Aryan Nations Moves South to Alabama, Future Unclear

Its founder dead, Aryan Nations heads south to a cloudy future. The violence of its members, however, remains clear

Twenty years ago, Richard Butler, white-haired founder of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, was perched atop the white supremacist heap. His 20-acre "Aryan World Headquarters" in North Idaho featured 24-hour armed guards, German shepherds and a chapel decorated with a bust of Hitler. Members in more than 30 states were spreading Butler's Christian Identity message: Jews are Satan's children and people of color are "muds," while whites are God's chosen people, given "divine permission to hate."

Butler's annual Aryan World Congress had become a rare occasion for unity in the fractious world of right-wing extremism; at the huge cross burning that climaxed most congresses, uniformed neo-Nazis stood side-by-side with Skinheads, tax protesters, survivalists, Klansmen and militia organizers.

And while Butler's ultimate dream of founding an Aryan States of America in the Pacific Northwest remained farfetched, the FBI was keeping a wary eye on Aryan Nations' fond hope of taking over five Western states.

By the time Butler died on Sept. 8, he was an 86-year-old footnote in the annals of extremism, bankrupt and widowed and surrounded by the squabbling dregs of a once-fearsome movement.

Butler's Hitleresque vision of Aryan empire came crashing down after his guards fired at a passing car in 1998, forced it into a ditch and then assaulted its driver, Victoria Keenan, and her son. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit on behalf of the victims, winning a $6.3 million verdict in 2000. The Aryan Nations compound had to be sold off, eventually becoming an empty clearing in the woods.

In another bitter twist for Butler, the group that had promoted Aryan unity splintered into two bickering factions, one loyal to him and another, much smaller, based in Pennsylvania. In the next couple of years, both of Butler's chosen successors preceded him to the grave.

When a decrepit Butler presided over a parade that preceded his final Aryan Congress in northern Idaho this past July, only 40 extremists turned up. The patriarch of American hate was placed in a lawn chair on the bed of an old Ford pickup and paraded through downtown Coeur D'Alene, with a Confederate battle flag flapping in his face and locals taunting him with human-rights slogans.

Maybe Butler knew it was his last, shabby hurrah. Undoubtedly he knew that when his heart finally gave out, which it did eight weeks later, he would leave behind only one thing of value: the Aryan Nations' infamous name.

His body was barely cold in the ground when the tug-of-war broke out. The two rival factions hastily laid claim to Butler's legacy — and his blessing.

First, a new four-person leadership council, supposedly chosen by Butler at the July Congress, made a surprising announcement. Former Klansman Clark "Laslo" Patterson of Talladega, Ala., one of the four, told reporters that Aryan Nations would now hold meetings in northeastern Alabama and receive its mail at a nearby post office.

The Aryan Nations' new "World Headquarters" would be P.O. Box 151, Lincoln, Ala.

Even though Butler had often vowed that Aryan Nations would never leave North Idaho, the new Alabama headquarters made sense. The bulk of the groups' remaining members, including all four on the leadership council, live in the South. Jonathan Williams, Aryan Nations' new communications director, conducts Christian Identity services just outside Atlanta, less than two hours from Alabama.

In addition, the move to Alabama could give Aryan Nations a chance to revive its old role as a unifier. In Scottsboro, just up the road from Lincoln, a "White Heritage Day" rally on Sept. 17 turned into a memorial for Butler, attracting an encouraging crowd of 100 extremists from several different white-supremacist groups — many of which had teamed with Aryan Nations in 2003 for a protest outside the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.