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Cobb case leaves lasting impacts in ND: AG says white supremacist’s actions painful for small town, but some good came of it

(Submitted Photo by Gregory Bruce) White supremacists Craig Cobb, center, and Kynan Dutton, left, patrol the city of Leith with rifles in November. The armed patrol ultimately led to the arrest of the two on terrorizing charges.

BISMARCK — North Dakota’s top law enforcement official says the recent controversy involving a white supremacist’s failed attempt to convert the small town of Leith into an all-white enclave was hard on the town’s residents but also had a positive impact on the state.

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Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said after Craig Cobb’s plan for Leith first came to light last August, he got calls from people suggesting he should take some kind of legal action to drive Cobb and his ilk out of North Dakota.

Stenehjem said he explained that until they violated state law — which they eventually did — there was nothing authorities could do.

“And so in the meantime, there’s nothing like shining the bright light on their activities, and that’s what happened,” he said. “And though it was painful for the people in Leith and the surrounding area, I think the lesson that we learned is that, in fact, North Dakota citizens are overwhelming unaccepting of bigotry and hatred and that no one should think that they can come here and establish a similar kind of a compound and gain acceptance from North Dakota citizens.”

Cobb pleaded guilty to terrorizing and menacing residents in Leith and was sentenced Tuesday to four years of supervised probation with a long list of conditions, including that he not contact his victims.

Leith Mayor Ryan Schock was among a vocal group who wanted Cobb to serve more time behind bars than the 167 days he spent in the Mercer County Jail in Stanton after he and Kynan Dutton, who relocated his family from Oregon to move in with Cobb last October, were arrested Nov. 16.

Schock, a cattle rancher, was out delivering fuel when he answered his cellphone Thursday morning. He said he had thought a lot about the situation in the two days since Cobb’s sentencing, and while he still didn’t agree with Grant County State’s Attorney Todd Schwarz’s handling of the case and Judge David Reich’s sentence as recommended in Cobb’s plea agreement, “I guess they did what they thought was in the best interest.”

“It’s time to close the book on it and move on, and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “And hopefully we’re all safe.”

‘It was all downhill’

Stenehjem, whose office provided assistance from prosecutors and the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation during the ordeal in Leith, said the matter didn’t result in any closer scrutiny of hate groups operating within the state.

“Because we already have a good deal of intelligence we get on activities of groups like that,” he said.

As Cobb’s actions and statements increasingly put him in the public spotlight, some white supremacists and separatists tried to distance themselves from him.

His purchase of a dozen properties in Leith began in September 2011, but residents didn’t become aware of his intentions until a writer for the Hatewatch blog of the Southern Poverty Law Center visited Leith last August to investigate Cobb’s plan.

Things escalated quickly from there: In September, Cobb played host to National Socialist Movement Commander Jeff Schoep, whose visit drew more than 300 protesters and widespread media coverage.

Tom Metzger, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and founder of the White Aryan Resistance, said in an interview by email last week that whites who agree on the race issue “are encouraged to move to small towns with no fanfare and become part of the community.” He said that’s happening in many areas of the country and will continue “as a part of our program.”

“Mr. Cobb chose to bring what I call Hollywood Nazis to town instead of encouraging regular white working class people to settle,” he said in an email. “After that bad decision it was all downhill.”

Cobb deeded three of his lots in Leith to Metzger, Schoep and white supremacist Alex Linder. Metzger said he plans to keep his.

Schoep’s lot contained an old creamery building next to Cobb’s former house, but the creamery was quietly razed this past winter. Schock said the city didn’t demolish the building but he wouldn’t disclose who did, saying, “It just kind of happened.” The building had been condemned by the state Health Department and was a safety hazard, he noted.

Schock still has concerns about the three men owning property in Leith, saying that in a perfect world, they would let their property taxes go and the lots would be forfeited. But Linder and Schoep are current on their property taxes, and while Metzger hasn’t paid his 2013 taxes yet, the total annual bill is only $1.70, including a 5-cent penalty for not paying by the March 1 deadline, according to the Grant County auditor’s office.

Effects good and bad

Linder, Metzger and Schoep aren’t the only outsiders who ended up with property in Leith.

Jeremy Kelly of Bismarck and three friends who founded the nonprofit organization UnityND in response to Cobb’s plan all bought lots in Leith to counter his land holdings there.

Kelly’s lot has a habitable house on it, and while he has never stayed the night there, he said he plans to keep it. He said he goes there occasionally and has built “a great relationship with the whole town.”

The UnityND founders plan to keep the organization going, Kelly said. They’ve scheduled Unity Fest 2014, an all-day affair involving music, games, crafts and speakers, on July 26 at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo. Kelly said he’ll also help out with Leith’s 105th birthday celebration July 19-20, though that won’t be a UnityND event.

There will be “some lasting bad effects from all of this,” Kelly said, noting white supremacists have made threats and that Leith residents “are going to live in terror for a while.” On the other hand, he said, “I think so much positive has come out of this.”

“We set the bar here now. Those people know not to come here ever again. They don’t want to end up like Cobb did. It was just a horrible, humiliating situation for him in the end,” he said.

Cobb, 62, could not be reached for comment. He has said he wants to retire from white nationalism and hopes to serve his probation in Missouri so he can care for his mother. However, as Stenehjem noted, under an interstate compact, Missouri must first agree to accept Cobb.

“If some other state wanted us to take him, we’d be reluctant to do so,” he said.

Schock, the mayor, said residents take more notice now when an unfamiliar car passes through Leith. Some drivers come through just to see the sleepy city that unwillingly became international news.

“Once they stop and you talk to them, you realize they’re just everyday people, just curious,” he said. “But it always makes you wonder.”

The Cobb timeline

Dec. 31, 2010: Craig Cobb, also known as Paul Craig Cobb, is charged in Vancouver, British Columbia, for the willful promotion of hatred. He flees to the United States before his first court appearance. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police later say Cobb can’t be extradited back to Canada because there’s no similar U.S. law for the offense.

September 2011: Cobb purchases four lots in Leith, about 75 miles southwest of Bismarck. He will eventually purchase a total of 12 lots for $8,490 apiece in the small town.

May 22, 2012: On the Vanguard News Network, a white supremacist online forum, Cobb announces his plans for a “White Nationalist intentional community in North Dakota,” writing, “I want people to move now and quietly get going here without letting the cat out of the bag.”

August 2013: Leith residents become aware of Cobb’s plan for their town.

Aug. 21, 2013: The Bismarck Tribune publishes a front-page story on Cobb’s plans, setting off a torrent of media coverage. Leith officials soon begin discussing new building ordinances and even dissolving the town government.

Sept. 22, 2013: A visit to Leith by the National Socialist Movement, a white nationalist organization, draws more than 300 protesters, including 150 people from the nearby Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and more than 30 law enforcement officers.

October 2013: Kynan Dutton of Oregon, his girlfriend and their five children move into Cobb’s home in Leith.

Oct. 18, 2013: An intoxicated Dutton disrupts a Leith City Council meeting, shouting profanities and the Nazi salute, “Seig heil!” Grant County Sheriff Steve Bay escorts Dutton out of the building.

Nov. 3, 2013: The Leith City Council votes to require running water and sewer in occupied homes — Cobb’s home has neither — and to ban tents and campers from setting up in the city for more than 10 days in a row. About the same time, Cobb appears on a British TV show where, much to his surprise, he is told by host Trisha Goddard that a DNA test shows he is 86 percent “European” and “14 percent sub-Saharan African.”

Nov. 16, 2013: After going on an armed patrol of Cobb’s property in Leith, Cobb and Dutton are arrested on suspicion of terrorizing and jailed. They are later charged with seven felony counts of terrorizing and ordered held without bond.

Dec. 24, 2013: The North Dakota Supreme Court orders that Cobb is entitled to “reasonable bail with reasonable conditions” because he wasn’t charged with a capital offense. Cobb’s bail is later lowered to $1 million cash or $100,000 bond, and Dutton’s bail is reduced to $50,000 cash, but neither man is able to post bail.

Jan. 24, 2014: In a plea agreement, Dutton pleads guilty to reduced charges of misdemeanor menacing and disorderly conduct and is released on probation. He agrees to testify in Cobb’s case.

Feb. 27, 2014: After reaching a plea deal with Grant County State’s Attorney Todd Schwarz, Cobb pleads guilty to one felony terrorizing charge and five misdemeanor menacing charges (one of the original felony charges was dismissed). Judge David Reich requests more information before accepting Cobb’s pleas. Cobb goes back to jail.

April 2014: Schock, City Councilman Lee Cook and New Leipzig resident Gregory Bruce, Leith’s website developer, file a complaint with the state Disciplinary Board against Schwarz, claiming the prosecutor engaged in unprofessional conduct and possible unethical practices in the Cobb and Dutton cases.

April 14, 2014: Cobb says the suspect in the shooting deaths of three people at two Jewish centers two days earlier in Overland Park, Kan., is “a very good friend of mine.” Cobb says he spoke with alleged shooter Frazier Glenn Cross two or three days before the shootings.

April 29, 2014: Judge Reich accepts Cobb’s guilty pleas and gives him the sentence recommended in the deal: a one-year suspended jail term with credit for time served and four years of supervised probation with a long list of conditions. Cobb, 62, says he’ll apply to serve his probation in Missouri so he can take care of his mother. Cook calls the sentence with no additional jail time “a failure of justice.” Schwarz s justice was served.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.