Violence escalates in West against federal employees MOURNING IN OKLAHOMA

April 25, 1995|By New York Times News Service

SEATTLE, Wash. -- Three weeks before the explosion in Oklahoma City, a bomb blew out windows and ripped open a hole inside the Forest Service office in Carson City, Nev.

In Montana that week, a self-styled citizen's militia leader directed threats at several public officials: "There cannot be a cleansing without the shedding of blood."

At least two judges say they fear for their lives.

And in Idaho, some federal agencies have virtually stopped performing some of their duties, fearing violence from a handful of people who have made the government their No. 1 enemy. To wear a uniform of the federal government in some counties is now seen as wearing a target.

Little noticed outside the West, this wave of violence, intimidation and threats against anyone associated with government has been building in a half-dozen states for more than a year.

Officials are reluctant to call it a concerted effort. In some cases, the threats consist of vows by county officials to arrest federal employees who enforce laws governing public lands. But there have also been outright calls to arms from home-grown militia leaders and from assorted men prone to violence who have always chafed at authority, government employees say.

The level of intimidation is such that the Forest Service and other land agencies recently sent out guidelines urging employees to travel in pairs, to always stay in radio contact and to work closer with local law-enforcement agencies.

"We've stopped doing road maintenance in one county because of concern about safety of the lives of the crews," said Jim Nelson, supervisor of the Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada. No one has been arrested for the bombing in Nevada, which happened in an office in Mr. Nelson's district.

People who monitor forest health and do such things as count fish have been issued wallet-sized cards with the phone number of the United States attorney "in case you are arrested for carrying out your duties on public lands," as the form accompanying the card says.

"People are scared and nervous," said Joe Kelly, a biologist with the Federal Bureau of Land Management in central Washington State. "They told us to watch our backs and not to resist if confronted."

In Nevada, and in about 30 counties elsewhere in the West, some local officials have said they will arrest federal employees if they get in the way of plans by ranchers, miners and others to assert control over public lands.

Also in Nevada, a phone message left in a Nevada Forest Service office a few days after the Carson City blast -- a caller said, "You're next."

In Idaho and central Oregon, there have been physical confrontations in which public employees have had guns pointed at them.

The hatred directed at federal officials, according to those who have been threatened, has been fanned by a handful of rural talk-radio hosts, by people writing in newsletters and by computer bulletin boards which equate the government with an occupying army.

Initially, many public employees dismissed such talk as rabble from isolated cranks. But in recent months, some say they have found it increasingly hard to do their jobs, as opponents of the government have become emboldened.

The bombing in Oklahoma City, directed as it was against many of the federal agencies which are most vilified in pockets of the West and Midwest, confirmed the worst fears of some government employees.

"It has become really hard to be a federal employee out here," said John Freemuth, a professor of political science and public administration at Boise State University in Idaho, who works with the employees of several large federal agencies.

"They feel intimidated, isolated, demoralized," he said. "They wonder how they became the bad guys."

It is in Idaho, near the town of Kamiah, that James (Bo) Gritz, a longtime leader of anti-government movements, has set up a community of armed "Christian Patriots" called Almost Heaven.

He has openly challenged federal officials to a fight, but they have steered clear of him, saying he has done nothing illegal.

After the Oklahoma City blast, Mr. Gritz, speaking to some followers, said the explosion in the federal building was "a Rembrandt -- a masterpiece of science and art put together." He could not be reached yesterday for elaboration on the comment.

Also in Idaho, a militia leader, Samuel Sherwood, was quoted on March 10 as saying, "Some Idaho lawmakers may betray Idaho and cling to Washington, D.C., hence the need to shoot them. Go up and look legislators in the face because some day you may have to blow it off."

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