The Children's War

  • "It was a family affair," Dale Coffelt says, recalling the Saturday that JoAnn McGuckin, 45, pulled up to see him in her aging Chevy Suburban. "She just showed up with all the kids." Well, not all. Six of her eight children were packed in the SUV. But so was the body of her husband Michael, 61, dead that day from the final malnourishing stages of almost a decade of multiple sclerosis.

    McGuckin and her family were dedicated recluses on the outskirts of Sandpoint, Idaho, a state noted for recluses. The clan chose to meet with few people, mostly charity workers, from whom they had collected food baskets a couple of times a month since 1998. Michael had been unemployed since falling ill; no one else made a living; the water pump for their decrepit home near Lake Pend Oreille had broken down. The kids, Sheriff Phil Jarvis believes, subsisted on lake water and "lily-pad soup." But even JoAnn knew to seek out Coffelt on that May 12. After all, he is the county coroner and funeral director. All she did was drop the body off. Coffelt waited nearly two more weeks before he got the widow to commit to any kind of burial arrangement. He wasn't allowed to go by the house to consult "because of the dogs"--more than two dozen mean and hungry ones (they lived on whatever leftovers they could find)--that prowled the property and kept visitors, all unwanted, out. Says Coffelt: "The lady just doesn't communicate."

    She did, however, communicate to those six children the need to keep the world at bay. When the authorities took her away last Tuesday, four days after Coffelt got her to bury her husband, the kids went to battle stations. A police deputy drove up to take the children into protective custody. "Where's Mother?" asked Benjamin McGuckin, 14. The officer said she was in a hospital with chest pains and he was there to take them to see her. The boy refused to believe him and, according to Sheriff Jarvis, ran into the house yelling "Get the guns!" The kids set the dogs loose, and the deputy left to avoid a confrontation. Most of the McGuckins remained in the house for the rest of the week, with their dogs about them, with a shotgun, rifles and handguns beside them, with 200 lbs. of food--a recent pickup from a food bank--to sustain them, even as a Pacific front brought rain, strong winds and thunder, ripping branches off trees and chasing sailboats off the lake. The police kept their distance, mindful of the mishandling of the 1992 incident in nearby Ruby Ridge, where FBI agents killed the wife and son of white separatist Randy Weaver.

    It was a daughter who turned on JoAnn McGuckin and started the series of events that led to the standoff near Lake Pend Oreille. After a falling-out with her mother in the past few weeks, Erina, 19, left to tell the authorities about the conditions at home. (Earlier, a son had left home for California.) Based on Erina's statements, police picked up the mother and charged her with a felony crime of injury to the children "by unlawfully and willfully causing or permitting [her] children to suffer malnutrition, unsanitary living conditions, depriving [them] of heat, cleanliness and food." She is being held pending bail of $100,000. JoAnn had reportedly led the family into the shadows of isolation in the belief that chemicals on the road, insidiously sprayed by the government, had caused her husband's illness. Phillip Robinson, the county prosecutor, has known the McGuckins for years. The family, he says, "has fallen apart; it has got worse and worse. But," he adds, "it's strictly volitional."

    With time, however, the will can give way. By the night before the rains came, Benjamin too had abandoned his siblings--Kathryn, 16; Mary, 13; James, 11; Frederick, 9; and Jane, 8. On Saturday, two women who were close to the family were allowed to drive in to check on the kids. By 6 p.m. the women had done what no one else seemed to have been able to accomplish. The children were loaded into a Chevy Suburban and driven to a hospital in Sandpoint under police escort. The drama had ended--a frightening parable of how loyal children can be to a mother's vision.