Patriot Leader Bo Gritz Shoots Himself Under Troubling Circumstances
'Patriot' leader and former Green Beret Bo Gritz seems to have many faces. The man who has trained thousands of antigovernment zealots falls apart at the prospect of his wife leaving him.
KAMIAH, Idaho -- Late on a Sunday afternoon in September, James "Bo" Gritz was found on a gravel driveway near here, lying next to his GMC pickup truck with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his chest.
Clad in a military uniform bedecked with ribbons and medals, Gritz, 59, had shot himself with a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol on the outskirts of Orofino, about 25 miles from his so-called "constitutional covenant community," Almost Heaven. Remarkably, he was alive.
Somehow, Gritz, a man who has bragged for decades of his well-honed ability to kill, had missed the target — if he ever truly intended to commit suicide.
Within moments of pulling the trigger, the shot echoed around extremist and other circles throughout the nation. What could have caused the supposed model for the movie character "Rambo," the boastful and self-confident 1992 Populist Party presidential candidate, the former Green Beret and "Patriot" leader, to shoot himself?
Just three days earlier, on Sept. 17, Gritz told the Intelligence Report that the prospect of losing his wife of 24 years, Claudia, was too much to take. Claudia had left the man she married at age 16 a month before and filed for divorce on Sept. 11.
"It's the damndest thing," he said during a three-hour interview in his spacious, book-lined office overlooking the Clearwater River Valley. "I've never been afraid of anything on earth. It's what makes me a warrior. But I'm frightened for the first time in my life. I used to have nightmares, and I'd wake up and my bride would be there. I would praise her, and thank God, and I'd go back to sleep.
"Now, I dream of her, and I wake up, and it's a nightmare."
Breaking Bricks and Suicide
This is a man who has trained thousands of antigovernment zealots to prepare for Armageddon, a propagandist who exhorts his followers in thinly disguised terms to stand up to the Jewish-led "New World Order." He is the seemingly invincible Special Forces commando who survived six years of combat in Vietnam, a bear of a man who breaks bricks with his bare hands.
But apparently Gritz wasn't prepared for the emotional bomb blast of his wife's departure.
Was it a suicide attempt? Some kind of desperate effort to evoke sympathy, to bring his wife back home? A bizarre publicity stunt?
"We're kind of cynical up here, but obviously, if anyone would know how to kill himself, it's Bo Gritz," said Larry Nims, a 30-year resident of Kamiah (pronounced cam-ee-eye) and a member of the Clearwater Valley Citizens for Human Rights.
"We don't know if it's something he did to get Claudia back, or if he had some subconscious wish to remain mortal.
In the interview, Gritz spoke plainly of suicide. "I've thought about looking at the other end of my pistol a few times," he said. "What kind of life do I have without my bride? ... She's been my dream girl. Now my reality is my nightmare."
Gritz's apparent suicide attempt caps a year in which his personal, financial and legal affairs have fallen apart.
Longtime business partner and 1992 presidential campaign coordinator Jerry Gillespie, a former Arizona state senator, left Almost Heaven in disgrace last winter after allegedly squandering $1 million in revenues from land sales. (Gillespie couldn't be reached for comment.)
Suddenly, Gritz says he found himself owing a local bank $85,000, in addition to tens of thousands of dollars in debts owed elsewhere.
"We didn't check the books," Gritz said. "It devastated us."
A 'Trojan Horse' Faces Kidnap Charges
Meanwhile, Gritz and his son, Jim, face felony charges of attempted kidnapping, custodial interference and conspiracy to commit both crimes in Enfield County, Conn.
The charges were made in connection with a 1996 effort to "protect" the two sons of a woman named Linda Wiegand from what she loudly claimed on the militia circuit was satanic sexual abuse by her husband. (The court that awarded the father custody found no such evidence.)
The Gritzes were arrested at the boys' school just before classes let out. Jim Gritz also was charged with carrying a concealed knife. If convicted, they could serve up to 25 years in prison. Gritz says he had to take out a $100,000 loan just to make bail.
"Getting involved in the Linda Wiegand case was the biggest mistake of my life," Gritz said. "But I wanted to protect those boys." Jim's wife, Gritz's daughter-in-law Vicci, calls the case "the nightmare that won't go away."
On top of that, Gritz is being attacked by others in the antigovernment movement as being more of a publicity hound and survivalist huckster — a "Pay-triot" — than a true believer. Hard-liners bitterly criticize his role in the search for accused abortion clinic and Olympics bomber Eric Robert Rudolph.
Amid much uncritical national publicity, Gritz spent a week in August in a vain attempt to bring Rudolph out of the North Carolina woods, where he apparently has holed up since the Jan. 29 clinic bombing in Birmingham, Ala.
"Eric does NOT need saving especially by the likes of the Trogen [sic] horse Gritz," wrote August Kreis, a hard-core pastor of the violently anti-Semitic Christian Identity religion. Gritz, according to like-minded extremists, is a "Zionist Occupied Government" agent who would merely hand Rudolph over to the government "Beast."
Fear, and a Longstanding 'Mistress'
Such attacks notwithstanding, Gritz has long been at home in the antigovernment movement.
Even as he parlayed his wartime exploits and personal charisma into a kind of folk hero status, he has repeatedly flirted with white supremacist leaders and groups. He openly labels homosexuals as "f------" and preaches paranoid anti-Semitic notions about Jews taking over the world, the media and the federal government.
In dire terms, he tells all who will listen about the end of the world and the people who are bringing it.
He preaches fear and then sells the products to cope.
For years, Gritz has traveled the country offering a series of well-attended paramilitary training sessions under the acronym SPIKE — Specially Prepared Individuals for Key Events. In them, and in the pricey, 12-part SPIKE video series he also hawks, he sells the skills he learned in Vietnam and elsewhere, from close-quarters combat to field interrogation techniques.
Thousands of men and women have emerged from these elaborate training seminars with the know-how to fight a war. And indeed, many have gone on to join the violence-prone wing of the extremist antigovernment movement.
He is a popular host on "Freedom Calls," a Talk America AM radio show said to reach 4 million listeners five days a week, and his Center for Action produces a newsletter that is rife with conspiracy theories and antigovernment lore.
In these venues, and on his Web site, Gritz advertises a plethora of survivalist items, ranging from lock-picking sets to countersurveillance techniques to "offensive driving" training — skills that could teach people to be criminals, terrorists or well-equipped locksmiths.
When movement fugitives like Rudolph run from justice, Gritz appears as a Johnny-on-the-spot, leaping at the chance to negotiate between the authorities and suspects who hate the federal government. He showed up at the Montana Freemen's 1997 standoff, and again this year in North Carolina.
Gritz's biggest — and only — success involved the peaceful surrender of white supremacist Randy Weaver in 1992.
His zeal to "save" people from the feds seems to be a throwback to the days when he was a Special Forces commando in Vietnam. He dedicates his autobiography Called To Serve to his wife Claudia, and to his "mistress, SF" — short for Special Forces. Throughout his adult life, he never could leave that mistress alone.
The Rudolph Factor
So it was with Rudolph.
It didn't matter that Rudolph, 32, had been discharged from the U.S. Army for using illegal drugs. It didn't matter that Gritz believed that Rudolph had the know-how to be a bomber and probably did carry out the Birmingham attack. As Gritz explains in his lavishly worded style, he was called by God.
"It was well into the night, the house was dark, my bride lay asleep, as I stood before the plate-glass window in our living room looking out into a sea of darkness and distant diamonds of light," he said. "My heart lovingly focused on communion with our Creator. 'Father, I would do thy will. Please help me.'"
Gritz had been to Rudolph's neck of the woods before. On as many as eight occasions, he held SPIKE training sessions there at the invitation of the late Identity leader Nord Davis Jr. Rudolph, a Southern Poverty Law Center investigation has found, was a Davis follower and a longtime believer in Identity theology.
Prior to her departure from Almost Heaven, Claudia tried to reason with her husband. "Honey, I wish you'd reconsider your options," Gritz remembers her saying.
But Gritz plunged ahead, leading 86 volunteers in a fruitless search through the dense brush and limestone caves of the Nantahala National Forest. What he wanted was to keep "a bunch of Nazis ... militarized police" from another Waco. What he and his Confederate-flag-capped followers got was a week of beestings, bruises and boredom.
On the day of his return, Claudia packed up her belongings, grabbed the keys to their motor home and left Almost Heaven. Three weeks later, she filed for divorce, citing "irreconcilable differences" in an Idaho County court document.
The Ark Takes on Water
High on a timbered bluff overlooking the Clearwater River in north central Idaho, Gritz discovered his own personal Shangri-La. Gritz says he found this spot, "the safest place in America," after studying weather, water supply, defensibility, nuclear strike probabilities, earthquake zones and other potential hazards.
Far from the cities he sees as potential riot centers, he established his "ark in a time of Noah."
Gritz didn't wait long to make a splash.
He ingratiated himself with locals in a 1994 Kamiah town meeting by calling the public school system a "cesspool." Various government officials, he pronounced, were "f------."
"When most people move into a rural area, they know enough to keep a low profile," Larry Nims said. "Gritz came here and made a lot of noise. He told people that if they didn't like him, then get out of Dodge. And I'm thinking, 'Who's he to tell people around here to get out of Dodge?' He didn't even live in Dodge yet."
Almost Heaven was conceived as a place to weather the end-times, a community that Gritz and Gillespie would develop by selling lots to like-minded people willing to abide by certain rules. But after starting out strong, the venture quickly turned into something of a business disaster.
Aside from the problems with Gillespie, there have been others. The two men began by setting up what turned out to be an illegal common-law trust called Constitutional Properties of America (CPA) for buying and selling property. They offered lots under a "biblical" no-interest leasing program, after which buyers supposedly could buy out the lease and obtain title to their homes.
But new residents were chagrined to discover that they couldn't get title to their lots or title insurance because a common-law trust cannot acquire title to property in Idaho. A few of them have filed civil suits. One lot-buyer, Richard Sullivan of San Mateo, Calif., filed a consumer complaint with the Idaho attorney general's office.
"They created a mess for themselves," said Dennis Albers, a Gritz attorney who has created a new legal entity called Constitutional Properties of America Holdings, Ltd., in Nevada. "I'm trying to get Bo in a position of providing assurable titles."
In the meantime, disgruntled lessees like Sullivan were attacked for complaining publicly. "How dare you!" Gritz wrote Sullivan on June 21, 1997. "You have lied about me. You will stop and rectify these lies immediately or face consequences." Sullivan worked with a Realtor to sell his property. He never moved to Almost Heaven.
Several contractors also filed lawsuits against CPA, Gritz and Gillespie, alleging they failed to pay for road construction work, well-drilling and culvert placement. Kamiah excavation contractor Robert McKay, for instance, filed a claim for $22,781.
"I wouldn't work for that outfit again," McKay said.
'We Stand Ready'
Greg Heun is Gritz's new land salesman at Almost Heaven now that Gillespie is gone. Heun says about 80 percent of the lots have been sold at Almost Heaven I and II, and another Gritz development called Shenandoah. Fifty lots are occupied and 20 remain for sale, he says.
Jack McLamb — a former Phoenix police officer who is a longtime friend of Gritz's and a conspiracy-mongering Patriot leader — is developing an adjacent "constitutional community" that he calls Doves of the Valley.
Almost Heaven is not a gated community, a compound protected by armed guards like some others in the antigovernment movement. Former Quaker-owned wheat and hay farms have been cut up into smaller lots, many of them now occupied by cheap trailers. A few more well-to-do residents have built spacious log homes.
Heun is typical of many who have moved to Gritz's development. He says he brought his wife and three children to Almost Heaven in July 1995 to escape the rat race in Phoenix. He's been to eight of Gritz's paramilitary SPIKE training sessions.
"Bo Gritz's SPIKE," his black cap reads. "We Stand Ready."
"The thing I see are some real hard times coming for the future," Heun said. "If we have an economic depression and the armed gangs take over, the cities will be dangerous places to be. We won't get away from it up here, but we won't take a direct blow."
Gritz can sound militaristic when it suits his needs — but he's not ready to pull the trigger.
"I would love to form a patriot army of Constitutional Rangers and plan a war against the international banksters and power brokers," he wrote in a 1994 newsletter. "But this is not the strongest urgings of my spirit."
That doesn't sit well with some people. Chad Erickson, leader of a militia called the Idaho Mountain Boys, said he's disappointed in Gritz's lack of interest in building an army. "I went to one of Bo's Preparedness Expos in Seattle in 1992, and the Bo Gritz running for president is not the same Bo Gritz who lives up here.
"I guess he's mellowed out a little."
The Real Bo Gritz
Gritz has been many things to many people. He's been called a war hero and a patriot, a white supremacist and an anti-Semite. Who is the real Gritz?
Bo Gritz was born in Oklahoma on Jan. 18, 1939, an only child who arrived at the outset of World War II. His father, an Army Air Corps pilot, was shot out of the sky in November 1944, when Bo was five. His mother also served in the war as a ferry pilot, leaving Bo to be raised by his grandparents. From early childhood, the military fascinated him.
Gritz attended the Fort Union Military Academy and, at age 18, he enlisted in the Army. He was a hard-headed recruit, court-martialed twice but acquitted while still in basic training. He became a Green Beret and Special Forces officer in Vietnam, beginning in 1965. "I needed to be tested," Gritz wrote later. "I wanted to go out and hit something."
Gritz commanded a mobile guerrilla force assigned to missions in the "dark zones" of North Vietnam, places that had never been penetrated by U.S. forces. Gen. William Westmoreland, in his memoirs, singled Gritz out as a classic American war hero.
In these years, Gritz had two children, James and Jay, with his first wife, and two others, Micheil and Melody, by a woman he describes as an ethnic Chinese former prostitute from Vietnam. While getting a master's degree in communications at American University in 1974, he married Claudia, then a karate instructor near Washington, D.C., shortly before leaving for Panama. They were unable to have children.
Gritz claims to be the most decorated Green Beret commander who served in Vietnam, with 62 citations for valor. The war took its toll, however. For five years, he said, mental trauma caused him to carouse in bars, get in fights and "shoot out the street lights... . I finally had to put my guns away."
The POW Missions
After retiring from the military in 1979, Gritz took up the cause of American prisoners of war who, he maintained, were still being held in the jungles of Laos. Although four separate forays to the Far East would produce no POWs, they eventually did bring Gritz an appearance before a Congressional subcommittee to report his findings — which turned out to be insubstantial at best.
In more than 200 pages of his autobiography, Gritz portrays an eight-year, heroic search carried out in the face of political and more sinister opponents. But Washington Times reporter Susan Katz Keating, in her 1994 book Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America, paints a very different picture.
In a lengthy section, Keating depicts Gritz as "an inveterate publicity hound ... a man who has toyed with human lives while in pursuit of his goals." Armed with funding from backers including Texas billionaire Ross Perot, she says Gritz exaggerated his exploits and alleged government backing, used such questionable methods as employing a psychic to describe an alleged POW camp, and even abandoned one of his men in Laos.
While on his missions, Gritz alleges that he learned of the involvement of U.S. officials in the lucrative heroin trade and became severely disenchanted with the federal government. He claims that it was to keep him quiet that federal officials charged him with using a false passport in 1987. The charges were dropped two years later.
During the late 1980s, Gritz's anger at the government translated into his first venture into politics, and the beginning of his lengthy engagement with white supremacists and other bigots.
At the urging of Willis Carto, founder of the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby, Gritz agreed to run for vice president on the far-right Populist Party ticket. Although he says he expected another candidate to be selected, the convention nominated former Louisiana Klansman David Duke to head up Gritz's ticket.
David Duke and the Race Question
Gritz says he withdrew within 48 hours of learning he would be running with Duke. But in an interview at the time, he seemed unconcerned, saying that he'd met with Duke several times and had been assured the platform would not be a racist one.
Four years later, Gritz would write Carto saying Duke "has done more harm to the Populist Party ... than Hitler would have. Why do you continue to ride a dead horse?"
Duke won 0.05 percent of the national vote. In 1992, Gritz, this time heading the party's ticket, captured 0.1 percent, twice the amount that Duke had received.
But Gritz's biggest achievement in 1992 had nothing to do with presidential politics. Instead, armed with a letter of introduction from Identity minister Pete Peters, he managed to talk Randy Weaver into surrendering to federal officials. The standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, drew national attention after agents shot and killed Weaver's son and wife. Years later, the government settled a suit with Weaver for $3 million.
Gritz denies that he is a racist, pointing to his two Asian-American children and a mixed-race godchild. But there is no question that his 1992 campaign galvanized white supremacists and other antigovernment extremists.
"There's an old saying," Gritz concedes now, "that if you lie down with dogs, you get fleas."
James Aho, an Idaho State University professor who has written extensively on the white supremacist movement in the Pacific Northwest, says Gritz "compromises himself by associating with people who are racist. But he's not an out-and-out racist. I've never been able to find evidence of that."
The evidence of Gritz's antipathy toward Jews is clearer. Earlier this year, in a lengthy diatribe falsely alleging Jewish control of the media and financial institutions, he wrote: "Why is there such an intense effort toward Jewish control? ... I don't think it is right for such a small special interest group to control our nation... ."
Elsewhere, he wrote: "Do you see the sign, the scent, stain and mark of the beast on America today? ... Are you willing to submit and join this seedline of Satan? ... Look to those who are openly antichrist... . [W]ho in the world is promoting abortion, pornography, pedophilia, Godless laws, adultery, New Age international banking, entertainment industry and world publishing? Wherever you find a perversion of God's laws you will find the worshippers of Baal with their roots still in Babylonian mysticism."
Gritz said in the interview that he is not anti-Semitic, but that Jews control too much of the world's wealth and power. "It's grossly out of balance," he said.
Whither Bo Gritz?
The future for Gritz is unclear. After leaving the hospital he moved to Sandy Valley, Utah, and Claudia returned to their Almost Heaven home. Now, some observers believe his credibility in the antigovernment movement will be destroyed. But Gritz has survived other travails and managed to come back strong.
Larry Nims would prefer to see Gritz remain powerful — to keep the more militant extremists around Kamiah from becoming violent. Bill Wassmuth, executive director of the human rights group Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, says there will likely be trouble no matter what.
"A few of his followers are a lit fuse away from violence," he said. "There's just too many ... trigger points for that not to happen."
To Don Simler, a third-generation Quaker who owns farm property next to Almost Heaven, it comes down to this: Bo Gritz has wrecked his quiet country life.
"I think it's ruined our country up here," Simler said. "It's really changed the character of the area. A lot of these people come out of the big cities, and they're packing guns. I guess they're afraid of the government or whatever. It's just never going to be quite the same around here."
Steve Stuebner is the author of six books, a contributor to The New York Times and other publications, and a freelance journalist who lives in Boise, Idaho.