An alt-right comedian’s plans for a remote patch of land in Idaho have terrified his neighbors, who fear it could become a hostile compound or mark the start of a new Ruby Ridge-style standoff.
Comedian Owen Benjamin once had a moderately successful Hollywood career, landing roles in movies and TV shows and briefly becoming engaged to actress Christina Ricci. After moving to the right, he appeared on podcasts hosted by Joe Rogan, Steven Crowder, and Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire.
As his following among conservatives grew, however, Benjamin became increasingly racist and antisemitic. He repeatedly used the n-word at a February 2018 comedy show, and embraced conspiracy theories about the Holocaust, claiming that Adolf Hitler was only trying to “clean [Germany] of the parasites.” Benjamin’s broadcasts to his fans grew more erratic, seeing the one-time comedian embrace flat-Earth theory and recommend drinking turpentine as a medicinal cure.
But being on the internet’s fringes can be lonely, so Benjamin decided to build a place where his remaining, bear-themed following—who call themselves “Unbearables”—could meet in person.
Exactly what Benjamin’s intentions for the property in Sandpoint, Idaho, are has become a hot topic in Idaho’s Boundary County. Dubbed “Ursa Rio” by Benjamin, after the Moyie River that abuts the property, the land marks the culmination of Benjamin’s year-long plan to establish a gathering place for his fans.
As Benjamin and his supporters set up basic sanitation and housing on the property, Benjamin’s neighbors are getting nervous, urging local officials to step in and issue a cease-and-desist order blocking construction.
“You are the only people who can prevent this reenactment of Ruby Ridge,” a flyer distributed at a hearing last week urging county commissioners to block construction on Benjamin’s property reads.
For Benjamin’s opponents, the prospect of a far-right encampment in Idaho recalls the state’s history with other extremists. The Aryan Nations once ran a compound in the state. In 1992, three people were killed in the Ruby Ridge standoff between federal agents and white separatist Randy Weaver.
The controversy over Benjamin’s property was first reported by the Kootenai Valley Times and the Bonners Ferry Herald. In an April 14 letter obtained by the Kootenai Valley Times, the man who sold the land to Benjamin warned a county planner that the situation could have an “unpleasant outcome,” saying he had read a Twitter post after the sale about the possibility that Benjamin’s fans would flock to the remote area.
“I’m telling you this because I was recently made aware of an unsettling situation with potential unpleasant outcome and want to do everything I can to prevent it,” the land’s previous owner wrote.
Benjamin has pitched Ursa Rio as an “Unbearable” haven. His supporters refer to Benjamin as “Big Bear” and often take bear-related aliases of their own, adopting bear handles based on their personalities or what they can contribute to Benjamin’s cause in a style reminiscent of the Care Bears.
The roots of the clash over Ursa Rio began last year, when Benjamin began raising funds for “Beartaria,” a then-unspecified place he imagined as a location where Benjamin and his “bears” could lead the simple rural lifestyle Benjamin has advocated for after detonating his entertainment career. Benjamin, who said he wasn’t allowed to have “internet friends” at his actual home, said Beartaria would be a place where he could meet his “internet friends,” with 10 percent of the land set aside for camping as a “refuge.”
“I’m not allowed to have internet friends over at my house,” Benjamin said in one video. “But if we get land and yurts—internet friends.”
In exchange for a $400 donation, Benjamin said in a June 2020 video, his “Bears” would be entitled to a “two-weeks vacation” on the land. After fundraising to buy a much-larger, better-equipped property for “Beartaria,” fell short, however, Benjamin backed away from his camping offer, pitching “Beartaria” as more of a concept than an actual place and calling himself “an idiot” for offering to exchange the $400 donations for camping rights.
“Don’t plan your life around Beartaria at all,” Benjamin cautioned his fans.
In an email to The Daily Beast, Benjamin now says many of his donors will never come to the Idaho property, describing it as a place for families “to take their kids fishing and sleep under the stars.”
“It is a private residence not commercial and we have no obligation to donors as was indicated on the website,” Benjamin wrote.
A group of nine of Benjamin’s neighbors have grown concerned about the prospect of Benjamin’s fans trekking out to the property, which they say is zoned for agricultural or forest uses.
In an email to county officials, one neighbor pointed out that the property isn’t serviced by utilities, raising the threat that inexperienced campers could start forest fires in their attempts to have campfires. The property is connected to a narrow, crude road, according to the neighbors, whose meager maintenance amounts to residents adding rocks to it every year.
Benjamin’s neighbors have also become alarmed over the possibility of organized military training at the property.
“This poses a clear and present danger,” a Vietnam War veteran who lives near Benjamin told the Kootenai Valley Times. “This is a commercial enterprise offering training in weapons and tactics and not a use allowed in this zone. There is no conceivable reason to allow this use. If we wait too long, it will be too late.”
Benjamin told The Daily Beast no guns have been fired on the property since he purchased it. But his attempts to downplay the possibility of guns at Ursa Rio have been undermined by his habit of describing grandiose plans for the land in hours-long livestreams several times a week, with the most incendiary statements archived and analyzed by his online detractors.
For example, Benjamin has often referenced having a paramilitary force at his property, saying he is “friends with, basically, a paramilitary group” in Idaho.
“If you try to squat on my land when I offer you campgrounds, I have my own paramilitary squad,” Benjamin said in one video, warning off “Bears” who might try to live on the land permanently.
“I’d have my own private paramilitary force, which is always a good thing,” Benjamin said in another video.
Benjamin insists he was just joking about the paramilitary.
“I do not have a paramilitary squad,” Benjamin told The Daily Beast in an email. “I was making a joke as a comedian. Unless you consider my goats and chickens a military.”
In his videos, Benjamin has also discussed the prospect of guns at “Beartaria.”
“Shooting range?” Benjamin said in one video, describing his plans for a bear-themed community in Idaho. “Yes! Will there be a gun range? Yes!”
By his own accounts, Benjamin does not come off as an ideal neighbor. In several videos, he relates stories where he berates store employees or fellow customers who asked him to wear a face mask. In one incident, according to Benjamin, he called an elderly man in a post office who asked him to wear a mask a “crusty old hunchback” and accused him of being a pervert, saying that masks are only used by criminals or perverts.
After a reporter in the area covered the controversy over Benjamin’s property, the comedian baselessly accused the reporter during a livestream of being a pedophile and mocked him for using a wheelchair.
The Boundary County commissioners didn’t respond to a request for comment. Commissioners are talking with other local officials about how to respond to Benjamin’s construction, according to the Kootenai Valley Times.
Benjamin purchased the property through real estate broker Todd Savage, who describes himself as a “strategic relocation consultant” assisting conservative city-dwellers relocating to rural areas like the plot Benjamin purchased. In a video on the website for his company, Black Rifle Real Estate, Savage’s business is described as helping people move to places where “where we support our nation and its allies in the fight against radical terrorism, and where the residents proudly support Blue Lives Matter.”
Savage told The Daily Beast that he’s seen an uptick in business as conservative urbanites try to move to rural areas. But Savage won’t work with just any buyer—his website warns that “snowflakes” and “Marxists” need not apply.
“We only work with people who are libertarian-right, end of story,” Savage told The Daily Beast. “Because we want people who will have the same belief system around us, and that’s OK.”