Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Oct. 26, 2021

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Concerns about ex-comic starting a ‘Ruby-Ridge-style compound’ roil Boundary County

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GOOD GRIEF, Idaho — Glen Oakes took a ride on his four-wheeler to the dead end of Earl Lane Road in northern Boundary County on Wednesday morning to do something many of his neighbors have been reluctant to do: Welcome the new occupants of a recently purchased 10-acre parcel along the Moyie River.

“I read that people up here were up in arms,” Oakes explained, “and I don’t think that’s the case.”

While Oakes certainly isn’t alone in his openness to the new arrivals — three other self-described neighbors were in his Wednesday welcome party — many in Boundary County are wary of the group preparing to build on the undeveloped land.

For some, those concerns have to do with the extremism of the man who leads that group: Owen Benjamin, a one-time comic who had a supporting part in the 2008 Playboy-related movie “The House Bunny”; who is perhaps best-known for a brief engagement to actress Christina Ricci, his co-star in the 2009 romantic comedy “All’s Faire in Love”; whose career tanked as his act became increasingly racist and anti-Semitic; and who has since fashioned himself as the leader of an alt-right group of so-called “Unbearables” whose guiding principle appears to be allegiance to Benjamin.

For others who live nearby, the concern is primarily about large numbers of people flocking to the remote parcel.

Many are concerned about the combination of both factors.

In a series of videos posted online, Benjamin has described the property to his fans, who often use bear-related internet handles, as a real-life gathering place for what so far has been primarily an internet community.

But what he actually plans to do with the land — which has been referred to variously as Ursa Rio, the Bearteria Sanctuary and The Great Bear Trail — is unclear.

In some videos, Benjamin describes it as a peaceful place to commune with nature, fish, learn to hunt, and otherwise form community and get back to the land.

Elsewhere, however, he has touted the parcel as a place where a paramilitary force will defend itself against the dark forces of modernity.

In one social media post provided to Boundary County commissioners and shared with The Spokesman-Review, those promoting the project — and asking for minimum $400 contributions to fund it — invoked creating a “new Ruby-Ridge-style compound” and that it would be “the beautiful dream bear village Owen promised us.”

Terry Auten, who sold the land to Struggle Bear LLC, cited this post in an April letter to a county planning and zoning official that sought to raise a red flag about the “potential unpleasant outcome” of the group’s presence. Apparently regretting the sale, he said would “do everything” he could “to prevent” a negative result, he wrote.

Last week, a group of neighbors joined that effort, appearing before the county’s Board of Commissioners to raise concerns about whether the group was violating zoning and other land-use laws.

But as those complaints work their way through the official process, the group appears to be moving forward with its plans for the property.

Only one person was there Wednesday to meet Oakes and his fellow neighbors, and he declined a request to speak with a reporter. But the parcel looked like it was being prepared to host a larger group. Several portable toilets, a U-Haul trailer, an enclosed hunting tent, an open party tent and stacks of lumber occupied the land. Benjamin has also discussed his plans in livestreams.

In one online video, Benjamin and a guest calling himself “Jimbob” discussed work underway to clear a “tremendous amount” of the land and to dig and pour foundations for buildings. Elsewhere, Benjamin has claimed he bought 40 cords of wood and 2,000 bags of cement and would be “hauling up buckets” of water from the Moyie River to “hand mix and pour cement” as part of a plan to build “stone cabins.”

While it remains to be seen what exactly Benjamin and his followers will do on the land, Oakes, the neighbor, vowed to keep an open mind.

He said it was simple North Idaho neighborliness to do so, and that to behave otherwise would be “mean and nasty.”

And as a fellow neighbor urged him to stop speaking with a journalist, Oakes objected.

“We’re nice to everybody,” he said, “even reporters.”

But Benjamin and his fans haven’t taken the same approach.

Blowback

After a four-year stint in the Army, Mike Weland turned to journalism, eventually landing in Boundary County in the 1980s. He has spent more than 30 years at a series of small daily and weekly newspapers in Bonners Ferry, some of which he owned himself and some of which no longer exist.

The latest venue for his reporting is the Kootenai Valley Times, a web-only outlet where he is the publisher and sole reporter covering an expansive area that spans Boundary County and the northwest corner of Montana.

Much of what he covers are the day-to-day occurrences of his small community, but he has also reported on some of the big stories in North Idaho, including Ruby Ridge.

He spent time at Randy Weaver’s compound before and even during law enforcement’s deadly 11-day siege of the property, he said, so Weland is no stranger to extremism in Boundary County. He is also no stranger to the usual pushback journalists receive from their subjects and readers.

When he heard rumors about the concerns on Earl Lane Road, Weland said he initially “didn’t really pay much attention to it, because around here that’s not that far out of the ordinary.”

But when the complaints landed on the agenda of the county commissioners last week, Weland decided it was worth a story. The result was an article that spelled out some of Benjamin’s background, the nature of the neighbors’ complaints and claims about a connection to a nearby firearms training business called Verrett’s Tactical.

While Weland “expected a little blowback,” he wasn’t prepared for what he says happened next: Two men showed up at his house, where he also works, and claimed to be a camera crew working with Benjamin.

Though he said they were initially “polite,” they soon began to harangue him for supposedly ruining Benjamin’s life and for publishing slander and libel. Then their attacks turned personal. They claimed an earring Weland wears — a token of his sobriety gifted from a friend — was in fact “a symbol of pedophilia.”

He kicked the visitors out, but in a subsequent video posted online Benjamin mocked Weland at length, referring to him as “the pedophile guy in the wheelchair.”

Though he quickly appended an “alleged” to the charge of pedophilia, Benjamin noted, “I learned that if you say ‘alleged’ you can saying anything about anyone.”

He then went on to mock Weland for having a house “filled with wheelchair ramps” and for living in what he described as a “HUD house.”

Within minutes, though, he advised his listeners to avoid sarcasm and “to comment back with love” to anyone criticizing the group.

These kinds of destabilizing contradictions are characteristic of Benjamin’s seemingly endless online rantings, where he will deny even being right-wing just before saying “much love to my Aryan Nations friends out there,” as he does in the same video.

Benjamin’s repeated claims that his often racist, anti-Semitic and conspiracy-laden statements are simply an edgy form of comedy and that he is a victim of a biased, liberal media don’t hold up, according to Weland.

“If that’s his idea of joking around and being funny, no wonder his comedy career crashed,” Weland said.

And Weland said there’s a serious side to the kind of attack Benjamin and his fans have lobbed against him: They help prove that it’s not merely kidding around, that the intent is to silence and intimidate anyone who disagrees with him.

“It’s very rare when the accused makes the case so eloquently for accusers,” Weland said.

But the threat appears to him very different than that posed by Weaver.

Weland believes Benjamin is a “con man” with “cult-like” plans who is aiming to “take advantage of the live-and-let-live attitude of people around here” and to “horn in” on the broader movement that views North Idaho as a haven for the “Redoubt” — a place for militant Christian “preppers” to settle and defend themselves when the whole country falls apart under the forces of liberalism.

“I think what surprises me more than anything is how many people in the community don’t see anything amiss about him,” Weland said. “I think that would open the door to something this community does not want.”

Redoubt

But like any community, the residents of North Idaho don’t always agree about what they want.

Todd Savage, for one, welcomes Benjamin to the area, saying he “is a passionate freedom-loving, natural man of this planet and in my eyes is a wonderful husband, father and leader of his family.”

Savage is a local Realtor who owns a pair of real estate agencies: Black Rifle Real Estate, which is a self-described “PATRIOTS ONLY real estate firm,” and American Redoubt, which handled the sale of the property at 775 Earl Lane Road to Struggle Bear LLC.

While Savage declined to state the cost of the land, it was listed in August for $179,000.

Savage, who insisted in an emailed response to questions that he was answering in his capacity as “a private citizen of the United States of America and under the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and not as a real estate broker or representing any licensed firm in anyway,” said he views Benjamin’s plans for the land as being innocuous.

Savage wrote that he envisions it as a “place for folks to come and learn about living a sustainable lifestyle and passing those lessons on to their children and future generations.” The lessons, he continued, would include “(a)spects of rural living such as the proper harvesting/use of water, organic food production, alternative energy, animal husbandry and creating an environment of freedom on the land.”

Asked about Benjamin’s history of controversial statements, Savage wrote, “First, Owen is a comedian. Folks may not like his comedy and are free to dislike it. In my personal discussions with Owen, he has never made any racist or anti-Semitic statements that I can recall. I’m too busy to watch any of his online comedy streams.”

But Benjamin’s online streams aren’t always comedic.

In some recent videos, Benjamin has touted the benefits of the Earl Lane Road property to his fans, repeatedly vowing that there will be a gun range, saying that there will be “a whole thing where we teach kids how to shoot” and stating that “we’d live near VerTac Tactical, so we’d be safe as bugs in a rug. I mean, I’d have my own private paramilitary force, which is always a good thing.”

Brandon Verrett, owner of Verrett’s Tactical, which is also known as VerTac Firearms Training, said Benjamin’s statements about his business were taken out of context and do not reflect reality.

“The ‘Paramilitary’ Statements are clearly satirical in nature because there is no actual paramilitary in reality,” Verrett wrote in an emailed response to questions. “There were never any plans or discussions in regards to VerTac being hosted on the Earl Ln property.”

But Verrett allowed that he and Benjamin did become “buddies” after he filmed a pilot episode for a show that never materialized and that he has trained some of Benjamin’s fans.

Verrett also pushed back on the notion that people should take seriously Benjamin’s racist and anti-Semitic statements.

“I don’t understand how people who grew up in an age with South Park and Family Guy can be so outraged at comedy,” Verrett wrote.

‘Confusing effect’

Amy Herzfeld-Copple, deputy director of programs at the Western States Center, which works to make democracy more inclusive, says there’s a very good reason that people are outraged about Benjamin’s brand of comedy.

She said it’s a “common tactic” of extremists to defend their violent, racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric that allows them to “ distract and deflect.”

The approach, she said, “has a confusing effect on community members.”

But Herzfeld-Copple argues that there’s nothing funny about Benjamin’s comments.

“Owen Benjamin has a long history of violent rhetoric and racist statements, including Holocaust denial, praise of Hitler and other anti-Semitic remarks,” she said.

She noted that he has been banned from YouTube and many social media platforms and that his move from the web to a physical piece of land is “worrying,” as it “can attract people” who are able to escalate to violence.

Already, she said, his attack on local reporters is the kind of action that can “have a chilling effect on local” democratic practices and institutions.

And while Herzfeld-Copple said “it is part of a painful history of a small group of anti-democratic actors trying to create a white homeland” in the area, she also said the problem is “not unique to Idaho.”

But the perception that Idaho — and North Idaho, in particular — is conducive to extremism has real consequences, according to Darrell Kerby, a Bonners Ferry native who became mayor and served for 28 years in elected office.

And while he has never met Benjamin and acknowledges he doesn’t know his intentions, Kerby said he’s concerned that the group’s presence is an outcome of the broader misperception about Boundary County as a lawless haven for the Redoubt movement.

Fueled in part by what he called the tragedy of Ruby Ridge, Kerby said the “rumors or legends have become way bigger than the facts.”

Benjamin appeared to harbor such a distorted view of North Idaho in one video, where he describes the land as a place for a private club in a part of the county where “there’s no … ordinances, there’s no laws.”

“It’s a place where we can do what we want,” he continued. “Because if you have more than 10 acres in Idaho, there’s no ordinances.”

He also suggested he would have pull with those in power.

“It’s in an area where I know like sheriffs and mayors and stuff,” he said.

Efforts to reach Boundary County commissioners and other local officials unsuccessful.

But Kerby said those operating under the premise that radicals are welcome are mistaken.

“It would be the wrong impression that Boundary County is open to extremist activity that would lend itself to the breaking of any law,” he said. “People here are very peaceful and accepting. But if that peacefulness and accepting nature is abused, people here are quick to react.”

Kerby pointed out that Boundary County is home to a wide a range of not only local but also federal law enforcement, including those working for U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Forest Service.

He also noted Earl Lane Road is named after former Boundary County Sheriff Earl Lane.

“If they think they can come to Boundary County and be out of sight of law enforcement, they’ve come to the completely wrong location,” he said. “You’re not invisible here.”

But Benjamin’s almost constant livestreaming suggests he doesn’t want to disappear. As for what he does want, that remains hard to pin down.

Weland, though, believes the community has already gotten a preview of what’s coming.

“For him to attack like he did, it’s beyond the pale,” Weland said. “And if he’ll do it to me, he’ll do it to others.”

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