Forty pristine acres of land and not the safety of six children were the real reason authorities arrested an Idaho woman and placed her kids in foster care, an attorney briefly involved in the case has claimed.
State health department officials say they have been concerned about the McGuckin children for years, and tried in 1997 to put them into foster care.
Edgar Steele, an attorney who says JoAnn McGuckin asked him to represent her children's interests, said the case is about acreage, not child welfare. He says McGuckin hired him to try and get 40 acres of land returned to her that was auctioned off for back taxes.
"I think the land grab is the key to the whole thing. I think that's what started it all, not anything with the family," he said in his first comments on the case since the McGuckin children were holed up in the house, keeping law enforcement officials at bay with a pack of dogs.
McGuckin is due in court July 9 for a custody hearing regarding her children. The hearing was originally scheduled for June 29, but McGuckin asked for the delay so she could undergo physical and psychiatric exams.
Steele, who gained notoriety as the attorney who defended the Aryan Nation in a civil suit that ended up costing the group its Northern Idaho compound, said he and investigators looking at the case have turned up alleged irregularities in the way Bonner County officials proceeded in seizing the land the McGuckins lived on and eventually selling it at auction to a New Jersey couple.
He said one of the earlier irregularities crept in soon after the first time the McGuckins fell behind in their taxes in 1996. With Michael McGuckin, JoAnn's husband, sick with multiple sclerosis, they quit-claimed the 40 acres, signing it over to a family friend from Oregon named James Stewart, and the taxes were paid. They kept an acre-and-a-half.
Steele said his investigators found that after the McGuckins quit-claimed, the county was unable to locate Stewart, so it continued to send notices of appraisals and tax bills to the McGuckins — but not to the house. The correspondence was sent to a post office box.
"We never were able to run to ground who took out that P.O. box," Steele said.
‘A Really Nasty Lesson’
By 1999, $8,444 was owed in back taxes and the county seized the property. McGuckin first learned the 40 acres had been seized when she went in to pay taxes on a 1½ acre lot she still owns, Steele said. He said his investigators found a handwritten note made by a woman who works in the assessor's office that described how McGuckin expressed surprise when she learned about bills being sent to a post office box, and she was told not to come back to the courthouse until she was composed.
The property was auctioned in September 2000 to a New Jersey couple for $53,000 — far less than Steele says it was worth. The land, located between Sandpoint and Sagle, sits on a small lake and is rumored to have a spring that could supply enough water for a small housing development. The property could be cut into as many as eight lots. Steele estimated the land was worth anywhere from $250,000 to $800,000.
And the McGuckins didn't get any of the money after the taxes were satisfied. Steele said a "real nasty lesson in this" is that in line with state law, the difference between the auction sale price and the outstanding tax debt is given to the county to distribute among the taxing districts that serve the property.
Another issue that disturbs Steele, he said, was that Bonner County officials seemed to deal with McGuckin as though she were competent when it came to her land, even though Prosecuting Attorney Phil Robinson said county officials had long felt she was too mentally ill to raise her children.
He said that was part of an ongoing effort by the county to discredit McGuckin, which included the descriptions of her as being almost pathologically paranoid of the government.
"She said for years, 'I've been afraid the government would come and steal my land and that they'd come to take my children away,'" Steele said. "Her worst fears were realized. Does that make her an anti-government kook?"
County: We Tried to Help
County officials say they made every effort to help McGuckin, even trying to convince her to sign a form that would have allowed them to forgive the overdue taxes on the land, but she refused.
Commissioner Tom Suttmeier also said that it was a shame that the principal in the sale of the property did not go back to McGuckin, who could use the money to put up a small home on the 1½ acre plot she still owns. He said he would push the state legislature to change the law.
As far as pursuing McGuckin over her continued residence on the property, it appears the new owners never made any effort to get her off, and county officials said once the land was sold it no longer was their concern who lived on it.
"The county would in all probability have done nothing to move them, and as far as I know did nothing to move them," Suttmeier said. "It's not in the county's interest to make people homeless."
According to Steele, though, the county did move to get McGuckin off the land in a way that most likely would have gone unnoticed outside of the county, but for the unexpected reaction of the children.
"If the kids hadn't initiated the so-called standoff, this would have gone down without a whisper," Steele said. "It wasn't the first time this has happened and it's not going to be the last."
County officials said it was JoAnn McGuckin's inability or unwillingness to work with them that got her into her current legal problems. They said that what made them consider her a criminal was not her poverty or land situation, but that she never tried to get help. To prove how bad things had gotten, they showed a video of the inside of the home at a hearing last month on whether McGuckin should face felony child endangerment charges.
However, a Bonner County sheriff's deputy testified in hearing that the woman approached him to see if he could help her apply for social security benefits after her husband died in May.
"One thing important that came out is that four days after the father's death, JoAnn called the sheriff's office asking for help in a number of forms," Bryce Powell, McGuckin's court-appointed attorney, said after a judge reduced the charges to misdemeanors and released her without bail.
"She asked for help to get Social Security; asked for help to get a doctor; asked for help selling property they did own to get money for the family," he said. "Rather than giving her that help, they decided instead to lure her from her home and place her under arrest and take custody of the children."
Though Steele was sharply critical of Powell's handling of the case, the two seem to share common ground on whether the land played a role in what has happened to McGuckin.
"I can say this is an issue that has some bearing on the case," Powell said when asked about Steele's contention. "There's something to that, but I do not want to go further with this."
Whose Business Is It?
Steele said he wanted to go further with the case after McGuckin asked him to represent her children in the custody case and take up the fight to get her land back, but as soon as he had investigators begin looking into what happened with the property, he said, he found himself denied any access to McGuckin, and no one involved with the case — including Powell — would return his calls.
"It was as though my phone had been disconnected," said Steele, who refers to himself as "McGuckin family lawyer in exile." He questioned why he was denied access to McGuckin during the month she was in jail, and why a woman who enthusiastically accepted his offer of representation the first time they saw one another would say he did not represent her the next, during a court date.
Powell said that he was not involved in any effort to shut out Steele. If Steele was told he had to go through him, Powell said, it was because McGuckin had asked that all attempts to communicate with her go through Powell.
"There were a thousand people trying to contact her with offers of help and information," Powell said. "It was really overwhelming for her."
The question of how much government involvement in individuals' lives is too much has been the subtext throughout the McGuckin case, with state and county officials saying they intervened for the good of the children and the woman's supporters saying if they wanted to help her they should have left her alone.
"What the state is imposing their business on our business for is yet to be understood," McGuckin said last week after she was released from jail. "I do not understand this. I guess that's what we're going to be finding out."