McFeely: Kulm waits to see if white supremacist Gordon Winrod is coming to town
The concern in Kulm, N.D., began with a Facebook post from Shannon Maresh, the granddaughter of white supremacist Gordon Winrod. Maresh, formerly Shannon Leppert, wrote that her grandfather was "setting up shop" in the old Kulm school.
"We are all 'blood sucking Jews,' whatever that means. The point is, he and his followers fully believe that if you aren't one of them, it is not wrong to steal, cheat, lie, or kill you. ... The man is a predator and his followers are dangerous," Maresh wrote on Tuesday, Aug. 15.
And so started a swirling of texts, phone calls, e-mails and rumors in the town of about 350 southwest of Jamestown that Winrod was moving into Kulm and questions about what should be done about it.
The biggest question remains, however: Is Winrod actually moving into the school building? Nobody seems to know for sure, although it is known Winrod's daughter Laura Leppert, and her husband Sam, purchased the old school building at an auction this summer for about $5,000. That information was confirmed by Kulm school superintendent Tami Kramlich.
Beyond that, there isn't much information. Kramlich said she didn't know Laura Leppert, nor did she know about the connection to Winrod, when the building was sold.
"Now there's fear and panic happening and we don't really know what's going to happen," Kramlich said.
The alarm stems from the story of Winrod. He's a white supremacist preacher from Missouri who kidnapped six of his grandchildren from the Kulm and Edgeley area in 1994 and 1995. Winrod took them to his farm in rural Ozark County, Mo., and kept them hidden until 2000, even though law enforcement always suspected he had abducted them. Law enforcement raided the farm and arrested Winrod, but it took officers several days to coax the children—then ages 9 to 16—from a secret bunker.
The children had been brainwashed, authorities said. They'd been told to shoot law enforcement with a pistol, according to testimony given by Maresh's sister, Erika.
Maresh was the only one of her siblings to not be taken by Winrod. Maresh's mother served time in prison in North Dakota for aiding the kidnapping. It was a horrifying ordeal that tore apart the Leppert family and terrorized some citizens in LaMoure County. Winrod, now 90, was released from prison in 2012 after serving 10 years of a 30-year sentence.
"I want people in the community and state to know what's happening," Maresh said in a phone interview when asked why she made the Facebook post. "I don't want what happened to my family to happen to other families. I want to prevent that from happening to anybody else."
Maresh, who now lives in Glencoe, Minn., said she's talked with a relative who said Winrod is living with Sam and Laura Leppert in rural LaMoure County. A phone message left for the Lepperts was not immediately returned.
Maresh said she was told Winrod and the Lepperts are going to start a church—"a cult, in my mind"—in the old building.
But nobody in Kulm can confirm that. Mayor Tony Buerkley didn't return multiple phone messages. City councilman Dale Gackle said Wednesday he doesn't have information on whether Winrod is moving into the school. LaMoure County Sheriff Bob Fernandes said he's received several phone calls alerting him to Maresh's Facebook post, but that's all the information he had.
"The only thing I can say is that on Sunday when we drove past the school there was a bunch of cars parked outside with out-of-state plates. We thought, 'That's kind of odd,'" Gackle said. "But that's the only indication something might be going on."
Kramlich said she gave Laura Leppert a tour of the school after the auction and asked what was planned for the building.
"She said, 'Oh, it would be a fun meeting place. Maybe some shops. We have lots of ideas,'" Kramlich said.
"There are a number of people who are concerned that I've heard from," Kramlich continued. "I just hope that people keep clear heads and not jump to conclusions. The facts as we know them are that we sold it to Sam and Laura Leppert and what they are going to do with it, we don't know. We don't want to overreact. But if that is what ends up coming to our community, that's going to be really sad."
Said Gackle: "I got a text today that said, 'Can we condemn the building?' It's too late for that. We'll have to wait and see what happens. We just don't know."