Aryan Nations on Verge of Collapse Following Judgment

For a quarter of a century, men connected to the infamous Aryan Nations organization have left the neo-Nazi group's compound in northern Idaho to rain death and destruction on the world around them.

Now, following a $6.3 million judgment against the group, its leader and three former members, it seems certain that this long-time linchpin of the radical right is about to go belly up.

A jury ruled on Sept. 7 that Aryan Nations, its leader Richard Butler and his former second in command were negligent in connection with a 1998 armed attack by Aryan Nations security guards on a woman and her son.

Seven weeks later, as the 20-acre compound was about to be transferred to plaintiffs Victoria and Jason Keenan, Butler filed for bankruptcy — a move that was plainly meant to delay and frustrate execution of the judgment, but one that is unlikely to have much effect.

"This is a classic case of he can run but he can't hide," said Richard Cohen, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented the Keenans. "Butler may stall for time, but in the end he will lose his base of operations."

In the aftermath of the judgment — a civil court decision that was widely applauded by fed-up residents in Idaho and across the Pacific Northwest — Butler left the land that had been his home since 1975.

Expecting to lose his house, land, printing press, computers and a host of other items, the 82-year-old Butler was at least partially rescued by fellow racist Vincent Bertollini, a reported millionaire who bought a $107,500 house for Butler in a subdivision of nearby Hayden.

Future Prospects Dim
But even with a new home and the possibility of some more time before his compound is lost, Butler is unlikely to ever come back strong.

Already, his group has lost considerable organizational strength, and many others on the radical right are dismissing it as an ineffectual outfit riddled with spies.

Neuman Britton, the man Butler named several years ago as his heir, has made no move to indicate that he is trying to reconstitute the group in his home state of California. And the one man who has tried to resuscitate Aryan Nations — a Pennsylvania hard-liner named August Kreis — is more interested in building his own power than in rebuilding that of Butler.

Moreover, Butler will lose the rural land which for decades served as a meeting place for white supremacists of all stripes. No longer will he have a venue to stage his annual Aryan World Congresses or his less regular gatherings for Aryan youths.

Nor will he have the printing presses which produced neo-Nazi literature by the truckload — and which once, supposedly unbeknownst to Butler, printed counterfeit money for a bloody terrorist group called The Order.

Butler will be seen as a martyr by some, but a martyr whose time is now past.

Before filing for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy, Butler had agreed to give up the compound, its contents and even the name Aryan Nations if a judge turned down his request for a new trial.

The judge did turn down Butler's request, and the transfer of the property to the Keenans was planned by mutual agreement for the first week in November. But all that was put on hold after Butler's filing.

In some ways, the filing may actually hurt Butler, who is responsible for $5.8 million of the judgment. Now, all of his mail — including any donations from supporters — will go first to the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee. Ultimately, a more orderly transfer of assets is probable under the trustee's supervision.

In all likelihood, the Aryans are now without a nation.

Terrorism and Free Speech
The case that apparently cost Butler his leadership in the white supremacist movement began on the night of July 1, 1998. Returning from a wedding, Victoria and Jason Keenan stopped briefly in front of the compound to retrieve something that had fallen from their car.

Something — possibly a firecracker — led a group of Aryan guards to think they were under attack, and, jumping into a pickup truck, they chased the terrified Keenans down the road (see 'He Looked Like the Devil'). The guards fired repeatedly at the Keenans, eventually shooting out a tire and forcing them into a ditch. They were threatened and brutalized, but finally freed.

The guards had been in an agitated state when the Keenans drove by. On the eve of the attack, Butler — disturbed by an alleged series of acts of vandalism — placed his security force on "heightened alert," telling them to be on the lookout for the hated Jews.

Indeed, as Center attorneys argued at trial, Butler put "their finger on the trigger of the assault rifle that was used against the Keenans." Even from his jail cell months later, one guard continued to insist that the Keenans were part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Jewish enemies of the Aryan Nations.

Eventually, two of the perpetrators — security chief Jesse Warfield and guard John Yeager — were tried and sentenced for their roles in the attack. A third guard, Shane Wright, was charged but he fled and remains a fugitive.

In the aftermath of the criminal cases, the Keenans filed suit. With SWAT sharpshooters perched on nearby roofs, undercover FBI agents roaming the area and tattooed, flag-waving Aryans in the streets, their trial was a tense affair.

It drew the attention of the local, national and international press as readers pressed for details about a man who was once America's most famous neo-Nazi.

Some commentators misunderstood the nature of the trial, thinking that Butler was being penalized for his hateful speech.

In fact, the case closely paralleled a normal personal injury trial. Jurors found, in effect, that Butler had hired untrained ex-convicts as guards; given them no training or formal policies to follow; allowed them to carry assault weapons; filled their heads with hatred; and set them loose on the community.

Like the department store that allows a known alcoholic to drive its delivery trucks — an alcoholic who one day runs into a crowd of children — Butler should have known that the actions of his security guards were a foreseeable result of his negligent and reckless supervision.