Many in Bay City area worry about his impact
A feisty Jewish woman sat inside Bay City’s Temple Israel, talking about the hatein the quiet, quaint town.
Samantha Harrison-Stand talked about her fear caused by a man she has never seen or spoken to. He’s a man she’s been forced to know because he preaches to dozens of people regularly at a furniture store just down the road about hunting and killing Jews.
The words of James Wickstrom, she said, are horrifying.
“It’s not Mr. Wickstrom that really frightens me. It’s the people who listen to him,” Harrison-Stand, the synagogue’s executive director, said last month. “The people who will go to the movie theater, see ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ and just crack and go out and do something crazy. That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Temple Israel Cantor Daniel Gale is also concerned. He notes that the region of Bay City, Essexville and Hampton Township — where Wickstrom does most of his preaching — is home to an estimated 200 Jewish families.
“Certainly, we feel there is a lot to respond to,” Gale said of Wickstrom’s teachings. “But we have chosen not to instigate, not to provoke, but to lay low.”
This is a story about disquieted lives. It’s about a community working to make its mark as a picturesque vacation spot but instead having to battle the presence of hatred. It’s about residents living a small-town existence, forced suddenly to question whether their neighbors are bigots. And it’s about Wickstrom, at the center of it all.
Wickstrom, 61, is among the nation’s most notorious leaders of an ultraright ministry that mixes bigotry with the Bible and anti-government rhetoric with the suffering of the small businessman.
Word of Wickstrom’s presence in the region of Bay City, Hampton Township and Essexville was met last spring with shock and concern.
Hundreds of residents rallied, holding an antihate forum, teaching their children tolerance and acceptance, informing themselves about Wickstrom and his beliefs.
The attention was so intense, Wickstrom left for Tennessee a few months later — only to return in December, forcing residents to bear his presence once more.
Wickstrom did not respond to requests by the Free Press for an interview. But what he holds true, the message that he spreads nationwide, has a region unnerved.
“I tell you, there is no religion left that has a thread or a morsel of truth in it,” Wickstrom said at a 2002 rally of the Aryan Nations in Pennsylvania. “And it comes right from the heart of that damn Jew.”
Among Wickstrom’s most ardent followers are Mary and LeRoy Marquiss. Michigan driving records list their address as Wickstrom’s own.
It’s from the plaid couches of the Marquisses’ Hampton Township furniture store, Wickstrom holds Bible study meetings.
Believers come from all points of the state to hear Wickstrom preach. Police said that regular meetings attract nearly 25 listeners; on Christmas and Easter, up to 200 will show.
Wickstrom calls himself a minister, and his religion is Christian Identity. Its followers believe they are the true Israelites and that present-day Jews are impostors, the spawn of Eve and Satan. Identity followers are waiting for Yahweh’s (God’s) call to take up their swords, kill Jews and minorities and reclaim the promised land, which they believe is America.
Wickstrom is also linked to Posse Comitatus, an antigovernment, antitax movement that recognizes the county sheriff as the highest form of law enforcement. Posse followers denounce state and federal authority.
“They are fanatics,” said Joe Roy, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center‘s Intelligence Project. The Alabama-based non-profit, public-interest law firm tracks extremist groups and said Wickstrom began preaching at the furniture store in 2001.
“They are angry, frustrated and afraid,” Roy said. “They are looking for someone to blame for losing their jobs, their wives and for their lives being so out of control.”
Last year, meetings were held twice a month on Sundays in the furniture store. Recently, Wickstrom has been keeping an irregular schedule, police said.
The FBI would not confirm or deny that it is investigating Wickstrom.
But Hampton Township police — whose station is 100 yards away from the furniture store — peer out their windows to see what is happening down the road.
“He’s been keeping a very low profile,” said Hampton Township Police Chief Gerry Runde. “What he’s advocating is not good, but right now he’s not breaking the law.”
Those who track hate crimes said Wickstrom is cunning and will not break the law.
“He is a smart man, and he knows how far he can go,” said Rick Eaton, senior researcher at the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which tracks hate crimes.
Mary Marquiss declined requests for an interview with the Free Press, saying that what happens inside her store is not anyone’s business and that the news media “tells only lies.”
But in a June 1, 2003, report by the Bay City Times, Mary Marquiss said she believes in killing Jews “when our heavenly father says it’s time to wage war.”
Neighbors and nearby business owners said they are largely unaware of what the Marquisses are allowing in their store.
“I don’t appreciate anyone preaching hate, but they’ve never led me to believe they hate anyone,” said Jeff Idalski, owner of Shirts, Mugs & More and a neighbor of the Marquisses.
But his message, spread via Internet radio and at rallies nationwide, is clear.
“If it were up to me, I’d love to see every Jew grave dug up and burn their bones,” Wickstrom said at the Pennsylvania rally.
Wickstrom was raised in the tiny Upper Peninsula town of Munising, a pristine and largely uninhabited land on the edge of Lake Superior.
In 1966, the 23-year-old Wickstrom protested U.S. involvement in Vietnam, calling it a war fought for “Jew bankers,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
On his Web site, Wickstrom explained: “When I went back and looked at history, the Rockefellers, Armand Hammer and a handful of others of the Jewish race had their hands in the subversion of this country. . . . They even created groups to attack anyone who questioned their agenda, like the Anti-Defamation League.”
Tangles with the law bolstered Wickstrom’s credibility with followers.
In 1983, Wickstrom was arrested for illegally forming his own Wisconsin township called Tigerton Dells. Wickstrom acted as clerk and judge over about 30 mobile homes and a bar until federal officials razed his town.
He ultimately served 13 months in prison.
By 1987, Wickstrom was traveling the country preaching on behalf of the Identity movement. He also began attending annual meetings of the Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group with followers nationwide.
Federal officials alleged that it was with his Aryan Nations brothers that he came up with a scheme to pass $100,000 in counterfeit bills to build a paramilitary group. The case ended in a mistrial in 1988, but at a second trial in 1990, he was convicted and sentenced to 38 months in a federal prison.
It is unclear exactly how many followers Wickstrom and other Identity ministries have across the country. But officials at the Southern Poverty Law Center said they believe their numbers are growing slightly.
The Bay City/Essexville/Hampton Township region is home to 50,500 people, according to the 2000 census. People farm for a living and run small businesses. Many more work at the Dow Chemical plant in nearby Midland and at the GM Powertrain plant and the Big Chief sugar factory, both in Bay City.
Last year, the Rev. Kim Lewis opened the First Baptist Church of Bay City to hundreds of residents who gathered to learn about and rally against Wickstrom. Recently, he explained that Wickstrom is not a preacher but a liar.
“What he’s done is create an undertow of doubt in our community,” Lewis said. “People are looking at their neighbors asking, ‘Is he a follower? Is she a follower?’
“He is setting out to fool people with lies, and I hope he fails notoriously. But in my heart, I know that he won’t fail completely.”