James Wickstrom Faces Attacks, Continues to Preach Christian Identity Doctrine
By Susy Buchanan
Dennis Ryan, now 35, speaks in a gruff, gravely voice that seems to suit the topic at hand — Dennis' childhood.
Dennis was 12 years old when his dad, Michael Ryan, told him to put down his football and pick up a rifle. That was the year his father met James Wickstrom, who told him Armageddon was coming and to prepare for battle.
Three years later, Dennis helped his father kill a man in Rulo, Neb.
In 1985, Dennis shot James Thimm in the face. When Thimm, who had fallen out of favor with Mike Ryan, didn't immediately die, Mike had him chained inside a hog shed, kicked, beaten, and forced to have sex with a goat. At his father's request, 15-year-old Dennis shot off the man's fingers and partially skinned him. Thimm was anally raped with a shovel before Mike Ryan finally kicked him to death. The ordeal lasted two weeks.
Mike Ryan, a devotee of Wickstrom's teachings, had dutifully carried out his pastor's violent ideology, killing in the name of Yahweh. While Wickstrom has never lifted a finger to begin the race war he preaches is inevitable, in Ryan he found an apt pupil.
"I don't hold Wickstrom responsible for the crime I committed. I hold him responsible for getting my dad into it," Dennis tells the Intelligence Report.
"Wickstrom didn't make my dad kill anybody, but he planted the seed. He planted it in my dad and then he helped it grow."
Daniel Levitas agrees. "There could not have been the tragedy in Rulo if there was not a James Wickstrom."
Mike Ryan had driven a truck for years until he broke his back, lost his job, and his family's luck took a turn for the worse. Out of work and in dire financial straits, Ryan began to cart his family around to different churches, never finding the message he sought until he heard Wickstrom speak in 1982.
"He was looking for something to believe in," recalls Dennis. "He didn't like blacks to begin with. I don't think he was ever a popular person growing up. I think that it was the right time for the wrong thing. He was weak and you don't let someone indoctrinate you into something like that unless you are weak-minded. He was all screwed up."
Some of the same frustrations Wickstrom had felt as a young man were mirrored in Ryan, and he too jumped into Identity with both feet.
"Wickstrom is dangerous to the extent of provoking others," says Kerry Noble. "He is typical of leaders. They won't do violent stuff, yet that's all they'll preach. They'll push buttons, but they are extremely cowardly."
Mike Ryan immediately took to Wickstrom's assurances that the end times and the battle of Armageddon were fast approaching. Wickstrom treated Ryan like a protégé, and soon steered several other of his supporters Ryan's way.
Ryan, who through his association with Wickstrom was elevated to a position of power, gradually built up his own cultish following and began preparing them for battle.
"Jim Wickstrom was the reason Dad got into this stuff. He's the one who showed Dad how to talk to Yahweh, the reason we started getting guns and preparing for Armageddon," says Dennis. "He was always so amazed at all the weaponry and how well Jim Wickstrom and his followers in Tigerton Dells were armed."
Ryan moved his family farm from Whiting, Kan., to the farm in Rulo. He ordered them to steal farm equipment, livestock and weapons in the name of Yahweh.
The plan was simple and based on Wickstrom's teachings: "We were supposed to kill all Satan's people. Dad was supposed to be the King of Israel, and I was the Prince. He was supposed to die before the New Jerusalem was brought down from Yahweh, and then I'd be the king," recalls Dennis, incredulous at the scenario he once put his faith in.
"I believed it 110%. All the way. Hell, I helped kill a man for it, and I never once questioned it."
Before Thimm's murder, in 1984, Donald Zabawa, a former member of the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, gave a confession to law enforcement as part of a plea deal. Zabawa's statement, a warning of what was to come, included what would prove to be an accurate assessment of Mike Ryan's activities and plans.
Zabawa said it was well known that Ryan was considered "Wickstrom's main man in Kansas," and detailed the group's thefts and stockpiling of weapons. Zabawa warned that Ryan and his group were both capable of and willing to kill Jews and other perceived enemies of God.
Dennis says that Wickstrom was very much a part of those times, even after his father stopped going to hear him speak or attend paramilitary training sessions.
"Wickstrom wasn't physically a constant presence in our lives, he wasn't over all the time at the house or always on the phone with my dad, but he was there in that he was Dad's teacher," Dennis says. "We had all of his fliers and cassettes. Dad would even listen to Wickstrom while he was taking the garbage out."
Ryan ruled his flock through strict discipline and an atmosphere of fear. He had managed to convince them that Yahweh spoke to him and that Satan would soon be at their door. They obeyed without question.
But by January 1985, Ryan's religious fervor was consuming him. He became more and more violent, convinced that others were plotting against him. He began lashing out physically and inexplicably focused the bulk of his wrath and paranoia on Luke, the 5-year-old son of follower Rick Stice.
Ryan declared the child a spawn of Satan and convinced the boy's father to help inflict horrendous physical and sexual abuse. The boy survived until late March, when Ryan broke his neck in a fit of rage. Rick Stice helped bury his own son.
Months later, James Thimm would be buried nearby.
Dennis Ryan served 12 years on a second-degree murder conviction for his role in the death of James Thimm. Today, Dennis has been out of prison for eight years, has a family and works as a carpenter. He has no contact with his father, who remains on death row.
Dennis says his father's influence has left him cautious, slow to trust, and with little regard for organized religion. "I look at the Bible and it scares me because I know how people twist it and use it for their own benefit," he says.
"I don't want some man up there telling me what God expects of me. I was told that before, and I killed someone."
Dennis takes a breath and continues. "So many people interpret the Bible so many different ways. I mean, take 9/11. That's their religious beliefs. They're no different than what my dad did except they actually carried it out. As far as killing thousands of people — that was his goal, too."
Levitas says that although Wickstrom had no direct role in the murders, "certainly the blood of the victims of Rulo is very much on his hands as a result of his recruitment of Mike Ryan." In his view, the events at Rulo are "a case in point that the speech of those on the far right often results in deadly action."
While Wickstrom was in jail for impersonating a public official, the government shut down the Tigerton compound for zoning violations. When he was released in the spring of 1985, Wickstrom moved to Pennsylvania. The terms of his probation forbade him from involving himself with the Posse Comitatus or any kind of political group for two years. But the irrepressible Wickstrom couldn't stay away for long.
Five years later, in 1990, Wickstrom would be sentenced to 38 months in prison for his role in a plot to print $100,00 in counterfeit bills to be distributed at the 1988 Aryan Nations World Congress and used to fund paramilitary activities. By the time he was released, the Posse had all but disappeared.
"Wickstrom's light has been fading ever since the compound at Tigerton Dells shut down. Wickstrom's heyday was in the period from 1978 to 1985. That was his period of peak influence," says Levitas. "Since then he's hopscotched around and been able to gather small groups of people around him, but he'll never return to his former stature in the movement."
In the 10 years since his release from prison, Wickstrom has been relatively low key. He has continued speaking to small groups across the country, selling speeches through the mail and the Internet, and also produced a weekly radio show for seven years. Wickstrom abandoned radio earlier this year, citing a desire to explore different directions.
But he has also has kept busy exploring other men's wives. Rumors of womanizing have besieged the portly pastor for years, but no dalliance has been as flagrant and as divisive as the scandal he is currently embroiled in, which may be politically damaging for a preacher trying to make a comeback.
In the summer of 2003, Wickstrom took up with Kathleen Kallstrom, the wife of Identity minister Keith Kallstrom, who along with his father Loren Kallstrom had worked with Wickstrom during the heyday of Tigerton Dells.
Keith says Wickstrom secretly called his wife of 31 years for months. Then, on Aug. 15, 2003, Kathy made a trip to Wal-Mart and never came home. She made her way to Michigan and moved in with Wickstrom.
Keith Kallstrom was enraged, and the situation became so volatile that a council of Identity ministers, including Eli James, Dan Johns and Gary Blackwell, was convened in order to resolve the dispute between the men. In February 2004, Wickstrom refused to attend and lashed out at his peers, who Kallstrom says condemned Wickstrom's relationship with his wife.
"There are things that Jim Wickstrom teaches very well," Kallstrom says bitterly of his former friend. "But it's not just a matter of what you say and what you do, but how you lead your life. You do not stand behind the pulpit and preach the tenth commandment, 'thou shall not covet,' and then take another man's wife. You do not twist the word of God. You do not covet other people's blessings."
Although Wickstrom may have lost face with some of his peers, others have enthusiastically embraced him.
Charles Juba's Pennsylvania faction of the Aryan Nations hopes to capitalize on Wickstrom's stature. Days after Butler's death, Juba announced he was appointing Wickstrom "Chaplin [sic]." An obvious choice for a group whose slogan for the coming year is "No Jew left alive in 2005," Wickstrom offers a message that after 30 years has neither mellowed nor strayed from its core — in fact, it appears to have intensified. Age may have turned Wickstrom from a vicious dog into a rabid one.
Wickstrom may not have the power of the Posse behind him these days, but he definitely has a vision for America that still draws a crowd, three generations later. One can only hope another Mike Ryan is not in the mix.
As he told a group of racist Skinheads last spring: "I have a dream! If that goddamn nigger can have a dream, I can have a dream, too. I have a dream that in the days to come there won't be anyone who isn't white that's gonna be in America!"
In response, a new generation of racists punched the air with their fists, crying "White Power!" and "Preach it!" as swastikas fluttered in the breeze.