6 siblings make a lonely stand, minus mother, father and power
Agle, Idaho, May 31 — “This is not a standoff,” Sheriff Phil Jarvis of Bonner County said today.
Sheriff Jarvis was speaking about a bizarre impasse in the deep woods of northern Idaho with the six inhabitants of a ramshackle house whom the authorities described as armed and scared.
Three boys and three girls, ages 8 to 16, barricaded themselves inside, the authorities said, after their mother was arrested on Tuesday on charges of child neglect. The children, who unleashed a pack of ferocious dogs when the deputies showed up to try to coax them out, have lived a shut-off existence for some time, the authorities said. Their isolation deteriorated into squalor in recent weeks, the authorities said, as their father, Michael McGuckin, 61, died of multiple sclerosis on May 12 and the mental illness of their mother, JoAnn McGuckin, 45, became acutely worse. The illness was described as paranoid schizophrenia.
The family’s rugged and autonomous existence was not all that unusual in the Idaho Panhandle, where scores of families live “off the grid” — unconnected to schools, churches, telephones, television and most everything else in conventional society.
But in this case, the independent ways of the McGuckin family clashed head-on with a confluence of family tragedies. With both parents now gone from the home, the children believe they are on
their own, literally, those who know them say.
“This is what they have been taught — they have been told all their lives, `Don’t trust the authorities, don’t trust anyone on the outside,’ ” Alice Wallace, the director of the Bonner Community Food Center, a local food bank, said today.
“They’ve been told, above all else, keep to yourselves,” Ms. Wallace said.
One child inside the house was heard yelling “Get the guns,” before the officers pulled back on Tuesday, the sheriff’s office said. The local authorities continued their efforts today to persuade the children to give up, relying on the help of an older sister, Erina, who lives nearby.
But they will not use force, the authorities said, after the disastrous confrontation with a white separatist in nearby Ruby Ridge nine years ago, leaving a federal deputy marshal and the separatist’s wife and teenage son dead.
Local authorities say they are trying to offer the children help, possibly to place them with relatives or in foster care. But the children are intensely suspicious of outsiders.
Living without electric power, heat or a source of clean water, and apparently schooled at home in name only, the children have been essentially confined to the property for years, some neighbors said today. The neighbors and a local Roman Catholic priest also said that the mother had angrily rebuffed several offers of help and indeed refused to sign any paperwork that might have brought medical help to her husband because, she said, she did not trust the government.
But leaving the family alone was an increasingly untenable proposition for the local authorities, especially after Mrs. McGuckin delivered her husband’s body to the coroner in the back of the family’s Chevrolet Suburban. Mr. McGuckin had been bedridden with multiple sclerosis, though the local coroner, Dale Coffelt, listed the official cause of death as dehydration and malnutrition.
Concerned about reports from some neighbors that the children were also malnourished and perhaps subsisting largely on a combination of lake water and lily pads, the authorities said, they decided that the time had come to intervene.
Several people in town rejected suggestions that the family’s problems had been ignored by the community. The problem, they said, was that Mrs. McGuckin had been adamant in rejecting overtures.
“People did try to help out here,” said the Rev. Dennis Day, a priest at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in nearby Sandpoint. “Every effort was rebuffed, and this family lived in progressively increasing isolation, cut off from everything, with a collar of the mother’s paranoia. It was a tragic situation.”
But some neighbors admitted that they had become so afraid of the dogs and Mrs. McGuckin’s belligerent attitude that they essentially avoided the property altogether.
One neighbor, Stephanie Almy, said she had been attacked by several of the McGuckins’ dogs as she walked her own dog past the house last week, suffering a laceration on her arm that required 17 stitches.
“They were like a pack of coyotes,” Ms. Almy said in an interview. Her husband, Bob, said the dogs, and by extension their owners, had been “terrorizing this area for a long time.”
Last Friday, the family held a small lakeside funeral for their father, who, along with his wife, had once been a fairly active member of the community. Mr. McGuckin once owned a sawmill in the area and was a former member of the local Knights of Columbus and a former member of St. Joseph’schurch in Sandpoint. Mrs. McGuckin’s sister is married to the former police chief there. But the family had become almost completely reclusive in the last two or three years.
The authorities arrested Mrs. McGuckin after persuading her to come into town to see them under a pretext. The warrant charging her with felony child neglect had been sought by a county prosecutor.
But later, when deputies went to the house, the six children recoiled at the efforts to get them to come out. The sheriff’s office said there were two dozen dogs or more living in the house, and that several had been unleashed on the deputies when they came onto the property.
On Wednesday afternoon, deputies outside the house briefly made contact with at least one of the children, and the St. Joseph’s priest and another person who knows the children were brought in to talk to them. But noise from an overhead helicopter, containing a news crew from a Spokane, Wash., television station, apparently frightened the children and they barricaded themselves back in the house. Sheriff Jarvis later said he was angry at that particular intrusion by the news media.
The road to the house remains sealed off, and the authorities declined to say whether progress had been made in negotiations today.
Just what will happen to Mrs. McGuckin is unclear, though local authorities have strongly suggested that they are less interested in prosecuting her on the neglect charges than they are in securing professional help to deal with her mental illness. One family friend, Ginger Campbell, said Mrs. McGuckin had repeatedly expressed concerns that airplanes flying overhead and county road-maintenance vehicles contained secret agents who were out to kill her and her children.
Mrs. McGuckin is being held in a local jail, though she was also briefly hospitalized for chest pains. She has a court hearing set for June 13. At a hearing on Wednesday, when asked if she wanted a lawyer, she said: “At this time, it would be prudent to be conservative, and please appoint an attorney.”
It is possible that the children could wind up with relatives. They have an aunt in Sandpoint. The older sister, Erina, 19, who apparently left home several weeks ago after an argument with her mother, has been living in nearby Rathdrum.
The authorities said that Erina, who has been cooperating with their efforts to get the children out, had been chiefly responsible for home-schooling her younger siblings and had in many ways been running the household as her mother grew increasingly worse.
That task now seems to have fallen to Kathryn, 16, and to Benjamin, 15.
Family friends and neighbors said the names of the other children were Mary, James, Frederick and Jane, but could not agree on exactly how old each of those children are.
The children could also be put in foster care, though Ms. Wallace, the local food-bank director, said that prospect might be adding to their determination to remain barricaded in their home.
Sheriff Jarvis said he had no intention of trying to have deputies force their way inside the house.
“It seems like an absurdity to enter into an armed confrontation with children,” he said, “and I’m not willing to allow the situation to escalate.” Autor: Sam Howe Verhovek