Leah Sottile | Longreads | July 2019 | 27 minutes (7,641 words)
To get to the Kingdom of Heaven, drive a long twisting road that dips in and out of wide green fields dotted with hay bales, skim alongside a crooked river and stop at the sign that says Marble Country. A wooden ranch gate — a tall archway of timber and American flags — marks the spot. Keep going past it for 20 more minutes and you’ll leave the country altogether; drive under that gate, and in a way, you’ll leave America, too.
For nearly 30 years, speculation about what goes on beyond the threshold to Marble Country has confused, scared, and angered folks here in Stevens County — a far-flung region of thick forests and dirt roads, cow pastures and low hills deep in the northeastern corner of Washington state.
Before the first barn wall could be raised on the site of a ghost town, people were already whispering. “Religious Group Says Fear Of Cult Unjustified,” a 1992 Associated Press headline read, “Pentecostal Sect Plans To Move Into Ghost Town.”
That religious group, led by a married couple named Barry and Anne Byrd, intended to create its very own Western-themed shining city on the hill: what they termed a “Christian covenant community.” They called it Marble Country, and they built houses and a church — Marble Community Fellowship — and painted “Holy Ghost Town” on an old barn. They raised families, planted crops. It wasn’t just a new town put down in an old place, but an old place resurrected. A brochure said Marble would get into all levels of politics, offer alternative civil courts and an alternative media.
“We are committed to uniting the generations to labor together to bring the dominion of Christ in every area of life,” the Byrds promised in the brochure.
For most of the time Marble Country has existed, the Byrds have hosted an event each summer called the God and Country Celebration. As the Patriot movement has made more and more headlines — between the standoffs at Bundy Ranch in 2014 and Malheur in 2016, and the subsequent trials — the name Marble kept popping up in my reporting. People who’d once been in the movement told me the festival was a gathering of militia bigwigs, Patriot celebrities, and politicians with extreme beliefs. It sounded like some kind of Patriot Woodstock, but it’s closed to the media, so I couldn’t go see it for myself.
In the summer of 2018, Jeanette Finicum was a “special guest” at the festival, bringing with her the message of her murdered, martyred husband. During the weekend, children in cowboy hats and jeans waved big white flags from the Marble stage bearing her husband’s distinct “LV” cattle brand.
Finicum chose Marble as one of the first places to screen LaVoy: Dead Man Talking, a multipart film about her husband. There she delivered a speech that differed greatly in tone from the one she gave when I saw her speak in Salem, Oregon, just six months later. Someone sent me a recording of her Marble speech: She wasn’t the diminutive chuck-wagon mom I’d seen in Salem, but a pissed-off activist with a message ready for an audience who cheered her on.
“The media is not in the business of telling the truth,” she spat into the microphone.
The Marble crowd murmured approval — yes, yes, that’s right, amen.
“Their job, their motive, their mission is to create an illusion in order to blur our reality. I was label-lynched by them as a sovereign citizen, anti-government terrorist. Profiled as a domestic right-wing extremist and judged by the American public for standing with my husband,” she said. She told them she was on a watch list. The feds monitored her home.
She never used that word — lynching — when I saw her speak in Salem, but here, both she and Mark Herr, the film’s producer, spoke it as if it were a word created for them. They have been lynched, they told the crowd, again and again. Lynched.
The lynch mob, by their estimation, was the media: inflicting extrajudicial punishment to God-fearing freedom lovers. How dare anyone go after them?
“Your political opponents are using labels and the force of government to lynch you out of existence! What can you do?” Finicum asked. “You can make label-lynching a hate crime.” She told the crowd to lobby state legislators to make Patriots a special class.
“We should be a protected class,” she yelled. “After all, everyone else is!”
To that, the crowd cheered so loud it was almost hard to hear her anymore.
For decades, Stevens County, where Marble Country is located, has served as somewhat of a wooded, mountainous petri dish for conspiracy theories to grow, flourish, and find new hosts. For most of that time, one daily newspaper reporter was there to document the crimes committed by fringe groups who’ve found haven in the Stevens County’s sparsely populated areas. His name is Bill Morlin, and for decades he worked at the Spokane Daily Chronicle, then The Spokesman-Review. Now in his 70s, I first met him in the federal courtroom during the Bundys’ short-lived trial in Las Vegas.
In the spring of 2019, I called him up to get a crash course on Stevens County’s right-wing extremist history. Something that may come as a surprise to people who aren’t familiar with the Inland Northwest is that the Northwestern United States isn’t all rain showers and mountains and Nirvana records, coffee shops and weed stores on every corner.
In fact, Eastern Washington and North Idaho couldn’t be less in line with that image. It’s a deeply conservative area of the West. It’s hot and dry in the summer, cold as hell in the winter. In the past few years, some people have started to call this region the American Redoubt — the nickname survivalists and preppers have given Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, arguing that it’s a safe haven for libertarians. The term was popularized by James Wesley Rawles, who calls the people who migrated there for that reason “the remnant. Libertarians and preppers from around the country have been encouraged to make a home here. There are even “redoubt realtors” who’ll sell you a house, complete with a bomb shelter.
I came to talk to Morlin about Stevens County, but also about this region as a whole. He came prepared for our meeting with three pages, single-spaced, detailing various murders, robberies, kidnappings, and bombings committed by people from the county.
In the late 1970s, Richard Butler, who would become one of the most famous white supremacists in the country, had set up the swastika-emblazoned compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho, attracting racists from every corner of the country to the Idaho Panhandle. Butler allowed Morlin and a photographer to document the event, which the newspaper had been trying to cover, as a way of attempting to understand who, exactly, was gathering at the compound.
“There was sort of a division, like do we pay these people any attention or do we ignore them?” he recalled of his paper’s coverage of cross burnings. “In fact a columnist at the other newspaper thought we were foolish for writing about the fact that there’d been a cross burning. He was of the school of thought that if you ignore them, they’ll go away, and by writing about them all you’re doing is giving them publicity.
“I have never to this day signed on to that belief system,” Morlin continued. “Neither do major civil rights organizations. They believe that turning the lights on is the only way you can deal with hate groups.”
The cross burning was called the Blessing of the Weapons and was presided over by former Michigan KKK grand dragon Robert Miles. (In 1973, Miles was convicted of conspiring to bomb ten school buses in Pontiac, Michigan.)
“It was very uncomfortable,” Morlin said. As the group of 40 to 50 people lit three crosses wrapped in diesel-soaked burlap, “each person in the circle would walk up with with his weapon … knives or handguns or long rifles. And each of them would be blessed by the master of ceremonies. The ceremony was to signify that these people were committing to the white cause and the fight for the white race that they envisioned was coming any day.”
That night, Morlin didn’t know who exactly all those men were that had their guns blessed in the name of a white war — but soon, he would. They would become known as the Order. It was an all-white underground domestic terrorist organization established by an anti-government extremist and racist named Bob Mathews, who had been actively recruiting people to create a “White American Bastion” in the Pacific Northwest and was motivated, in part, by an extremist ideology called Christian Identity.
It’s an ideology that relies on the belief that Jews are descendants of Cain, and people of color are soulless and “beasts of the field,” while whites are the true “House of Israel.” Some Identity adherents believe Jews are the spawn of Eve and Satan. Butler, too, preached Christian Identity from his very own church at the compound. Around the nation, neo-Nazi groups and the Ku Klux Klan also believed in the radical ideology.
Nationwide, as violent white supremacist fires flared, Christian Identity — time and time again — was the pitch wood making it burn hot and constant.
The men of the Order met at a cabin on Mathews’s Northeastern Washington property which was located in the county next to Stevens County. They “stood in a circle secretly and pledged a blood oath to each other to jointly fight this race war that they believed was coming,” Morlin told me.
Morlin believes the men were inspired by a work of racist, apocalyptic fiction, a novel called The Turner Diaries that details a race war, and that, later, compelled Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
According to Morlin, the men at the ceremony eventually committed “a litany” of violent acts, most notably the 1984 assassination of a Jewish radio host named Alan Berg, who’d mocked a tenet of Christian Identity — that Jews were evil incarnate — on his Denver talk show. They committed a robbery in Spokane, bombed a synagogue in Boise, and robbed armored cars in Seattle. But investigators were baffled, unable to figure out who was responsible for so much violence.
“This is in an era before the term ‘terrorist’ meant anything to anybody. I mean it’s like ‘Domestic terrorism? What’s that?’” Morlin said.
During a Northern California robbery of several million dollars from an armored car, Mathews left a handgun behind — a mistake that would eventually lead to the downfall of the Order. Mathews died in a shoot-out before the group’s 1985 trial in Seattle, which Morlin covered for the Spokesman-Review.
“A lot of the East Coast networks and newspapers had pretty much ignored the fact that the Order trial had occurred,” he says. “It was really a big deal, but it had happened on the West Coast and it didn’t get the news coverage, in my view, that it would have received if it had been in Florida or New York or Ohio or Pennsylvania.”
In fact, the Order created a new legacy for up-and-coming racists to follow: Today, violent white supremacist groups still cite an adherence to a mission statement called “The 14 Words” — “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” — which was coined by one of the Order’s members.
The men of the Order weren’t exactly quiet about the ideas that drove them: Mathews and other members of the group were known to convene at a Colorado Christian Identity church led by an anti-Jewish, anti-homosexual, and racist preacher named Pete Peters. Despite its small population, by the 1990s, Stevens County was home to at least two Christian Identity churches: the Ark, near the Canadian border, and another founded by a former Ark acolyte, the Christian Israel Covenant Church. (The Ark is now called Our Place Fellowship; the Christian Israel Covenant Church disbanded in the early 2000s.)
“Those churches taught that white people are the superior race, that Jews are biologically satanic,” Morlin told me.
The churches were small — and though the pastor at the Ark, Dan Henry, told The Spokesman-Review in 1992 that he rejected the “hate mongering” of the Aryan Nations, he also acknowledged preaching antisemitic ideas.
But word had gotten around. People knew who was attending services. So it was common knowledge that the couple trying to start that new Christian covenant community called Marble Country — Barry and Anne Byrd — had attended the Ark for years.
It was like the county knew what was about to happen — that this tiny bastion of hateful ideas was about to cross the rubicon, producing a number of followers who would spill blood in the name of Identity ideology all around the American West.
The racist services at The Ark were attended not only by adults who wanted to hear the sermons of Henry and other extremists, but also often by the children of those people, too. Chevie Kehoe fit the profile of one of those kids. Raised in part in Stevens County, his parents, Kirby and Gloria Kehoe, brought their children to services at the Ark, likely around the same time the Byrds attended. As his children grew older, Kirby Kehoe, an adamant racist, grew increasingly skeptical of the government, pulling his kids out of their Colville, Washington, public school, viewing schools “as a threat,” according to his son. In a 1999 New York Times interview, Chevie said his parents were interested in the notion of a whites-only region preached by the Order’s Mathews, and over time Chevie believed that he himself could bring the plan to fruition in the Northwest. He called the region the Aryan People’s Republic, and began committing robberies and acts of violence in devotion to the concept.
In the late 1990s, he launched a cross-country trip to recruit people to his white region — a trip that turned into a spree of murders, shootings, and robberies.
In 1996, Chevie Kehoe robbed and murdered a man, his wife, and her 8-year-old daughter in Arkansas, then tossed their bodies into the Illinois Bayou. The next year, when police officers in Ohio pulled over Kehoe and his brother, Cheyne, and in two subsequent shoot-outs, Kehoe fired 33 bullets, seriously injuring a pedestrian before fleeing. Both were arrested after a brief manhunt, and Chevie was later sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Even decades after Chevie Kehoe’s imprisonment, the whites-only nation idea that invigorated him, Mathews, and the Order before him, would keep surfacing in new ways and in new forms.
Kehoe is now incarcerated at the ADX Florence supermax prison in Fremont County, Colorado, alongside McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing accomplice Terry Nichols and 1996 Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, who was inspired by Christian Identity to bomb abortion clinics, a lesbian bar, and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
In 2012, serial killer Israel Keyes, who grew up with the Kehoe brothers and who also occasionally attended the Ark as a child, confessed to committing robberies and murders from coast to coast before reportedly dying by suicide in a jail cell. It’s unclear if his crimes were inspired by any sort of ideology, but during the 1990s, his father wrote a letter of support for both the Byrds and Pete Peters that was published in the local paper.
Keyes wrote that it wasn’t illegal to practice Christian Identity: “It is my understanding that the Marble Community Fellowship has very little to do with the Christian Identity Movement, but so what? Haven’t we as Americans a right to exercise a belief in God and celebrate our white heritage and Christian religion? After all, many Jews consider their race to be God’s chosen people. Is this not racism at its zenith?”
Morlin told me that he reported from a meeting of the Stevens County Assembly — an anti-government militia — in 2012, in which neo-Confederate Pastor John Weaver spoke. Weaver gives racist sermons from the pulpit — sometimes in front of a Confederate flag, sometimes wearing a Confederate flag–printed tie — railing against interracial marriage, and advocating for slavery. By the time of the meeting, he was no stranger to Eastern Washington. In the early 1990s, he appeared at a Spokane conference of white supremacists, during which he promoted his book that urged Americans to break laws should the government become occupied by Jews.
In 2015, Weaver was back in Stevens County to give another speech — this time, he was onstage at Marble Country.
Marble’s God and Country Festival wouldn’t be what it is without a speech from a Washington State House Representative from a district two hours away.
His name is Matt Shea. A clean-cut Army veteran with a law degree, Shea wears thin glasses, dresses in crisply ironed shirts, and smiles tightly. He positions himself as a voice of rural people, but actually represents a district that includes Spokane Valley, a largely suburban city of almost 100,000.
Shea, over the course of six two-year terms, has become a fixture at the far-right edge of what Washingtonians consider Republican. He rarely speaks to reporters — unless they work for publications that have the words “liberty” or “redoubt” in their name. I know more people who’ve done in-person interviews with President Trump than with State Representative Shea, and for years, I worked at newspapers that covered his district.
In order for Shea’s constituents to get an understanding of his ideas, they need to tune into his podcast. The show always takes the same format: Shea reads off some headlines from right-wing news sites, then interviews a guest, while often piping up in agreement with their outlandish theories.
Those guests tend to hold views reflected in the bills Shea introduces in the Washington House. They’re unflinching Second Amendment advocates. This spring, a woman on the program preached abstinence-only sex education and an anti-vaccine “researcher” claimed that child immunizations are contaminated with aborted fetuses.
Mostly, they’re conspiracy theorists and bigots with views Shea parrots. This spring, the legislator hosted a representative from an anti-abortion and homophobic group that has participated in burnings of the Quran. He interviewed a man who spouted talking points from conspiracists who believe in Agenda 21 — a theory that sustainable development is a shady plan hatched by a “New International Economic Order” to control people and take their freedom. Recently, he hosted a conspiracy theorist who believes the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks were actually a “controlled demolition.”
You could say Shea is a lot like Bill Keebler — except he wears a suit and taxpayers pay him a salary.
Shea, for years, has seemed at home among the creators of fake news and conspiracy theories that turn violent. As early as 2009, he made several appearances on conspiracy king Alex Jones’s InfoWars show, where Jones introduced him with reverence. “Representative,” he says, “good to have you on with us.” In that February 2009 interview, Shea and Jones spoke of their belief that the federal government was setting up camps to imprison Americans.
It seems as though in Shea’s world, the country is on the verge of collapse. People will have to fight for their lives. And he intends to be prepared: “If you do not have 5,000 rounds of .223, 5,000 rounds of .22 and a thousand rounds of handgun ammo as a minimum, you’re wrong!” he called from an Idaho stage in 2013.
“We want to prepare for the inevitable collapse that’s gonna happen. And yes, I said that as a politician here onstage. It’s gonna happen! We all know that! The question is, and I think the question should be for all of us, what are we gonna do afterwards? What are we gonna do with that opportunity?”
Apocalypse, government collapse, anarchy — in his world, these are exciting prospects. Opportunities even. A chance at a fresh start, a time to get society back on track.
In this fantasy apocalypse, perhaps being well-prepared and well-armed will be so necessary that the person you were in the past — in the pre-collapse — won’t matter. Money will be obsolete. Laws won’t be enforced. Maybe a violent past will suddenly be seen as an asset.
This might have special appeal for Shea. His ex-wife, who filed for divorce in 2007, alleged that Shea grabbed her so hard during two arguments that he left bruises on her arms. In those same divorce filings, she told stories of a controlling man; by her account, he commanded her to always walk on his left side because a soldier needs to be able to draw his sword from the right. (Shea was in the Army and served in combat, but his wife said he did not traditionally carry a sword.)
Shea did not respond to requests for comment, but when asked a decade ago about his divorce by the Spokesman-Review, he denied any violence and said, “I love my wife and, when I married, I intended it to be for life. Unfortunately, my former wife didn’t and decided to pursue her third divorce.”
In 2011, Matt Shea was involved in a road rage incident in Spokane, in which another driver alleged Shea pulled a gun. In a police report, Shea told officers that as an Iraq war veteran he had to use “evasive techniques” to avoid hitting the man’s car (which Shea described as engaging in “Baghdad driving”), and proceeded to follow it. Shea admitted to officers that he had a gun in his car, that he produced it from a glovebox during the incident, and that he had an expired concealed carry permit. The other driver said he saw the handgun and was afraid Shea was going to shoot him. Later, Shea’s attorney made a deal with prosecutors that resulted in the charges being dropped.
Even now, in a time he surmises is the end of civil society, all of this has become standard Shea stuff. None of his past did real damage to his standing with voters. But it didn’t mean the things he said didn’t set people on edge.
In the spring of 2014, a woman was eating at a Spokane Valley Mexican restaurant when she overheard a conversation between two men at the next table over. Later, she found out those men were Shea and the head of the Oath Keepers militia, Stewart Rhodes.
But sitting there, hearing them, she became so concerned over what they were saying that she took their picture and called the police. According to a police dispatch, the woman overheard “a conversation from a group of males talking about snipers, Clive [sic] Bundy, and public militias.” One of the individuals, she told the police, had “thermal imaging binoculars,” and the group sounded “like they were planning something.”
Still, Shea won the election that year with 57 percent of the vote.
If he could sit in a diner with one of the biggest militia leaders in this country and openly talk about military tactics, it seemed like Shea could be as extreme as he wanted — and it wouldn’t cost him any support. And even some of the most conservative Republicans in Eastern Washington were baffled by how Shea stayed in office.
Two of those people are Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and a former Republican state legislator from Stevens County, John Smith. In a three-part podcast on white supremacy in the region, the pair suggested that Shea’s involvement at Marble Country was something voters should worry about. It was a part of a deep history of racism and hate that had found a home in this region going way back.
Smith was raised by his grandparents in southern Idaho — and his grandfather was friends with people in the Aryan Nations and in the Order. Their home often had new people coming through the door. He remembered his grandfather laying maps out in the kitchen nook and drawing up plans for “an armed revolt.”
Smith realized on his own the ideology he’d been raised around was rotten and that he had to find a way out of it. He took a job as a ranch hand when he was 16 years old, and as a young adult, he attended church at the Ark. He was later married there, though he says he and his wife have since cut their connections with the church.
But he told me that it’s become something of a mission for him to speak up when he sees ideas rooted in Christian Identity catching on here. Stevens County has a history — he knows it, everyone does, even though racists have always been a fringe minority. And in a podcast with Knezovich, Smith hoped people would hear stories of his childhood as a cautionary tale.
“I grew up in that environment, and that stuff doesn’t wash off you. I acknowledge that darkness might still be inside me,” he told me. He maintains that he’s constantly trying to make sure he’s free of it, that he root out any part of him that might still carry what he learned as a kid — asking friends who aren’t white, who weren’t raised around neo-Nazis, if he’s changed.
“I actively go to them and say, ‘Look at me and tell me, is it still in me? Am I still saying the wrong things? Am I still thinking of this in the wrong way?’ I’m trying to not have that be in there anymore. And maybe part of that is standing up and saying this is not OK.”
Smith, in the video versions of the podcast was small and diminutive next to Knezovich. The latter is a tall, hulking man with a bald head and a sidearm, who shook my hand firmly and didn’t smile once when I interviewed him in a conference room at the Spokane County Sheriff’s office last summer.
He told me he sees Shea’s increasingly conspiratorial rhetoric and the allegations of aggressive behavior against him through a lens of one reality his department deals with regularly: that racism is alive and well in his county. He talked about getting a call one morning that KKK flyers had appeared plastered all over a suburb called Millwood, and about teenagers spouting white nationalist talking points in the hallways of local high schools.
He also talked about threats. Since Knezovich — a member of the local Republican party and a man who twice endorsed Shea — started speaking up about Shea, he has received death threats from people associated with the legislator.
“I’ve got my estate in order. I’ve got my will done. The kids have all been briefed. And don’t take this as me being flippant. Nobody wants to die. I came to grips with death a long, long time ago,” he says. “And there’s been more people than I that have died for this country. And if that’s what it takes for people to wake up to what’s happening around them. All right. I love my nation. And if it takes fighting these people on these terms? Bring it on.”
In 2015, Shea was at the God and Country Celebration again, this time next to John Weaver — the neo-Confederate preacher. The next year, many of the legislators from around the West who sympathized with the Bundys in both 2014 and 2016 showed up to Marble, too.
In some years, Anne Byrd posted photos to Facebook of the people who came to Marble. In the caption of a picture of Val Stevens, a former Washington state rep, Byrd wrote that Marble was “blessed” for legislators to be “standing in the gap” for the people.
By the summer of 2018, in the months before the election when many legislators campaign in their districts, Matt Shea appeared alongside Jeanette Finicum at the God and Country Festival. He talked about an idea he’d been shopping for years in the Washington statehouse: He wanted to secede Eastern Washington and create “a safe haven,” a 51st state called Liberty.
Shea insisted people east of the Cascades just didn’t agree with the values of “downtown Seattle,” so why even try to get along? “I would submit, here in Eastern Washington, we believe in the right of self defense. We also believe the constitution means what it says,” he told another crowd. Seattle doesn’t because, he says, it is filled with communists. “And communism, real communism, has killed more people as an ideology than any other ideology in this history of the world — atheist communism.”
All this time Shea spent up here in Stevens County, far from his district, he wasn’t recruiting any new voters. But it did appear he was amassing a following for a political movement, of which he was a leader and visionary.
I wanted to ask him about that, but last summer he didn’t respond to my email requests for an interview. In his personal security detail (having one is atypical for a state rep), Shea is known to employ a man who lives at Marble, and who once tried to bring an AK-47 onto the grounds of the Spokane federal courthouse, but he has no press liaison.
So I figured if I really wanted to ask him a question, and get any kind of an answer, I should show up to a gun rally where he was slated to be a featured speaker.
It was a hot August day — a dry heat, as people in Eastern Washington like to say. The rally was to be held at a large, grassy green park on the northside of Spokane — much closer to his district than Stevens County, but still not in it. A place where people play softball and lay out picnics. On this day, a small crowd gathered. For the most part, they wore shirts emblazoned with proclamations of love for guns and freedom, but several wore militia gear and carried militia flags. Several carried AR-15s.
I listened to Shea give a speech, one that would go on to make headlines around the West, in which he called journalists “dirty, godless, hateful people.” The small crowd — which included leaders and members of the 63rd Lightfoot militia and a local politician who once stomped on the United Nations flag in front of Spokane City Hall — loved it. They cheered Shea on as he yelled, wide-eyed, pumping his fists.
When he was finished, I trudged across the grass, introduced myself, and said I was hoping to ask him some questions: about this 51st State idea and his affinity for speaking at Marble each year. To my surprise, he agreed to talk.
I thought that it was a good couple of weeks for alt weeklies as I surveyed recent stories published in alternative papers around the United States for the second installment in this regular reading list.
In Portland, the Willamette Week covered the city’s embattled mayor, Ted Wheeler. Maya Smith, a staff writer for the Memphis Flyer, filed a charming profile of a blind pharmacist named Charles A. Champion. Christina Sturdivant Sani looked at the underrepresentation of black journalists in D.C. for the Washington City Paper. In Phoenix, a New Times reporter zeroed in on the questionable practices of Arizona’s former parks director.
Back East, DigBoston took aim at Massachusetts’ state gun purchasing agreements. All About Beer, the country’s oldest beer mag, was eulogized in Durham’s Indy Week. Anthony Mariani, the editor of Fort Worth Weekly, wrote an intense personal essay on his brother’s suicide. And the Chico News & Review published an amusing and informative dispatch on the Jefferson separatist movement in Northern California.
It goes without saying that I came across more good writing than I could include in this modest list. But I hope this mix of profiles, investigations, and personal musings will keep you busy until next time.
1. “Portland’s Mayor Is Struggling on the Job. And It’s About to Get Harder.” (Rachel Monahan, December 5, Willamette Week)
The Willamette Week, Portland’s best alternative newspaper, gives readers a long, detailed status report on the city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, whose term began at the beginning of last year. Reporter Rachel Monahan portrays an ineffectual leader who is losing the faith of his allies after failing to deliver on a number of campaign promises, such as providing a shelter bed for every homeless Portlander.
No man is an island, but Ted Wheeler looks marooned. Next month will mark his second anniversary in one of the highest-profile jobs in Oregon politics—and Wheeler is struggling in a remarkably public manner.
No one doubts his intelligence or his integrity. But nearly all of the two dozen people WW spoke to about Wheeler say those qualities are not enough. They describe a mayor unable to move the city forward on challenges large and small. He’s disappointed the left and the right, while frustrating the institutional players who want to see Portland’s achievements measure up to its potential.
Wheeler seems unable to take control.
2. “Dr. Charles Champion, a Memphis Institution for 50 Years” (Maya Smith, November 29, Memphis Flyer)
Charles A. Champion is the blind proprietor of Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, TN. Maya Smith, a staff writer for the Memphis Flyer, has written a lovely profile of this 88-year-old pharmacist, who now spends most of his time greeting customers at the front of the store.
Opaque lenses hide eyes that, for the last four years, have been able to make out only faint light. The man in the glasses, wearing a white coat embroidered with “Dr. Charles A. Champion,” sits in a green chair in Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Champion is 88 years old, but still has his wits about him and shows up to work every day.
His wife of 60 years, Carolyn Champion, is sitting to his right. His cane, a stack of newspapers, and a plastic bucket of peppermints are on his left. Trusting his ears and gentle nudges from his wife, he gives one of each to everyone who walks by. Champion is the owner of the South Memphis pharmacy and has been there every day (Tuesday through Saturday) since 1991.
There are many fine details in this piece. But I liked this one in particular, a saucy quote from Champion, who has several strong opinions on medicine: “I turn down more people than I serve,” he says. “Just because you want a certain drug, it doesn’t mean you need it. I have to be the one to look out for people. I won’t give someone medicine just so they can continue living unhealthy.”
3. “California Divided” (Stephen Magagnini, November 29, Chico News & Review)
California’s Jefferson separatist movement has always served journalists well. In 1942, a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle named Stanton Delaplane won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the “gun-toting citizens” who wanted to secede from the Golden State. In the Chico News & Review, Stephen Magagnini takes stock of the movement as it exists today in Northern California, which he describes as an “unlikely assortment of survivalists and hippies, pot growers and hardline cops, real estate appraisers and loggers, fencing instructors and gun lovers, Latinos and anti-immigrants.” Jefferson’s leader is Mark Baird, a rugged Trump supporter and something of a libertarian cowboy.
The movement has long been popular with a segment of rural far-Northern California, but Baird, 65, a strapping reincarnation of John Wayne, started breathing new life into Jefferson five years ago. The 6-foot-4-inch fire tanker pilot, rancher and Siskiyou County reserve deputy sheriff cuts an impressive figure. He sports a black belt holster, but instead of a sidearm, packs his weapon of choice, a copy of the Constitution.
Though it seems unlikely that the Jeffersonians will get their way, it would be foolish to dismiss the movement outright, given that Trump’s victory was a surprise to such a large swath of the American population.
4. “The Reality of Being a Black Journalist Covering Local D.C. News” (Christina Sturdivant Sani, November 29, Washington City Paper)
Christina Sturdivant Sani, the Washington correspondent for The Commercial Observer and an urban journalism fellow at Greater Greater Washington, takes a look at the underrepresentation of black journalists in D.C.’s media scene.
As a black journalist and native Washingtonian, I am equally proud to report local news and frustrated by my industry.
Beyond local black media, such as the Washington Afro American and the Washington Informer, there’s an underrepresentation of black journalists at print and digital outlets that cover D.C news.
In a city comprised of 47 percent black residents—the largest racial demographic in the city—it pains me that “mainstream” publications are majority white, most of them by a significant margin. It’s also telling that after writing for a dozen local news outlets, I’ve only had black editors at the Afro.
To its credit, City Paper gives Sturdivant Sani the space to take a look at its own track record with diversity. “Many editorial staffs around town, including Washington City Paper,” Sturdivant Sani writes, “could use a heavy dose of melanin — to document D.C.’s historically black culture and preserve the wellness of its black journalists.”
5. “Parks and Wreckage: Meet the Archaeologist Who Brought Down Parks Boss Sue Black” (Steven Hsieh, November 29, Phoenix New Times)
Steven Hsieh, a staff writer for Phoenix New Times, digs deep into an Arizonan archeological scandal. The protagonist of his story is Will Russell, who, while serving as a compliance officer for Arizona State Parks, blew the whistle on Sue Black, the department’s director who, with her deputy director, James Keegan, approached development “with more regard for awards and political ambition than archaeological sites,” Hsieh writes.
During Russell’s year and a half at Parks, he grew angry over practices he viewed as flagrant violations of state law.
Not long after he was hired, it became clear to him that Black and her allies, especially Keegan, did not value his role as a compliance officer. Parks leaders pressured Russell to treat antiquities sites not as cultural resources in need of protection, but as obstacles to development.
Records obtained by Phoenix New Times show Arizona Parks built gardens, trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and cabins on several archaeological sites without following procedures intended to protect Arizona’s cultural resources.
6. “Fire Sale” (Chris Faraone and Curtis Waltman, September 27, DigBoston)
DigBoston, the cleverly named alt weekly, is currently knee-deep in an investigation into Massachusetts’ opaque state gun purchasing agreements, in collaboration with the Emerson College Engagement Lab and Muckrock, the non-profit news site.
Since the beginning of this year, our team at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has examined hundreds of state purchasing agreements, for everything from heavy crime-fighting equipment to consumables for laser printers. Of the many contracts that caught our attention, the firepower free-for-all unpacked herein (SP16-AMMO-X85, abbreviated as AMMO in following references) stands out as especially dubious, with entities on all sides operating in an unchecked fashion despite being on the radar of state prosecutors. Nearly three years into the AMMO arrangement, a malleable open call that allows for multiple contracts to be approved under it, vendors have leveraged the opportunity to make millions of dollars off the state. For most of those procurements, there was no competitive bidding. And the process is far from transparent.
The second installment in the series was published in late November, and the next part, on tasers, will come out in January, according to Chris Faraone, who co-wrote the story and serves as DigBoston’s news and features editor.
7. “Saying Goodbye” (Anthony Mariani, November 15, Fort Worth Weekly)
A recent cover story for Fort Worth’s alternative newspaper — which, every week, publishes breaking news and cultural criticism along with a longform piece that usually tops out around 5,000 words — gets quite personal. Anthony Mariani, the editor of Fort Worth Weekly, writes about his brother Adam’s suicide, and the essay is sad, manic, and occasionally uplifting.
Everyone keeps telling me not to blame myself, that there was nothing I could have said or done to have changed a thing. But why? Why can’t I blame myself if that’s going to make me a better person, a better son to my mother and a better brother to my sister and other brother? And, perhaps most importantly of all, a better husband to my wife and father to my son? I was a lazy brother to Adam. There is no doubt about that. That is a fact. I could have called him more often. I texted him a bunch but rarely ever called. And I knew. I knew he was not doing well. Our mom exploded a couple of years ago when I chose to spend my vacation with my friends instead of with Adam. What’s the big deal? I whined. I even solicited Adam’s blessing while I was living it up with my buds. Ever humble and ever supportive of his little bro, he wrote off Mummy’s angst toward my vacation as her simply being her usual neurotic self. At least that’s what he told me. He was a good brother that way.
8. “For 39 Years, Local Mag All About Beer Shaped the Craft Beer Scene. This Is How It Collapsed.” (Michael Venutolo-Mantovani, November 27, Indy Week)
America’s oldest beer magazine, the Durham-based All About Beer, founded in 1979, appears to have ceased publication in mid-October. The magazine, whose website now sits abandoned on the web like so much digital flotsam, played a large part in elevating the country’s burgeoning craft beer movement, as Michael Venutolo-Mantovani makes clear in his detailed postmortem for Indy Week, the alt weekly serving North Carolina’s Research Triangle.
At the magazine’s founding, there were fewer than one hundred breweries across America, nearly all of which were mass producers such as Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. But even then, AAB quietly heralded the ultra-nouveau movement of craft and small-batch brewing. Its fourth issue had a brief mention of newcomer Sierra Nevada—today the seventh-largest brewer in the U.S., with production facilities in Asheville. In the decades that followed, AAB found itself on the leading edge of an exploding scene.
It’s a sad moment when a publication goes under. Let’s pour one out for All About Beer.
Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review.
With the rise of crowdsourced restaurant reviews on Yelp and its many peers, you’d think old-school, print-media critics would be a thing of the past by now. You’d think wrong: as Jessica Sidman shows in her Washingtonian story, restaurant owners go to incredible lengths to identify prominent critics like the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema, in the hopes of manufacturing a flawless, multiple-star-worthy experience. A lot of the energy is spent preemptively, creating and updating dossiers with blurred photos of critics and detailed notes about their culinary (and other) quirks. But there’s also a field-level aspect to these operations — the intricate choreography that kicks into gear as soon as Sietsema or another top critic enters the house.
To communicate about a critic, some restaurants have their own code words. One Italian joint called Sietsema “Neapolitan,” because it didn’t sound too weird to say out loud in the open kitchen. Others, including the kitchens of Fabio Trabocchi, refer to Sietsema as “Papa Bear.”
“I heard ‘Papa Bear in the house,’ and it’s like a fire drill,” says a sous chef for one of Ashok Bajaj’s restaurants, which include Rasika and Bibiana. The sous chef was in the middle of butchering 150 pounds of salmon for a large banquet that night, but when the alert came in, sous chefs kicked line cooks off their stations and began preparing Sietsema’s lunch themselves. (In other kitchens, the executive chef might take over complete prep of a dish. That way, only one person is to blame if the review is terrible.) “It is a huge wrench in the operation, because what you’re basically doing is interrupting the regular flow of service to stop and concentrate on one table and the other tables surrounding.”
With the executive chef orchestrating, the sous chefs prepared triplicates of every component of every dish. Nerves, as always, ran high. “I’ve burned more shit trying to cook something perfect for Tom Sietsema than I ever would have if I didn’t know that he was there,” the sous chef says.
We’re excited to announce that journalist Garrett M. Graff is joining Longreads as a contributing writer covering border security and immigration, federal law enforcement, and the mechanics of how government works. Read more…
When the marshals searched his backpack that night, they found three wallets, each stuffed with debit cards, scraps of paper, and IDs suggesting he was Kenneth D. Morsette, Alan Reace Lacy, or Anderson Yazzie. Other materials identified him as Lodi Gene Bitsie, Dale Booqua, Richard Overturf Jr., Anatoly Volokhonskiy. He was a specialist at Interstate Storage Rentals Inc., a security expert at LaRouche et LaRouche, a consultant at Guiness Records Ltd.
In a storage unit he rented, investigators found a suitcase full of other people’s documents: driver’s licenses, birth certificates, credit reports. Another contained newspaper-wrapped bricks of cash totaling more than $981,000. Also among his possessions were eight pairs of nonprescription glasses, more than 200 passport photos showing him disguised by various haircuts and facial hair, and a DVD of Catch Me If You Can, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays the serial con man Frank Abagnale.
In the Washingtonian, Daniel Fromson unravels the long, winding mystery of a scam artist whose sham charity drained people of millions and who then donated large sums to political causes, and to himself.
As the president sucks up the oxygen from the media atmosphere, it’s easy to forget how important local journalism is right now. The regional press—the holy trinity of newspapers, alt-weeklies, and city magazines—is where we can find true stories of friends and neighbors impacted by immigration raids, fights over funding public education, and the frontline of relaxed environmental standards that will impact the water we drink and the air we breathe. We need to support their work. Read more…
Below, our favorite stories of the week.
Even the most self-congratulatory conversations about parenting young children are often tinged with an unmistakable air of guilt. Its source lies in a fundamental contradiction: We might be obsessed with our kids’ food, activities, and intellectual development, but in order to provide these things in the first place, many parents also need to outsource the feeding, playing, and teaching to people who are more or less strangers. We work; they go to day care.
Child care is a minefield of a topic, and navigating it inevitably detonates questions of class and gender, labor and social justice. It’s where politics and geography become not just personal, but also emotional (and, sometimes, heartbreaking). Here are eight stories about day care: a place working parents know all too well, but never quite well enough.
1. “The Hell of American Day Care.” (Jonathan Cohn, New Republic, April 14, 2013)
Cohn’s retelling of a fire at a Houston day care facility is harrowing; four children died because of the owner’s negligence. But his story goes beyond one specific incident, chronicling a long history of policy failure that keeps producing horrific tragedies. (As a companion piece, read Dylan Matthews’ interview with Cohn on his reporting.)
“I’m sure there were phonies who claimed to be the sole survivor of Thermopylae,” [Don] Shipley says. “Guys that claimed service at Gettysburg, Valley Forge. But they could only project it down a couple of barstools at the village pub. Now with the internet, you can be anyone you want to be.”
—Michael Gaynor writing for Washingtonian about Don Shipley. A decorated former Navy SEAL himself, Shipley has become internet-famous for tracking down and exposing men who falsely claim to have been SEALs.