The Farm Belt’s bucolic image is sometimes sundered, as it has been this week in this tiny southeast Nebraska community, where residents have only begun to absorb accusations of torture and murder on a local farm.
Officials have called the farm an enclave of right-wing religious survivalists. Two men and a teen-ager who spent time there have been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of two members of the group, including a 5-year-old boy whose father once raised hogs on the property.
Scores of local, state and Federal officials, in a raid and search at the farm last weekend, found the remains of the boy, Luke Stice, and of James Thimm, 26 years old, in crude graves on the farm. They also reported uncovering bunkers of semiautomatic weapons, ammunition and explosives.
Charged with first-degree murder, which can carry the death penalty in Nebraska, are Michael W. Ryan, 37; his son Dennis Ryan, 15, and Timothy Haverkamp, 23.
Michael Ryan is accused of killing Luke. All three are charged in the slaying of Mr. Thimm. The authorities said the child died about March 25 and Mr. Thimm about April 30.
The whereabouts of Rick Stice, Luke’s father, have not been determined. Relatives say he is being held in protective custody by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The bureau declined to comment.
Mr. Stice, who has not been charged, lived at the farm, and his relatives say he was an active member in the group until earlier this year.
Local officials, saying they fear unfair pretrial publicity, have volunteered virtually no information.
But a prosecutor in Norton County, Kan., where Dennis Ryan was arrested, has been more forthcoming. The prosecutor, R. Douglas Sebelius, said in a telephone interview that a Nebraska investigator had asserted in a sworn statement that Mr. Thimm had been tortured and shot in the head with a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol.
”There is no question that torture was involved,” Mr. Sebelius said.
Mr. Sebelius said the Nebraska investigator had reported that Luke’s neck appeared to have been broken.
Michael Ryan has been a leader of radical right-wing activity in the area, according to law-enforcement officials.
Members of Mr. Stice’s family surmise that the Rulo farm’s financial ills, combined with the death two years ago of his wife, Sondra, provided fertile recruiting for the radicals. ”The group caught him when he was down,” said Wayne Kreutzer, who farms near Rulo and is Mr. Stice’s brother-in-law. ”Sondra was dying, and he was in debt up to his ears.”
Interviews with the authorities, relatives of the Rulo farm’s residents and neighbors create a picture of weapon stockpiles, religious fanaticism and anti-Government sentiment. The farm’s recent residents have been linked by the authorities and family members to an anti-Semitic, white supremacist religious movement, the Ministry of Christ Church, which is called Identity after its publication, and to an allied group, the radically antitax, anti-Government Posse Comitatus.
The murder charges are not the first criminal charges against members of the group. In June, officials from three states raided the rugged, hilly Rulo farm and reported finding five truckloads of what they said was stolen farm equipment, camouflage clothing, cult tracts, dozens of semiautomatic and automatic rifles and more than 150,000 rounds of ammunition.
Two members face theft and weapons charges arising from that raid, and Michael Ryan was charged in July with illegal possession of a machine gun.
Residents of this town – the sign on the road says the population is 260 but one local man said, ”They must be counting the cats and dogs” – lock their doors now. They say they are weary of news media attention and fearful of retribution if they speak out against the survivalist groups.
”I just can’t imagine anybody killing a 5-year-old kid,” said one woman.