SANDPOINT — It’s unlikely that any other Bonner County sheriff candidate spent their Friday night like Shaun Winkler.
At his compound just outside Priest River, Winkler and other family members of the northern Idaho Ku Klux Klan klavern held a get-together that included a nighttime cross lighting. Winkler, 33, is also tied to the Aryan Nations and Church of Jesus Christ-Christian. He has participated in racially-charged Kootenai County protests.
According to Winkler, cross lighting, more commonly known as cross burning, often provokes strong reactions from most people. That’s why the ceremony is conducted in private within the compound once a month or so.
“Generally, for a cross lighting, it’s extremely rare we’d let any media there at all,” he said.
However, after discussing the matter with his family and associates, Winkler agreed to allow photos and outside observation for the ceremony. He said the evening was meant to express both camaraderie and religious devotion.
The evening began like many a family picnic elsewhere in the country. Group members barbecued and enjoyed a congenial meal with one another. About 20 people attended the event, although not everyone wore the iconic klan robes. Three attendees specifically identified themselves as members of the klavern. Winkler mentioned that not every member of the group could make the trip.
Afterward, Winkler called everyone’s attention to speak for about a half-hour on the racial, political and social groups they opposed. Finally, once darkness fell, the evening concluded by setting a wooden cross afire.
That particular action, Winkler predicted, would be the source of much misunderstanding.
“Mainstream society looks at cross lighting as a symbol of hate, but it predates the klan by hundreds of years,” he said. “We look at it more as a religious symbol.”
According to Winkler, the religious component of the ceremony dates back to back to Scottish origins, when clan members used it as a means of communication. He also saw it as a pointedly Christian symbol, a representation of Jesus Christ’s light spreading to the rest of the world.
However, the Ku Klux Klan of the early 20th century effectively erased any other associations in the public consciousness when they appropriated cross lighting as a tool of terror and coercion.
According to Brenda Hammond, secretary for the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, the continued use of cross lighting is a matter of grave concern.
“It shows the need for the human rights task force has not gone away,” she said. “Many of us on the task force have really regretted Bonner County’s reputation for harboring racism when the vast majority of us don’t think like that.”
Despite the unpopularity of his racial views, Winkler is soldiering on with his sheriff’s candidacy. On Monday, he participated in a candidate’s forum at the Blanchard Community Center. He continued to insist his Ku Klux Klan ties would not impact his performance as sheriff or make him susceptible to racial profiling. Instead, he would focus on tough stances regarding drugs and sex offenders.
“Most people don’t know that we don’t just oppose the Jews and the negroes,” he said. “We also oppose sexual predators and drugs of any kind.”
Winkler added that if he had his way, perpetrators of sexual crimes would be hung immediately.
As for the cross lighting and his other white supremacist links, Winkler admits that those who oppose him for his viewpoints probably won’t come around. Given that likelihood, he’s not worried about alienating potential supporters.
“I think at this point, whoever is going to disagree with me will keep on disagreeing, and those who agree with me will keep on agreeing,” he said.
• Matt Mills McKnight contributed to this story.