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Will Kulm, N.D., school host a cult?

A gravel road is seen outside of Kulm, N.D., in 2003. Forum News Service file photo

The recent news of Sam and Laura (Winrod) Leppert buying a vacated school building in Kulm, N.D., brought back memories for me. Laura is a daughter of cult leader Gordon Winrod. Some residents in that town of about 350 worry about a cult starting up there.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I was the ag reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. On Sept. 22, 1996, the Forum published my story: "Under Siege: Cult makes family's life a living hell." It was three full pages and described how the farming Leppert family of Dickey, N.D., became embroiled in the Winrod family in Missouri.

The anti-semitic Winrod had been defrocked minister by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He started his own Our Savior's Christian Church and gained fame for denying Jesus was a Jew and for urging Christians toward violent opposition to Jews.

In 1978, the Roger and Delores Leppert family from Dickey, N.D., traveled to Missouri to meet with Winrod, who was using his radio program to encourage homeschooling,

Roger's sister, Inez Leppert, a single aunt and former American Lutheran Church medical missionary, encouraged romances between the Lepperts' five sons and Winrod's five daughters. One time the Lepperts traveled to meet Winrod with Gordon Kahl, the Heaton, N.D., mechanic and farmer. (Kahl in February 1983 led a deadly Posse Comitatus face-off with U.S. Marshals that killed two marshals at Medina, N.D. Inez attended Christian Constitution Party meetings at the Medina medical clinic of Dr. Clarence Martin, which the marshals were staking out. Inez attended the meeting the day of the stand-off.)

8 of 11 taken

Three Leppert sons married three Winrod daughters in the early 1980s. Two of the couples had five and six children, respectively — a total of 11. Those two Leppert sons, Timothy and Joel, were divorced from their wives in 1992.

The Winrod women violated child custody rules with impunity, and the fathers won sole custody in both North Dakota and Missouri supreme courts. The Winrods responded by abducting eight of the 11 children of Timothy and Joel Leppert. Most were taken from the farms. One was taken Dec. 23, 1995, from the Buffalo Mall in Jamestown, N.D.

During the legal wranglings, Winrod famously sent his "Winrod Letter" newsletters to hundreds of mystified rural residents across southeast North Dakota. Winrod offered a skewed play-by-play of the proceedings that often attacked individual judges — the "jewdiciary."

Marke Roberts, then the LaMoure County sheriff, told me his office took 130 service calls to the Leppert farmsteads around Dickey, N.D. The Lepperts found shovels and mower guards hanging in their corn fields to chew up their farm equipment, perhaps to distract them. Tim and Joel wondered whether their brother, Sam, and his wife, Laura (Winrod) Leppert, who lived in LaMoure County, were helping the ex-wives.

The end of the harassment started Aug. 30, 1996. Sharon Leppert (Tim's ex-wife) and Mark Leppert (Tim's youngest brother) were chased down by authorities while attempting to flee an attempt to abduct a child from Tim's home. On Sept. 16, 1996, Quinta Leppert (Joel's ex-wife) and Nathan Leppert (Tim's oldest son) were arrested in a tent in Joel Leppert's shelterbelt. They carried a .357 magnum pistol and a two-way radio.

I came to work for Agweek in 2000 and turned to other stories. Later that year, Winrod was arrested and six still-missing children were found on his complex. In 2002, Winrod was convicted of kidnapping and went on to serve 10 years of a 30-year sentence. He was released in 2012, and one of his granddaughters warns the community to beware. It will be interesting to see how my friends in Kulm cope with this.