Lawyer: ‘Land Grab’ Sparked Idaho Standoff

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.

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