WHEN I walked into the general store at a dusty crossroads near here, it was quickly evident I wasn't a local. Maybe it was my unfamiliar face. Maybe it was the big-city clothes. More likely, it was the Sam Donaldson questions:
How ya doin'? Ever heard of the "Sons of Gestapo?"
The look of one old-timer leaning against a back wall told me I shouldn't expect an invitation to the local rod-and-gun club. Another curtly told me people here kept to themselves and didn't talk to "outsiders."
He then motioned with his head to meet him outside, where he told me he couldn't talk in front of friends in the store. He said there were plenty of white supremecists in the area, though he didn't say anything about the "Sons of Gestapo." Be careful, was his final admonition.
Thus went my 350-mile journey across the Arizona desert in search of the supposed neo-Nazi group that left a note claiming they had sabotaged an Amtrak train, killing one and injuring scores of others.
I never found the elusive fraternity, though I did talk to several people who said they knew members. Instead, with cellular phone in hand, I crisscrossed a saguaro-studded corner of America that experts say is a haven for extremist groups. There were plenty of friendly people and plenty who prefer to be left alone.
"Arizona is a remote, rural state that is very tolerant to strangers and accepting of those carrying guns," says Margaret Singer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and cult expert. "The state is a haven for the disenfranchised because they can be accepted while at the same time not be noticed."
I met Larry Dean on my way back from the derailment site. He said he has known about the "Sons of Gestapo" since he was a kid growing up in this rural desert.
"There's white supremacists all over these parts; it's their territory," says the beak-capped "flagger," who directs crop-dusting planes southwest of Phoenix.
Holding that many urban-based supremacist groups are troublemakers who give "sieg heil" salutes and act "obnoxious and tough" in groups, Mr. Dean says the more rural "Gestapo" members are low key, and keep to themselves. He and friend Dustin Brooks have run into them often at heavy-metal rock concerts.
"I've been laid out by 'em a couple of times," says Mr. Brooks, standing outside the Desert Rose cafe, near where the Amtrak passenger train was derailed Monday.
While 40 FBI agents combed a one-square-mile area around the wreck site, looking for forensic evidence that could point toward or away from antigovernment groups, I interviewed farmers in several communities from Gila Bend and Hyder to Paloma and Dateland.
Among the stories:
*Ralph Wall, a postal worker in Gila Bend, produces a photograph he says he took of a ritual totem used by groups in the Sundad area on consecutive New Year's Days in 1994 and 1995. A wood beam was lodged in the ground just miles up a small valley behind the trainwreck site, in an area accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicle. Secured into the side of the beam as a frame are spent shell casings and the design of a shepherd's crook.
"This is the stuff of some serious cult, not just a bunch of kids playing around," says Wall.
*John Laird, curator of the Gila Bend Museum, says another area adjacent to the site, Poco Dinero, was used as recently as Saturday by a group of three men and a woman driving a white hearse.
"The guys had really weird, skin-shaved heads and mohawks," says Mr. Laird. "It gave me a queazy feeling."
Several lifetime residents said they had never heard of such groups or seen a member. "I've heard of these groups as far away as Yuma and Phoenix, but I've never seen them here," says James Leiser, who runs a mining business. "I think that 'Sons of Gestapo' thing is just a ploy by someone trying to throw up a smokescreen."
If there were ever a landscape where such types could hide quickly or disappear, this is it. Ten, 20, 30 miles separate towns. Clusters of mobile homes or trailers sit well off the main roads and are often behind locked fences with guard dogs.
But those denying such groups exist are as easy to find as those who say they do.
"I've never run across any white kids harassing me 'cause I was black," adds William Davis, a retired mechanic from Avondale fishing in a creek. An African-American who says he visits the area to fish several times a month, Davis and friend Joseph Williams say the area might even be friendlier to blacks than in recent decades.
For all he knows about "skinheads" and supremacists, flagger Larry Dean thinks that the "Sons of Gestapo" members he knows would not have left a note at the scene of a crime. "That's not their style," says Dean. "They're not that smooth and they wouldn't want to attract attention to themselves. I think it's someone who just wanted to start some race stuff going here and wanted to smear the 'Sons.' "