When I first met Bill Morlin, he was already a legend among news reporters in the Pacific Northwest. I’ll admit I was a bit starstruck: This was the man—on paper, a simple crime reporter for the Spokane Spokesman-Review, but much more than that—who had relentlessly covered the Aryan Nations and The Order. He was the first to report on the Ruby Ridge standoff, before it was even a standoff. His journalism was not just first-rate, it was courageous and groundbreaking.
It was early April 1996, and we both had come out to the frozen windblown wasteland of eastern Montana to cover the armed standoff by the far-right Montana Freemen at a ranch near Jordan. I had only begun covering right-wing extremism as a beat; Morlin was the first reporter any of us knew who had treated it as a beat—a true pioneer.
Over the ensuing years, we became close friends. The two of us liked to joke that we were “partners in crime” for the six years we worked together for the Southern Poverty Law Centers. The harrowing nature of the work cemented the bond, but so did the many good times we had together.
We lost Bill this week at the age of 75. It’s a deeply personal loss for me and many others who knew him. But it’s a tragic loss for us all: for journalism, for the nation, and for our democracy. He was the rare journalist whose dogged reporting makes the world a better place, and we all will be poorer for it.
The winter Montana landscape in April 1996 practically invited a certain kind of camaraderie for the reporters who had come out to Jordan to cover the Freemen standoff. The daily temperatures were in the 20-degree range, and the constant wind dropped the chill another 20 degrees at least. We all were freezing our asses off, partners in icy misery.
The Freemen, some 20 people in all, were holed up on a ranch owned by one of their members, defying federal charges against eight of them for the various fraudulent schemes they had cooked up as “sovereign citizens.” The standoff had begun in late March when two of their leaders, LeRoy Schweitzer and Dan Petersen, were arrested outside the ranch by FBI agents. The confrontation, which remained peaceful throughout, would end up lasting for 81 days, the longest such federal standoff ever.
Journalists were not able to approach the ranch; the Freemen had erected a sign warning that anyone using the road past the place would be trespassing. At least two news crews—one from ABC News, another from NBC—had ignored the sign and continued on down the road and had been robbed of all their equipment by armed Freemen.
So everyone else gathered in their vehicles at a gravel-road intersection near the ranch, but outside their claimed territory, TV crews and print reporters alike. It was a barren and desolate locale, and after a few days, things became very boring. Some journalists began interviewing each other.
Morlin had no stomach for that kind of narcissistic bullshit, and instead spent his time cultivating sources and congenially hanging out with other reporters, often over a beer at Jordan’s main watering hole, the Hell Creek Bar. That gave Bill a chance to indulge in his real love, storytelling. Bill had a thousand stories from his years reporting on the far right in the Northwest, and an evening spent with him was like a riverboat journey on an endless stream of anecdotes, some hilarious, some tragic, always riveting.
I was just delighted to be there. I’d been reading his byline since the late ‘70s in the old Spokane Daily Chronicle, while I had been the 21-year-old editor of the nearby Sandpoint Daily Bee. Unlike the Chronicle, however, we had made what we thought at the time was the astute decision not to cover the recently arrived Aryan Nations compound, 40 miles south of Sandpoint in Hayden Lake. After all, we figured, these bigots just wanted publicity, and we weren’t going to give it to them, unlike those guys at the Spokane papers.
Of course, we all realized within a few years—after the region had become awash in a rising tide of hate crimes and other bigot-related criminality—that the Spokane guys had been right and the rest of us were wrong. The Aryan Nations hadn’t really give anyone a choice any longer. Pretending they weren’t there not only didn’t work, it actually encouraged them: the silence not only gave them cover for their activities, and was interpreted by them as implicit approval. Shining a spotlight on them might give them free publicity, but if done properly with full context that made their violent extremism unmistakable, it could be effective in exposing their ugliness to public view.
So sharing beers with Morlin at the Hell Creek Bar, I was a bit starstruck at first. This was the guy who had interviewed Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler multiple times, and assiduously covered the AN-based neo-Nazi terrorist group The Order in their 1984 multistate criminal rampage that included the assassination of a Denver radio personality, and culminated with the fiery death of their leader, Robert Mathews, in an FBI standoff on Whidbey Island, Washington.
Most of all, Morlin was the reporter who had spotted Randy Weaver’s weapons case in the courts and began covering it for the S-R, particularly after Weaver refused to show in court for a hearing after having been arrested once, and had holed up at his home north of Sandpoint, near Bonners Ferry. Morlin was the reporter who had looked up the home’s location on a Forest Service map and was the first to print the words “Ruby Ridge.” When the matter exploded into a lethal fiasco—another armed standoff in which Weaver’s son and wife, as well as a federal marshal, had been killed—Bill had been there to cover it every step of the way.
The Ruby Ridge standoff had been a key genesis point for the “Patriot”/militia movement that began organizing in its wake. Right-wing extremists held up the Weavers as innocent martyrs to a “New World Order” government that was raging out of control, as they told it, poised to round up all freedom-loving Americans into concentration camps. The Montana Freemen operation had become one of the many epicenters of “Patriot Movement” organizing and recruitment from 1994 to 1996, and seeing how it was resolved was a big part of the ongoing story.
But to be honest, the revelation in all this for me was that Bill Morlin wasn’t the intimidating, hard-nosed guy of his journalistic legend. He was a kind, generous, polite, and thoughtful man who was old-fashioned in many ways, but in the best ways: he had integrity, he had courage, and he had an abundance of common human decency. As a colleague, he was unhesitant to critique your work, but he always did it kindly. Also, he told great stories and had an endless sense of wry humor.
Bill remained in Jordan for the better part of a month, while I was only there for a week or so, including some time spent covering Schweitzer’s and Petersen’s court hearings in Billings. When the standoff finally ended peacefully in mid-June following months of fruitless negotiation, Bill was among the crowd of reporters watching. (I wasn’t; I returned three weeks later to interview people in Jordan and elsewhere about the aftermath.)
However, even as we were enjoying beers in Jordan, the realities of right-wing extremist violence had hit home for Morlin back in Spokane: A group of neo-Nazi terrorists calling themselves the Phineas Priesthood pipe-bombed the offices of the Spokesman-Review in retaliation for Morlin’s stories on April 1.
The Phineas Priests were a group of hardcore believers in Christian Identity—the grotesquely racist movement that was also the brand of religion at the Aryan Nations—who took their name from a book titled Vigilantes of Christendom by an ex-Klansman named Richard Kelly Hoskins. Hoskins postulated that secretly organized “Christian men” committed acts of murder intended to protect the nation from “defilers” and “usurpers” and to force the country to adhere to “God’s Laws,’’ while punishing people who violate them. Their blueprint: “Executing’’ interracial couples and homosexuals; bombing abortion clinics and “executing’’ abortion doctors; bombing civil-rights centers and “executing” civil-rights leaders and other “race mixers”; and robbing banks to finance their activities, purchase arms, and help fund the work of other radical Patriots and white supremacists.
The gang had used the bombing of the Spokesman’s offices as a distraction: Shortly after it went off, the same men pulled off an armed robbery of a nearby bank. They did the same thing when the men struck again, this time first at the local Planned Parenthood clinic, just before robbing the same bank again.
I wrote about the story in my 1999 book, In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest:
Bill Morlin has just about seen and heard it all. A veteran cops-and-courts reporter, he has been covering the radical right in the Inland Northwest since 1982. Indeed, his coverage before the standoff of the Randy Weaver affair is blamed in some circles of the Patriot movement for the gradual escalation of the conflict. And he has made numerous contacts over the years with white supremacists, partly by covering a succession of Aryan Congress events and by covering the trials of The Order members.
In the fall of 1995, Morlin was invited by a secretive militia group that offered to let him and a photographer tag along on a training session in the northern Idaho woods. Morlin and S-R photographer Dan McComb were both blindfolded by their contacts and then taken to the training area, a remote spot deep in the Panhandle forest somewhere. When the blindfolds were removed, Morlin and McComb found themselves surrounded by a group of armed men with ski masks, who proceeded to conduct military-style exercises and plunk at silhouette targets in the shape of Hillary Clinton and federal agents.
They were well-equipped, with expensive scopes on their rifles electronic sensing devices and high-tech guns. They told Morlin that they were being financed by a millionaire businessman who supported their work, and said they knew of at least three other militia units in the area, including one comprised solely of teenage boys. Getting caught with the gear was one of their biggest fears; they told Morlin that if a cop pulled them over while traveling with it, they might be inclined to open gunfire.
“We call it ‘traveling hot’,” said one of the masked men. “If we get stopped for a routine traffic incident, we’ve got to decide up front if we’re going to tolerate that. If we’ve got a fully automatic rifle or something like that, you have to be thinking, ‘If he stops me, I’m going on the offensive.’”
On the same day in December the encounter was published, Morlin also ran an interview in the Spokesman-Review with a Sandpoint-area man who had made some minor waves with his own arsenal. Charles Barbee, who operated a Ponderay body shop, and a traveling companion named Robert Berry had been pulled over in May in western Washington, near Longview, with a large arsenal: guns, silencers, night-vision goggles, stolen license plates, a high-tech global listening device, and a wealth of ammunition. The pair refused to identify themselves and stayed in jail for a month before being released eventually after federal officials decided not to file charges. Their story intrigued Morlin, who called up Barbee and asked for an interview; Barbee agreed, saying he’d “already been compromised’’ by the arrest.
Barbee, it turned out, was a regular at Dave Barley’s America’s Promise Ministries church in Sandpoint, having become an adherent of Christian Identity while he was still an AT&T employee in Florida. He told Morlin he was building an arsenal to help erect a defense against the New World Order: “We have to be ready to conduct guerrilla warfare. That’s how it will be won,’’ said. “If there’s another Ruby Ridge or Waco, we’re not going to tolerate it again. If the federal government sends in their armies to put women and children to death again, we will respond and put as many federal agents to death as possible.’’
Such a scenario did not strike Barbee as bloodthirsty. “Slaying people is not always wrong if it’s justified by God’s law,’’ he told Morlin. It all sounded like a page out of Vigilantes of Christendom.
In the months before the bombing, Morlin says he began spotting further signs that more people on the fringes of the radical right in the Northwest were picking up the Phineas Priesthood concept and adopting it. At an Aryan Nations gathering, he spotted an Aryan security officer wearing a belt buckle inscribed with the insignia of the Priesthood. Morlin and his photographer convinced the man to pose for a portrait, though all Morlin really wanted was the belt buckle. When he wrote a story about the Priesthood in the wake of the April Fool’s Day attacks, he had the belt buckle blown up from the negative and illustrated the article with it.
Fearless journalism doesn’t come without its drawbacks, however; Morlin has been threatened on occasion. And he suspected that the December stories had something to do with why the Spokesman’s plant was targeted by the bombers.
As events turned out, he was—once again—right on the money.
Indeed, the FBI eventually was able to nab the four men who comprised the gang, thanks to a $130,000 reward fund and informants who came forward to claim it. The men all were eventually tried and convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The coda:
Bill Morlin found out that his suspicions about the bombing of the newspaper’s plant were correct. The informers told the FBI that the April 1 bombing was intended to send Morlin a message, apparently for his stories of December 3. Morlin discovered this chilling little nugget when he finally got a look at federal documents released in December containing details of the informers’ stories.
“Sure, it’s a bit disturbing,” he told me afterward. But what had him most upset was the fact that he couldn’t cover the trial. Because he had interviewed Barbee beforehand, and had received letters from them, federal prosecutors decided to subpoena him to testify in the trial—which automatically disqualified him from reporting on it.
Over the ensuing years, we remained in close contact. Bill was the first person I thanked in my acknowledgements for In God’s Country; the book would not have been possible without his work. I ran into him in 2001, when we both covered the demise of the Aryan Nations following an SPLC-sponsored lawsuit by two victims who sued Butler out of business. Bill went out and got pictures when local firefighters put a torch to the place as a training exercise.
Our association, though, became much closer in 2013 when the SPLC hired both of us to write for their Hatewatch website. We were somewhat peculiar entities within the SPLC organization; in those days, the organization required everyone who worked for it to live in Montgomery, Alabama, where its offices are located. Bill and I were the only people on the Hatewatch staff who didn’t—because officially we were both contractors, not employees. (This policy has since been largely ended at the SPLC, but after both of us left at the end of 2019.)
During those years we remained in fairly constant contact, mainly because we were always bouncing stories off each other and feeding each other info from our files and tips from our contacts. We didn’t actually see each other a lot in person, mainly because we tried not to trip over each other; when the Malheur Wildlife Refuge standoff broke out in January 2016, the SPLC sent Bill to Burns, Oregon, to cover it, and I stayed home and covered it from home by monitoring the online activity related to it.
Once a year, though, the SPLC flew us both out to Montgomery to spend time with the staff and build interpersonal relationships there—though we mostly wound up spending our time there enjoying each other’s company over beers as the stories flowed from Bill’s razor-sharp memory like so many good suds. One year, we were given a guided tour of Selma (about 50 miles west of Montgomery) by a longtime SPLC staffer that was one of the more magical but somber experiences of my time there, particularly when we stopped to observe the bullet-pocked memorial to Viola Liuzzo along the highway.
After we left the SPLC in 2019—me, hired away by Daily Kos; Bill, to finally enjoy his retirement and maybe write a book—we let the connection dwindle, though we remained in regular touch by email and regularly shared contacts and the like. I kept urging him to come see me out in the San Juans, and he’d always say that sounded like a great idea, but sadly, we never made it happen.
I think Shawn Vestal really summed Bill’s impact and importance, in a commemoration in the Spokesman-Review this week, with words I wish I had written:
His reporting was a testament to the power of old-school, hit-the-pavement journalism to change communities for the better. It is impossible to imagine the ouster of the Aryan Nations in North Idaho without years and years of Morlin’s deep, detailed reporting, to cite just one example among many.
On the other hand, it is very possible, especially these days, to imagine living in a community without a Bill Morlin, where the dark side remains in the dark, and where the hard work of digging up the difficult truths just never happens, because staffs are too small or the willingness to take part in the effort isn’t there or simply because the world is not full of journalists like Bill Morlin.
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