For the few ranchers and farmers who call it home, the town of Leith, N.D., is a quiet, friendly place. With a population of about 20 people, it is a prairie town of unpaved roads, wheat fields and big sky. Its main landmark was once a railroad, which no longer passes through the town. Its nearest major city — Bismarck — is more than 70 miles away.
But about five years ago, Leith made national headlines, its residents terrorized by a white supremacist intent on taking over the town. The bearded new neighbor, Craig Cobb, moved into town discreetly, having fled Canada facing charges of promoting hate. But he had a plan — to turn Leith into an enclave of white supremacy.
Cobb began buying up cheap properties in the town and posting messages on neo-Nazi online forums, inviting fellow white supremacists to move to the town. In 2013, he had given lots to a former grand dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and another to the founder of a white supremacist website, the Bismarck Tribune reported. Nazi flags began appearing in Leith, and Cobb slowly plotted to take control of the city council.
News reporters began catching up with his plans, and the local residents began trying to thwart them. In September 2013, hundreds of people from the surrounding states descended on the town to protest a visit from Jeff Schoep, the leader of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.
Two months later, after Cobb found his house vandalized, he and a fellow Nazi-supporter set out on an armed patrol through Leith, threatening residents. They were both arrested, and Cobb pleaded guilty to menacing and terrorizing the town. He moved to a town near the Canadian border, slipping under the radar as he served four years of probation. Most of his followers also left the town.
But Cobb’s probation, and restrictions forcing him to stay out of Leith, ended in April. And the white supremacist’s presence in the community continues to rattle its residents. Now, Leith’s mayor is trying to dissolve the city government in its entirety, he said in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday night.
Mayor Ryan Schock drafted a petition to abolish the city government and put the town under the control of the county. He collected 12 signatures from the town’s 18 registered voters, and last week, the commission agreed to schedule a special election next month for residents to vote whether to keep the town’s incorporated status or do away with it.
Because most residents have their own wells, the city doesn’t offer many municipal services — no water, no sewage, no garbage collection, Schock said. The local government is stripped of funds, limiting its work even more. But beyond that, there is still a rippling fear the Cobb nightmare might repeat itself. Schock and other residents worry white supremacy might threaten to overrun the town once again.
“It just seems like there’s always something brewing,” Schock said. “Ever since we got Cobb out of here, the town’s been divided.”
“It’s just tension, I guess,” the mayor added. “There’s feelings there that were never there before.”
Local news outlets portrayed Schock’s move as a reaction to the June 12 election, in which two Leith residents — Michael Bencz and Deby Nelson — were elected to the city council as write-in candidates. The two moved to Leith around the same time as Cobb, purchasing property from him. While some residents allege Bencz and Nelson are tied to the white supremacist, both of them have denied any association.
While Schock insisted his petition had nothing to do with Bencz and Nelson, he did paint it as an effort to preserve the legacy of the struggling town.
“If Craig Cobb would have had his grand scheme pulled off, the heritage that was in Leith would have been changed forever,” Schock said. If Cobb almost succeeded then, what’s to keep that from happening again? “I don’t want to see it end up like that.”
Leith has been “crippled” by a slew of lawsuits in the time since Cobb left, Schock said. To help force the white supremacist out of town, the city council put in place a number of ordinances and new building codes. The county health department began condemning many of the structures purchased and later sold by Cobb. Some of these moves led residents to sue the city government, and while the state eventually dropped all of the charges, Leith was left drowning in legal fees.
This has all complicated life for Schock, who has led the city for 16 years while running his ranch. He only became mayor after the two previous mayors died. “I’m not a politician,” said the husband and father of three. “I’m not a full-time mayor. I’ve got a family to run.”
“Up until five years ago it wasn’t that big a deal,” he added. “You had a meeting once in a while. You cleaned up what needed to be cleaned up and that was it.”
But since then, he has had “meeting after meeting after meeting,” and “complaints all the time.”
“I’ve just personally come to the point where I think the town would be better off without having a government,” Schock said.
Not everyone is in favor of dissolving the government. The decision to take the petition to a citywide vote caused an “uproar” at a meeting last week, Schock said, with many portraying it as an attempt to wipe Leith off the map entirely.
The editorial board of the Bismarck Tribune argued that dropping incorporation would be a “victory of sorts for Cobb.”
“He wasn’t able to take control of the town, but he will have succeeded in taking control away from the residents,” the editorial stated. “Leith’s residents need to work together to put Cobb in the past. They don’t need to give up their status as a town. Leith needs to be diligent, but they shouldn’t live in fear.”
It hasn’t been easy for Leith residents to put Cobb behind them. Despite becoming a bit of a recluse, he has continued to make headlines in recent years, jumping from one Midwestern town to another. In 2015, he tried to buy properties in the town of Antler, N.D., but the city government bought them instead, in an attempt to keep him away. That same year, a documentary, “Welcome to Leith,” was released chronicling Cobb’s efforts to take over the town. It was later nominated for an Emmy.
Last year, an abandoned church purchased by Cobb in the town of Nome, N.D., mysteriously erupted in flames, a fire he believed to be intentionally set. He had planned to give the church to the Creativity Movement, a nontheistic religion that preaches anti-Semitism and white superiority. He planned to name the church the “President Donald J. Trump Creativity Church of Rome.” Yes, that’s Rome, not Nome, “a little play on history there, you see,” Cobb told a local news station.
Cobb’s ideology is based on the concept of creating a “Pioneer Little Europe,” an idea first proposed in the early 2000s by white supremacist H. Michael Barrett. The goal is to consolidate white residents in all white enclaves, pushing out other ethnic groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. States like Montana, Idaho and North Dakota, “have historically been considered appealing places to start because of lack of racial diversity,” the SPLC wrote.
Indeed, the town of Leith is mostly white. But there is one black resident, a man named Bobby Harper.
Speaking to the Bismarck Tribune at the height of the Cobb frenzy, Harper said the white supremacist made him “more aware of who I speak to.”
“They can have that ugly stuff in their mind as long as they’re not bringing it toward me,” he said.
These days, Leith is ridden with abandoned buildings and strapped of cash. But there are no swastikas in sight, and residents hope to keep it that way.
Leith may be on the verge of losing its city government, but Schock hopes to keep its history alive. He wants residents to remember the old creamery, the old movie theater that became the town hall, the town dances that used to draw residents together at night.
“I just hope those are the memories that are preserved,” the mayor said, “instead of the Cobb saga.”