Richard Girnt Butler, the founder of both the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and the Aryan Nations, though in the twilight of his days remains an important figure on the radical right.
For a quarter of a century, he has preached the gospel of white supremacy, drawing together the oft-warring factions of the radical right in the United States. From his armed compound in the Idaho panhandle, would-be revolutionaries have sallied forth, raining death and destruction on those they oppose. His writings and his racist religion have formed the basis and the justification for insurrection.
Richard Girnt Butler, the founder and leader of both the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and Aryan Nations, is the hub of the wheel of racist revolution, the eye of the white supremacist storm — indeed, he is the elder statesman of American hate.
Now, at 80 years old, he is in the twilight of his days.
For decades, Butler's followers have engaged in criminal acts, ranging from assassination to armed robberies, bombings, counterfeiting and racial assaults. Today, as he nears the end of his life, the future of the organization that may have done more than any other to promote modern racism is in question.
Whether or not Butler's Aryan Nations remains a central fixture on the neo-Nazi scene, whether or not a successor of Butler's measure takes over, may shape the future of the extremist right.
Of the past, however, there is little doubt.
While his late wife described him as a man who "wouldn't spank a puppy dog," few outsiders would agree with that summation. Up the road to his 20-acre compound, where a sign warns "Whites Only" and German Shepherds patrol, the principal leaders and terrorists of the radical right have made their pilgrimages.
Racist, steel-toe-booted Skinheads have worshipped here at the feet of the father figure of American racism. Even racist leaders and organizers from Canada, Germany, Italy and elsewhere have trekked to the compound to try to pull the neo-Nazi movement together.
Adolf Hitler is Butler's idol; Christian Identity, his religion. He believes he and others of northern European ancestry are the true Israelites, God's real children. For Richard Butler, race is religion, and religion is nation.
A 'Who's Who' of Hate
That has proved to be a lethal formula.
· A leading group of domestic terrorists, a band called The Order, had its roots in Aryan Nations and drew its inspiration from Butler's preaching in the 1980s. Many members of the group, which conducted a campaign of terror culminating in the murder of Denver talk show host Alan Berg, had been Aryan Nations members.
· Two men recently re-indicted in Arkansas, Chevie Kehoe and Danny Lee, both have ties to Aryan Nations. They are facing federal racketeering charges, covering five murders, kidnappings, robberies and transportation of stolen goods.
· Members of the Aryan Republican Army, a group that carried out up to 22 bank robberies in the mid-1990s to fund a white supremacist revolution, had ties to Aryan Nations. One plotter, Mark Thomas, was Butler's Pennsylvania state leader.
· Members of another terrorist group, The New Order, also had frequented Aryan Nations. Four of five defendants pleaded guilty after their arrests this year to charges in connection with an alleged plot to blow up the Southern Poverty Law Center, kill its co-founder Morris Dees, poison cities' water supplies and bomb state capitol buildings.
· One of Butler's security chiefs, apparently incensed by Butler's tirades, offered $2,000 for a hitman to kill an informant. Another security chief, who formed a group called The Order II, went to prison after the group bombed a federal building in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and the home of civil rights activist Bill Wassmuth.
· Nathan Thill, a Skinhead who last November confessed on television to murdering a black man in Denver solely because the man "was wearing the enemy's uniform" — his black skin — was Butler's organizer in the Mile-High City.
Over the years, a virtual "who's who" of the hate movement has shown up for Butler's annual Aryan World Congress and other similar gatherings.
William Pierce, who approvingly describes a race war in his novel, The Turner Diaries, has been there. So have longtime hatemonger and former Texas Klan leader Louis Beam; Thom Robb of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan; Tom Metzger of the White Aryan Resistance; the late Michigan Klansman Bob Miles; and James Wickstrom and Jack Mohr, both of whom have ties to the violently racist Posse Comitatus.
Over the years, Aryan Nations also developed a sophisticated prison ministry, distributing racist Identity materials to inmates under the legal umbrella of religious freedom. In Texas alone, more than 600 prisoners are registered Identity adherents.
On July 18, Butler and some 90 followers paraded through the streets of Coeur d'Alene, near his Hayden Lake compound, in what may have been one of his last hurrahs. He was met by jeers from hundreds of counterdemonstrators.
But the story of Richard Butler begins long before.
'The Red Napoleon' and the Caste System
Butler was born on Feb. 23, 1918, in Bennett, Colo., east of Denver, the son of a machinist of German-English ancestry and his wife. Clarence Butler moved his family to Denver in the early 1920s, and although he wasn't active in the large Ku Klux Klan organization there, he didn't hide his dislike for Jews from his son.
At 11, the younger Butler got a job delivering Liberty Magazine. In its pages, he read a serialized novel, The Red Napoleon, written by a Chicago Tribune war correspondent. The stories, which described an invasion and takeover of the United States by race-mixing Bolsheviks, mesmerized the boy.
After the Depression set in, the Butlers moved to East Los Angeles. Richard Butler studied aeronautical engineering and science at a city college there, beginning a 25-cents-an-hour, part-time job at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Co. The company sent Butler to Bangalore, India, to overhaul airplanes for the Royal Indian Air Force.
In India, Butler was given the honorary rank of captain in the Indian Air Force — a title that brought with it a Hindu valet named Jeroum. The two became friends, and Jeroum explained to Butler India's caste system and its concept of racial purity.
It was a message of race that Butler would never forget.
In 1941, Butler returned to Los Angeles and married the former Betty Litch in a Presbyterian church. The couple attended the church for some time, but soon, Butler had decided the church's pastor was preaching communist doctrine.
After Pearl Harbor, Butler enlisted in the Army Air Corps, although he never saw action. Instead, he taught aircraft hydraulics to military mechanics.
Butler never signed on to the war's rationale.
"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."
After the war, Butler's views hardened further.
His childhood heroes — Charles Lindbergh, Davy Crockett, Patrick Henry and George Washington — soon were replaced. Now, Butler asserted, Hitler was the second greatest man, after Jesus Christ, who had ever lived.
America's troubles, he said, were due to "Jewish communism."
The couple moved to Montebello, Calif., after the war, raising two daughters. In later life, the girls would keep their distance from Butler's racist beliefs. But his wife, until her death in 1995, shared his anti-Semitic, white supremacist credo.
Listening to broadcasts of Sen. Joe McCarthy's anti-communist hearings, Butler was enchanted. He sent money to support McCarthy's campaign, a movement that would ultimately help spawn the ultraconservative John Birch Society.
From Hitler to the American Nazi Party
It was while helping organize a signature campaign to "expose" suspected communist teachers with the California Committee to Combat Communism that Butler met one of his most important influences: William Potter Gale, a retired Army colonel who was on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Gale would later introduce Butler to the Posse Comitatus, an armed vigilante group begun in 1970.
Butler also met and admired George Lincoln Rockwell, the American Nazi Party founder who was assassinated by one of his own followers in 1967.
But it was through Gale that Butler was introduced to Christian Identity. In 1961, Butler began attending the church of the Anglo-Saxon Christian Congregation in Lancaster, Calif., pastored by a Gale acolyte, Dr. Wesley Swift.
Swift preached that whites are the true Israelites, God's elect. Jews, he said, were descended directly from a mating of Eve and the devil. In long, private sessions during the 1960s, Butler studied with Swift and absorbed his racist theology. Their friendship, Butler would say, was the "most rewarding of all personal relationships."
Swift's message? "It was my race to whom I owed my allegiance, not to politicians who serve to enslave and destroy my people in behalf of anti-Christ, world Jewry." God demands racial separation, Butler later added, using the example of Noah's Ark: "The elephants are with the elephants; the lions are with the lions."
A former Klan organizer, Swift formed the bitterly anti-Semitic Christian Defense League in 1962, choosing Butler to be its national director until 1965. At around the same time, Butler took a correspondence course from the American Institute of Theology, based in Arkansas, and became an ordained Identity minister.
Tubeless Tires and a 'White Homeland'
In 1968, Butler was hired as a senior marketing engineer by Lockheed Aircraft Co., helping to set up assembly lines to build the L-1011 jumbo jet. He got a private pilot's license and began making trips to the Pacific Northwest — at the same time that he began to dream of creating a "white homeland" in that part of the country.
During this period, Butler became co-inventor of a rapid repair system for the tubeless tire. It's not known how much money this invention provided, but his financial status allowed him to retire at age 55 and move to Hayden Lake in 1974.
Purchasing an old farmhouse, Butler soon formed his own "Christian Posse Comitatus" group. On March 12, 1975, he and his followers attempted to "arrest" a police officer who was about to testify against a man arrested for assault. The incident generated the first of hundreds of headlines about Butler in Idaho.
A short time later, after a squabble with other Posse leaders, Butler was charged with pointing a handgun outside the home of a Posse newspaper publisher.
By 1977, Butler had decided to form the Church of Jesus Christ Christian at his farmhouse (the political arm of the church would be called Aryan Nations). He applied for tax-exempt status for his compound but was denied by state officials.
In 1980, Butler and three followers were convicted of trespassing after creating a disturbance at a Boise motel. The motel manager had refused to allow the group a conference room for a meeting. Officers seized two handguns from the group.
An Attack on the Compound
The following year, Butler's church was bombed — an attack he immediately blamed on the Jewish Defense League. The bombing, which caused $80,000 in damage but no injuries, was never solved. Butler responded by building a two-story guard tower at his church and posting armed guards around his property.
A month later, Butler hosted his first Aryan World Congress. The event, the first such annual gathering of many, drew nearly every significant racist leader around. It also became the chief venue for what was perhaps Butler's most important message: the idea that the Pacific Northwest should be a homeland for whites and whites only.
He told his followers that he had an ally for his "territorial imperative" — dividing up the United States into racial mini-states — in Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the black separatist group Nation of Islam. At the same time, Butler began building a national organization, appointing state leaders of Aryan Nations chapters.
In June 1983, Butler and his followers held a rally in Spokane's Riverfront Park — the same park that had hosted a 1974 world's fair dedicated to cultural diversity. At the rally was a man who would become one of Butler's most frightening followers: Robert J. Mathews, founder of the terrorist group The Order.
That fall, Mathews and others who met at Aryan Nations secretly formed their group. They initially funded their intended race war by printing counterfeit money on Aryan Nations' presses — something Butler claims he had no knowledge of.
The group quickly graduated to armed robberies of adult bookstores and security guards moving money to Seattle. In July 1984, 14 members of the group pulled off the right's biggest heist ever: a $3.8 million robbery of an armored car in Ukiah, Calif.
Later court testimony indicated some of that money went to Butler; more money, testimony revealed, went to other racist leaders around the country. But the FBI could never say how much Butler had received, and it could not prove he knew the money was stolen. Still, the FBI kept an open criminal investigation of Butler.
By early 1985, members of The Order were on the run after shootouts with the FBI in Sandpoint, Idaho; Portland, Ore.; and Whidbey Island, Wash., where Mathews was killed in a December 1984 gun battle.
"I wish I had been with him when he died," Butler said a few days after Mathews' death, "but I don't have the guts anymore."
The Sedition Trial
In March 1985, Butler was subpoenaed and testified before a federal grand jury in Seattle. A month later, the grand jury 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.
Hearing his boss' tirades, Butler's security chief, Eldon "Bud" Cutler, decided to seek revenge. Days later, he was caught on videotape offering $2,000 to a hitman to kill the informant who put the FBI on the trail of The Order. But the "hitman" turned out to be an FBI agent, and Cutler went to prison in 1986 for conspiracy.
As Butler honored The Order at his 1986 Aryan World Congress, a newcomer from Iowa listened intently. Randy Weaver, who had just moved to Idaho to pursue his dream of white separatism, also attended congresses in 1987 and 1989.
Shortly after, Weaver became a fugitive on weapons charges. After a shootout at his Ruby Ridge, Idaho, mountaintop cabin, followed by an 11-day standoff, federal agents shot Weaver's wife and son, making him a martyr to the radical right.
Butler's next security chief, David Dorr, soon got into trouble of his own. After creating a sequel group, The Order II, he was convicted of charges related to the group's bombing of a federal building and the home of a human rights leader.
The government had long sought to bring major criminal charges against Butler. In 1987, a grand jury in Fort Smith, Ark., agreed, returning a seditious conspiracy charge against Butler, Beam, Miles and 11 others. The indictment said the men were "godfathers" of a conspiracy hatched at the 1983 Aryan World Congress.
Five days after his arrest, Butler had chest pains in his jail cell. At government expense, he underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery. A week later, a second surgery was performed to unblock his carotid artery, supplying blood to his head.
Ultimately, prosecutors failed to convince a jury that the defendants had conspired to start a race war using Order members as soldiers. All were acquitted.
'Sea Monkeys' and a Legacy of Hate
His health restored, Butler returned to the cause with a vengeance. In April 1989, to commemorate Hitler's 100th birthday, he invited racist Skinheads to Aryan Nations — the beginning of a campaign to enlist younger whites in the movement.
His annual Aryan Youth Conferences, drawing as many as 200 Skinheads, became an important organizing tool, even attracting some young men in the military.
One recently discharged soldier joined Butler's flock in 1990. With two others he met at the compound, he attempted to emulate The Order. But the FBI arrested the group in Seattle, where they'd traveled with plans to bomb a gay bar.
In 1993, two of Butler's staunchest supporters — associate pastor Carl Franklin and security chief Wayne Jones — left for Montana. Their departure apparently had to do with a behind-the-scenes struggle over the future of Aryan Nations. Earlier, Butler had publicly chosen Franklin as his successor, but then changed his mind.
When Butler's wife died on Dec. 1, 1995, her funeral service was conducted by Harold Von Braunhut, a millionaire who describes himself as an Aryan pastor. Von Braunhut is the eccentric Maryland inventor who marketed "sea monkeys" and "X-ray glasses" for years through advertisements placed in comic books.
Since that time, the increasingly frail Butler has remained active in the movement. He is unrepentant about the legacy of bloodshed and criminal activity that has flowed from his wooded compound off Rimrock Road.
But attendance at his congresses and other functions has diminished steadily, and there is some evidence that the heart of the racist movement has moved elsewhere, to such neo-Nazi rivals as Pierce's West Virginia-based National Alliance. Aryan Nations lost more than half its state chapters in 1997, retaining just 13.
Before his recent march, Butler told reporters he had named a successor, fellow Identity minister Neuman Britton. Britton is married to the widow of Gordon Kahl, a Posse leader who killed two U.S. marshals in 1983 and was later killed himself in an Arkansas shootout.
A Californian, Britton has frequented Aryan Nations for years, but it's unclear whether he would move to Idaho upon Butler's death or set up a new organization on the West Coast.
There are indications that Butler's daughters and heirs could sell the land from which he has preached racial hatred for the last 25 years. The many arrests of Butler's followers have cut deeply into his strength, leaving him increasingly isolated and irrelevant. But it is clearly too early to write off Aryan Nations, an organization that has survived despite decades of attacks.
That is certainly Richard Butler's view. "If I were to die tomorrow or anything else," Butler promised defiantly during the 1980s, "it will still go on."