Residents of tiny Clarence seeking answers in wake of terrorism charges

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Residents of tiny Clarence seeking answers in wake of terrorism charges

CLARENCE — Surrounded by corn fields and wind turbines, the unincorporated community of Clarence is normally a quiet place.

Eileen Roewert has lived in one of the town's first homes, dating back to the 1880s, for the past 25 years. Situated on the far north end of the tiny Ford County community, Roewert moved there for the serenity — not to mention the affordable price of her house and the low property taxes.

"There's nothing out here," said Roewert, who works as a lab technician at a hospital in Hoopeston some 15 miles away. "You can do what you want to do and not do what you want to do. ... I like having elbow room, definitely. Living in town? No."

Roewert plans to continue living at her home at 205 N. Main Road until the day she dies.

"I wouldn't trade it for anything," she said.

A few blocks down the street, at 214 S. Main Road, resident Amy Cantu has similar plans. The 31-year-old Cantu moved in with her in-laws at that address more than a year ago, along with her husband and daughters, but her connections with Clarence go much further back, as her aunt and uncle had owned property in the town for 15 years and her grandparents still do. In her childhood, she used to visit Clarence regularly, spending her summers there.

"I wouldn't go anywhere else," Cantu said. "This is home."

The sleepy little town of Clarence is home to an estimated 60 residents, Cantu said — "with the dogs and the cats and the cows and everything."

There's usually not much excitement in this town. There is the occasional horse on the loose. Or an all-terrain vehicle running up and down the street. Or guns being fired for target practice.

"I personally don't care for the firecrackers and the shotguns going off, simply because of my dogs," said Roewert, who was once known as "The Dog Lady of Clarence" when she used to show and raise Brittanies. "But that's about it. There's not much going on."

Normally, about the only thing to worry about in Clarence is getting groceries or fuel for a mower. The closest stores are in Paxton and Rankin, each town roughly 5 miles away.

"You just prepare for it," Roewert said.

 

'First thing I thought was another meth lab'

The typical calm in Clarence was interrupted in February, when federal agents swarmed upon a property on North Main Street to search for homemade explosives that an anonymous tipster had claimed would be there. Multiple explosive devices were found, but the occupants of the property said they had no idea the devices were there and that they suspected a neighbor — Michael B. Hari — had placed them there.

That incident was just the beginning.

"I was here that day when everything happened, and ... I woke up in the chair and looked out and I was like, 'OK, something happened; all right, fine,'" Roewert said. "And then I see the bomb robot going down (the street), and I'm like, 'Oh, that ain't good.' The first thing I thought was another meth lab."

In the days to follow, agents would return, this time knocking on the doors of all 30 homes in town and interviewing their residents.

"They were just asking everybody typical questions — 'Have you ever dealt with gunpowder? Have you ever dealt with any kind of explosives? Who all lives here?' — just basic questions that they needed to ask everybody in the town," Cantu said. "They'd been out here for a while, up and down the streets, so when they went door to door, I knew why they were at the door."

Shortly thereafter, four Clarence men, including the 47-year-old Hari, were arrested on federal charges of possession of a machine gun and arson — charges intended to hold them while the government seeks additional charges that allegedly link three of them to a mosque bombing in Minnesota and the attempted bombing of a women's health clinic in Champaign last year.

Hari and the three other men — Michael McWhorter, 29, Joe Morris, 22, and Ellis "E.J." Mack, 18 — allegedly belonged to a homegrown domestic terrorism group called the White Rabbit 3 Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia, also known as the White Rabbits. Hari, a former Ford County sheriff's deputy and one-time Libertarian candidate for sheriff, is believed to have been the leader of the group.

Even after the March arrests, federal agents, accompanied by the joint University of Illinois/Champaign police bomb squad, returned to town last week, searching a home where Hari was living on a dead-end road, at 209 W. First St. North.

 

'It's just sad that we've come to this'

Cantu said she and other residents continue to be in shock that tiny Clarence is now linked to crimes of terrorism.

"I just never pictured anything like this happening in Clarence — never," Cantu said. "I mean, it's not supposed to be like that out here in the country."

"It's sad. Absolutely sad," Roewert said. "This is just what our world's become, and it's not something us baby boomers would have expected at all. ... It's just sad that we've come to this."

Cantu said it is especially frightening to know that homemade explosive devices were apparently being hidden on others' properties in town.

"I never thought that people who have been in this town for this long would put us in danger like that," Cantu said. "One of my dogs could have went and picked up a pipe bomb and brought it down into my yard and we wouldn't have known what it was or identified it, or it could have blew up one of my dogs or my child.

"That is why everybody, I feel like, is more in shock — that people who have been here as long as Mike Hari's been here would put us at risk like that.

"I've been friends with the McWhorters my whole life, and to see Michael (McWhorter) where he's at now, I never pictured that — never in a million years."

 

'There have to be more than those four'

Annette Nicholson and her husband bought an old home at 210 W. First St. about a year and a half ago, seeking a quiet place to spend their retirement. Nicholson said she didn't have any idea that alleged terrorists were living nearby, but she did take notice when more and more Confederate flags and "Don't Tread on Me" flags started being displayed at a number of homes on her street within the last six months.

"There was only one, and then all of a sudden, 'Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam,' Nicholson said. "I didn't notice any of these others until the last six months.

"I can honestly tell you that many years ago there was this band called Alabama that I really liked, and, yeah, they had a Confederate flag, but this makes me nervous because they're using it in the manner they're using it. That's kind of scary to me."

Hari had recently been flying a "Don't Tread on Me" flag and a Confederate flag at an office building he was renting on Main Street. Hari's alleged terrorist group believes socialism and Marxism are encroaching upon America.

"We stand against the regulation and taxation that's taken over this country, the political correctness, just plain socialism that's creeping up everywhere we look," a White Rabbits member says on a YouTube video.

Nicholson said that while the four White Rabbits members remain in federal custody, she remains concerned about the possibility there are other members of the group still active in her community. The White Rabbits claimed in one YouTube video that about half of the homes in Clarence have at least one household member who belongs to their group.

"There have to be more than those four," Nicholson said, "and who knows what they're planning."

 

'We become prime areas for stuff to happen'

With everything that has happened recently in Clarence, Nicholson said she has "most definitely changed my mind about living here."

"I have determined that my grandkids are not spending the summers with us here — no way," Nicholson said. "All of our grandkids come spend the summers with us, and that's not happening this year.

"And I am moving. I don't care if I have to let (my property) sit vacant. I want to sell it, but I probably can't give it away now."Meanwhile, others, such as Roewert and Cantu, are staying put.

"This is my home," Roewert said. "I'm not going to move. I am not going anywhere."

Roewert noted that no town, no matter how small, is completely safe.

"We're primed for things like this happening, simply because there's nobody around," Roewert said. "It's not because we don't talk to each other and don't have yard parties or whatever, it's just there's not many people around, and so, yeah, we become prime areas for stuff to happen.

"I personally can't fix it, but I can take care of my own corner. So that's what I do."

 

'Somebody will ask, 'You're from Clarence?'

Cantu said she loves living in Clarence, and most residents are good people with good intentions.

"I love the people I live around besides a select few," Cantu said. "I feel like we're all pretty honest with each other. When it comes down to being honest and real about things, we're pretty honest. I think that's why everybody's kind of shocked and just like, 'Damn, why did this happen here?' So that's what sucks the most, I feel like."

Cantu said that although Clarence is no longer a blip on the map given the amount of publicity the Hari case has received recently, her town will move on from it.

"I get questioned at church now — everything is a question now," Cantu said. "Someone will ask, 'You're from Clarence?' And everybody's eyes get real big. And you kind of put your head down, like, 'Yes, yes, that's where I live. Thank you.'

"But I wouldn't change it at all."

 

The latest on the arrests

➜ Four men from Clarence — the Ford County town located 33.5 miles north of Champaign — remain in federal custody after their March 13 arrest for possession of a machine gun.

➜ According to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Urbana by FBI special officer Barbara Robbins, agents gathered evidence that alleges that three of the men — Michael Hari, 47, Michael McWhorter, 29, and Joe Morris, 22 — were responsible for bombing a Minnesota mosque on Aug. 5, 2017, and attempting to bomb Champaign’s Women’s Health Practice, 2125 S. Neil St., on Nov. 7, 2017.

➜ A grand jury is expected to meet early this month to indict the group.

 

Clarence: A history lesson

Three things you should know about the tiny village of Clarence, from Ford County Record contributor Derrick Babbs:

1. The town is named after a handsome young man who lived with his folks on a farm.

In the early 1870s, as the story goes, the Lake Erie & Western Railroad built a railroad through Ford County and through what would later become the town of Clarence. There was prolonged and passionate discussion about the name to be given to the railroad station erected there.

Among the prominent early settlers in the town were the Fredericks and the Kirkpatricks. The Fredericks insisted that the station be named Frederick; the Kirkpatricks argued that it should be named Kirk’s Station.

Every Saturday night, when men of the community assembled for their weekly meetings in one of the stores in Clarence, the argument continued — sometimes becoming heated and insistent.

Finally, one Saturday night, after about two months of arguments, they were loudly debating the subject again, when the door opened and Clarence Smith walked in.

Immediately, a participant shouted: “Your answer just walked in the door. Let’s call it Clarence.”

And without any formality, that name was promptly accepted.

2. What is now a town of about 60 had a population of 300-plus — and a bustling business district — back in the day.

In 1900, Clarence had its own bank and two grain elevators. There were also a number of stores, including Kirkpatrick’s Hardware, Healy’s Dry Goods and Nelson’s Grocery & Variety, which had a couple of billiard tables in the rear to provide amusement for customers.

The grain dealer S. Frederick & Co. would eventually build an up-to-date elevator on the south side of the LE&W Railroad tracks. It had a capacity of 100,000 bushels and helped make the community one of the greatest grain shipping points on the railroad.

Clarence also boasted a fine hotel and a school with two teachers. And there were two houses of worship in town — Presbyterian and Swedish Lutheran churches.

3. And then came the fires.

In 1911, Sherman Frederick’s elevator, estimated to be worth $20,000, was destroyed by fire.

In October 1917, another devastating fire destroyed every business building on Main Road, except one store. This time, the loss was estimated at $30,000.

In April 1930, a group of robbers had plans to rob the bank, but the locals heard about the plans and prepared for an ambush. The sheriff set up a machine gun position across from the bank, and the robbers were arrested before ever reaching the bank.

Will Brumleve is editor of the Ford County Record, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit fordcountyrecord.com.

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Pointblank wrote on April 01, 2018 at 8:04 am
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Just making one last comment. CallSaul and others have successfully closed down a town forum.

rsp wrote on April 01, 2018 at 8:04 am

In April 1930, a group of robbers had plans to rob the bank, but the locals heard about the plans and prepared for an ambush. The sheriff set up a machine gun position across from the bank, and the robbers were arrested before ever reaching the bank.

The irony of the sheriff saving the town in the past with a machine gun and a wanna be sheriff terrorizing the same town with a machine gun years later.