After almost a quarter of a century in the Pacific Northwest, the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations is at the end of the line in the wake of a $6.3 million civil 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.
'Look Over Your Shoulder'
Several interesting points came out in testimony:
A security manual that was purportedly written before the attack on the Keenans was actually prepared after the lawsuit, one witness testified.
Butler, according to a former Aryan who testified against him, helped to dispose of the rifle that Warfield fired at the Keenans as they fled.
Criminal violence and hatred were seen in heroic terms at the compound. Butler routinely glorified people who had committed violent crimes in the name of his racist cause, displaying a plaque for the guards and others to see that honored John Paul Franklin, a serial killer who targeted interracial couples.
Others who had committed violent crimes in the name of racism were "prisoners of war."
Butler claimed to have a rule, in effect since 1980, against security guards leaving the compound. But testimony made it clear that working guards regularly left the compound on missions for the group.
In one, Warfield followed two youths to their home after seeing them allegedly steal an Aryan Nations flag. In another, police arrested Yeager for possession of a concealed weapon after he chased a man off the compound.
In none of these cases — including the attack on the Keenans — did Butler ever discipline any of the guards for breaking the supposed rule.
Warfield was selected as security chief even through he was thought by the Aryans to lack the intelligence required, was suspected of drug addiction and was believed to have accidentally shot and killed one of Butler's dogs.
A background check, had it been performed, would have revealed that Warfield had previously been charged with burglary and assault with a deadly weapon.
In the run-up to the trial, Warfield had sent the Keenans an ominous letter from his jail cell. "Those in the [Aryan Nations] group may overreact" to a verdict against them, Warfield warned.
"There have been some Aryan Nations people who have done some crazy things. ... Please don't let Mr. [Morris] Dees [co-founder of the Center and one of the Keenans' lawyers] put you and Jason in a spot where you might need to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life."
Violence, Bomb Plots and Murder
The case capped a quarter century of trouble.
The Aryan Nations and its Christian Identity doctrine — a theology that depicts whites as God's chosen people and Jews as the biological descendants of Satan — have inspired hatred and violence since the beginning.
The group known as the Order, composed largely of Aryan Nations members, waged a campaign of terror in the 1980s, murdering a talk show host in Denver and robbing a total of some $4 million in armored car heists.
Members of other major terrorist groups like the Aryan Republican Army (which robbed 22 banks in the 1990s) and The New Order (which plotted in the late '90s to blow up the Center and assassinate Dees) frequented the compound. And literally dozens of individuals associated with the Aryans have been convicted of violence, bomb plots and even murder.
The Aryan security guards hold a special place in this history. One security chief, apparently incensed by Butler's tirades, offered $2,000 to a hitman to kill the informant who helped bring the original Order down. Another security chief went to prison after bombing the home of a civil rights activist and four other buildings.
And last year, former security guard Buford Furrow allegedly went on a rampage, shooting up a Jewish community center and murdering a postal worker.
'You Will See'
Through it all — and even a sedition trial in the 1980s in which he was ultimately acquitted — Butler has emerged legally unscathed. His group's power has fluctuated over the decades, but it has survived, and at times, flourished.
And while it may be in permanent decline now, there are still many sympathizers who in years past moved to the area to be near Butler and who remain there now.
That is obvious to Victoria Keenan. Walking through a supermarket parking lot in October, she and her husband were trailed by a van sporting Aryan Nations stickers. They asked the driver, who wore an Aryan cap, what he wanted.
"You will see soon," he replied.
Now, several of those around Butler seem to be trying to revive what's left of Aryan Nations under a new name, Aryan National Alliance.
Bertollini, part of an Idaho propaganda ministry called the 11th Hour Remnant Messenger and Butler's financial patron, has been more public in his role, speaking out at the time of the trial in Butler's defense. But he is seen as a highly unlikely leader.
And Kreis, who only joined the Aryan Nations last summer and became its webmaster in the process, does not seem particularly interested in bringing Butler back to power.
He has invited members of the group to come to hold future Aryan World Congresses at his place in Ulysses, Pa. — but he seems to have pointedly avoided acknowledging Butler as the group's future leader.
Neuman Britton, who lives in Escondido, Calif., and shows no inclination to move to Idaho, may have best summed up the prospects for the future.
"Unless there are people who come forward with resources," said the 74-year-old who Butler designated as his heir, "I don't think there will be much to turn over to me."