After the death of its founder, Richard Butler, the Aryan Nations faced a cloudy future by moving its once-famed headquarters from Idaho to Alabama.
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. A 'Charade of Confusion'?
But wait — not so fast. The rival Pennsylvania-based faction that also calls itself Aryan Nations had something to say. On Oct. 11, longtime Christian Identity preacher James Wickstrom (see Return of the Pastor) posted an "official announcement" on aryan-nations.org claiming that Butler's real plan for Aryan Nations had been entirely different.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Wickstrom claimed, Butler had met with trusted lieutenants to concoct a "cloak and dagger" plan to rebuild Aryan Nations. Under a "charade of confusion," the group would split into two factions — as it did in 2002, when former Posse Comitatus leader August Kreis and a few allies broke from Butler (who had briefly designated them his heirs, but then retracted his announcement) and began claiming they were the real Aryan Nations.
After Butler's death, according to Wickstrom, the ruse was to be revealed and Butler's true appointed leaders — Kreis, Wickstrom, and former Klan leader Charles Juba — would take the helm.
"Under no circumstances from this day forward should there be any confusion as to who leads Aryan Nations," Wickstrom wrote in his announcement.
There was, of course, confusion aplenty — until a week later, when Wickstrom's claim was revealed to be a cloak-and-dagger charade of its own. On the other, "official" Aryan Nations Web site, twelvearyannations.com, Aryan stalwart Morris Gullet published E-mail messages he'd received from Juba shortly after Butler's death. In them, Juba asked Gullet to join him, Kreis and Wickstrom in a scheme to convince their fellow neo-Nazis that "it was Butler's idea for us to rebuild Nations."
It had all been "a falsehood, and a lie," Gullet revealed.
With Wickstrom and Juba's tiny faction looking bad, the Aryan Nations now officially based in Alabama seems poised to inherit most of what Butler left behind: around 150 members organized into some 17 chapters. Other than that, Aryan Nations' future is cloudy. Only one thing seems certain: Its members will likely uphold a tradition of criminal violence that began decades ago.
Aryan Nations first made international news in the early 1980s when it helped spawn The Order, an underground group that committed a dizzying series of armored-car heists and murdered a Jewish radio-show host in Denver.
Another Aryan Nations associate, Chevie Kehoe, committed three murders, including the torture-killing of a young girl. A former Aryan Nations security guard murdered a mail carrier in California and wounded three children as he shot up a Jewish community center there.
All in all, according to Idaho human-rights activist Norm Gissel, Aryan Nations associates have committed at least 100 racially motivated felonies.
The group's decline has not silenced the drumbeat of violence. Earlier this year, Aryan Nations member Sean Gillespie was charged with firebombing an Oklahoma City synagogue. A member in Washington state was arrested for shooting at police. A Montana member was arrested for attempting to murder a social worker.
And just two weeks after Butler died, 40-year-old Steve Holten, leader of Aryan Nations' Nevada chapter, was arrested on federal charges of E-mailing violent threats to dozens of newspaper reporters, law-enforcement officials, Jewish Defense League leaders and gay-rights groups, promising "a holocaust of our enemies."
Arrested on Sept. 22, Holten, who said he was taking drugs for HIV, admitted writing the rambling, almost incoherent missives. As this issue went to press, Holten was facing up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine at a trial slated to begin Nov. 30.
His arrest delayed the announcement of the Aryan Nations' new leadership council for a couple of weeks, and for good reason: Holten had been one of the four chosen to carry Butler's legacy forward.
All of which left Idahoans like Norm Gissel with a simple message for the Aryan Nations' new neighbors in Alabama: "As fellow Americans, we grieve for you."