Matthew Mills McKnight likely knew Shaun Winkler was a controversial fellow when the militia members McKnight was photographing said Winkler was “too extreme” for their group.
If not, perhaps he was clued in by the white supremacist and sheriff candidate’s first words when they met: “Hey, nice to meet you. Are you a Jew?”
McKnight, 33, was living in northern Idaho when he first decided to ask Winkler if he’d let him take photos at the Ku Klux Klansman’s compound. His photo assignments were “few and far between, and there are a lot of interesting people in my own back yard, so I just started enterprising my own projects,” he said.
The area has an ugly legacy of extremism that – judging from letters to the editor after McKnight’s photos were published in a local paper – residents in the region would like to shake.
This is where the late Richard Butler (he died in 2004) relocated in the 1970s to found the Aryan Nations. Ruby Ridge, the site of the deadly confrontation between Randy Weaver and federal agents, is also nearby.
McKnight first met Winkler, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a Butler protégé, last year at a 17-acre compound in Bonner County’s Hoodoo Mountains. There, McKnight saw a cabin foundation, three trailers – two inhabited, one for cooking – and an outhouse with no running water.
McKnight asked if he could photograph Winkler during his run for sheriff.
“He agreed. He said he wanted people to see he was a real person,” McKnight said. “We had common ground there.”
McKnight said he never spent the night on the compound – “I didn’t think my fiancée would allow it” – but he met Winkler on three occasions, the second being for a sermon, in which only his daughter and wife attended.
There, Winkler mentioned burning a cross. He called it a “cross lighting,” McKnight recalled. Naturally, McKnight asked to photograph that as well.
When the photographer arrived that spring 2012 day, the cross was already up. About 20 people – a dozen of whom Winkler said were from his “klavern,” or KKK unit – had congregated for the ritual.
“I noticed on the side of (the cross) other pieces of wood that had been burned. They were shaped like crosses, lying there,” McKnight said, adding he was shocked to learn the cross lightings were a monthly affair.
That a Klansman burns crosses is no surprise. Winkler regularly voiced his aversion to non-Anglo Saxons, whether it was demonstrating at taco stands to protest Latinos in nearby Coeur d'Alene, as Reuters reported, or by simply stating his platform during his run for sheriff.
"Most people don't know that we don't just oppose the Jews and the negroes … We also oppose sexual predators and drugs of any kind,” Winkler told a Hagadone News Network reporter, noting that if it were up to him, he’d hang sexual predators.
What struck McKnight about the cross lighting was the casual atmosphere. While attendees enjoyed barbecue, five kids – who McKnight estimated to be between 4 and 10 years old – played with BB or AirSoft guns nearby, he said.
The ritual was cast as a religious affair, which McKnight said bothered him, considering the kids present.
At dusk, Winkler and three others ignited the cloth-wrapped cross from its top and bottom, left and right, to make sure it burned evenly.
“It lit pretty quick,” McKnight said. “It was hot, too.”
McKnight, who’d been asked to stay out of the inner circle of people lighting the cross, said he felt a “wave of sadness” wash over him. He considers himself more spiritual than religious, but he prayed to God that he wouldn’t be associated with what he was seeing.
“It was so, so evil what was in front of me – that I was seeing that. I needed to put myself somewhere else,” he said.
Despite the overtly racist activity, Winkler told folks on the campaign trail that he wouldn’t let his views on race “cloud his judgment,” McKnight said.
When the primary ballots were cast in May 2012, Winkler was trounced. Of 5,543 votes cast, he pulled only 182. Still, McKnight was disturbed.
“He wanted to end the meth problem and sex assaults; he was going to string them up just like years ago in the town square,” McKnight said. “Why would anyone vote for that?”
Winkler’s property has since gone into foreclosure after he failed to pay the mortgage, according to the SPLC. McKnight, who now lives in Seattle, still keeps in touch with him, and Winkler told McKnight he was working on establishing another compound on the other side of the Priest River from his former land.
Last they spoke, Winkler was living in a hotel in Coeur d'Alene, trying to start a lawn care business.
While McKnight would like his photos shared with a larger audience to spur dialogue on race, he felt he achieved a personal goal with the project, he said.
“There are varying levels of racism, and Shaun is a 10 on it,” McKnight said. “I don’t want him to look bad. I just wanted to understand this guy better and, overall, the history of racism and why Winkler is still there 10 years after Butler’s gone.”
- Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN