Investigators suspect arson, white supremacists question an “Act of God”

Alt White: The Siege of North Dakota. Part four in the series on racism in North Dakota. Pioneer Little Europe and the Creativity Movement plow ahead with plans in making an Aryan enclave in Nome, ND, but an old Lutheran church bought by Craig Cobb burns to the ground. 

By C.S. Hagen
– Either arson or “an act of God” left the Zion Lutheran Church in ashes Wednesday, according to law enforcement and one of the building’s owners, white supremacist Craig Cobb. 

Welcome to Nome – photo by C.S. Hagen

Residents of the tiny town of Nome, population 62, alerted authorities to the fire Wednesday afternoon at 295 3rd Avenue. Firefighters from the neighboring town of Fingal, Nome’s volunteer firefighters, and the Barnes County Sheriff’s Office responded after the fire was reported. The first pictures of the blaze were published online in Facebook shortly after 3 p.m. Strong winds helped engulf the 110-year-old church in flames, and within an hour only the chimney and foundation remained. 

Nome is on a hit list including 11 other towns by Pioneer Little Europe North Dakota as one of the places marked for “takeover.” Pioneer Little Europe is a white supremacist operation welcoming Nazis, members of the Creativity Movement, Ku Klux Klan, militants, white nationalists, and racialists to build “arks of survival,” or Aryan enclaves. Previously, Cobb attempted to establish white enclaves in Leith and in Antler. He is currently serving four years probation for terrorizing and menacing residents in Leith in 2013. 

Barnes County Sheriff’s deputies, the state fire marshal, and ATF agents began investigating the fire as arson Thursday morning, Barnes County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Don Fiebiger said. 

“There is no power in the building, there is power up to the building, and it is being investigated as arson,” Fiebiger said. 

Liz Brocker, the public information officer with the Attorney General’s office refused to comment except to say, “Information is confidential.” 

Charred remains of Zion Lutheran Church in Nome – photo by C.S. Hagen

The church was sold for $8,000 by Anthony Cibelli of Florida to Alexis L. Wolf and Kevin A. Richman on September 26, 2013, and then for $8,000 on January 14, 2017 to Cobb with a listed address of 208 E. 3rd Street, Sherwood, according to Barnes County Recorder.

“Quiet enjoyment and peaceable possession of the premises” was guaranteed by the grantor, Richman, according to the property deed. Back taxes and specials of $875.80 were paid by Richman, who is listed as the only owner on the new deed before the handover to Cobb.

Investigators on site – photo by C.S. Hagen

Next-door neighbor, Linda Henrickson, has lived in Nome for 49 years. She was preparing to bury her husband who recently died of cancer, and said she hadn’t seen Cobb in months.

“I didn’t even know about it,” Henrickson said. “I heard a noise earlier, but it was so windy.” When she heard the news she ran to the dining room window and saw the church she attended for decades engulfed in flames. 

 A large 1923 painting of “Jesus welcoming the children,” hangs on her wall. She bought if at the church auction in 2012 and said it used to hang above the church’s altar. Across the room a pencil sketch of the church as it used to look was also purchased at the same auction. Her husband was born in Nome, across the street. Her daughter was once the organist. Her late husband, Bruce, was once the town’s mayor who brought running water into the area, Henrickson said. 

“This used to be a nice little community,” she said. “But it’s becoming a tourist attraction lately.” 

Typically, the town is quiet. Henrickson never talked to Cobb, but saw him once carrying a table, chairs, and a propane tank into the church. 

Abandoned building in Nome – photo by C.S. Hagen

Abandoned houses line Nome’s streets. On Main Street, a skeleton of a building sits on one side, a grocery store named Ruud’s Market has the inside lights on, but the front door is locked and the shelves are empty. A half-boarded up post office sits next door. Main Street is a dirt road, as all the other streets in town. 

At the end of one street, slightly apart from the rest of the town, Kenny Ussatis said he had heard about Cobb, but didn’t pay him much attention. 

“Nobody’s really said anything about him,” Ussatis said. “I’m sure some feel they didn’t like it, but to me it does not make a whole lot of difference.” He attended the church all his life until it shut down due to “running out of people.” The town once had up to 400 residents, he said. 

The loss of the church was not a hard blow for Ussatis, he said. “It was time,” he said. 

The only noticeable business in town, Inter-Community Telephone Co., stands close to a cleanly kept park with swings, an aluminum slide, and an old merry go round. Mary Peterson, a town council member since 1990, used to be the church secretary, treasurer, and custodian. She echoed the sentiment that Cobb keeps to himself, and wasn’t making a stir. 

Nome’s playground – photo by C.S. Hagen

“Whatever happens, happens,” Peterson said. “If he did something wrong then we would deal with it, but so far, he minds his own business.” 

Rumors are circulating as to the actual cause of the fire, Peterson said, but would not elaborate. 

Cobb is one of the best known white supremacists in North America, according to nonprofit hate group tracker Southern Poverty Law Center. He had a falling out with white supremacists after a DNA diagnostics test in 2013, which proved Cobb was 14 percent Sub-Saharan African. He is also a professed member of the Creativity Movement, which believes race, not religion, is absolute truth and that the white race is the highest expression of culture and civilization. The movement also believes that a “holy racial war” is eminent. 

Members of Stormfront, a website started by hate-web guru Don Black, congratulated Cobb on the purchase of the church, saying at least Cobb was active. 

Nome’s Main Street – photo by C.S. Hagen

“If it was arson, that reflects very poorly on the townspeople of Nome,” a sustaining member named Richie wrote. 

“Perhaps put it down to an Act of God, presumably him punishing an atheist for buying a church,” a sustaining member named Lord Flints Volunteer wrote. 

“Whatever anyone’s opinion he is not all talk,” Richie wrote. “He gets off his backside and makes an effort.” 

“How has all the crap targeted at Craig not been considered a violation of the Fair Housing Act?” another sustaining member named WhiteNationhood wrote. 

Cobb claims arson, and is offering a $2,000 reward for any information related to the incident,” according to media outlet MyNDNow. 

Investigators on site at former Zion Lutheran Church – photo by C.S. Hagen

The sleepy town air is tinged sweetly with burning wood fires. Wind whispers through tall pines, and returning geese call out noisily. The former town school, an impressive brick structure now shadowed by trees, is used as a storage space. Like many North Dakota small towns, it is dying, and is a perfect target for white supremacists linked with Pioneer Little Europe. 

The final hymn sung at the church’s closing ceremony June 24, 2012 was “The Church’s One Foundation,” which, excluding a cracked chimney and local memory, are all that remains. 

Residents don’t want another Leith, they said, but also don’t appreciate the recent attention. 

“We don’t need all the publicity,” Ussatis said. 

Nome’s dirt roads – photo by C.S. Hagen