Brothers’ troubles, America’s issues didn’t begin, or end, here

Mary Thomas Watts - Contributing columnist

The Kehoe brothers’ troubles didn’t begin or end in Wilmington. Nor did America’s radical domestic extremist problem.

Think of what follows here as a post script to last week’s fine, three-part overview by Jonathan McKay of Chevie and Cheyne Kehoe’s Feb. 15, 1997 shootout with local law enforcement and subsequent convictions in Clinton County Common Pleas Court.

As true crimes go, the Wilmington chapter of the Kehoes’ story was media-ready: very bad bad guys, very good good guys, and a court that meted out swift, impartial justice. You’d also be hard pressed to find a more cinematic courthouse interior than ours.

But the Kehoes’ backstory looks more like today’s national headlines than yesterday’s local ones.

Born into a family of anti-government, Christian Identity white nationalists, Chevie and Cheyne were two of eight brothers raised on the poisonous anti-Semitic and racist tenets of their father, Kirby, a Vietnam veteran who amassed an arsenal for the race war he believed was coming.

Chevie’s fever dream of a life goal was to establish the Aryan Peoples Republic, a polygamous, all-white nation in the Pacific Northwest.

Of the two, Chevie was the more violent and was, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and hate crimes across the country, “tied to more acts of domestic terrorism than any other right-wing extremist arrested in the United States” between 1988 and 1998.

The most gruesome of Chevie Kehoe’s crimes — and the one for which he was convicted and is serving a life sentence in federal prison — was the 1996 robbery and triple murder of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her eight-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell. Kehoe and his accomplice, Daniel Lewis Lee, bound, suffocated, and threw the victims into the Illinois Bayou, near Russellville, Arkansas.

A more complete account of Chevie Kehoe’s life and crimes, “Trail of Death Follows White Supremacist Gang Led by Chevie Kehoe,” was published in the 1998 fall issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Intelligence Report,” and is available online.

As the SPLC article points out, Chevie and Cheyne might have escaped justice had Cheyne not become so frightened of his brother, who had allegedly spoken of killing his own wife and parents, that he turned himself in to Colvile, Washington, authorities and provided a map the FBI used to find Chevie.

What I’m left to wonder is how anti-government, white nationalist doctrines and the mayhem they inspire, endemic to the fringiest fringe of the American far right years ago, have become mainstream, or so close to it, it’s a distinction without a difference.

Let’s get to it. The January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol was no more “legitimate political discourse” — as the Republican National Committee recently and ridiculously framed it — than the Kehoe brothers’ shootout was a legitimate redress of grievances. Both were acts of violence against the government and its duly sworn law enforcement officers and punishable by law.

Hate groups — some well known, like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters — and lower profile, homegrown seditionist militias from all over with varying neo-fascist propensities, helped stage and carry out the J6 insurrection, injuring more than 140 Capitol and D.C. police, terrorizing Senate and House members and staff, and causing millions of dollars in damage to the building.

To call the J6 mob patriots, to say the insurrection could have been worse, or to believe the country can move on without holding those responsible to account, is tantamount to giving the Kehoes honorary keys to the city instead of their day in court.

In a Southwest Ohio hometown or the nation’s capital, social order demands adherence to the rule of law.

Mary Thomas Watts lives and writes in Wilmington.

Mary Thomas Watts

Contributing columnist