BONNERS FERRY — Every able-bodied Idaho male already belongs to the militia, according to Jeff Stankiewicz.
That is outlined in the Idaho Constitution, said Stankiewicz, major of the 21st Battalion of North Idaho’s Lightfoot Militia.
A member of the Constitution party, Stankiewicz is challenging incumbent assessor Dave Ryals in the Nov. 2 general election. Ryals is running on the Republican ticket.
It is not, however, Stankiewicz’s political campaign that is drawing the most attention. It is his membership in the militia — especially after a similar group in Indiana were arrested last month for allegedly plotting violence against the government.
Stankiewicz and other members of the 21st Battalion were recently interviewed on ABC’s “Nightline” about militias in general and more specifically about Idaho’s Lightfoot Militia.
A certified welder, Stankiewicz, 41, was born and raised in Connecticut. He worked for a local steel manufacturing company for five years until he was recently laid off until new contracts come in.
His interest in the militia was sparked when he joined the John Birch Society 15 years ago after moving to North Idaho. Stankiewicz said society members taught him about the U.S. Constitution — something he was never taught in school.
After waiting for 10 years, he decided it would be better to start the group that to wait any longer.
“I waited for someone to come along and start it; I thought maybe someone ex-military would step up,” Stankiewicz said. “It never happened, then the Tea Party movement started and people were waking up to things I have known for over 15 years. I thought, ‘Now is the time.’ ”
While the state constitution does address the creation of a militia, it also gives the authority for enrollment, equipment and discipline to the Legislature. All militia officers must be commissioned by the governor and the length of their commission set by the Legislature.
Stankiewicz holds no such commission, and no legislative sanction has been granted the 21st Lightfoot Battalion.
While ABC News reported that 12 members showed up for last week’s interview, Stankiewicz said 24 people actually were present. In total, the group has somewhere between 100 to 200 members, he added.
“There are members who don’t want to say their names, they don’t want to give up their security,” Stankiewicz said. “A lot of it is about not showing our strengths and that is why some people did not want to be on camera.”
The battalion is preparing for an economic collapse. Members want to be on the front lines to ensure safety and provide medical attention in the wake of the ensuing chaos that would likely come from the dollar falling in a tailspin, Stankiewicz said.
“We don’t want this to happen, we hope it doesn’t happen, but we want to be prepared for it if it does,” Stankiewicz said.
Much of the group’s monthly training centers around just that.
“We are not worried about conspiracy theory, but being this far into debt as a nation can lead to disorder,” Stankiewicz said. “When the truck stops delivering food and people’s federal checks stop coming there could be rioting in cities, that is why I am glad I live here.”
Stankiewicz said the group uses military manuals and follows basic military training, including first aid and survival.
Despite the negative connotation presented by the show, Stankiewicz said the 21st Lightfoot Battalion is in Boundary County to provide whatever assistance they are asked to provide.
“I use the examples if there is a flood and volunteers were needed to sand bag, we would be there,” he said.
As an example, Stankiewicz cited the call for volunteers by local law enforcement in the event of an emergency.
It would be better, he added, for them to call upon a group already trained, organized and ready.
Boundary County has the lowest turnout of participants in the regional Lightfoot militia units. Stankiewicz believes it is because potential members are afraid of the strong stand taken by the county’s sheriff’s office and county commissioners against the group.
Stankiewicz said they are loyal citizens and most of the militia’s members obtain concealed weapons permits to show they are upstanding citizens.
The 21st Lightfoot Battalion believes that if there is a breakdown in civil order they will be needed to protect neighborhoods. Stankiewicz said they will offer assistance to the Sheriff and other local law enforcement agencies to stand guard where needed.
“Again, I hope we are never necessary,” he said. “I want to die an old man with some really nice hunting and camping gear.”
A person of faith like many in the group, Stankiewicz said the 21st Lightfoot Battalion is not preparing for the end times — which is the proclaimed mission of the Hutaree militia in Indiana, where a group of eight members are currently in jail on charges of trying to overthrow the government.
While the groups are linked on each other’s Web sites — something which critics say show the commonality of their beliefs — Stankiewicz said that isn’t the case.
“We are linked to other Militia groups but we are not part of their belief system or group,” said Stankiewicz said. “We basically wanted to link up with others so when someone used the search engine we would come up more often.”
While taken aback by what he says is the negative spin put on the group by “Nightline” crews, Stankiewicz doesn’t regret talking to the media.
Stankiewicz said he knew there was a possibility of negative coverage from the outset but that if he didn’t do the interview they would have still run the story.
“The press is not the enemy, we could have chosen not to talk to them and then I guarantee it would be bad,” said Stankiewicz.
The real enemy are those who don’t follow the Constitution, Stankiewicz said.
“One of the funny things is at the beginning of the piece on ABC, they said, ‘They are not police officers and they are not active duty military, but in reality we are ex-cops, ex-military, ex-EMT and firemen.”
Stankiewicz said he has never had political aspirations but was asked by Donna and Terry Capurso at a meeting of the Boundary County Property Association if he would run for assessor.
“I thought we needed new blood in that seat and he came back to us after the meeting and said he would run,” said Donna Capurso, who is challenging Walt Kirby for his county commissioner seat in May.
Stankiewicz is hoping his election would allow him to give back to the community — especially since the group’s offers to help the county have fallen on deaf ears.
“I have tried to offer help by way of sheriffs office, search and rescue, I ran a food drive for community action partnership, trying to help this community,” he said. “This is one way I can help by myself since the Militia is not taking well in Boundary County.”
Stankiewicz said he is not worried about a troubled past or the fact that he owes $1,460 on his property taxes dating back to 2007.
According to the Boundary County treasurer’s office, Stankiewicz started making payments to his delinquent property taxes tax account in October.
Stankiewicz blamed his financial problems on being laid off and on high medical bills stemming from an accident in which he was charged with inattentive driving.
“I had a big hospital bill that I was not able to pay and did not have insurance,” he said.
“The hospital got a judgment to garnish 25 percent of my wages, which was a huge chunk of my paycheck. I paid as much as I could when I could to the treasurer.”
It wasn’t the first time Stankiewicz has run into legal trouble. In 2002, he was accused of stabbing another man and charged with felony aggravated battery after a bar fight with two men over a woman. All four had been drinking and, while there were witnesses to the fight, no one saw the actual stabbing.
Stankiewicz denies the stabbing but admits to defending himself when he was jumped in the bar that night. The charge was amended to simple battery, a misdemeanor, to which Stankiewicz pled guilty.
Stankiewicz said he agreed to the offered plea bargain because he was taking care of his then-girlfriend, who was disabled.
“I had a public defender and I was with a disabled woman at the time,” said Stankiewicz. “I was scared and told by the prosecutor he would put me away for 5 years. I decided to take the plea for the sake of the woman I was caring for.”
He served 12 days in jail, spent two years on probation and was ordered to pay Taft restitution in the amount of $15,098. A garnishment of wages against Stankiewicz was later issued for lack of payment to Taft.
What happened in his past doesn’t change Donna Capurso’s support for him as a candidate for local office.
“I try to respect everyone I meet for who they are when I meet them,” she said. “I think Jeff is trying to stand up and do the right thing. He is an intelligent young man and I give him my respect regardless of what happened eight years ago.”
Stankiewicz wants to dispel any misconceptions about his 21st Lightfoot Battalion. He does not condone anti-government talk or actions. Instead, he said the group is pro-Constitution and denies that race or religion are a factor in any Idaho militia group.
“We are not racist,” he said. “There are a lot of people in the militia that are not white. Some militia are private and only accept certain members, but here in Idaho we are in line with the Idaho Constitution which states we are supposed to have a militia.”
In fact, according to Stankiewicz, ABC left out a comment made by a member when he was asked what he thought about having a black president.
“I think it shows how far our country has come,” Stankiewicz quoted militia member “Mike” as saying. Stankiewicz did not want to give a last name.
Stankiewicz said they don’t care what color Obama is.
“He could be Asian, White or Hispanic,” he said. “His color doesn’t matter, but he is a socialist. I think that his policies and ideas are based on socialist principals. Progressive or liberal whatever they want to call it, the policies and ideas come from socialist principals.”