Plans by a neo-Nazi to turn two south-central Nebraska towns into all-white hamlets ran off the rails this month after residents joined forces to sabotage the effort.
Craig Cobb had purchased property in the towns of Red Cloud and Inavale in a Webster County sheriff’s sale in September and also inquired about property in two nearby north-central Kansas towns. He told The Star that he planned to sell the property at deep discounts to young white couples.
The action was part of an effort called Pioneer Little Europe, a strategy to create communities where white nationalists live in close proximity to businesses that offer cultural facilities and services.
Under Nebraska law, the sales had to be confirmed by a judge before they became final. But this month, the foreclosure case was dismissed and the properties were turned back to persons with a legal interest in them when — with assistance from the community — they came up with the funds to pay the back taxes.
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Residents in the communities were thrilled at the turn of events.
“We’re done with him for the time being,” said Red Cloud Mayor Gary Ratzlaff. “Now, we can step back and take a breath.”
But Cobb is crying foul and calling for an investigation. He said the county was “corrupt” and discriminated against him because of his faith. Cobb is involved in the Creativity Movement, formerly known as the World Church of the Creator, which promotes what it says is the inherent superiority of the white race.
“It looks as if they have paid off all the delinquent taxes in town rather than allow the Creativity Movement to buy property,” Cobb told The Star in a recent phone call from his residence in Sherwood, N.D. “Our system is so far devolved now in terms of corruption. They do what they want, and the laws be damned.”
Cobb filed an online complaint with the Nebraska attorney general’s office, according to Cobb and news reports.
Cobb, 64, purchased the Nebraska property on Sept. 23, paying $3,410 for a house in Inavale and $125 for two properties in Red Cloud. But once his identity was discovered, word quickly spread throughout the communities. Residents warned owners to be wary of selling property to him, and dozens gathered for a town hall meeting in Red Cloud.
Ratzlaff told The Star that residents devised a plan that would help the original owners redeem the properties.
“After we pretty much came up with a workable scenario, it put the people at ease,” he said. “They got the idea that ‘Yeah, we’ve got a handle on it.’ ”
The plan: To create a Red Cloud Beautification Trust, using the donations to help the property owners pay off the back taxes.
Jarrod McCartney, Red Cloud’s diector of heritage and tourism, said that the town wanted nothing to do with the brand of hatred spewed by Cobb.
“It is my personal belief that his ideology would corrupt, pervert and severely diminish the high quality of life we are lucky enough to experience here in Red Cloud,” McCartney wrote in an email.
The Inavale back taxes were paid off through “a private arrangement between individuals,” he wrote.
In all, the communities paid off nearly $11,000 in taxes, court costs and other fees on the three properties.
Ratzlaff said residents hope they’ve seen the last of Cobb. He denied that Cobb’s rights were violated.
“In his mind, what we did was probably a little bit shady,” Ratzlaff said. “But it’s all on the up and up. It’s all above board.”
Indeed, a similar thing happened earlier this year in Antler, N.D.
When Cobb tried to purchase property there, the city bought it to prevent him from getting it, then set up an online crowd funding account to raise money to recoup the expense.
Webster County Clerk Deb Klingenberger said Cobb has been reimbursed for the Nebraska properties he purchased, with interest. She said he owns no other property in the county.
Klingenberger said no one representing Cobb attended the recent hearing. Cobb said he didn’t even know about it until he saw something in the newspaper.
“When I bought the property, they just said there would be a judge’s hearing and that no sale had ever been controverted by a judge,” he said. When he learned about the hearing, he said, he called County Attorney Sara Bockstadter and she told him the procedure would be open.
Cobb said a fellow member of the Creativity Movement’s “inner council” tried to attend the hearing with the intention of bidding on even more property, but was turned away.
“I think they just thrust some money in people’s hands and said go do this,” he said. “Now they won’t even talk about it; they’re in lockstep.”
But Bockstadter disputed Cobb’s claim that his associate was turned away.
“I know nothing about that,” she said. “I was there. There was nobody to my knowledge here at the courthouse.”
Bockstadter said she talked to Cobb several weeks ago.
“I told him the date and time of the confirmation hearing, but I’m under no obligation to formally notify him,” she said.
A legal expert said the case raises some complicated constitutional issues.
“The protections of the Constitution regarding freedom of religion involve limitations on government but not on what private persons do,” said Richard E. Levy, a constitutional law professor at the University of Kansas.
“The general threshold would be that there are no constitutional issues if this was purely private. The constitutional issues would come into play if the town government played a role in deciding or executing the use of these funds.”
If that’s the case, Levy said, the question is whether the government’s action violated either Cobb’s free exercise of religion or freedom of speech.
Ratzlaff said the city government played no role in the how the funds were spent.
“This has nothing to do with the city at all,” he said. “It’s the community.”
He said the fund was not created solely to deal with Cobb.
“This is something that we will be using from now on, not just for delinquent taxes but other projects as well,” he said. “The community can administer this money any way they want to — for beautification or renovations, that sort of thing.”
Levy said there also could be a statutory issue. Many states have civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on various grounds — among them, religious grounds, he said.
“So even if there’s not a constitutional claim, there might be a statutory claim,” he said.
And if Cobb’s associate was indeed denied access to the court hearing, Levy said, that could be another concern.
“If he was denied the opportunity to appear, there may also be a due process issue,” he said.
Cobb, who was raised in St. Joseph, Mo., first created a stir when he started buying plots in the tiny town of Leith, N.D., in 2011 and later announced plans to turn it into a white enclave. Cobb purchased some of the plots in the names of several well-known white supremacists with the goal of garnering enough power to run the town.
In 2013, Cobb was charged with terrorizing some of the town’s residents with a gun. After spending several months in jail, Cobb was sentenced to four years of probation.
Cobb’s efforts were detailed as part of a series on domestic terrorism earlier this year in The Star.
The Smith County, Kan., appraiser told The Star last month that Cobb had stopped by her office to ask about distressed properties in Smith Center, a town of 1,800 in north-central Kansas about 15 miles from the Nebraska border. She didn’t know who he was at the time, but said the county had recently had a tax sale and many of the properties had been purchased.
She said he also inquired about the town of Lebanon and talked to the county’s economic development director.
The appraiser’s office said this month that there had been no sightings of Cobb in the area since.
Cobb told The Star that he had actually paid a property owner in Smith Center for a building just off Main Street but that she later changed her mind and returned the money.
Cobb said he doubts his complaints will go anywhere. He said he’s called numerous lawyers but none were interested in taking his case. He added, however, that he’s not giving up on his plan to purchase property in those areas.
He said the towns should actually embrace him for spurring action on delinquent properties.
“I may start a small town beautification consultancy professional service,” he said. “Need to improve the looks of your town and make scofflaws pay? Call me.”