LEITH, N.D. — The mayor of a tiny Grant County town that's been targeted for a takeover by a hate crimes fugitive said local residents are demanding more information now that the plot has been uncovered.
Craig Paul Cobb, 61, who has been called one of the most extreme white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the country, has purchased 13 lots in the mostly abandoned town of Leith with plans to fill the town with other racists and haters and eventually take over the community.
Cobb himself lives in a small house in Leith and residents knew he was buying up other lots last year. It wasn't until the past few days that they learned of his scheme to turn Leith into a white nationalists' community, where people could fly Nazi flags and other racial banners, take over the city through elections and write their own laws.
Cobb was arrested in 2010 in Canada on federal charges of willful promotion of hatred and had been in Montana under dual citizenship until turning up in Grant County last year.
Mayor Ryan Schock said his phone has been "ringing off the hook" since the Tribune broke the story Wednesday night, with many of the calls from area residents wanting to know what's going on.
"Everybody’s wound up," the mayor said.
People in the community of 19 are still trying to figure out what they can or should do about the situation, he said.
In the meantime, Grant County Sheriff Steve Bay said he'll keep a close watch on Leith, especially after two Wisconsin men showed up in Leith before dawn Sunday to clear trees and work on a dilapidated house on a property Cobb had purchased.
Those men — Michael Bencz and Tim Westergard — provided identification to the sheriff Sunday evening and weren't found to have any criminal warrants or apparent association with Cobb, the sheriff said.
Bay said he is still investigating Bencz and Westergard. He said the Border Patrol told him Canada has no interest in extraditing Cobb on the hate crime charges.
Bencz told the Tribune he found Cobb's property on Craigslist and made a down payment on it because he was looking for a prairie home in a quiet and peaceful place. He denied any relationship with Cobb, or white nationalist beliefs.
Cobb has not returned phone calls or text messages sent to a cellphone number posted on Craigslist with his Leith property listing.
Mark Potok, an expert on extremism and editor of the Intelligence Report and Hatewatch blog, said people should be concerned.
Hatewatch is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights group, keeping tabs on hate crimes and hate advocates across the country, including Cobb.
"He's one of the most vicious neo-Nazi activists around," Potok said.
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The fact that Cobb was able to buy so much property in Leith before anyone realized what he represents is the most successful attempt so far to create an all-white enclave, Potok said.
Cobb is trying to turn Leith into a Pioneer Little Europe, an all-white vision that’s been around since 2001, Potok said.
He said others have tried to create white enclaves — notably April Gaebe's attempt in Kalispell, Mont. — but have not gotten nearly as far as Cobb has gotten in Leith.
"This is much further advanced than anything we've seen," Potok said.
He said it's likely Cobb picked Leith because North Dakota is 90 percent white and Grant County is 97 percent white, according to the U.S. census.
Other factors that make it attractive are cheap land, few people to stand up to a takeover and employment in the Bakken oil patch.
"Most of these guys don't have two dimes to rub together," Potok said.
Leith is home to a mixed race couple, Bobby and Sherrill Harper, who spoke to the Tribune about living in a town targeted by white nationalists.
Harper said she and her husband were vilified in a white activism Internet site, http://stormfront.org, as a result of the Tribune story, with one writer saying, "a … race-mixing white woman like her has no place in a White nation."
Sherrill Harper said she doesn't regret going public.
"I'm not sorry it's out there. The more people who know, the better," she said.
Potok said he doesn't think Cobb's plans will hold up now that they are widely known.
"He can't take away the community. People will resist this. My best guess is that it will fall apart as a result of being exposed," he said.
Sherrill Harper said she's learned a lot about extreme racism in just a few days and she welcomed Potok's prediction.
"I can only hope that he's right," she said.