Idaho Standoff Family Lived on Borrowed Land

If prosecutors and JoAnn McGuckin's defense attorneys can work out a deal that would allow the Idaho woman to be reunited with her family and avoid a jail sentence, she won't be going back to live on the 40-acre lakefront property that was the scene of a five-day standoff between six children, a pack of dogs and police last month.

That land was sold 10 months ago.

Current and former county officials say it didn't have to be that way, though they disagree on who is more to blame, the county or JoAnn McGuckin and her husband Michael, who died last month.

JoAnn McGuckin was in Bonner County Court today for a hearing on the felony charge of causing injury to a child, and her children are also scheduled for a hearing to decide who will have custody of them.

Bonner County prosecuting attorney Phil Robinson and Bryce Powell, the court-appointed lawyer representing McGuckin, both said they hoped to work out a deal to allow the 42-year-old woman to avoid charges and possibly regain supervised custody of her kids before the court appearances. But it seems those efforts failed.

McGuckin has been in jail since May 29, when she was lured from her home by county officials with the promise of money for food and then was arrested. Though law enforcement authorities said her children were starving, when the youngsters finally allowed police to take them into custody, health-care workers said they were not in a life-threatening condition.

The 40-acre plot the McGuckins lived on, which sits on Beaver Lake between Sagle and Sandpoint, was sold at auction by the county in September 2000 to a New Jersey couple for $53,000, according to country treasurer Shannon Syth.

Michael McGuckin, who died on May 12 after suffering for years from multiple sclerosis, quit deeded the land to an Oregon man named James Stewart in 1996 after the family first started to fall behind in their taxes.

Some payments were made after the name on the property changed, but by May 1999 the bill was about $5,000, and the county tax deeded the property, Syth said. According to current and former county officials, the McGuckins had refused to take advantage of offers of help that could have allowed them to keep the land.

When to Bend the Law

The McGuckins could have had the tax debt forgiven if they filled out an indigent request, but the family refused repeated efforts from county officials and from some of their neighbors to get them to fill out the form, according to commissioner Tom Suttmeier.

"They wouldn't accept assistance from anyone," he said. "I think what you're dealing with here is just an extreme case of paranoia. There's just a resident distrust of government in any form."

Former commissioner Bud Mueller, who served on the board of commissioners when the property was tax deeded, said the county could have done more for the family. He said the commissioners could have forgiven the debt even without the form.

"We used to do it all the time for families that were in a bad way," Mueller said. "I said, 'We're going to make them homeless and it's going to cost us tens of thousands of dollars by the time we're through with it.'

"They told me, 'We have to obey the law.' Well, no we don't. We're commissioners," he said.

A Quick Sale

Though the McGuckins were living on someone else's land for the last 10 months, Suttmeier said the county had no particular interest in forcing them off — and in fact once the land was sold to a private owner, had even less interest in putting them out of the house.

"The county would in all probability have done nothing to move them, and as far as I know did nothing to move them," he said. "It's not in the county's interest to make people homeless."

He said he did not know whether the New Jersey couple did anything to try to get them off. There was no answer to repeated calls to the couple's home by

Mueller said part of his argument to let the McGuckins keep the land was that there were a lot of properties on the county books that had gone unsold and the county didn't need any more.

"We've got one that's been there since 1946 and hasn't been sold. We have a whole book full of them," he said.

With the McGuckin property, apparently, there was no need for concern.

Real estate agents in the area say the market in Sandpoint is strong, both with people seeking vacation homes for winter skiing and summers on the lake, and people looking to move to an area rich in natural beauty and low in crime.

With five-acre rural zoning, the property could be cut into as many as eight lots.

"I haven't appraised it, but probably one of the reasons it went so quick was that is was a good deal," said Claudia Crosthwaite of Cindy Derr-Janek Co. "It could have been split and probably will be split."

There are still 1½ acres in the McGuckins' name, but there is no structure on the land. Suttmeier said that he will push for changes to state law that would allow people in the McGuckins' situation to get something back from a tax auction.

Current law requires that once the tax debt is met, any principal left over from the sale must be distributed to all the taxing districts that serve the property, such as the fire department and the school district. He said he would rather see the money go back to the property title holders.

"Something like $45,000 would have gone back to them," he said. "That would have been enough to put up a double-width mobile home on that 1½ acres, and they wouldn't be on the street.

"We're going to change it," he said.