The North Dakota town that thwarted a neo-Nazi takeover
- 15 January 2014
- From the section Magazine
Bobby Harper remembers thinking there was something strange about his new neighbour in the tiny rural community of Leith, North Dakota, when they first met.
It was a warm dusk in autumn 2012 on the sleepy town's main road, a gravel path that curls away through wheat fields to the vast Great Plains sky.
"He said, 'hey, do you have any land for sale?'" recalls Harper, the town's sole black resident. "And I said, 'no'.
"He wouldn't quite turn around, so I could see his face and I thought that was kind of strange."
Little did Harper or any other resident suspect, but the newcomer was Craig Cobb, a notorious neo-Nazi.
He had been quietly snapping up homes in the town since April that year, with the intention of turning it into a white separatists' enclave called Cobbsville.
For the barely 20 inhabitants of Leith, it was the beginning of a nightmare that is still not over.
Cobb, the son of a multi-millionaire businessman, was fleeing allegations of inciting hatred in Canada when he made his way over the border into North Dakota early in 2012.
The 62-year-old's plans for Leith were exposed in August last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organisation.
It published a report detailing his acquisition of about a dozen cheap plots of land in the town, which lies 50 miles (80km) south-west of the state capital, Bismarck.
Harper's wife, Sherrill, a 59-year-old homemaker, says: "I felt this was surreal. Leith, this little, teensy town. This man had these big plans to take it over.
"And because I was a white woman married to an African-American man, they wouldn't want us here."
After his scheme was exposed, Cobb began flying Nazi flags from his ramshackle, two-storey home.
In a part of the country where many people are of German and Russian ancestry, the swastika is something residents neither want to forget, nor especially be reminded of.
Cobb, meanwhile, began handing out property deeds to some of the American far-right's most prominent figures, urging them to settle in Leith and help him seize a voting majority.
In September, Sherrill Harper received a letter which urged her to join Cobb's movement. It said: "What are you doing 'married' to a Negro?"
Later that month, a small group of members of the National Socialist Movement, formerly the American Nazi Party, travelled to Leith at Cobb's invitation to stage a far-right jamboree.
They were greatly outnumbered by counter-demonstrators, many from the nearby Indian reservation.
- National Socialist Movement: Founded in 1994, it is one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, with chapters in more than 30 states
- Council of Conservative Citizens: Founded 1985, sprung from the pro-segregation movement in the southern states
- American Freedom Party: Founded 2009, with origins in California. Has a racist agenda and is against immigration
- Klan groups: Dating back to post-American Civil War era, they are active in most US states and may have more than 5,000 members
Bobby Harper, a 53-year-old welder, says: "Things were so in turmoil that we considered getting rid of the town, just letting Cobb take over."
But his wife adds: "I really believe he thought the people of Leith would roll over and play dead. And I think he was very surprised when that's not what happened."
The town's fight-back began with a website to publicise its predicament, along with a legal defence fund.
Gregory Bruce, who set up the portal, said: "The impact on Leith is it's pretty much destroyed everyone's peaceful life.
"It's caused them to feel very frightened by just one man. He's even threatened to bring [former] prisoners here from different states. It's a zoo. We call it a circus of freaks."
Self-proclaimed skinhead Kynan Dutton, 29, and his girlfriend Deborah Henderson, 33, answered Cobb's rallying call.
They moved to Leith in early October from the state of Oregon.
Later that month, police were called to eject a drunken Dutton from a town-hall meeting after he launched into a racist, foul-mouthed rant.
Sherrill Harper remembers that scene - a recording of which shows Dutton making a Nazi salute and shouting: "Sieg heil" - as a turning point.
She says: "I thought, 'these are the kinds of people that are going to take over our town?' This is not what I wanted."
On 16 November, Cobb and Dutton swaggered through the town carrying shotguns and shouting obscenities. Alarmed residents called the police.
Both men are now in custody, each facing seven felony terrorism charges and, if convicted, between 10 and 35 years in prison.
On Wednesday, Cobb and Dutton pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.
The town, meanwhile, hired a lawyer to issue citations forcing Cobb to upgrade his home, which has no running water or sewer.
His house has been declared legally unfit for habitation and two other properties he bought are earmarked for demolition.
Henderson was the last remaining Cobb ally in Leith until she recently left the town.
The BBC spoke to her shortly before she moved away.
As she stood sobbing outside Cobb's dilapidated home, where she was living with her three young daughters, she cut a lonely figure.
But then Henderson started praising the White Man's Bible, a stridently anti-Semitic, racist screed.
She told an anti-parable about a pioneer-era mother who finds a rattlesnake under her child's bed in their frontier log cabin.
When asked what the serpent might represent, she suggested: "Multiculturalism."
"I definitely like and support things that are good for the white race," she said.
Of her African-American neighbour: "I'm honestly thankful that there's only one. I know that sounds rude."
In a brief telephone interview from Mercer County jail in North Dakota, Cobb told the BBC he had moved to North Dakota because it was "one of the last Aryan bastions" in the US. The thinly populated state is 90% white, according to census data.
Cobb spent much of the interview discussing his belief that there is a conspiracy to breed the white race out of existence.
But he defended his vision for Leith as his "right to free associate", while arguing that the state is stopping him practising his "religion of racial awareness".
Tom Metzger, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who was given a property in Leith by Cobb, says the attempted takeover of the town has failed.
The 75-year-old, of Warsaw, Indiana, told the BBC: "Craig got carried away.
"I warned him not to bring in the Hollywood-style Nazis, or everyone would go crazy. And that's exactly what's happened."
Still, the people of Leith are not complacent.
"Just because Cobb's in jail, this isn't over," says Sherrill Harper.
"I still pray his plans are defeated."
Video by Anna Bressanin