Scripps-McClathy Western Service, Dec. 29, 2002
By DEBORAH FRAZIER, Scripps-McClatchy Western Service
DENVER (December 29, 11:33 a.m. PST) – Wyoming is tolerant, but residents of the state’s most diverse town say a church that promotes racial hatred won’t be accepted.
“You start messing with cowboys and Indians, you’re in trouble,” said Sunday-school teacher Linda Burns, who is circulating petitions against the World Church of the Creator.
Riverton sits on the edge of the Arapaho and Shoshone Indian Reservation, which is home to about 7,000 tribal members.
In the farming, ranching and mining town, about 10 percent of the 9,000 residents are American Indian. Nearly everyone is related to an Arapaho or Shoshone. In addition, two Riverton City Council members are Hispanic, as are a bank president and a large number of business owners.
When the World Church of the Creator announced plans Dec. 6 to move its headquarters to Riverton from Peoria, Ill., few in town knew anything about the religion.
And they hadn’t visited the church Web site that says, “The creator is the white race,” that the religion has no deity and that “white people are the creators of all worthwhile culture and civilization.”
Initially, the local reaction was mild, preaching the tolerance that is part of Wyoming’s character.
Fury and fear followed as people learned that the church’s objective, as stated on the Web site, is “the survival, expansion and advancement of the white race.”
“It’s scary,” said Rep. Dave Miller, R-Riverton. “We are a tolerant state and we are conservative, but we are not racists. And hopefully, these people are wondering if they picked the wrong place.”
Not many in Riverton knew Thomas Kroenke, who heads the church’s local chapter. He and his wife, Gale, moved to Riverton about a year ago from Rawlins, Wyo. Until two years ago, they’d lived in California.
In Riverton, Kroenke first worked at an Internet store. He’d asked a local car dealer for a free vehicle for the church.
No one in Kroenke’s modest neighborhood realized that the polite man who was a counselor at the prison honor farm was involved in a national anti-Semitic, racist hate group.
But a week after the Riverton Ranger broke the story, the neighbors began to express concerns.
“We need to educate ourselves and our community about this group’s dysfunction and support our friends and neighbors that might be targets,” said Tom Thorson, director of the Riverton Chamber of Commerce.
“The people who originally said ignore it and it will go away aren’t saying that anymore,” Thorson said.
All in all, Riverton is proving to be a bad choice for the church.
Kroenke, on paid administrative leave from his job, declined an interview, writing that: “The press cannot be trusted to tell the truth – so I’m not interested. The press only wishes to incite people with their … rhetoric hoping violence will erupt so they can sell more papers and proclaim ‘I told you so.'”
He also stated that the World Church of the Creator is “a professional, nonviolent, progressive pro-white religious organization. We promote white civil rights, white self-determination and white liberation via 100 percent legal activism. We do not promote, tolerate or incite illegal activity.”
But Kroenke, 56, responded to a set of e-mailed questions from the Riverton Ranger.
Kroenke has said he learned of the church from an honor-farm inmate and he didn’t realize that an Indian reservation bordered the town.
He’s e-mailed the Ranger that the church’s plans are to bring their message to “our white brethren.”
“Once the white race awakens from the stupor it is in, all necessary laws will be properly passed to allow for the creation of an exclusively white nation,” he wrote.
And he referred the “why Riverton?” question to Matt Hale, the church’s pontifex maximus – Latin for “greatest leader” – in Peoria.
Hale, who hasn’t responded directly to that question, is under a federal court order to turn over all church documents to the government in a copyright case involving an Oregon church with a similar name. The documents may have been shipped to Riverton. Hale has a law degree but was turned down by the Wyoming, Illinois and Montana bar associations.
Whatever Hale’s reasons for picking Riverton, the venomous rhetoric was enough to make Riverton residents – as well as county and state leaders – look for ways to send the group packing.
“He’s going to find it difficult to function here,” Miller, the state representative, said. “We’re doing our homework, and if we need legislation to keep more of this out of the state, then we’ll see to it.”
Wyoming declined to pass an anti-hate crime law proposed after the brutal death of a homosexual man, Matthew Shepard, in 1998. Miller said that the World Church of the Creator could have taken that the wrong way.
“His (Shepard’s) killers got life. I wish they had gotten the death penalty. They deserve it,” Miller said.
By the time U.S. Marshal Tony Rose interviewed Kroenke last week and Kroenke told him no violence was planned, Riverton residents and Wyoming officials were mobilizing.
“The general community posture is to make Mr. Kroenke so uncomfortable he will leave,” said Sen. Robert Peck, R-Riverton.
For example, Peck said he knows Kroenke’s landlord. He said the house owner has told Kroenke his lease won’t be renewed. Peck, who owns the Riverton Ranger, said the newspaper and the town won’t wait for any incidents before acting.
“This isn’t a race issue. This is abhorrent,” he said. “You have to turn the spotlight on him and see him squirm. I would guess that Mr. Kroenke is starting to wonder if Riverton is the right place.”
That same signal is coming from other sources:
-The Riverton Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Committee voted to fight the church’s activities in whatever way possible.
-A local county commissioner, Tom Satterfield, contacted Montana officials about their experiences with hate groups and how to oust them.
-Hundreds have called the local radio station to say Wyoming doesn’t want to be known as the hate state.
“They misjudged Wyoming,” said Debra East of Lander, which considers Riverton a suburb. “Wyoming is conservative, but we believe in a standard of behavior that doesn’t include a record of violence or intimidation with firearms.”
East, who described herself as a 48-year-old lesbian, said she knows there are racists in the county, but she’s never encountered any hostility.
“Everyone here knows that we are all four walls, a ceiling and a heater away from death in the winter,” she said. “We need to make sure this seed that’s fallen on our ground can’t grow because the love is planted too close together.”