James Wickstrom, one of Christian Identity's most vicious firebrands, has been relatively quiet for years. As he makes a bid for the leadership of the notorious neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, that may be changing.
Posed before a backdrop of a Tennessee forest, Jim Wickstrom spews his life history into a camera. It's late June, and Wickstrom has just been a victim of another attack, one of the many he claims to have suffered at the hands of his enemies over the years.
The latest assault on the "preacher" came this June 21 when someone burned down a furniture store in Hampton Township, Mich., where Wickstrom has been preaching "Racial Covenant Christian Identity" for the past three years.
Many of the audio- and videotapes he peddles over the Internet, representing his life's work, were burned or damaged in the fire. Wickstrom quickly put out a call over the Internet to sympathizers, stumping for financial aid in order to continue his ministry.
And so it is not surprising that just days after the blaze, the prolific pastor already is taking steps to replenish his media inventory. After all, the man has a business to run, and preaching violence against Jews is his bread and butter.
At 62, Wickstrom is bloated and shifty-eyed. The oversized aviator glasses he wears magnify his jowl and the general downward slope of his features. For this video, Wickstrom has encased his sausage-like physique in a red polo shirt, eschewing the formal sports coat and tie he favors at racist rallies.
The film is a relatively calm accounting of his life and views as he outlines his career as a racist with arms folded over his bright red belly. Under these sedate circumstances, Wickstrom looks more like the Snap-On Tools salesman he was in the early '70s, in the time before his anger found an outlet — and an accelerant — in the theology of Christian Identity.
But "Wickstrom Unplugged" doesn't last for long.
Almost on cue, a voice off camera asks Wickstrom what he thinks should be done with the Jews, a topic that invariably brings out the Hulk in him.
Wickstrom's hands begin to gesticulate, his face reddens, and he launches into a tirade that demonstrates what has made him one of Christian Identity's most popular and volatile speakers.
"I'd like to see these Jews all be brought to the VA [Veterans Administration hospital] and wooden chairs be put down on the lawn. Tie the Jews in. Bring these veterans down who have been mutilated, physically mutilated, their lives ruined without the opportunity of a family or children, and give them baseball bats and let them beat these Jews to death! Every one of them!" he bellows.
"Take these chairs and Jews after they're beaten to death, throw 'em in the wood chipper! And from the wood chipper let the remains go into a big incinerary truck, which is right behind the wood chipper, and give them the holocaust they rightly deserve!"
"Even the women and children?" he's asked by his interviewer.
"Take 'em all," he snarls. "Take 'em all and let none remain!"
Wickstrom's an aging, old-school Christian Identity racist whose career has seen better days. For a time in the early '80s, Wickstrom was one of the hottest haters in the country, preaching Yahweh's word across the Great Plains and the upper Midwest and stirring up an army.
America's farmers, in the grip of a devastating crisis, were a vulnerable audience. The government had urged them to expand their operations, then slapped them with a spike in interest rates. Banks called in loans. People lost farms, and Wickstrom's hard-core combination of antigovernment teachings and Bible-based racism drew substantial crowds. The fervently anti-Semitic, antigovernment Posse Comitatus grew in strength.
Wickstrom told them their economic hardship was part of a plan to destroy God's chosen people — the "White, Western Race" — and pointed to the Bible.
He told them debts and taxes were illegitimate and pointed to the Constitution. His conviction and passion were often mesmerizing.
But his message would start to decay.
Most of the legal advice he gave farmers created more problems than it solved. The "township" of Tigerton Dells that he and other Posse members dreamed up was seized by the very government its residents were plotting to overthrow.
Wickstrom and other Posse leaders would be arrested and incarcerated. The Posse began to fade, making way for the militia movement that would follow. The momentum it once had in its heyday, when Posse sympathizers numbered close to 50,000, came and went.
Despite his diminished presence in the movement today, Wickstrom's influence over the past 30 years has been considerable. And by the look of things, "Wick," as he is known, is not done yet.
Wickstrom is attempting to emerge from 15 relatively dormant years by very publicly aligning himself with one of two factions of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations vying for control of Richard Butler's leaderless followers.
Since Butler's death on Sept. 8, Charles Juba's version of Aryan Nations, based in Pennsylvania and by far the weaker of the two, is clamoring for respect they hope an association with Wickstrom will bring and have named him their religious leader. Against most of the evidence, Wickstrom and Juba are now claiming that they are the anointed heirs of Butler and rightful owners of the well-known Aryan Nations name, even though Butler publicly excommunicated Juba (see Alabama Getaway) from his Idaho-based organization in January 2000 and never took him back.
"My work as World Chaplain is only beginning, and I look forward to being a part of the Aryan Nations of tomorrow," Wickstrom wrote in an Oct. 11 press release in which he claims his appointment was part of a secret plan formulated years ago by Pastor Butler himself.
In the statement, Wickstrom proclaims Juba's group the legitimate successor to Butler, and blames the confusion over which faction was the true Aryan Nations on a clever "cloak and dagger" operation designed to confuse the enemy while the organization was rebuilt.
Although it's doubtful he'll succeed in filling the shoes of one of the country's most notorious neo-Nazi leaders, Wickstrom is one of the strongest candidates and most recognizable names the Christian Identity movement has.
He may have only been drawing a few dozen disciples to his furniture-store sermons in recent years — but consider that quality can be just as important as quantity when building an army for Yahweh. Among Wickstrom's converts are men like James Nichols, brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols. When James devoted his life (and that of his incarcerated brother) to Aryan warriorhood on Oct. 5, 2003, Wickstrom was the first to shake his hand.
Still, some experts question Wickstrom's relevance to the movement of today.
"Wickstrom has lost saliency," says Leonard Zeskind, an expert on the Identity movement and the far right. "The terrain doesn't exist for him anymore."
Some of Wickstrom's closest supporters have condemned him for a relationship he began in August 2003 with another man's wife. So while Wickstrom's name was intended to bring legitimacy to Juba's faction of the Aryan Nations (which Zeskind dismisses as the "sewer end of the movement"), it's possible that his presence will actually hurt Juba.
Other observers aren't ready to count Wickstrom out just yet.
"Jim Wickstrom has a certain stature in the racist movement — one Juba doesn't have — and especially among the more religious, the biggest ones that are really into the Christian Identity aspect," says Floyd Cochran, a former Aryan Nations spokesman who now speaks out against racism.
"With the death of Richard Butler, the Christian Identity aspect of the movement is now more focused on Wickstrom."
Kerry Noble, a former Identity adherent who has also left the movement, knew Wickstrom in the '80s agrees that Wickstrom's new position may be more than just a coda to his career. "The movement is lacking true leadership, and Wickstrom is the closest thing that most groups have."
Birth of a Salesman
Under different circumstances, Jim Wickstrom might have been making Chiquita banana stickers and Elmer's Glue labels at a Kimberly-Clark paper mill for a living instead of talking about putting people in wood chippers.
Wickstrom was born in 1942 in Munising on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Although Wickstrom describes the town as Michigan's "Naples on the lake," the slogan is far grander than the dreary circumstances of the tiny, working-class town warrant.
Times have always been tough in Munising, where the century-old paper mill on the lake's eastern shore looms large in the life of residents, and the annual average income is less than $13,000.
Wickstrom was the second of three sons. His father worked as a foreman at a sawmill. His mother was a homemaker. Wickstrom graduated from high school in 1960 and worked various jobs before joining the military in 1964. He served two years (not six, as he often claims), mostly as a warehouseman stationed in Fort Lewis, Wash., and in Okinawa, and never saw combat.
But Wickstrom did see black men surpass him in rank left and right. He was outraged at what he calls blatant "reverse discrimination," and it was the first time he remembers feeling racially aware.
Wickstrom was discharged as a private first class in 1966 and returned to an America he didn't understand. The sex, drugs and foul language of the '60s repulsed him, and he saw it as a sign America's character was weakening.
In 1970, he married the first of his four wives, Dianne, whom he met while working for Johnson Wax. In 1973, he ran a service station in Racine, Wis., without success, and then gave it up to go sell tools.
Soon after he left the service station, Wickstrom was hired by Snap-On Tools and began traveling as a salesman. The position suited him for a time, but Wickstrom was soon to discover tools weren't the only things he could sell.
It was 1975 when Wickstrom met tax protestor Thomas Stockheimer, a man who would introduce Wickstrom to the Posse Comitatus (Stockheimer founded the Wisconsin Posse Comitatus in 1970) and Christian Identity.
Wickstrom remembers that day well. His sales route took him past Stockheimer's "Little People's Tax Party" office each week. One day Stockheimer called out to him and posed a troubling question. "Do you know who you are? Do you really know who you are?" Stockheimer queried. "Do you know that you're an Israelite?"
Wickstrom was initially offended. He had little use for Jews and didn't much like being called one. But after hearing Stockheimer out, Wickstrom ended up leaving with two tapes in his pocket, William Potter Gale sermons entitled "Jacob the Double Blessed" and "Jews are of Cain."
The tapes were the first of many that told Wickstrom he was more than a pasty, pudgy salesman.
Christian Identity teachings told him he was one of God's chosen people and a member of the Israelite tribe.
They explained Jews were the demonic offspring of a sexual union between Eve and Satan.
They told him blacks were subhuman because they couldn't blush, no better than beasts of the field and mere tools of the Jews in their fight to destroy White Western man.
To Wickstrom, it made perfect sense.
He and Stockheimer set up a Bible study group in Wickstrom's basement which they gradually built up, studying Scripture and listening to tapes of Gale, one of Identity's great teachers and a founder of the Posse Comitatus, and other ministers. Soon, Wickstrom says, they were drawing 45 members each week.
Wickstrom had to go it alone without Stockheimer's aid after a short while. Stockheimer had assaulted an irs agent in 1974. When his appeal failed in July 1976, Stockheimer skipped town and spent the next four months on the lam.
Not long after Stockheimer's hasty departure, Wickstrom quit his job and moved his family to Schell City, Mo.
"I wanted to be with like-minded people," he explains.
Wickstrom bought land near fellow Identity minister Dan Gayman's property and taught history and geography at a small school operated by Gayman and another minister, Loren Kallstrom. He formed his own church in 1977, Mission of Jesus the Christ Church, and lived off tithes and donations.
But he would soon have a falling out with Dan Gayman. Wickstrom claims he discovered that the property Gayman was living on, which was supposed to have been deeded to the Life Science Church Gayman had established, in fact remained in Gayman's name. In late 1978, Wickstrom packed up his family and moved to Wisconsin.
The Farmers and the Dells
Wickstrom came at the invitation of Donald Minniecheske, who had formed a chapter of the Posse Comitatus and was beginning to create a Posse compound out of a tavern and several mobile homes located on 570 acres on the shores of the Embarrass River.
Wickstrom constructed a church out of two side-by-side mobile homes, and began what he calls his "rejuvenation" of the Posse Comitatus by naming himself "National Director of Counter Insurgency."
Wickstrom and Minniecheske formed their own make-believe town out of a bar and a few trailers. They called it the Constitutional Township of Tigerton Dells. Minniecheske had lost his liquor license for the tavern and dance hall he ran two years earlier. Wickstrom, who had decided he was to be the town's judge and municipal clerk, used his position to grant Minniecheske a new one.
He also began traveling throughout the farm belt, appearing at meeting halls, in basements, and at farm shows. "I knew that something had to be done. I knew that the ranchers and the farmers were being meticulously destroyed by the Jew banking system in America," Wickstrom says.
What he offered was an attractive, if somewhat fanciful, solution to their problems. Wickstrom told them that both taxes and the federal government were illegitimate. He told them they were sovereign citizens and that debt could be paid with fictitious money orders.
He called ZIP codes and driver's licenses examples of government tyranny that were to be abandoned.
He said it was up to the people to regain their power through direct action. He told them Jews, tax collectors, and other enemies of the people were to be lynched.
Floyd Cochran grew up on a dairy farm and heard of Wickstrom's work early on.
"In the '70s and '80s farming went through a drastic change. A lot of people I'd known a good part of my life went out of business," Cochran says.
"Wickstrom was organizing farmers out West, appearing at farm shows and things of that nature telling farmers you are losing your place not because of something you did but because the Jews want to take away your farms."
Posse Power Peaks
The next three years would see a surge of support for Wickstrom's beliefs. Paramilitary training began at Tigerton Dells in 1980, and Wickstrom claimed that Posse seminars drew thousands of participants who were taught survival skills and covert military operations by high-ranking Vietnam vets.
That same year Wickstrom ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate on the far-right Constitution Party ticket and managed to garner 16,000 votes. In 1982, a local radio station began broadcasting his speeches and Wickstrom ran for governor.
He boasted improbably that his Posse was more than 2 million strong. He continued speaking all over the country and met with great success. Soon, events would introduce the fiery preacher to an even wider audience.
When Gordon Kahl went to war with the government, it was Jim Wickstrom's big break.
On Feb. 13, 1983, the Posse became national news when law enforcement agents tried to arrest North Dakota Posse member Gordon Kahl on a probation violation. Kahl opened fire, killing two officers and injuring several others. Kahl escaped in the confusion and eluded law enforcement until June, when a standoff in Arkansas resulted in the death of Kahl and a sheriff.
Wickstrom loudly proclaimed Kahl the Posse's first martyr and, suddenly, the media was listening.
Wickstrom appeared on "20/20" with Geraldo Rivera, and on a memorable broadcast of "The Phil Donahue Show."
"The highpoint for Wickstrom was his appearance on 'Phil Donahue.' He completely snookered Donahue," says Daniel Levitas, author of The Terrorist Next Door and an expert on the Posse, adding that Wickstrom used Kahl as a rallying cry.
"Wickstrom turned Kahl into a media megaphone."
Wickstrom toned down his racist rhetoric for the broadcast, and instead tailored his message to address the frustrations of the working class, emphasizing his love for country and strong Christian beliefs. Far from discrediting Wickstrom as a violent racist, the appearance was nearly an infomercial for Wickstrom's Posse.
But Wickstrom's turn as a television star was short-lived. Soon after Donahue, Wickstrom was charged with two counts of impersonating a public official relating to his activities in Tigerton Dells.
During the proceedings, prosecutor Douglas Haag successfully argued that "the question is whether or not a man with even marginal intelligence who can read and write the English language believes that he can put a fence around his back yard, set up a separate government and call himself a public official."
Haag added that "if [Wickstrom] has a sincere belief that he is a public officer within the laws of the State of Wisconsin, I'm the Easter Bunny."
Wickstrom was convicted and received the maximum sentence, 13 1/2 months. But even with Wickstrom behind bars, the seeds he had planted in 1982 would take root in an unemployed trucker in Nebraska.
The results would prove to be deadly.
Hate Takes Root
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 flyers 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.