Longing for a "whites-only" homeland in the Pacific Northwest, aerospace engineer Richard Butler left California in the early 1970s and purchased land and an old farmhouse in northern Idaho. That land became home to one of the most notorious American hate groups, the Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Aryan Nations. Butler's 20-acre compound served for decades as a haven for ex-convicts, racist skinheads and various other anti-Semites and professional racists, many of whom committed major crimes. Until 2000, Butler, a leading patriarch of the American neo-Nazi movement, remained unscathed by the crimes of those around him. But a civil lawsuit that year by the Southern Poverty Law Center finally crippled Butler and his Aryan Nations. Butler lived out his final years in declining health and influence.
Butler was arrested in 1975 in northern Idaho after he and several followers tried to "arrest" a police officer who was about to testify against a Butler ally accused of assault. The same year, he was charged in connection with an incident in which he pointed a gun outside the home of a movement rival.
In 1980, Butler and three followers were convicted of trespassing after they had a confrontation with a Boise, Idaho, motel owner who refused to rent them a conference room.
Butler, along with most other principal leaders of the American radical right, was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1987 and tried in Fort Smith, Ark., for seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government by violence. The government failed to prove their case and all the defendants were acquitted.
In His Own Words
"I admired [Hitler] because it seemed like he was the only one who stood up."
— Quoted in1999 in the Los Angeles Times
"The white man is now on trial. Hate laws are against him. No hate laws can be applied to a nonwhite. That makes the white man a third-class citizen, in my mind."
— Quoted in 2000 in the Spokesman-Review
"I advocated the preservation of the white race, whatever it takes to preserve it. The white race is the most endangered species on the face of the earth."
— Butler testimony in 2000 civil trial brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center
Richard Girnt Butler was born east of Denver, the son of a machinist of German-English ancestry. The family moved to Denver in the early 1920s, where at age 11 Butler began delivering Liberty Magazine, where he read a serialized novel depicting the takeover of the United States by race-mixing Bolsheviks, a tale that fascinated him. After the onset of the Depression, the family moved to East Los Angeles. Butler studied aeronautical engineering at a city college there before taking a 25-cents-an-hour part-time job at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Co. The company sent him to Bangalore, India, to overhaul airplanes for the Royal Indian Air Force.
Butler was given the honorary rank of captain in the Indian Air Force and was provided a Hindu valet. The two became friends and the valet explained to Butler India's caste system and the concept of racial purity, which impressed Butler deeply, according to his own recollections.
In 1941, Butler returned to Los Angeles and married Betty Litch. The couple attended a Presbyterian church in which they were married, later leaving when Butler concluded that the church's pastor was preaching communist doctrine.
After Pearl Harbor, Butler enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He never saw action, but he did teach aircraft hydraulics to military mechanics. It was the German military, however, rather than American forces, that got Butler's Aryan juices flowing. "In the newsreels of the day, I was thrilled to see the movies of the marching Germans," he recalled a half-century later. "In those days, all we knew was that Hitler hated communists, and so did my folks — as we did as teenagers."
Butler and his wife moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Montebello, Calif., after the war, raising two daughters. He was enthralled with broadcasts of Sen. Joe McCarthy's anti-communist hearings and sent money to support the senator's campaign. While helping to "expose" communist teachers as a member of the California Committee to Combat Communism, Butler met one of his most important influences — William Potter Gale, a retired Army colonel who had served on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
In 1961, Butler began attending the church of the Anglo-Saxon Christian Congregation in Lancaster, Calif. The pastor there was Wesley Swift, a Gale acolyte who preached that whites are the true Israelites and Jews are descended directly from a mating of Eve and the devil. A former Klan organizer, Swift formed the virulently anti-Semitic Christian Defense League in 1962. He chose Butler to be its national director, a post Butler held until 1965. Around the same time, Butler took a correspondence course from the American Institute of Theology and became an ordained minister of Christian Identity, the theology practiced by Swift.
Butler was hired by Lockheed Aircraft Co. in 1968 as a senior marketing engineer helping to set up assembly lines to build the L-1011 jumbo jet. He also got a private pilot's license and began making trips to the Pacific Northwest. He soon was dreaming of a "white homeland" in that region.
He acquired the financial means to try and make that dream a reality after co-inventing a rapid repair system for the tubeless tire. It's not known how much money he made from the invention, but it enabled him to retire at age 55 and move to Hayden Lake, Idaho, in 1974. There, he bought an old farmhouse and formed his own "Christian Posse Comitatus" group. It was Butler's old friend Gale who had introduced him to the Posse Comitatus, an armed, anti-Semitic group founded in the late 1960s that became notorious in the 1970s and early 1980s.
It didn't take long for Butler to gain his own notoriety in his new Idaho home. In 1975, he and his Posse followers tried to "arrest" a police officer who was about to testify against a man arrested for assault. Not long after that, Butler was charged with pointing a handgun outside the home of a Posse newspaper publisher following a rift with other Posse leaders.
By 1977, Butler had decided to form the Church of Jesus Christ Christian at the farmhouse. The political arm of the church, where Butler preached the racist Christian Identity creed, would be called Aryan Nations, and its ideology included a large dose of Hitler worship. He applied for tax-exempt status for his compound on the basis of the church facility but was turned down.
Three years later, Butler and three of his followers were convicted of trespassing after a confrontation at a Boise motel. The inn's manager had refused to allow the group to use a conference room for a meeting. Officers seized two handguns from the group.
In 1981, Butler's church was bombed. Nobody was injured, but the damage totaled $80,000. Butler blamed the Jewish Defense League, but the crime was never solved. Butler responded by building a two-story guard tower and posting armed guards and dogs around his property.
Butler invited racist skinheads to his 20-acre compound in April 1989 to commemorate Hitler's birthday. The soon-to-become annual event was called the Aryan Youth Conference and, like others to come, drew as many as 200 skinheads and became a vital organizing tool. In 1981, Butler hosted his first Aryan World Congress. The event attracted nearly every significant racist leader around. It, and subsequent gatherings over the years, became Butler's venue for advocating that the Pacific Northwest become a homeland for whites. Soon after the initial congress, Butler began appointing state leaders of Aryan Nations chapters. In the following years, some of his followers became infamous in their own right. One of them was Robert Jay Mathews.
In the fall of 1983, Mathews, who was also a follower of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, and others, many of them men who first met at the Aryan Nations compound, formed the terrorist group The Order. They initially sought to fund their exploits by printing counterfeit money on Aryan Nations' presses. Butler later claimed he had no knowledge of this.
The Order went on a crime spree that included bombings, armed robberies and the assassination of Denver talk radio host Alan Berg, who was Jewish. The group's biggest heist: the $3.6 million robbery of an armored car in Ukiah, Calif., in July 1984. Later court testimony indicated some of the money went to Butler, and some to other racist leaders around the country. But the FBI could not say how much Butler got and was unable to prove he knew the money was stolen. As for Mathews, he was killed in a December 1984 gun battle with federal agents.
In March 1985, Butler was subpoenaed and testified before a federal grand jury in Seattle. A month later, the panel returned racketeering indictments against 23 members of The Order. Butler was not indicted, and he later attacked as traitors those Order members who pleaded guilty and testified against their former comrades. That same year, Aryan Nations and Order member David Tate shot and killed a state trooper in Missouri, and Aryan Nations security chief Elden "Bud" Cutler was arrested in Coeur d'Alene for trying to hire a hit man to kill an FBI informant in The Order investigation.
The government had long sought in vain to tie Butler to crimes by his followers. In 1987, a Fort Smith, Ark., grand jury indicted him and other principal leaders of the American radical right on federal charges of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government by violent means. After undergoing quadruple bypass surgery and a second surgery to unblock his carotid artery — paid for by the government — Butler was acquitted at trial, as were all his co-defendants.
Another of Butler's most notorious followers (or at least acquaintances) was Randy Weaver. Weaver had moved from Iowa to northern Idaho to pursue his dream of white separatism, and attended at least one Aryan World Congress. When Weaver became a fugitive on weapons charges, he holed up with this family at a mountaintop cabin on Ruby Ridge, Idaho. After an 11-day standoff, federal agents shot and killed Weaver's wife and son in 1992, making him a martyr to the radical right. A U.S. marshal was also killed during the confrontation.
In Los Angeles in 1999, former Aryan Nations security guard Buford Furrow Jr. became the latest Butler follower to resort to violence when he killed a Philippines-born postal worker and shot up a Jewish day care center with an Uzi submachine gun, wounding four children and one adult. Furrow – who had lived for several years with the widow of The Order's Bob Mathews – told the F.B.I. he wanted the shootings to be "a wakeup call to America to kill Jews."
Butler's wife died in 1995. The beginning of the end for Aryan Nations, however, came on the night of July 1, 1998. Returning from a wedding, Victoria Keenan and her son, Jason, stopped briefly in front of Butler's compound to retrieve something that had fallen from their car. A loud noise – a backfire from their car, or possibly a firecracker – led three Aryan guards to think they were under attack. They jumped in a pickup truck and pursued the Keenans down the road. The guards fired repeatedly at the mother and son, shooting out a tire and forcing them into a ditch. The Keenans were assaulted and then released. They retained attorneys, including a team from the Southern Poverty Law Center, to sue Butler and three of his followers.
Two years later, the civil case went to trial. After deliberating for two days, the jury returned a $6.3 million judgment against Butler and the others. Of that, $6 million was in punitive damages. Butler was responsible for $4.8 million because he had hired ex-convicts as guards, given them no training or formal policies to follow, allowed them to carry assault weapons, and indoctrinated them with hatred. The Keenans' attorneys successfully argued that Butler should have known that the actions of his guards were a foreseeable result of his negligent and reckless supervision. The courtroom defeat ultimately forced Butler to relinquish the Idaho compound in a bankruptcy auction. The new owners demolished the buildings.
Reputed millionaire racist Vincent Bertollini then aided Butler, buying him a house in nearby Hayden. But by then, Aryan Nations was beset by death and dissension. In 2001, Butler named Neuman Britton, the organization's California leader, as his eventual successor, but Britton died the same year. A month later, Butler chose Ohio's Harold Ray Redfeairn as his heir apparent. Cop-shooter and paranoid schizophrenic Redfeairn had spent time in a mental institution and in prison. He showed his gratitude to Butler by trying to stage a coup. After failing, he left Aryan Nations, only to return some time later and be renamed Butler's successor. It didn't matter. Redfeairn died in 2003.
In Butler's final years, many Aryan Nations state chapters folded and attendance dwindled at compound congresses and other functions. Factions fought for control of the organization or formed their own. In 2000, Butler had a falling out with Charles Mangels, his Montana state leader, who he said was plotting to depose him. Mangels and other defectors then started a rival church in Montana. Other power struggles followed, with one Butler rival, August Kreis, insisting that he headed the organization in Pennsylvania.
In the fall of 2003, Butler, by now sickly and with only a few remaining followers, decided to run for mayor of Hayden. Two men who had recently moved into his home, Zachary Beck and Karl Gharst, ran for city council seats. The octogenarian who once envisioned an all-white homeland in the Pacific Northwest managed a meager 50 votes out of 2,122 – a little more than 2%. Gharst fared even worse, with 42 votes, while Beck got 69. Beck spent Election Day in jail, charged with walking up to a Latino man and punching him in the face.
More ignominy followed. As Butler was about to board a plane in Spokane, Wash., in November of that year, his buxom, 31-year-old traveling companion was busted on an outstanding warrant for forgery. It was only afterward, apparently, that Butler and his Aryan Nations cohorts learned that the woman, Wendy Iwanow, was a hard-core porn star known as Bianca Trump, the "Latin Princess" — a woman who, shockingly to her Aryan new friends, had engaged in film frolics like "Barely Legal Latinas" that reportedly included interracial sex.
In July 2004, a doddering Butler was propped up by about 40 followers on a lawn chair with a Confederate flag in the back of a pickup truck for a parade through downtown Coeur D'Alene as spectators shouted human rights slogans at him. Two months later, he died in his sleep. He was 86.