The children hadn't been to school for years. Visitors were turned away, people with packages of food were threatened with the barrel of a gun and a pack of dogs. Most folks didn't think twice. This is Idaho.
"They were recluses. Well, you got a lot of recluses around here. A lot of people out here don't want to be found," said Bill Daly, who runs a boat storage facility not far from where five children--hungry, fearful and armed with at least five guns--remained holed up in a house in the woods Friday, defying efforts to bring them out.
"We're not a government agency out here," added John, a local store owner who asked that his last name not be used. "We don't have no health and welfare people running around here. If somebody needs help, they ask. If they're proud, they don't ask and they don't get it."
An uneasy deadlock entered its fourth day Friday, although sheriff's deputies were increasingly optimistic that they would be able to lure out the houseful of children whose mother, 45-year-old JoAnn Dunn McGuckin, was arrested earlier this week on a felony neglect charge. Authorities cited years of inadequate food and heat at the remote household that had left at least one of the children so malnourished that her bones were breaking.
Benjamin McGuckin, 15, who had initially called for his siblings to "get the guns" when sheriff's deputies arrived earlier in the week, slipped out of the house sometime Thursday and is now cooperating to help bring what authorities hope will be an end to the crisis. Five other children, ages 8 to 16, remained inside the house late Friday, guarded by 27 dogs that police described as vicious.
"We have not made contact with the other children, although we've attempted it. They're not responding," Bonner County sheriff's Sgt. Bob Rahn said. "Hopefully, the boy is going to be able to provide us with some information and maybe some assistance in trying to wind this thing down with the other kids." The boy was seen entering the property in the company of sheriff's deputies Friday afternoon. A telephone truck and one of the mother's lawyers also entered the property.
The attorney, Bryce Powell, later emerged to tell reporters that there had been communication with the children. "Things are looking better, but we have a lot to do," he said. "Now, they know their mother is alive."
Another lawyer for the family, Edgar J. Steele, in a statement distributed by militia groups across the country, called the deadlock "a modern American tragedy in the making" and blamed authorities for moving in on a family "whose only crime was poverty."
In the rural lakeside town of Sagle, a half-hour's drive from Sandpoint, Idaho, there is support for Sheriff Phil Jarvis' move to step in on behalf of the children but a strong belief that families such as the McGuckins who choose to keep to themselves are far from extraordinary.
"I moved up here 12 years ago from Boston to get away from the rat race," Daly said. "I've seen a lot of people come in here that don't have two nickels to rub together, but they're due their privacy. As far as I know, it's still a free country.
"You find a dirt road out here and it's posted [no trespassing], you don't want to go up it. You take your life in your hands if you do."
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has expressed support for the sheriff's attempt to bring out the children and praise for his reticence to spark a confrontation, but his spokesman, Mark Schneider, said the state has traditionally been reluctant to intervene when it comes to parents raising their children.
"In Idaho, part of the reason people like to live here is we respect the family and we respect their choices, so if a family chooses to live like this and makes these choices about how to raise their children, by and large we will respect that right and let the family make their decisions," Schneider said. "We don't want the government in everybody's living room."
The state, whose legislature is the most Republican in America, has touted advances in welfare reform that have seen an 84.2% reduction in caseload over the last six years, the second-highest in the country. But social activists complain that the aggressive caseload cutback has left many families without a safety net. The state's refusal to grant cash assistance to families of disabled people--as the children's late father, Michael McGuckin, was when he lost his sawmill and fell ill with multiple sclerosis--"consigns many of these families to extreme poverty," the Idaho Community Action Network said in a report last year.
Neighbors said the McGuckins were a friendly, sociable family until four or five years ago, when the father fell ill and the mother began to suffer from increasing paranoia that caused her to keep the children home from school, shut off the phone and take out the mailbox. Last summer, the county sold the family's 40-acre property for $8,444 in back taxes, although the McGuckins were apparently allowed to remain there.
"The children were so sweet, they were always very curious about everything," said Mary Peters, a neighbor who has known the family for years. The children used to be in 4-H programs, and Michael would drive everybody to meetings, Peters said. The children would tie-dye shirts at her house. "But JoAnn just stopped wanting people to come over. All of a sudden, she took the kids out of everything. She'd say, 'Mary, don't talk to me, I don't want you to ever call back. I think it's better that way.' "
Peters said McGuckin started believing the government and others were trying to harm her family. "One time, she called and said, 'Mary, I saw a vision in my chicken coop. Things are going to get real bad. . . .' She started talking about not getting food from anybody else because it would be poisoned."
Erina McGuckin, 19, who moved out of the house recently and began working with authorities to help her siblings, was so malnourished that she was denied entry into the military because of stress fractures in her bones. "She's like an old lady after menopause, and she's 19," Peters said.
In court this week, county prosecutor Phil Robinson said authorities have received calls of concern about the family from neighbors since 1997. The county coroner heard from JoAnn McGuckin after her husband's death earlier this month. He offered to send a vehicle out to pick up the body, but McGuckin had loaded the body in the back of her car and brought it in, according to court documents.
Prosecutors alleged in court that JoAnn McGuckin was spending most of the family's money on alcohol and had the children living in tents "on the verge of starving."
Food bank manager Alice Wallace said McGuckin had been coming in with her children to pick up food since 1998. "They weren't raised perfectly, but they had a lot of love there," Wallace said.
Steele said he blames authorities for sparking the crisis. "Rather than allow this tightly knit family a decent period to grieve the loss of their beloved husband and father, the county government instead is doing its best to make the family's worst nightmare come true. Mrs. McGuckin has been fearful of the government taking her property and her kids. Today, that fear is realized."