing his folksy manner up close, some people around Kamiah believe that the potential threat to the area has been greatly exaggerated. "It's just not the case that this town is in the grip of fear," says Bill Glenn, publisher of the weekly Clearwater Progress. "It's business as usual. There's not a bunch of people running around in confusion and terror." Others, though, believe Gritz is too glib to be true. "There's no way for the average citizen to prove or disprove anything he says," says a waitress at the Kamiah Cafe. "I think he's trying to impress people with himself. The only thing Bo Gritz could be impressed with is a clone."

The idea of having a lot of like-minded eccentrics—or worse—settling in the Idaho outback is exactly what worries people who monitor hate groups. One such organization, the Seattle-based Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, has been keeping tabs on Gritz and his associates for several years. Bill Wassmuth, the coalition's executive director, doesn't call Gritz a racist but is deeply concerned about the covenant communities and all the talk of doomsday and the need for paramilitary preparedness. "All along, Gritz has had racist-supremacist ties, and he's stirring up a group of people," argues Wassmuth. "If Gritz goes ahead with his plans in Kamiah, I'm very comfortable in saying that there will be violence in the next four or five years. After a period of time, somebody will act out." It is perhaps the ultimate irony that Gritz, who professes to take popular fears so seriously, has nothing but contempt for the anxiety his own activities have created. Pondering his critics, he cannot resist one last military metaphor to demonstrate his righteousness. "When you're catching flak, where are you?" Gritz asks with a chuckle. "Right over the target."

BILL HEWITT
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Kamiah

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