White supremacists going to trial on terrorizing charges
CARSON, N.D. — Barring a plea agreement, a Grant County jury will decide the fate of two white supremacists charged with terrorizing residents in the small southwestern North Dakota town of Leith, a judge ruled Wednesday.
In a courtroom packed with reporters, a documentary film crew and supporters of both the accused and their alleged victims, District Judge Donald Jorgensen said the prosecution had shown probable cause for the charges to move forward against Craig Cobb and Kynan Dutton.
Cobb, 62, and Dutton, 29, then entered not guilty pleas to all seven felony counts of terrorizing against them for allegedly approaching Leith residents with loaded firearms or, in one instance, screaming obscenities at two women while Cobb wielded his cane in a threatening manner.
Five of the counts carry mandatory minimum sentences of two years in prison without parole.
Defense attorney Ryan Heintz asked the judge to dismiss the charges, saying that while Cobb’s actions may not be “what most people expect in small-town North Dakota,” they weren’t illegal.
“This is not a court of morality. This is a court of criminal action,” he said.
Dutton’s attorney, Robert Quick, sought the charges dismissed or reduced to disorderly conduct, saying there were no threats of violence made as required under the terrorizing charge.
“That’s what this behavior sounds like legally, not terrorizing,” he said.
Grant County State’s Attorney Todd Schwarz said that at the very least, the state had met the burden of showing “reckless disregard” by Cobb and Dutton in making their alleged victims fear for their lives.
Grant County Sheriff’s Deputy John Foss was the lone witness called Wednesday, testifying about the four separate incidents Nov. 15 and 16 that prompted the terrorizing charges, three of which were captured on video.
Foss said there had been “a lot of nervousness” in Leith since residents learned in August that Cobb had bought up property in the small town about 75 miles southwest of Bismarck with the intention of creating a haven for white supremacists. Dutton, his girlfriend and their kids moved in with Cobb in October.
Schwarz said all of the victims were afraid for their lives, including a man who confronted an armed Cobb and Dutton after they followed his wife home. Foss said when the man told Cobb that he could only control his own behavior, Cobb, who was in an “absolute rage” and waving around a pistol-grip shotgun, responded, “I can control mine. I’m not shooting you, am I? (Expletive) you.”
Heintz called Cobb’s statement a “flair for the dramatic,” but not a threat.
Heintz also noted that Cobb had told the sheriff’s office he was going to conduct an armed patrol of his property in Leith, prompted by some vandalism.
Spectators snickered and shook their heads at some of the defense arguments as a National Geographic documentary crew and others positioned their cameras for the best angles.
When Foss read aloud the contents of a sign that had been hung on Cobb’s property with a racial slur against African-Americans, Leith’s only black resident, Bobby Harper, loudly cleared his throat in the courtroom.
Later, when the judge ruled that the state had met its burden for the charges to go before a jury, Harper’s wife, Sherrill, quickly cupped her hands over her mouth to muffle her whimper of relief.
“It’s hard right now to keep your emotions under control,” said Bobby Harper, who lives across the alley from Cobb’s house in Leith. “I was in there just trying to be calm, and it was hard.”
Jeff Schoep, the National Socialist Movement commander whose visit to Leith last fall sparked a protest by about 300 people, said he flew in from Detroit to attend Wednesday’s preliminary hearing in support of Cobb, who deeded one of his Leith properties to Schoep. Dressed in a black leather trench coat over a pin-striped suit, Schoep said he didn’t think the state had established probable cause for the charges.
“To me, it opens up a dangerous precedent when you start saying people are afraid of this and that,” he said.
Defense attorneys asked the judge to reduce bail. Both defendants are being held at the Mercer County Jail in Stanton on cash-only bail, Cobb at $1 million and Dutton at $50,000.
Jorgensen said he will accept motions on reduced bail next week.
A date wasn’t set for the trial, which attorneys estimated will take two to three days.