Saving six Idaho children from the squalid home their mother forced them to live in is what officials say their goal was when they arrested the woman and put the youngsters in foster care, but an attorney briefly involved with the case says they were really the 40 pristine acres around the house.
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 still holed up in the house, keeping law enforcement officials at bay with a pack of dogs.
McGuckin is due in court on Monday, 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 be 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.
Steele refers to himself as "McGuckin family lawyer in exile," saying that he was denied access to McGuckin during the month she was in jail and questioning 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 when she looked to him like she had been drugged.
Among the issues that disturbed him, 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?"
‘A Really Nasty Lesson’
County officials said that what made them consider McGuckin a criminal was not her poverty, but that she never tried to get help. To show 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 charges.
However, a Bonner County sheriff's deputy testified in the preliminary hearing last week to determine whether McGuckin should have to face felony child endangerment charges that the woman approached him to see if he could help her apply for social security benefits after her husband died last month.
"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 for buying 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."
Steele said that 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.
But he also wondered why land that he estimated was worth anywhere from $250,000 to $800,000 sold for just $53,000. The 40 acres sit on a small lake and are rumored to have a spring that could supply enough water for a small housing development.
The property, which is located between Sandpoint and Sagle, could be cut into as many as eight lots.
Mystery Mail Box?
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 her 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 1 ½ acre plot she still owns. He said he would push the state legislature to change the law.
McGuckin first learned that the 40 acres had been seized when she went in to pay taxes on the 1 ½ acre lot, 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.
Steele said his investigators found that after the McGuckins quit claimed their property to a family friend from Oregon named James Stewart in 1996, the county was unable to locate the man, 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.
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."
Steele, on the other hand, 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," he said.
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."
Children Raising a Ruckus
With Michael McGuckin, JoAnn's husband, sick with multiple sclerosis and the family far behind in taxes, they quit claimed the 40-acre property to Stewart and the taxes were brought up to date.
By 1999, though, $8,444 was owed in back taxes and the county seized the property. It was sold for $53,000 in September 2000, but it appears that the new owners never made any effort to get McGuckin 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."
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."