The Hatewatch blog is managed by the staff of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

A Skinhead’s Story: Bryon Widner and ‘Erasing Hate’

By Robert Steinback on June 23, 2011 - 4:36 pm, Posted in Hate Groups, Racist Skinheads

It’s hard enough trying to overcome a history of violence and race hatred for a new life of redemption and purpose. Imagine trying to do so with the evidence of your evil past etched indelibly on your face in the form of tattoos proclaiming racist and violent themes.

Bryon Widner

After spending 16 years as a vicious brawler and razor-carrying enforcer for white-power skinhead gangs operating in Indiana and Ohio, Bryon Widner (above) became a husband and father – and realized he didn’t want to raise his family in the hostile culture of white supremacy and violent lawlessness he once embraced and promoted. But the co-founder of the Vinlanders Social Club skinhead gang – at one time one of the largest and most notorious of the nation’s skinhead groups – knew that his marked face would forever frustrate his efforts to rejoin the respectable world.

Against daunting odds, Widner made a permanent break with his past, undergoing some two dozen horribly painful laser treatments over the course of two years to remove the tattoos on his face and neck. The expensive treatments were made possible by the Southern Poverty Law Center – the same civil rights and social justice organization that once tracked Widner’s career in hate.

The dramatic story of Widner and his wife, Julie, is captured in the one-hour documentary “Erasing Hate,” which airs Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT on MSNBC. The film recounts the couple’s life within the white power movement, the decision that led them to leave it, and the treatments he underwent to remove the tattoos.

It’s hard to overstate the difficulty of leaving a group like the Vinlanders, who in their prime were considered among the most violent of the skinhead crews. Widner around 2001 joined the Outlaw Hammerskins, a more-violent faction that had broken away from the dominant Hammerskins in 1999. Infighting eventually drove Widner and five allies to leave the slowly disintegrating Outlaw Hammerskins in 2003 and form the Hoosier State Hammerskins, which later united with an affiliate, the Ohio State Hammerskins, to form the Vinlanders Social Club.

Vinlanders Social Club

“The Vinlanders were made up of people who were too extreme for the rest of the movement,” said Joe Roy, the SPLC’s chief investigator, who initially made contact with the newly penitent Widner and narrates portions of the documentary. “All skinheads are violent, but they were up there at the top.”

“Their idea was to challenge the Hammerskins’ longheld authority in the skinhead culture,” added SPLC Senior Intelligence Analyst Laurie Wood. “They were the young upstarts, the young Turks that were going to take over.”

By 2007, the Vinlanders had eight chapters in six states and a well-deserved reputation for nastiness. In March 2007, Vinlander Eric “The Butcher” Fairburn, Tim Dumas and Josh Kern hunted down a homeless black man on a busy Indianapolis street and beat him senseless for his having the audacity to say, “nice tattoo” to Fairburn.

Widner admits he is still haunted by the violent things he saw and did. “If I can prevent one other kid from making the same mistakes I did, if I can prevent one other family from having to go through the same crap that I put my family through, maybe I can redeem myself,” Widner says in “Erasing Hate.”

“Widner is one of thousands of young kids who get pulled in, looking for family, looking for acceptance,” Roy said. “When you get all those tattoos, pardon the pun, you’re branded. There’s no way out. Nobody in society is going to hire you or give you a chance. It’s worse than having a criminal record, and most of these kids have both, tattoos and a criminal record. So they’re not going to get the job as a lifeguard down at the Y.”

What Widner has done, Roy said, “took a lot of courage. It really is a story of redemption. This is a guy who went against some very dangerous people. He was a marked man. And he was trying to get back into a society that didn’t want him in the first place – all for the sake of his family. That takes a lot of guts.”

To see a trailer of the documentary and more about Widner’s story, click here.

  • Nexus Zul

    I feel he got off too easy and don’t trust that he completely made a full around recovery. I hope the SPLC isn’t so blind. He could still be a nazi, working from the inside. Think not? These people’s hatred is deeply ingrained in them from the standpoint of their belief of superiority. It’s a deep thing with them. Don’t be fooled.

  • http://I Darren

    I’m probably late on seeing this Documentary,but I just watched it on April 2013 and thought it was one hell of a story about courage and having the balls and the rite set of mind to do what was rite in life.Bryon chose his family life rather than put his own family and brainwash them to believe in this hatred against humanity.We are the human race and no matter what color or religion we all need the same things in life to live.Like air,water nutrition and even we bleed the same.It’s all about your mindset peer pressure that can ruin a person train of thought and there life.I give Bryon a big high five for his change in life and hope he remains true to homself and his family!I was never into htred and racism growing up and was not a hardcore like Bryon was,but I did like to party alot and have a good time.But when I married and had kids,I also stopped all my bad habits and knew there is much more to life than a party! Good for you Bryon!

  • Alex

    Watching this, I could imagine how Anne Frank could say, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Bryon, it’s so clear that you are struggling to forgive and redeem yourself; I hope you someday find peace. I cannot imagine what could lead a person to such horrendous hate and violence but I have not walked in your shoes. Making this film was a brave and generous act, and I am sure it has helped lead some of the young people watching make better choices than you did. You caused disgusting pain and suffering in your past but now you are choosing to be a force of good, and I think it is clear to anyone watching this program that you are really good at heart. Best wishes to you and your beautiful family. May you continue down the path of love and light and someday make peace with your past.

  • http://Www.chrishughblogs.com Chris Hugh

    So this is what SPLC spends their money on? They should have just given this criminal a tube of Dermablend.

  • Andrea

    I am currently watching the documentary and I do not forgive as easily as others do. I am sure Byron knew the difference between right and wrong when he went out and hurt people. Being Jewish I know what hate is. Wearing the SS symbol makes me want to vomit all over him. I hope the removal of the tats hurt him as much as he hurt others and then he will have a reminder of the pain he has caused others. What about his wife, what is her plans? She too is a hater since she met him at a skinhead concert. Will she just bury her head in the sand and forget the grief she has caused others? Looks like they have beautiful children and I pray their kids do not learn of their parents past. I know I was taught right from wrong at the age of 3 or 4. I would never hurt anyone especially with a single edged razor or any weapon. Nor do I believe in racism and what does Bryon and his wife think about Trayvon Martin and his killing? May be when I see Bryon and his wife do some good can I even think about forgiving them. They said it will torture him to have the tats removed and I am glad he feels such horrible pain and hope he will remember it. He says he is a normal person but I disagree! May God forgive him.

  • unified sound of peace

    goes to show that everything in life is reversable if one truely belive it can be done. and realize the error of living and wrongfull turns in life..
    everyone can make a mistake, but only a true man can see and correct it…

    wish you and your family all the best and hope you will have a good life and make positive changes for the coming generations…

    ONE WORLD ONE LOVE

  • VegasDude

    To base ones life on hate would be illogical….. as Spock would likely say…. =)

  • Cindy Melbie

    Manu fan? How can you call yourself that!? If you’re making a reference to Manu Chao, then get this: Manu sings and talks about peace, non-violence, cultural diversity and, not only tolerance, but acceptance of ALL citizens of this planet. You should be ashamed of yourself to make reference such a global hero, whom I deeply love and respect. “manu fan,” my ass!

    BYRON, JULIE and family: welcome back!

  • mac

    manu fan,
    how hateful can you be?
    Bryan never justified his actions – neither did anyone else. And, I hardly think what he went through to have the tattoos removed was easy or painless. It took courage to do what he did – no matter why he did it. Would you go through the same painful procedures for a year and a half? And, would you allow news crews to watch you be in that much pain and then broadcast that pain to millions of people? Go ahead. We’re waiting.

    What Bryan and Julie Widner did took courage. You do not leave skinhead organizations lightly, as was shown. That act alone deserves our respect. Beyond that, they made a decision to go public with their story to try to help other people. Letting literally millions of people watch while you are in horrible pain is something I cannot imagine. This is a man who was “macho” in the most extreme sense – and he is letting the world watch him all but screaming he hurts so much. Not many people are willing to do that.

    The Widners let us into their lives. They did what very few people can do – on so many levels. They deserve our respect.

  • manu fan

    I bet if it was a black man who used to commit hate crimes against white. It would be a lot of negative comments on here. So its okay for whites to go around and hurt black people and because they start to get real hungry they remove tats and now their actions are justified. What goes around comes around #thatbitchkarma

  • TEA

    To Mr. Tallman,
    What more can you get from a guy who has decided that he was wrong, has changed his ways, and wants to prevent others from following the path he had taken when he was younger? You can put people in jail for years and they might not change their mindset. So for the most part I think this is the best possible outcome.

  • Daniel

    Gene,

    Its people like you who actually ruin he world. Yes he and his group did some nasty things, but he has chnaged and is trying to help others who might be going down that path. Guess what from jail that will be completely useless. People like you should be locked up for inability to think critically. I can go on for pages trying to show you why he should be forgiven and allowed to change people around him.

  • Gene Tallman

    If he wants to prove his sincerity, he should go to the police and provide the details of all the atrocities that he and his fellow scumbags perpetrated. And he should pay for his crimes.

    He is not a hero anymore than Michael Vick is a hero.

    Go MSNBC! Make a buck by selling this scum.

  • Dan

    I was curious on how I could get a copy of this awesome documentary?

  • ?

    WHERES THE DOC?????

  • allan

    Picture of his face without the tattoos was posted in this page: http://www.mysanantonio.com/ne.....242574.php

  • jaques meoff

    that group photo was taken in darwins waiting room…

  • bobby sword

    I CAN’T RECALL WHEN I HAVE BEEN BLESSED SO MUCH, WOW! WHAT A WONDERFUL POWERFUL AND MOVING STORY OF THESE TO BRAVE AND LOVING HUMAM BEINGS, THEY WERE MENT TO BE TOGETHER, NO MATTER WHAT BRYAN HAS DONE IN THE PAST,THE GOOD ON THE INSIDE WAS COVERED UP, HE IS A REAL LOVING AND CARING PERON, N SPITE OF WHAT HE DID IN THE PAST, THE CARING AND THE REAL MAN WAS ALWAYS THERE BUT, COVERED UP, I AM AN AFRO AMERICAN WOMEN AND A RETIRED POLICE OFFICER AND I KNOW GOOD WHEN I SEE AND HEAR IT, GOD BLESS YOU TWO WONDERFUL PEOPLE.I DECREE YOUR FAMILY WILL HAVE A LONG HAPPY CONTENT AND PROSPERIOUS LIFE. IN JESUS NAME.

  • Dolores

    Bryon, I just read about your story in the SPLC Report, and I want to congratulate you and Julie, your wife, from the bottom of my heart!!! You have turned away from hate, and I’m so very proud of what you’ve achieved and the difficult steps taken in order to live a positive life of love. The arrival of children bring many changes to our lives, and we want to be good, solid role models for them and stand tall in society. You have chosen to take the high road and to give your children love, attention, tenderness, and joy, something you could not have done as a skinhead. The tattoo-erasing treatments were painful but needed. What a blessing SPLC is, to have helped you with that!!!

    I know the memories of the past will always leave scars, and my heart goes out to all who suffer at the hands of other angry skinheads and racists.

    God bless you and your family for going toward the light and away from darkness and hate!!!

  • Aimee

    I, too, knew Bryon in the mid-90′s, before any of the facial tattoos, before the gang membership. as Heather said, above, he was one of the sweetest, and most intelligent (and most traumatized as a child) people i’ve ever known, and watching the documentary about he and his strong, beautiful wife Julie, and their beautiful family, has brought tears of joy and pride to my eyes. I am so thankful that Bryon and Julie found each other, and are so courageously not only changing their lives, but are a fine example of a paradigm shift, at a time in our collective history when such shifts are going to need to occur, in order to survive as a species. Congratulations, Bryon and Julie, on your commitment to each other, and to creating a reality that is based on love, forgiveness, and redemption. Bryon and Julie, if you are reading this, please know that you have a supporter, and a friend, in Albuquerque

  • Heather Saunders

    I went to High School with Bryon in Albuquerque New Mexico. He was one of my best friends. I knew of his history when we were in our early teens, and although (at that time) it was nowhere NEAR as extreme as it became, it frightened, saddened and repulsed me. I also knew what Bryon had faced as a child, and how much he had endured up to that point. I never saw the violence that Bryon was involved in. He was always careful to keep that separate from our relationship. He was one of the sweetest people I had ever known. To this day, this holds true. The only time I ever saw him express any type of anger was the night I had to inform him that one of our closest friends had been killed in a terrible car accident. The pride and love that I feel for my old friend is tremendous. I always knew what a beautiful person Bryon was, when he was with our little group of friends. I was raised to never see skin color, and to respect people for being just that. Bryon never EVER spoke disrespectfully around me. I shudder, when I imagine the pain he must have been in, to have gone to such extremes. I know how much he was in, when we were comrades. GOOD FOR YOU MY SWEET FRIEND. Julie, you and I have never met, but thank you for walking this brave and amazing path with Bryon. You both have my Love, and Respect. Heather

  • M Rygiel

    I just finished watching this show for the second time and it made me cry again. God bless Bryon and his entire family. Thanks to the SPLC for helping him on his journey.

  • Kerry Noble

    Joe Roy, I saw the program about Bryon tonight & am so thankful he realized what was really going on in the movement and its lies. Along with the battle of the tats, as he has discovered, is the battle with guilt and self-condemnation. Please let him know if he ever needs to talk to someone who’s been there, he can email me or call me. Or he can get ahold of TJ Leyden also, if he hasn’t already. SPLC did good helping Bryon and his family.

  • Steve Schultz

    A powerful story that had me going through every emotion. The key word really is redemption, and like so many have said here, I give Bryon, Julie and all of their family immense admiration for the courage and strength it took to change mentally, physically and beyond. And I thank them for sharing this story. May the message that it’s never too late to change spread far, and may all who are touched by it be inspired. Bryon and Julie, thank you, and all my best…

  • Susan Ortega

    I missed this when it was shown on TV. Will it be aired again? Is it available online? Thanks.

  • ruben

    good for them…life is so short….can you live your entire life focusing on hate and nothing else?…..and worse yet you are dooming your kids if you in turn teach them the same bitter hatred that eats at you.live and let live and enjoy the good things that life has to offer and you will be in a better place when you pass on….i wish nothing but the best for bryon and his family.

  • c

    i knew bryon, we hung out alot while i was probating with that club. ive long gave up the idea of wanting to be in a club scene and thinking we was the best god had to offer. i lost 7 years of my life to bullshit, i have children that look up to me as who i am today, i dont drink, i dont hate, and i feel pretty good about myself today.

  • Brenda

    Bryon and Julie, I have watched the special that you did called erasing hate. I would like to comment on your bravery for going through all of the painful treatments that you endured, and for standing by each others side. Many individuals get on the wrong path as juveniles, and once they grow older realize the error of their ways. Your special sent a great message to the youth of our society, and I know that changing your lives and beliefs the way that you did could not have been easy. Not only did you sacrifice so much for each other, but you sacrifices will benefit your beautiful children for years to come. While I have never been involved in the type of racism and hate that you did, we all have things from our past that we truly regret. I just wanted to let you know that your message has gotten out, and many people have seen your sacrifices. May God bless you and your wonderful family! I would bet that you have helped more than just one troubled individual to see racism for what it really is. Thank you again, and best wishes for you in the future!

  • Ruslan Amirkhanov

    “n response to what jwd said about these groups being drug dealing gangbangers (which the vast majority certainly are) then the SPLC should be fine with them and not consider them hate groups.”

    They call them “hate groups” because skinheads claim to have an ideology. “Education” in this ideology is an important part of skinhead life, at least in those crews which take it seriously. For example, one tradition has it that a skinhead can put in his “whites”(white laces/braces) when he starts his “education”. This means reading about the movement’s history, reading Mein Kampf, stuff like that.

    Most skinhead groups do not deal drugs, and at least up front they claim to forbid their use entirely(except alcohol of course). But this is what makes the violence which occurs within the skinhead world so ridiculous(and as a skinhead you would encounter far more violence from other skins as opposed to people outside the movement). When people deal drugs, we understand their motivation. Ditto with organized crime. But skins have all this tradition and violence which goes along with it- and no reward.

    “You rarely hear the SPLC label inner city black and mexican street gangs,”

    Because they have no ideology.

    “however, if you are white and wander into their neighborhoods they will kill you.”

    I’m white and lived in gang infested neighborhoods(barrios, more accurately) for many years. Obviously nobody has killed me, nor was I ever assaulted or shot at. These gangs do not have an ideology, nor do they kill people simply for being white.

  • trigger&phade

    My boyfriend and I just finished watching it,
    We thought in was crazy, he is such a good man trying
    To better himself for his family, I’m happy to see everything
    Turned out great and I hope him and his family have a great future!
    His story was just amazing, we have a lot of respect for him.
    And just thinking about the pain with the lazor surgery,
    My boyfriend and I because of this are gunna calm our crazy
    Punk ways thanx to him! I’m 19 n my bfs 21

  • Joe

    I am a retired army soldier and just wanted to say that I am very proud of Bryon and his wife. It is a very courageous thing for him and his wife to do. His former life style was destructive in every sense of the word. What a great example you are to your children and all the other racists who clearly are cowards by letting peer pressure keep them in an activity that has absolutely no positives at all. There are better friends out there. Way to go to choose your family over the way of an evil world. Roman 12:2

  • http://www.trendsinhate.com Kevin

    Just finished watching the program. Amazing. Bryon, welcome back to the loving side of life. Hats off SPL Center for helping him. Continued success to Bryon & the SPLC. With hard work & commitment, we can make our country a much more tolerant place to thrive.

  • Sally

    I was at Nordic fest when they met, his wife and step kids spent a week at my house that year, we talked for a while then lost contact, I have tons of pics of there children and Julie, I was pregnant when I met her…I know what they went through to a point, I am now also out of the movement and my daughters name is Aryan

  • jonas

    Let this be a lesson to all you people getting “TATS”.to be cool. Tattoos are permanent. Once you grow up, no one will hire you for a job if you are covered in ink. And getting TATS removed is expen$ive and painful. Think for yourselves for once. Quit following the crowd.

  • Aron Levy

    To Chris Schultz,

    What on Earth are you talking about? It’s not merely that these skinheads are gangbangers, but they are WHITE SUPREMACIST gangbangers. There’s a really big difference there. The SPLC covers racism and the extreme right, not mere street crime.

    That being said, it seems you didn’t take the time to peruse Hatewatch’s recent articles: there has been a series decrying the attempted campaigns of Latino ganga to force their black neighbors out of the neighborhood. This would fall within the purview of the SPLC. Again, street crime is outside the organizations’s stated purpose.

    Aron

  • Shawn Cotton

    I knew Bryon back in the late 90′s and although I knew he was into the skinhead thing (must have been before he went bigtime with it), I knew there was a better man behind the outer layer. He was very intelligent (as he and I would talk a lot when I drove us to work for Wendy’s) and I am very thankful and proud that he indeed has turned his life around. I never knew he went through this transformation as we lost contact around 1999 when he quit work. So this program will be very interesting for me to watch.

  • chris schultz

    In response to what jwd said about these groups being drug dealing gangbangers (which the vast majority certainly are) then the SPLC should be fine with them and not consider them hate groups.

    You rarely hear the SPLC label inner city black and mexican street gangs, however, if you are white and wander into their neighborhoods they will kill you. Is this leftist hypocrisy or just pandering to their base?

  • jwd

    these groups are nothing but drug dealing gangbangers disguised as nation lovers out to sanitize the country of ethnic groups that don’t so called have americas interest at heart.

  • Wildcat

    Good for him! I am so happy to see he had the courage to leave this group and to make a change for the better of his family.

  • LotusGeek

    Most people, if they have an ounce of decency in them, will find that this decency will compel you to make better choices when you have children. This is because now your world is not just about you, here and now; now your world is about the world in which your children will grow up, and your responsibility to make that world as safe and decent as possible.

    Some parents are able to find the strength and courage to change that world, so that their children are not held accountable for the mistakes of their parents. It is very encouraging to find one such man

    I’ve already set up the DVR to record this, so I don’t miss it.

  • Deep Ecology

    It is very gratifying to see a formerly marginalized and violent member of an ethnic gang find their way back into civil society.

    Hate, wherever you find it, is just not the answer. I’m glad he had the insight to face his demons and see a different kind of world, the kind he would want his children to grow up in.

  • Shadow Wolf

    This documentary should be an interesting watch. Can’t miss it.

  • http://www.splcenter.org/blog Hatewatch

    MST,

    Sure. Right now on the SPLC homepage (http://www.splcenter.org) you can see one, as well as on this article: http://www.splcenter.org/get-i.....ocumentary

  • MST

    How about a pic of him after the tats were removed?