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Scrutiny follows Fuhrman to Idaho town

Published Sep. 24, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

Hundreds of miles away, in the chaotic city of Los Angeles, there is a bloody glove, hair samples, DNA test results, paw prints of a frightened Akita and a criminal trial that drags on like daytime TV.

Above it all hovers an interactive galaxy of choked freeways and car alarms and gang shootings.

Here in northern Idaho, where the air smells of pine, people worry about huckleberry season ending too soon. They wonder if the neighbors will take the extra eggs the hens have laid. They talk about whose horse won at the rodeo.

It's no surprise that this place of spectacular natural beauty and simplicity has become an unofficial refugee camp for ex-Los Angeles Police Department officers.

From the cool air of her barn, Gail Coutts refers to her 25 years as an LAPD detective as if they'd been lived by someone else.

"In my former life," says Coutts, 50, "I worked long hours, wrote a lot of search warrants and booked a lot of evidence." She carried a gun in her purse and automatically checked her rear-view mirror for "follow-homes," thugs who trail their victims home to rob or assault them.

Now, the retired forgery detective takes pies to the county fair.

Most LAPD cops who move here gladly forget the place they left.

But one in particular has brought Los Angeles with him.

When Mark Fuhrman moved here last month, all the ugly shards of the O.J. Simpson trial _ race, police brutality, high-priced justice and paperback book deals _ cut into this peaceful Western town.

Sandpoint _ 96 percent white _ became the object of close inspection by the outside world.

Not only has Fuhrman retired here, along with droves of other ex-LAPD officers, but the area is known for its concentration of white separatist organizations and anti-government rebels.

On the surface, Sandpoint is about as threatening as a Windham Hill soundtrack. Some compare it with Aspen before Aspen boomed. The Nature Conservancy holds meetings here. Eichardts Pub has poetry readings and serves dark pints of Black Butte, a local micro-brewed beer. A real estate agent wears Birkenstocks and her partner wears cowboy boots.

"The white supremacists, the radicals, you just don't see them," says Devo Fuller, who runs a burrito stand downtown. "They all live off in the woods and meet there. But so do the Elks and the Lions who get together and do their thing."

Spirit of individualism

Northern Idaho is a strange vortex of Ford-driving cowboys, white separatists, extra-crunchy hippies, survivalists, natural-fibered New Agers, apocalyptic zealots and espresso stands.

But it's the concentration of radical white separatists that has grabbed national attention.

The region is home to Richard Butler, a neo-Nazi who lives outside Coeur d'Alene and founded the Aryan Nations, which believes that blacks and other people of color are mud-people. Church services are held each Sunday at 11 a.m.

In Idaho County, there is James (Bo) Gritz, who bought 200 acres and is selling tracts to like-minded people who are sick of government tyranny. Gritz, who aligned himself with David Duke in the 1988 presidential movement, is one of the current kings of the right-wing survivalist movement. He refers to his lifestyle as "off the grid" or "off the umbilical."

A former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Louis Beam, recently moved outside of Sandpoint.

Outside of Naples, in a breathtaking sweep of thick aspens and elderberry trees known as Ruby Ridge, there is the mountaintop cabin owned by Randy Weaver. In 1992, Weaver, who attended Nazi meetings at the Aryan Nations compound, sold two shotguns to an undercover agent. He later failed to appear in court. Federal agents moved in, up the dense knob of land, and a disastrous encounter unfolded. Sharpshooters killed Weaver's wife and 14-year-old son. A federal marshal was fatally shot.

And finally, there are the countless others who seethe in the woods, living quietly or ticking like a time bomb, depending how you judge them.

Like Chuck Sandelin, who keeps a sign posted at the edge of his spectacular spread of land that reads, "ABSOLUTELY NO FEDERAL AGENTS ALLOWED ON THIS PROPERTY."

"Everything about today is perverted," says Sandelin, a woolly-bearded logger with piercing blue eyes. "It has to be perverted."

Why?

"Well, there's gonna be a revolution, there's gonna be blood, gal."

Sandelin calls the government a "lyin' bunch of thieves who make the people into slaves."

A spry, wiry man of 56, Sandelin posted the warning sign on his property recently when he received a phone call from the Environmental Protection Agency. A complaint had been made against him. Sandelin contends the federal government has no authority to regulate the way he operates his modest sawmill, or the way he burns his trash.

"Last time they sent a federal agent out here we had to send him home in a box," Sandelin says, gesturing behind him, toward Ruby Ridge.

What is it about Northern Idaho that attracts such individuals and organizations?

"Primarily, it's economics," says Wayne Longo, special agent for the Idaho Department of Law Enforcement. "It's a lot cheaper to live here than anywhere else. It's extremely rural. But there's also the philosophy of the Wild West. As long as you leave me alone, I don't care what you do on your 40 acres."

As the rural counties of Idaho become more populated, and with the stricter enforcement of zoning and building codes, it's getting harder for people to live undocumented or "off the grid."

But the spirit of individualism is everywhere in Idaho. Last week, a dairyman flashed a gun at a state water inspector who was trying to count the rancher's herd of cattle. In the 1992 presidential election, 27 percent of the state voted for independent candidate Ross Perot. (The national average was 19 percent.)

Northern Idaho is stinging from this image in the eyes of the nation _ at the end of every dirt road awaits a camouflaged nut, stockpiling ammo and dehydrated chipped beef, counting down the apocalypse.

On a crisp fall morning, the dirt logging road that snakes up Ruby Ridge is shaded by dense pines. Because of the curves and potholes, the going is slow. The road was widened slightly for armored vehicles during the week-long siege at Ruby Ridge, but it's still a bumpy, tight climb. Hand-lettered signs nailed to tree trunks warn "No Trespassing" or "Private Road and Bridge."

Suddenly, a gray Ford Escort edges down the narrow road. Three middle-aged women emerge from the car. They straighten their skirts before knocking on the front door of a house.

"We're Jehovah's Witnesses," says Diana Jones. "We love the ministry. It's so beautiful out here."

The ladies keep a record of which homes are occupied by survivalists, "so we don't call back and aggravate them," says Jones, pleasantly.

In one sentence, a complex Constitutional argument is distilled by this Idaho native wearing thick shoes and a sparkling smile.

"We just respect their choice, their privacy."

Popular with police

For the past 25 years, law enforcement officers from California have migrated to Northern Idaho. Some have estimated there are as many as 100 ex-LAPD cops living in a three-county area around Coeur d'Alene. They come for the fishing, the outdoors, the quiet, and because they have a built-in brethren.

No one questioned the fact that one police department _ in recent years accused of racist and brutal tactics _ would seek out a retirement community that just so happened to boast the headquarters for Aryan Nations.

Mark Fuhrman retired here and the connection was made.

The chief of police in Sandpoint practically grits his teeth at such a notion.

"People seem to think there's some deeper story, some conspiracy," says Chief Bill Kice. "Per chance an individual wants to move to Sandpoint, so what. This is a free country."

Kice left the California Highway Patrol in 1969 and joined the tiny Sandpoint police force. "I haven't been shot at in Northern Idaho, I haven't been spit at," says the 55-year-old chief, who wears Dockers to the office and lists his home phone on his business card. "This place is what America used to be about. People make eye contact. It's attractive to be away from the chaos."

There is no arguing with statistics. So far this year in the City of Los Angeles, there have been 560 homicides. The last murder in Sandpoint was in 1992.

Kice is defensive of Fuhrman.

"He's not a PC (politically correct) individual," Kice says. "Fine, neither am I. When you spend your career dealing with the bottom ten percent of a population and ignoring the rest, what does that do to your psyche? The squad room mentality will never be understood in the larger community."

A lot in common

Gail Coutts and her husband are both retired LAPD detectives who moved to Northern Idaho in 1993. They live on their combined police retirement pensions in a four-bedroom Tudor-style house on 30 acres, complete with a creek and an impenetrable solitude. No sirens. No car alarms. No gunshots. No pagers.

Coutts never imagined she'd retire at the age of 48 and give up police work. But 27 seconds of a videotape changed everything.

"After the Rodney King incident, I was so embarrassed to be a police officer," says Coutts of the 1991 notorious videotaped beating of a black suspect by several LAPD officers. "The negative publicity was a constant thing. I felt emotionally battered."

Coutts and her husband originally planned on buying a second home in Northern Idaho, but after visiting some former LAPD officers who'd retired here, they decided to leave California permanently. Right away. They joined a cluster of colleagues who often describe themselves as "refugees."

"The common denominator among us is that we like the outdoors and the lifestyle here," says Coutts. "Your ex-partner comes up, says how great it is, you find out it's great and you move here, too. It's that simple."

Coutts laughs at the suggestion that ex-cops move to Northern Idaho for its population of white separatists. "There's a lack of crime here," she says. "A lack of racial strife."

A harmony made possible by the fact that Idaho is a virtual white-out?

"It's not that I mind minorities," she says flatly. "It's that I mind crime."

When Coutts heard Mark Fuhrman had bought a house in Sandpoint, she phoned his wife to invite the Fuhrmans to a reunion for ex-LAPD officers. That was a week before the infamous transcripts were released, in which Fuhrman bragged to a screenwriter about "kill parties," where police officers celebrated police shootings and declared "there is nothing better than a good beating."

"Most real good policemen understand that they would just love to take certain people and just take them to the alley and just blow their brains out," Fuhrman said. "All gang members for one. All dope dealers for two. Pimps, three."

It's unclear whether Fuhrman was speaking from experience or cooking up cinematic scenes for the benefit of the screenwriter.

Coutts calls Fuhrman's comments the "equivalent of phone sex, pure fantasy. Nobody I've talked to believes he did that."

The Fuhrmans never showed up at the barbecue because the detective was recalled to the witness stand in the Simpson trial to explain his comments.

Just as well, according to Coutts.

"People here are not happy with him," she says. "I was appalled when I heard those tapes."

Bad publicity

Fuhrman's move to Sandpoint has been a public relations nightmare for a town that depends on tourism and real estate.

Real estate agent Debbie Furguson says that every out-of-state inquiry about real estate includes a question about white supremacists or Nazis.

"It's about the third question they ask," Ferguson says.

A task force of business and community leaders recently formed to tackle perceptions about Sandpoint.

Some in town welcome Fuhrman, like Rose Chaney, a real estate agent who sold the former detective his house earlier this year. Chaney's husband, Ron, is the mayor of Sandpoint, and the couple has become friendly with the Fuhrmans. The Chaneys have received threatening letters for publicly supporting Fuhrman.

"The gentle folks who don't want to use the n-word are not always loving," says Chaney. "They're radicals."

Chaney heard the Fuhrman tapes on CNN. "I heard Mark using crude testimony," says the 56-year-old Idaho native. "It amazed me that the defense was so deft in turning the tapes _ those fragments _ into making Mark the arch villain of the world."

Chaney says the more ex-police officers who move to her area, the better.

"The defense attorneys and news media and people going after police officers should be the ones who have to chase a guy down a dark alley, who's drugged and crazy," Chaney says. "I'd like to see that happen once or twice. Don't you want Johnnie Cochran coming in to save you?"

Chaney is getting angrier by the minute. She's tired of being painted as racist, and she's tired of outsiders trying to psychoanalyze a small town that happens to be mostly white.

"Ex-California police officers are welcome in our community," she says. "You take the gangs, and we'll take the police officers."

Fuhrman at home

Fuhrman's Victorian-style home with a stained-glass front door sits on a tidy corner lot in a middle-class neighborhood of Sandpoint, two blocks from the shore of Lake Pend Oreille. A white picket fence surrounds the house. On the bookshelves, scattered among the Tom Clancy and John Grisham hardbacks, are several framed family photos. Boxes are still waiting to be unpacked.

Fuhrman retired from the LAPD on Aug. 5, the day after his 20-year anniversary on the force. He draws a retirement pension of roughly $25,000, according to his personnel records.

Even in this majestic mountain setting in Sandpoint, it's hard to believe Fuhrman will lead the same quiet life as his neighbors on Euclid Avenue. At least not until the Simpson trial fades.

But he's trying.

Unshaven, wearing blue jeans and a baseball cap, Fuhrman stops sweeping his deck long enough to tell a reporter he is "worn out" from everything and doesn't care to talk. Just then a man comes over to shake his hand.

"Welcome," the well-wisher says, as Fuhrman leans on the fence.

The man who has become a lightning rod for the most divisive national issue in America _ race _ gently calls for his dog and his child. "Let's go inside," the former detective says, and he pulls the door closed.

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