KALISPELL — Last month, when a Kalispell-based white supremacist publicly announced his intention to assemble a citizens' grand jury and indict a human rights group, the spotlight swiveled once again onto the Flathead Valley's burgeoning camp of political extremists.
Members of the region's mainstream faith community have frequently taken the lead in mincing the influence of radicals searching for a platform here, and say the actions and ideologies of the groups do not define northwestern Montana.
But the growing association has raised eyebrows among groups monitoring the situation, and which report an uptick in extremist activity in recent years.
Travis McAdam, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said the Flathead Valley's white supremacist and anti-government movements have been reinvigorated by drawing nationally recognized members who actively recruit others to the region.
"The Flathead is one of the places where we have seen a real increase in activity over the past couple of years, and one of the reasons is that you have quite a few people with status and profile in the national movements," he said.
McAdam was the recent recipient of a letter written by local white supremacist Karl Gharst, who says he intends to convene a citizens' grand jury in Kalispell to indict members of the Montana Human Rights Network, which he characterized as "a Jewish criminal organization" and an "enemy of the state of Montana."
"It can be proven that this organization, often using the acronym 'MHRN,' is a Jewish Defamation Organization and operates within the Jewish terrorist networks," Gharst wrote.
McAdam said he was initially dismissive of Gharst's letter, but notified state and federal law enforcement after considering the man's reputation.
"The claims are so ridiculous they would be funny if we weren't dealing with someone like Karl Gharst," McAdam said.
Gharst has identified himself with a group called Kalispell Pioneer Little Europe, which is dedicated to encouraging white nationalists to move to the Flathead because of its high concentration of Caucasians. Members of the group post job openings and housing information on the white nationalist website, Stormfront.org, in hopes of enticing others to the valley.
One of the most prominent members of the movement is Kalispell resident April Gaede, who uses her blogs and other Internet forums to promote "the immigration of racially conscious whites who want to leave multicultural areas (known as white flight) into NW Montana," according to one recent post.
Gaede has also recently posted demographic reports showing Kalispell's high Caucasian population, and a photograph of white bodies sunbathing on a local beach. The caption reads, "This is how white our beaches are, and I am not talking sand."
Gaede's efforts to recruit other like-minded white nationalists to Kalispell has had limited success, McAdam said, but it is still cause for concern.
The MHRN reports a core group of about 20 "pretty committed white supremacist activists" in the Flathead Valley, McAdam said, but online message boards reflect a growing interest in the movement that Gaede, who could not be reached by the Missoulian, promotes.
"I don't think there has been a lot of success recruiting droves and droves of people to relocate, but we have documented four or five people who, through various online forums, attributed their move to April Gaede," he said.
Gaede moved to Montana from California in 2006 and wrote online about her desire to escape the "mud invasion." At that time, Gaede and her twin daughters, Lamb and Lynx Gaede, had already gained notoriety by forming the white nationalist pop duo Prussian Blue.
"This is somebody who had a national profile in the white supremacist movement before moving to Montana, and she brought that profile with her," McAdam said. "So when she is online advertising Kalispell as a good place to live, and circulating housing options and employment options, people listen to her. She has some power, and that is a concern to us."
McAdam said Gaede tends to have better success than Gharst in that her message has broader appeal, while Gharst's tends to be so extreme it repels some people, or causes schisms within the movement.
Gharst, who declined comment for this story, has a long history with Aryan Nations. In 2003 while living in north Idaho, he was one of two Aryan Nations members who ran for city council in Hayden, while the group's leader, Richard Butler, ran for mayor. All three lost.
In 2004 while living in Kalispell, Gharst was charged with a felony offense for making threats against a social worker at the state Department of Health and Human Services who was involved with the removal of his children.
Flathead County District Court records describing the charge state that Gharst is "a self-admitted member of the Aryan Nations and a white supremacist" who has "made numerous threats and racial comments to DPHHS staff." In separate incidents, Gharst called the social worker a "mongrel" and a "wild savage from the Flathead Indian Reservation," and threatened her by saying "you'd better watch yourself," records state.
He served a five-month sentence in the Flathead County Detention Center, but has since remained active as an organizer of white supremacist events.
Last spring, Gharst showed a pair of films at the Kalispell library that questioned whether the Holocaust occurred and glorified Nazis, both of which prompted large demonstrations by members of the local faith community.
Rabbi Allen Secher of the Beth Harim Jewish community said the messages propagated by Gharst are an anomaly.
"The Flathead Valley has never been about hate. Love lives here," Secher said. "What we have experienced as Jews here is that the Flathead opens its arms and says, 'We're with you. We are not standing in opposition. You are part of our brotherhood.' "
As an example, Secher referred to Gharst's March 2010 screening of "The Holocaust Debate," which coincided with the Jewish holiday of Passover. Realizing the Jewish community would be observing the holiday and unable to demonstrate at the screening, the Christian community turned out in goodly numbers.
"Eighty-one people showed up that night to support the Jewish community because we couldn't be there," Secher said. "Their message was 'love lives here.' "
The demonstration at the film screening was organized by Darryl Kistler, pastor of the Community Congregational Church in Kalispell. Kistler said he and his congregation debated about whether to respond at all, because they didn't want to incite or provoke anger, or inadvertently validate Gharst's message.
Kistler responded after deciding that Gharst's rhetoric had the potential to become violent.
"We take (Gharst's) rhetoric with a certain amount of gravitas because he has acted on it. When the rhetoric gets to a point where it endangers the community, it has been my experience that the valley stands up," Kistler said. "We are poised to respond to any message of hate or threat of violence that arises, and it just so happens that the message has recently been wrapped in a white supremacist ideology."
But Kistler said there's not a mass movement of political extremists descending on the Flathead Valley, despite the Internet outreach efforts.
"This does not represent 98 percent of the valley," he said.