AP, June 22, 2003
By SARAH COOKE Associated Press
Experts say the group has begun to buckle under financial and legal troubles and Riverton residents are starting to breathe a little easier.
No new headquarters have been built, nor any hate marches or rallies staged. And fears about violence, recruiting and the group’s effect on the local economy have not materialized.
In fact, the group’s local leader, Thomas Kroenke, feels he’s been a victim of discrimination; he’s lost his job, and local banks and a print shop have refused his business.
“The publicity hurt our town a little bit,” said Tim Thorson, executive director of the Riverton Chamber of Commerce. “But if anything, between more people thinking about tolerance and thinking about where this sort of hate thinking leads, it’s only made our community a lot stronger.”
Neighbors, some say, reach out to each other more these days and many have gotten to know people from different backgrounds.
A record crowd turned out for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march and rally, while local businesses banded together in March to post anti-hate signs in their windows.
“(The march) was actually the very first time in the 10 years I’ve been living here that I’ve seen the white community and the Indian community and the small communities of other minorities all come together demonstrably on one issue and do something,” said Fred Baehr, a painting contractor who attended the rally. “Sociologically, that was best thing I’ve ever seen happen in this community.”
Local leaders, meanwhile, have sponsored workshops on tolerance and developed a hate-crimes response plan.
“I think it’s pretty clear now that the decision by (group leader Matthew) Hale to announce Riverton as the new headquarters wasn’t a real good idea,” Thorson said. “They really couldn’t have picked a worse community in the country.”
Many community leaders are particularly heartened by recent reports of the group’s possible demise following Hale’s arrest and the seizure of its materials in a lawsuit.
Hale was arrested in January and charged with soliciting the murder of a federal judge presiding in a trademark lawsuit against the group; he has pleaded not guilty. Most materials were seized in the lawsuit – which also prohibited the group from using its name – and members say they are running out of money.
Recently, the group’s Web site went down and experts say membership has dwindled to as few as 300 people in the past year. The group has estimated its membership in the thousands.
“I find it difficult to believe this group will survive in anything like its present form if Hale goes to prison. … They’re in a complete state of flux. It’s unclear who their leader is, who is administering the group,” said Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
Riverton resident Thomas Kroenke took over day-to-day operations when the group moved there in early December, but his status is uncertain and Potok said his name was recently removed from the group’s newsletter. Kroenke refused to comment.
In a recent interview, however, he told the Associated Press he had no plans to leave Riverton, where he has lived with his wife Gale the past three years, despite what he called efforts to run him out of town.
Kroenke said he’s received numerous death threats and in December, he was fired from his Wyoming Corrections Department job as a prison counselor after three years for undisclosed reasons.
Several local businesses have refused to serve Kroenke, including a print shop which would not make copies of his white supremacist literature. Three of the city’s four banks declined to open personal accounts for him.
“They want to condemn me because I promote the white race and that’s not inclusive for them, but then they engage in exactly the same behaviors they claim they’re condemning me for,” Kroenke said. “If that’s not a hypocrisy I don’t know what is.”
Kroenke acknowledged the group’s future in Riverton is questionable.
“I would expect, quite frankly, when Mr. Hale beats this silly case, which should happen sometime in July, he will again assume the mantle … and move headquarters back to Illinois, or he may relocate to somewhere else with more resources,” he said.
Local authorities aren’t celebrating yet.
“Right now there’s no real feeling this is over,” Fremont County sheriff’s Sgt. Jerry Evagelitos said. “We’re just kind of seeing what happens.”
Thorson and other local officials share that guarded optimism, and believe the conflict has taught everyone something – from how to handle the media spotlight to respecting others’ beliefs.
“People found they had common ground,” said Debra East, who formed the Wind River Unity Group in response to the arrival of Hale’s group. “It doesn’t mean everyone always agrees but they got to meet people they didn’t know before, and if something shakes down again people now know everybody’s phone numbers.
“People here are watchful and alert to things they didn’t think would happen before.”