Hardin: a sleepy town set in the rolling plains of southeastern Montana, 50 miles east of Billings, 15 miles north of the site of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s slaughter at the battle of Little Bighorn. Population: about 3,500. Primary mode of economic production: agriculture. The City of Hardin website explains the town was dubbed the “City of Reason” in the early 20th century, due to its “potential for economic growth” – a prophetically ironic designation given recent events.
Not much happens in Hardin. The streets, set in a grid around simple ranch-style homes, run quiet and slow. At the heart of the city sits a large rectangular park – a few blocks away from the Broadway Flying J truck stop casino and bar, home to I‑90 long-haulers playing electronic keno and poker. The occasional crew of wrinkled Greyhound patrons file in looking to buy withered hot dogs and cigarettes.
Across the Flying J parking lot sits a Pizza Hut. A few miles east, a short trip over a few frozen fields, lies the Two Rivers Detention Facility, which has been vacant since its completion in 2007. The jail was built to provide sorely needed jobs for Hardin and the neighboring Crow Reservation. When the idea to build this huskow was pitched, Hardin had the highest unemployment rate in Montana. The reservation, with its corrugated tin shacks and tourist “trading post” emporiums filled with “genuine” Chinese moccasins and beads, is one of the most impoverished places in the nation.
Despite the area’s need for employment, local officials have been unable to find inmates to fill their jail, and so the 464-room dormitory-style structure with its 20-foot fences and rolls of razor wire, leads a lonely existence at the city limits. The town’s insurance policy on the jail, which expired Nov. 1, 2009, was not renewed for lack of funds. All utilities to the facility have been disconnected. And so it sits, a $27 million folly, an asset being eroded by a cold wind blowing sheets of snow through the recreation yard where once, one of the jail’s sole occupants, a goat, used to graze during the brief period when the town’s animal control office was housed there.
Mystery man from Montenegro
On the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009, something out of the ordinary occurred to disrupt the general atmosphere of atrophy in town, and which would set Hardin as the backdrop for much national and international speculation.
Three Mercedes SUVs, sans license plates and bearing detachable magnetic decals reading “City of Hardin Police Department,” rolled into town. From the center of the decals, the double-headed eagle crest of Montenegro glared out onto the dusty sidewalks and denizens of Hardin.
Piloting the miniature caravan was Michael Hilton, aka Miodrag Dokovich, aka “Captain Michael,” the Montenegro-born owner of American Private Police Force (APPF), a Santa Ana, Calif.-based company that boasted paramilitary operations across the globe; a subsidiary of a powerful, though unnamed, private security/armed forces corporation.
One problem with the sudden presence of these sleek law enforcement vehicles in Hardin was the fact that Hardin, seat of Big Horn County, has been without a police force since the 1970s.
Another issue, which brought no small amount of uneasiness, was the fact that Hilton and APPF had just signed a ten-year contract with Two Rivers Port Authority (TRA), Hardin’s economic development arm, to lease the town’s empty jail. Hilton had expressed ambitious goals for the facility, including the leasing of 5,000 acres adjacent to the jail as a training ground for his mercenary forces.
Enter the Internet yahoos
Rumors began to metastasize on the Web that evil was afoot in Hardin. One theory had it that Hilton’s private army had taken over the jail as part of a New World Order plan to round up and detain Americans in strategically placed Federal Emergency Management Agency concentration camps.
Another theory posited that APPF’s presence in Hardin was part of President Obama’s plan to replace local police forces with armed mercenaries intent on forcibly administering the H1N1 flu vaccine – possibly a plot to kill off right-wing rural populations hip to the fact that Obama is a communist stoolie of the Illuminati, Shriners and the “international banker cartel.”
This story was boosted by an anonymous e‑mail publicized by internet/radio celebrity Alex Jones, of infowars.com. The email, a cry for help supposedly penned by a Hardin resident, laid out the “dire” conditions in the town.
The message claimed that APPF forces had blockaded all exits and entrances to the town, and were stopping and detaining motorists. Hilton was said to have informed the city council that the swine flu vaccination would be administered to all Hardin residents. Those who refused would be jailed.
In closing, the unknown author wrote: “Things have changed so quickly in the last 24 hours! Things are not and will never be the same. We are indeed going into the prophesied ‘four years of captivity for America.’ I believe we are about to enter into a time of persecution that the Church in America has never known! We must prepare!”
While the faithful awaited the final battle between Jesus and Satan, local businesses were inundated with phone calls from concerned individuals, former residents and media of all stripes.
Billings Gazette reporter Ed Kemmick related the level of paranoia to his readers: “Carrie McLeary, who lives outside Hardin but works in town as a store clerk, said she drove over to Forsyth to have a hog butchered Tuesday and found out later that her mother, in Spokane, had been trying to reach her all day. She said her mother and her friends ‘wanted to know how many casualties there were.’ ”
Hoping to quell the rumors, TRA posted a statement on its website: “We welcome anyone to visit our town! There are no commandos in the streets. There is no fence or gate being built around Hardin. People are free to come and go as they please. APF [sic] is not running our town or our police force.”
Girl Scout spies
On Oct. 1, 2009, Jones flew into Montana from his infowars.com base in Austin, Texas, to broadcast live from the site of the Two Rivers Detention Facility. He described in livid detail how he had been tailed through Billings Logan International Airport by a mob of Girl Scouts acting as spies for the Department of Homeland Security, and barked accusations at Becky Shay, Billings Gazette reporter-turned-APPF spokeswoman, that the group was nothing but a front for Xe Services, formerly Blackwater.
The next day Shay held a tearful press conference in which she said she feared for her safety.
The APPF circus then dissipated as quickly as it had appeared.
It turned out Hilton was nothing more than a con man, a convicted felon who had spent 14 months in prison for theft and who had a civil judgment of more than $1 million outstanding against him for swindling investors in a California development deal involving an assisted-living residence. This news prompted Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock to demand APPF produce documentation to back its grandiose claims. At a court appearance in California in late October stemming from the fraud civil suit, Hilton revealed that he was in fact destitute, living in a small basement apartment – and that APPF was essentially a corporation in name only; he had conned a few individuals into putting up the money for the website and storefront office space in a Santa Ana strip mall.
In a sad testament to either the trusting nature or the desperation of the town government, it was Hilton who pulled out of the deal and returned to California. There was no ride out on a rail, no tar-and-feathering – just a lot of sad people sitting on an empty jail, scratching their heads.
It remains business as usual for Hardin officials trying to save their town. They had considered converting the empty jail into some sort of low-income housing project, an indoor paintball park, or possibly a greenhouse for medical marijuana. None of the ideas stuck.
Instead, as the jail weathers the elements, local imaginations have turned to the idea of a “knacker” plant to provide the expanding East Asian market with horse meat.
Why did the people of Hardin build this unsuccessful, possibly cursed, prison? Three years earlier, another con man had taken these naifs for a ride. Beau Hodai’s story continues, in the March 2010 issue of In These Times, here.