Associated Press, Dec. 25, 2002
BY SARAH COOKE
RIVERTON, Wyo. — The people of Riverton abruptly dropped their typically Wyoming you-do-your-thing-I’ll-do-mine philosophy two weeks ago when a “>white supremacist organization announced plans to move its world headquarters here from Illinois.
The community was outraged. An unprecedented number of letters poured in to local newspapers, and talk radio shows were flooded with calls about the World Church of the Creator.
Many wondered, what have we done to deserve this?
“People here don’t think the way they do,” said John Vincent, mayor-elect of this town of 10,000 people 275 miles northwest of Cheyenne. “People are not filled with hate. People are not racist.”
Community leaders formed a task force. Residents signed a pledge of tolerance printed in newspapers. Some started petition drives. And there has been talk of holding protests and displaying “No Hate” signs in home and store windows in hopes the organization will get the hint and leave.
“If ever there was something where you need to take a stand, this is an issue that begs for that,” said Tim Wilson, a rancher who lives in nearby Lander. “This isn’t Joe-Bob Danny and his fascist friends. These guys are pretty serious.”
Founded in 1973, the World Church of the Creator received national attention in 1999 when former member Benjamin Smith went on a shooting rampage against minorities in Illinois and Indiana, killing two people and wounding several others before killing himself. The East Peoria, Ill., group, whose membership numbers could reach into the thousands, has also been linked to a plot to blow up black and Jewish landmarks in Boston and Washington this year.
On Dec. 6, the organization’s leader, the Rev. Matt Hale, announced he would hand over day-to-day operations to the Rev. Thomas Kroenke, a Wyoming Corrections Department employee who lives in Riverton.
The new headquarters consist of Kroenke’s house. It is not clear whether the organization plans to build or rent larger quarters.
Fremont County’s population of 36,000 is 77 percent white and 20 percent Indian. According to census figures, there are only 44 blacks.
The announcement from the white supremacists came on the heels of another controversy involving a rancher with ties to the World Church of the Creator. Rudy Stanko, who once called himself the organization’s Pontifus Maximus before Hale took over, asked county commissioners this fall for permission to kill all gray wolves and grizzly bears on his son’s grazing allotments. He claimed the animals were killing cattle.
The commission has not acted on the request, and some commissioners have accused Stanko of lying about the land’s location.
Some residents wonder if the church’s move is somehow related.
“I don’t think they threw a dart on a map of the United States and ended up in Riverton,” Wilson said.
Hale said the group’s move had nothing to do with Stanko. He attributed the move partly to a trademark lawsuit unfolding in Illinois, where a federal judge recently ordered the group to stop using its name and turn over all printed materials reading “World Church of the Creator” because the name is too similar to that of a group in Oregon.
Hale has refused to comply and is scheduled to appear in court Jan. 8 to face a contempt charge. He has told members via e-mail, “Our materials are now safe in Wyoming.”
As for the move west, Hale told residents worried about violence to calm down.
“Really, the other races are not our concern,” he said. “We’re not trying to intimidate them or trying to cause them problems, per se. What we’re trying to do is liberate white people.”
The organization has caused dread in Fremont County and the surrounding Wind River Indian Reservation, home of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.
“Minority people are extremely fearful, particularly people on the reservation,” said Donn Kesselheim, a Quaker who helped organize the task force.
Parents are afraid the organization will try to recruit their children.
“This is a small town. We don’t have enough for our kids to do anyway,” said Linda Burns, who has a stepdaughter. “I’m worried they will recruit by activities, like playing pool.”
Officials are also worried about the effect on the local economy, which is dominated by mining and agriculture but also relies on tourists from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, about four hours away.
Said Tim Thorson, executive director of the Riverton Chamber of Commerce: “Hate is not good for business.”