A case brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center results in a $2.5-million judgment against the Imperial Klans of America
Brandenburg, Ky. — Snipers on the roof kept watch through binoculars as the racist skinheads sauntered past concrete vehicle barriers, media vans and state troopers standing guard outside the Meade County Courthouse. Some of the skins were dressed in traditional steel-toed combat boots, red braces (suspenders) and black flight jackets with racist emblems. Others wore full camouflage and black berets.
Inside the courthouse, the Klan boss the skinheads were there to support had forsaken his white robes for a blue-collared shirt and black pants. He gripped a legal pad covered with studious notes. He addressed the judge as "your honor" and expressed disagreement with opposing lawyers only by shaking his head.
"I teach [my Klansmen] not to go out and commit violence," he told the jury during his November civil trial in this rural county just southwest of Louisville, Ky. "I stay within the law."
His body told a different story. Tattooed on his shaven head in permanent ink were the words "Aryan Justice," "Death to ZOG [Zionist Occupied Government]" and "Fuck S.P.L.C.," referring to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the organization that was suing him (and publishes this magazine). A small swastika adorned the back of his scalp. The letters "I," "K" and "A" — which stand for the Imperial Klans of America, the group he founded and leads — were emblazoned on the side of his neck.
During his high-stakes trial, IKA Imperial Wizard Ron Edwards, 49, would defend himself by arguing that his racism consisted of only words and symbols. No matter how offensive his views might be to some people, he argued, he has a constitutional right to freedom of speech. "Nobody in America should be persecuted for what they believe in," he said.
But the SPLC, which brought suit against Edwards with the aim of shutting down the IKA, made the case that the First Amendment did not immunize Edwards' activities. Edwards, the SPLC lawyers argued, enlisted men with violent histories and then sent them out to recruit new members — all in an effort to line his pockets with membership dues. Rather than try to control his recruiters by prescribing rules to govern their conduct, Edwards added fuel to the fire by preaching hatred and encouraging violence. For these reasons, the SPLC legal team said, Edwards should be held liable for the injuries to Jordan Gruver, a teenager who was brutally beaten by IKA members who were recruiting at a county fair and mistook Gruver, in their words, for an "illegal spic."
"They were doing exactly what Ron Edwards had programmed them to do," SPLC founder and chief trial counsel Morris Dees told the jury.
'Images of Hate'
Also sitting at the defendant's table was Jarred Hensley, 26, who was previously convicted in criminal court of assaulting the teenager and served two years in state prison. Hensley, a tall man with close-cropped brown hair, also sported numerous tattoos, including the word "violence" on his knuckles, "murder" below his neck, and a swastika on his arm. Both Edwards and Hensley represented themselves.
After three days of testimony and more than six hours of often heated jury deliberations, 12 men and women returned a verdict that could potentially demolish the IKA, one of the largest Klan groups in America in 2007 with 16 chapters in eight states. But first, in a courtroom under heavy police protection, the jury would hear from an assortment of witnesses: a would-be assassin who testified that Edwards ordered him to kill SPLC founder Morris Dees; a former IKA member who detested Edwards' greed even though he still embraced his cause; and a teenager whose life was irrevocably changed when Klansmen kicked him with steel-toed boots because they wrongly assumed he was "an illegal spic."
During opening arguments, Edwards — a beefy man with a goatee — asserted that he bore no responsibility for his Klansmen's actions because he never sent them on the recruiting mission to the county fair where the attack occurred. "I did not even know they were there," he said.
But Dees, who led the SPLC trial team, contended that Edwards still could be held responsible under Kentucky civil law for two reasons: he had been reckless in selecting and overseeing the Klansmen who perpetrated the attack, and he had encouraged them to commit violent acts. "They were bombarded by images of hate," Dees said in his opening statement.
Dees later showed footage of Nordic Fest, an annual weekend of music and speeches at Edwards' 15-acre compound in Dawson Springs, Ky. It featured speakers calling for the deaths of Latinos ("Let's send the Mexicans back in boxes…") and Jews ("A filthy Jew deserves nothing but death…"). A hate rock band led by Ron Edwards' son, Steven, sang "No Mercy," including a chorus calling for "no mercy" on "Jews," "spics," "niggers," "faggots" and "traitors." Edwards' son heads the Supreme White Alliance, a racist skinhead gang whose second-in-command is Hensley of Cincinnati. A former member was one of two skinheads charged in late October in a plot to assassinate president-elect Barack Obama after first killing more than 100 African Americans, including schoolchildren.
During a break in the trial, Steven Edwards conferred with his father outside the courtroom. Some skinheads in full dress congregated near the entrance to the courthouse during the proceedings, while others watched the trial from a wooden bench behind the defense table.
Not all IKA supporters were so easily recognizable: A gray-haired, bespectacled woman wearing a baseball cap, jeans, and orange vest snapped photos of SPLC officials and the Gruver family. When Kentucky state troopers asked her to move to a protest area, she unleashed a vicious tirade against Dees and the SPLC. The woman was later identified as Nancy Hitt, a Louisville, Ky., correspondent for The First Freedom, a racist, anti-Semitic tabloid.
SPLC chief trial counsel Morris Dees argued that followers of Klan chief Ron Edwards did exactly what he had "programmed them to do." In the end, a Kentucky jury agreed.
Brian Bohannon/AP Images
Planning an Assassination
The SPLC argued that Edwards did more than encourage violence: He ordered it. After turning his chair to face the jury box, Kale Kelly, a former white supremacist, testified that Edwards instructed him to kill Dees. "Mr. Edwards is a very dangerous man," said Kelly, who was once a trusted member of Edwards' inner circle. "He promotes violence and hatred [toward] anybody who he feels threatens him: minorities, Jews, blacks. I've lived with him. I know this."
Kelly testified that he met privately with Edwards in the guard shack outside Edwards' former home and headquarters in tiny Powderly, Ky. Edwards bestowed on him the rank of lieutenant in a secret cell whose mission was to kill and injure blacks, Jews, people of mixed race, and anyone who opposed Edwards, he said. The Klan leader showed Kelly a photograph of several people in camouflage, one of them with a circle drawn around his head. "He told me to take care of this individual … by any means, to kill him," Kelly testified.
Then, Kelly said, Edwards showed him a slip of paper with a name on it: "Morris Dees." Edwards wanted Dees dead because of the SPLC's lawsuit against the Aryan Nations, an Idaho-based neo-Nazi group. After instructing Kelly to assassinate Dees, Edwards burned the paper in a candle flame.
To carry out the plot, Kelly said he intended to track Dees to Idaho, while Edwards was to supply the weapon. But in April 1999, within days of his planned departure, an FBI agent who had infiltrated the Aryan Nations thwarted the plot. Kelly served time in federal prison on weapons charges; Edwards was never charged in connection with the assassination plan.
Kelly, now married and employed, broke down on the witness stand as he told the jury that he was a changed man. His testimony cast doubt on a key component of Edwards' defense: That he always told his Klansmen to obey the law. It also contradicted Edwards' earlier assertion that he'd never told Kelly to kill anyone. As Kelly finished describing the plot against Dees, Edwards and Hensley looked at each other and snickered.
The Money Motive
On the trial's second day, jurors got a glimpse of a force beyond bigotry that motivated Edwards: cash. Edwards, who lived off the money he collected from IKA activities, encouraged his Klansmen to recruit aggressively in order to bring in more members and more money, according to two former IKA members.
Joshua Cowles, a former recruiter for Edwards, said that when the IKA received $400 earmarked for Hensley's legal defense in a criminal case, Edwards instead used most of the money to pay his bills. "The IKA is about one man and one man only — and that's Ron Edwards," said Cowles, who still holds racist views. "It's about his greed, his want to have money, his desire to get by without working, his desire to trick people into giving him money to support him."
When four Klansmen drove to the Meade County Fair on July 29, 2006, the night of the attack, they were following Edwards' mandate to find new members, said Matthew Roberts, former IKA "Acting Exalted Cyclops." They believed the Meade County Fair would be fertile recruiting turf because, he said, Brandenburg "is a redneck town."
Yet Edwards wasn't selective about whom he invited to join his group. "I don't think I've ever been in a courtroom for any trial in my life that I've seen so many criminals get on the witness stand," Dees said of the former Klansmen. "I mean, they were proud to be criminals."
'I've Lost Faith'
During the final day of testimony, Klan victim Jordan Gruver gave an emotional account of his assault by Klansmen at the fair. Around midnight, after an evening spent handing out business cards with IKA contact information to white fairgoers, the IKA members spotted Gruver — a U.S.-born citizen of Panamanian descent on his father's side — near a concession stand. They began spewing racial epithets, including "spic," poured whiskey in his face and spat on him. Then Hensley struck a blow to his jaw that knocked the small teenager to the ground. At least two IKA members kicked him with steel-toed boots as he curled into a fetal position and tried to protect his head with his arms.
"As they were kicking me, I prayed to myself," Gruver recalled. "I said, 'God, just let me make it home. Please let me make it home.'"
Two medical doctors described Gruver's injuries, which included a broken arm, broken jaw and broken teeth. He has weakness and impaired fine motor control in his left hand that will likely be permanent. Both doctors said the assault caused him to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental condition that can result from traumatic events. Although he was prescribed an anti-depressant, Gruver has become so withdrawn that he cannot attend school or work. His mother, Cindy Gruver, testified that one year after the assault, he attempted suicide.
But the most powerful testimony came from Gruver himself. Before the attack he was a high school athlete who loved to play piano, an instrument he learned from his paternal grandfather. He wrote and performed gospel music and attended church. Two years after the assault, he stays home most days unless he has a doctor's appointment. He sets his alarm clock to wake himself up every two hours to avoid the nightmares that plague him if he sleeps longer. And he has stopped composing music or going to church.
"I ain't lost touch with God," he said, "but I've lost faith."
After the SPLC trial team rested its case and the defense declined to present testimony, the jury grappled into the night with the question of Edwards' culpability. Meanwhile, an eclectic group of lawyers, reporters, skinheads, Klansmen, and family members waited anxiously for a verdict. Shortly after 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 14, as Gruver's parents, older brother and friends looked on, the jury awarded just over $2.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages to Gruver. It found that Edwards had recklessly supervised the Klansmen who attacked the teenager and had encouraged their violence. Based on the jury's apportionment of responsibility for Gruver's attack, Edwards will be responsible for about $1.5 million of the total judgment.
"I hope it sends a message to every single one of them that what they do is wrong," Gruver said at a news conference afterward.
Gruver's lawyers hope that the jury's decision will shut down the IKA. Although the Klansman does not have $2.5 million, the SPLC will try to seize his compound in Dawson Springs. All money collected from the judgment will go to Gruver.
The verdict has already shaken up the IKA. A week after the trial ended, Edwards announced on his website that he had stepped down as IKA commander and appointed Jim Walters of Nancy, Ky., as acting imperial wizard. "I have not had any [time off] in many years," Edwards wrote on Nov. 22. He also said he needed to devote his energy to appealing the verdict and that he has enlisted the help of a Louisville, Ky., lawyer who agreed to represent him. He exhorted his followers to send in checks to help pay the lawyer's discounted fee of $10,000. "I want all of you to stay strong and never give up!" he proclaimed. "It is our right to hold the values and beliefs which we cherish — the SPLC be damned!"
But many former Edwards loyalists have grown tired of his penchant for pocketing membership fees and other donations intended for his Klan group — and not only those who testified at the IKA trial. A website set up by former IKA members, RonEdwardsReport.info, details the ex-Klan leader's misuse of IKA money, among other alleged misdeeds. "He survives on his ability to con his members and supporters," it says. "He is a cancer to our cause and a disgrace to real Klansmen."