Lawyer: ‘Land Grab’ Sparked Idaho Standoff

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.

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