BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Ronnie Painter was a 15-year-old alcoholic and painkiller addict on the run from the law in 1992 when he first took refuge at "the compound," also known as the WAR House.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Ronnie Painter was a 15-year-old alcoholic and painkiller addict on the run from the law in 1992 when he first took refuge at "the compound," also known as the WAR House. Tucked away in a secluded, heavily forested area just outside this central Alabama city, the compound was owned by William E. Davidson, more commonly known by the alias Bill Riccio.
At that time Riccio was a former Klan leader-turned-godfather of the neo-Nazi skinhead movement in the Deep South. The compound was equal parts recruiting station, clubhouse and crash pad. It was a place where underage, disaffected boys could go to drink, play with guns and feel wanted.
Painter today is a 32-year-old inmate at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Ala., where he's been incarcerated for burglary and drug convictions since 1998. He's a frail man whose physical frame is barely larger than a folding chair. He was even tinier as a teen when Riccio urged him to get the "Confederate lady" tattoo on his right leg to demonstrate his allegiance to the Aryan National Front (ANF), a skinhead gang Riccio created in the early 1990s.
Ronnie Painter came from a home where he and his twin brother Lonnie watched their mother beaten often by her boyfriend, who rained blows on the brothers as well. Ronnie dropped out of school in the eighth grade and headed straight for a life of juvenile crime. It was during this troubling time that he was recruited and groomed by Riccio.
"He [Riccio] would prey on kids with legal problems, emotional problems, and dysfunctional kids," Painter told the Intelligence Report in a recent prison interview.
When Ronnie's brother escaped from a juvenile detention center, also in 1992, the first place he went was the WAR House, where Ronnie Painter had already found a home.
"Mostly, it was alcohol out there," Lonnie Painter said in an interview from Draper Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., where he's serving 20 years for armed robbery. "Lots of guns, we shot a lot of guns — anything that looked cool to a kid, he [Riccio] done it."
Riccio was at the height of his power in 1992. He was 35 years old and presiding over a network of at least 70 skinheads in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. He enthralled the boys with motivational speeches that indoctrinated them into Riccio's blend of neo-Confederate ideology and Hitler worship. He instructed them to blame all their problems on non-whites, gays and the Jews who secretly control the U.S. government. He taught his followers that organized racism and violence were their only paths to salvation. Skinheads under his sway committed at least four murders.
"It is [Riccio's] apparent ability to organize and mobilize disenchanted young white males to acts of violence that makes him dangerous," said the judge who sentenced Riccio to 46 months in prison for violating a federal bodyguard statute in 1992. (In the end, Riccio only served 15 months.)
Riccio still lives in the Birmingham area, and is still active in the white supremacist movement as the imperial kludd, or national chaplain, of the North Georgia White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. By his own description, he continues to cruise shopping malls, rock concerts and swimming holes in search of young recruits, who might be well advised to heed the warnings of the Painter brothers and several other members of the previous generation of Riccio's toy soldiers.
Now grown men, they uniformly describe Riccio as a master manipulator who exploited them emotionally and, in some cases, sexually. "I'd get extremely drunk and ride off in the car with him, then he'd perform oral sex on me," says Ronnie Painter, who says he remembers at least four such sexual encounters with Riccio. Afterwards, "He'd apologize and then call me three or four times a day asking me if I was mad at him," says Ronnie.
Lonnie Painter says that one night during a party at the compound, Riccio plied him with alcohol and gave him a few red pills. He says he woke up with Riccio on top of him, groping between his legs. "I was scared to try and leave right then," says Lonnie. "When he went to work, I packed my shit and got my [grand]momma to come get me. I never slept at his house again."
Reached by the Intelligence Report, Riccio denied that he had had or tried to have sex with any of the boys who flocked to his home in the 1990s. "That's certainly not true in any sense of the word," Riccio said.
Rumors that Riccio engaged in illegal sexual activities with underage boys have circulated in the white supremacist movement for at least two decades. Now, three former Aryan National Front skinheads have come forward to allege that those rumors were true. Other former ANF skins interviewed for this story said that while Riccio did not sexually exploit them, they believe now that he took advantage of their difficult adolescences to instill them with racial hatred and influence them to commit crimes that ultimately landed many of them in prison.
As one of Riccio's former skinheads, Louis Oddo, puts it, "There's no telling how many lives and families this guy has f----- up."
In 1992, Jeff McClure was the tattoo artist for the Confederate Hammerskins, a violent skinhead faction whose members hung out at the compound along with the Aryan National Front. He was 15 when he first visited there.
"In junior high [school], all these kids that were poor white trash with no family were coming to school saying they were ANF and that they were with Bill Riccio," recalls McClure. "The whole thing seemed strange to me."
Kenny Loggins, a former Riccio skin who's currently serving life without parole at Donaldson Correctional Facility for the killing of a hitchhiker when he was 17, is one of those who allege that Riccio made sexual advances to him.
"We went off alone to a trail in the woods," Loggins said in a telephone interview from Donaldson. "We were talking and drinking. His exact words were, 'Have you ever wanted to defy nature?' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'Have you ever wanted to make love to another man?'"
According to his story, Riccio tried to reach between his legs. Loggins says he then knocked Riccio back and ran away. He was 15 at the time.
"The guy's a child molester and I know it without a doubt," says Loggins. "Back then, I tried to tell people about it but everyone was like, 'Not Bill.' As time went on, they would come to me and say, 'You were right about Bill.'"
In his interview with the Report, Riccio blamed the accusations of sexual misconduct on disenchanted former friends trying to discredit him. "People say a whole lot of things when they are really reaching for something to assassinate your character," he said.
Riccio, who was contacted by phone at his workplace at Tire Tech, a tire dealership in Birmingham, was nonchalant about the allegations. He said he's been called many things by many people — a snitch, a con-artist, a traitor — by former associates feeling a "little resentment" over their past relationships with him. He said that he still adheres to the "88 precepts," a sort of neo-Nazi code of honor, which strictly prohibits homosexual behavior. "It's not a healthy lifestyle," Riccio said of homosexuality. "You put yourself at risk for diseases. It's not conducive to the family, and it hurts the white birth rate."
Riccio, who still attends and gives speeches at white supremacist rallies in Alabama and Georgia, confirmed to the Report that he continues to recruit young people into the white supremacist movement. He said he goes looking for them at shopping malls, concerts and "the swimming hole."
"I have people over to shoot pool," Riccio says. "Sometimes they're 18 or 19. I don't like to hang out with someone below 17 or 18, I like to keep it 18, 19, 20. They can do what they wanna do."
Michael "Shane" Moon was 15 years old when he met Riccio in 1992. He lived at the compound off and on for several months before he was eventually kicked out of Aryan National Front for using cocaine. (Riccio enforced a strict policy against hard drugs.) Moon went on to start the Aryan Mafia, an Alabama prison-based white supremacist gang. Heavily tattooed with Odinist and Nazi symbols, he is currently serving time at Ventress Correctional Facility for first-degree assault.
Moon told the Report that Riccio never made any sexual moves on him, and initially said that he didn't care to even think about such accusations. "I've learned not to pry into stuff that people don't offer. Sometimes you don't wanna know, and there's a reason for that." Later in a 45-minute interview, however, Moon started to express doubts, remembering that Riccio was close friends with Roger Handley, a former grand dragon with the Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan who was convicted in May 1995 of sodomy and sexual abuse of a teenager.
"Roger [Handley] and Bill were in the Klan together. Roger had these same charges against him [sodomy] and they were friends," says Moon. "I'm just pointing out some of the evidence that looks, y'know…"
Contacted by the Report, Handley, who is now 77, said that Riccio in the 1990s bragged about recruiting the "next generation" of Klansmen. "He got with that Aryan National Front, and two or three of [the boys] would come by my house to just talk, but I was never really around them to converse with them, and surely not in private."
In November 1991, Handley and Riccio co-hosted a huge skinhead and Klan gathering on Handley's farm. The following June, the two men organized a white power march through downtown Birmingham by 150 skinheads and Klansmen. "There were lots of young ones," Handley recalls. "A hell of a lot of young ones."
Bashing With a Buzz On
According to former skinheads interviewed for this story, a typical night at the compound found the skinheads drinking Evan Williams bourbon, Jägermeister and Heineken beer provided by Riccio, while the godfather ranted about clearing Jews, blacks and gays out of Alabama, a state he said he planned to claim as a "haven for whites." Then, with a good buzz going, the skinheads would go out into the night, looking for non-whites, Jews and gays to "bash."
"Bill was more the type that would make you feel like you wanted to do it," says Moon. "He would never tell you to do anything."
Another thing Moon remembers: "You'd see Bill with a beer all night, but if you actually watch him, it's the same beer. It's just to show the deceptive part of him. He puts up an image he wants you to see."
The night of April 18, 1992, after a party at Riccio's for Adolf Hitler's birthday, a group of ANF and Hammerskin members went to a viaduct in downtown Birmingham, where they beat and stomped to death a black homeless man named Benny Rembert. "Bill is the one that told them to go bashing that night," says Lonnie Painter, who says he attended the party that night. "Anytime we was having a party getting drunk, he said, 'We gonna go do some bashing tonight.' He made that speech at every party."
Skinheads Edward Earl Simmons Hardeman, and Malcolm Samuel Driskill were convicted of Rembert's murder. Mark Lane was convicted of manslaughter.
Later that year, Tom and Ken Collins, Cecil Bradley, Adam Galleon, Jonathan Miller and Louis Oddo were arrested with Riccio after a raid on the compound and charged with a medley of crimes including assault and weapons violations. In addition, in 1994, Oddo and Galleon were sentenced to 35 and 25 years, respectively, for murdering two homeless black men.
Now 33 years old, Lane is 14 years into a 20-year sentence for his part in the murder of Rembert. Today, he says that joining Riccio's gang was the biggest mistake of his life. He recently covered up a swastika tattoo on his arm with a Native American tribal symbol. Another swastika remains tattooed inside his lower lip.
Lane is up for parole soon and he says he aims to get out and help steer kids away from the lure of racist gangs while finally enjoying a life on the outside with his wife and daughter. He says Riccio wrote him a letter once a few years back. His letter back was short and to the point: "Don't write me again. You are a stain on my past."
Riccio says the murder of Rembert was "random" and "unauthorized." He says it "set the whole movement back 20 years." "If they didn't do what they did and brought the whole compound down, we'd still be out there educating the people," Riccio says.
He denies manipulating or brainwashing his young followers. "Not one person in jail was manipulated by me in any way. If they'd listened to me, not one of them would have went to jail. So, the kids blame me. But if they listened to what I said, I said, 'Now is not the time.'"
Not long ago, Riccio says he found out he has a son who's now 19 years old. Riccio said the boy's mother won't allow her son to associate with his biological father, which seems to bother Riccio about as much as being accused of pedophilia and ruining young lives, which is not a lot. "He's a good ol' redneck," Riccio says of his son. "He didn't want to be part of any movement and I respect that. Just as long as he marries someone white, he's alright."
The mother of Riccio's son isn't the only concerned parent in Alabama who's determined to keep their son away from Riccio. "Riccio is a nothing, a nobody," says Jean Startley, whose 31-year-old son Richard Startley was recently released from prison after a three-year sentence for a forgery charge. Richard Startley was a longtime associate of Riccio's who earlier this year renounced neo-Nazi ideology and is seeking to remove a swastika tattoo from his face. "He got all these little soldiers making him think he's a somebody," he says. "Riccio is pretty radical and how he stays out of prison is beyond me."
Riccio says he isn't terribly concerned about parents who object to his spending time with their sons. "That's cool," he says. "But if you turn 18 and you still don't feel [the same way as your parents], then come see me."