University of Montana sociology professor Rob Balch has been in some strange social situations, so taking a handful of students up to the annual rally of the World Church of the Creator in Superior one summer was nothing unusual.
But Balch, who studies cults and hate groups, hasn't kept up with the white supremacist "Creativity Movement" that had taken root in Mineral County.
"I think they were really overrated in terms of their size and danger," Balch said, adding that the rendezvous he attended was "tiny."
"Mostly, it was people hanging out and talking and eating really bad food, like Kentucky Fried Chicken and doughnuts," Balch said. "Nothing much went on."
Other organizations tracking hate groups say the World Church of the Creator is teetering on its last legs.
"The group as an entity is certainly faltering," said Sen. Ken Toole, D-Helena, and director of the Montana Human Rights Network. "The tradition of the hate movement is very ebb and flow."
Matt Hale, the group's Pontifex Maxiumus or supreme leader, was arrested in January 2003 for allegedly soliciting the murder of a federal judge who ruled against the group in a trademark infringement case. He was denied bail and is awaiting an April 6 trial in a Chicago jail cell.
A federal grand jury is also investigating whether Hale encouraged or ordered church member Benjamin Smith to go on a shooting spree of minorities in Chicago in 1999, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports. Smith killed two people and injured eight others before taking his own life.
Hale's arrest and other events have likely dealt a death blow to the movement, experts say.
Dan Hassett of Missoula left the group in late 2002, citing his disappointment with members as well as the leader's "extreme" behavior.
"I don't believe in creativity anymore," Hassett said. "And the membership attracted a low caliber of people. And I wouldn't want to be associated with that."
Another member of the movement, Fred Poloson of Plains, recently died.
And "Carl" defected late last year, taking with him $41,000 worth of books written by the group's founder and boxes of internal church documents and e-mails. Carl, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, sold the books to the Montana Human Rights Network for $300. He turned numerous documents and e-mails over to the network, which monitors hate groups.
Experts say the movement has been on the brink of disaster before, only to recover.
"The World Church of the Creator very nearly collapsed once before in 1992 after its founder, Ben Klassen, committed suicide," said Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report, a quarterly investigative magazine the Southern Poverty Law Center publishes on the American radical right. "Really what allowed the group to come back to life was the store of old Klassen books."
But Carl made sure that won't happen. The books he turned over to the Human Rights Network sold for about $10 apiece and served as the movement's main source of income.
Now, those 4,100 books are being turned into a public art exhibit, but the network just wanted to remove them from circulation, Toole said.
"That theft sure as hell didn't do us any good," said Slim Deardorff, one of two remaining members of the group.
Dane Hall of California, the leader of the Montana faction, admits in the group's most recent newsletter that the movement now consists of "mainly" Deardorff and himself. He pleads with readers to send checks or money orders, made out to him.
Deardorff, who won't say how many group members remain, said he's "doing all the work" to keep the group alive. From his decrepit trailer near Superior, he sends out newsletters several times a year.
"I'm hoping we can wake enough people up to ensure the survival of the white race," Deardorff said. "If we have to fight for the survival of our race, we'll do it."
Deardorff, sitting on his thin bed in a stained white T-shirt and picking dirt from his toenails, doesn't look like he can steadily hold the gun he constantly wears on his hip.
"At the rate we're going, the white race is going to be extinct," Deardorff said, shoving his feet into his boots.
Carl, who defected from the group as it fell into disarray late last year, didn't exactly leave because he changed his mind about race. Carl said he still thinks Jews control the government and he doesn't want much to do with minorities.
"I've found the blacks a lot more hateful than me," Carl said, adding that his racist views were cemented during his stints in prison.
He left the group because it fell apart.
"I was just tired of the bulls-t," Carl said. "Everyone seems to be in it for themselves."
Carl said he won't be joining any of the growing racist groups - such as the National Alliance - for several reasons, including fear for his life. The creators are upset that Carl made off with the books and have posted his name, vehicle description and other identifying characteristics on Web sites.
Law enforcement officials say Carl could be in danger. The Creators' latest newsletter called Carl a thief and said his "grand theft" delivered a "devastating setback" to the movement.
"Any info on the whereabouts of the thief and our books would be appreciated," Hall wrote in the publication.
Hassett of Missoula also said he's not joining any new racist groups.
"I'm not a member of any group," Hassett said. "I'm not involved in any movement, period. I'm trying to live like a normal guy."
As for Carl, he's pulling up stakes in the RV park he's called home for the last several months and has plans to move out of state. When asked what he plans to do with the rest of his life, his eyes grow large, his eyebrows shoot up and he shrugs.
"I'm kind of befuddled right now," Carl said. "But I'm a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. I'm gonna find someplace I feel comfortable."
Editor's note: This is the second part in a two-day series about the downfall of the World Church of the Creator in Montana. To read the first article in the series, click here.