On the inside

Spokane Spokesman Review/August 20, 2000
By Kristy MacDonald

Arriving at the compound's electronic gate, I saw horses grazing in a pasture, and a sign nailed to a Ponderosa pine that read, "Whites only." Richard Butler and four of his guards -- men in black pants and neatly ironed blue shirts -- sat on a deck in the center of the compound. A bright red flag emblazoned with a swastika hung from a guard tower behind Butler's rustic wooden chapel.

The event was a press conference, and the Blue Shirts told the media what we could and couldn't do, including what direction I could point my camera. Butler talked, but it didn't make a very good picture. After the press conference, I asked him if I could shoot a portrait of him and his dog, Fritz, who was dozing in the shade nearby. Butler agreed. "Fritz, come," I called.

A suddenly snarling German shepherd charged straight at me. I have raised show dogs for years, and had petted Fritz on my way in. I realized that the dog had probably been taught attack commands in German. "Fritz. Platz," I said in my best obedience ring voice. He came to a sliding sit, growling under his breath. A group of young men in black boots and skinny red suspenders laughed raucously.

"Listen, she knows the mother tongue," said a man with a shaved and tattooed head. "Man, she stopped Fritz! I can't believe she did that!" Well, I couldn't believe it either. I couldn't believe my unreliable memory came up with the obscure term from an old dog training class. Truth is, I don't speak a lick of German.

The Blue Shirts started to shoo the media back to the gate. Perhaps impressed, or at least amused, by my run-in with Fritz, they invited me to spend the night. You can stay in the ladies' bunkhouse, offered a guard named Mike. I took him up on it. The cost: $35, and agreement that I wouldn't photograph anyone without their permission.

A pregnant woman showed me the bunkhouse, a trailer. It smelled of propane, the lights didn't work and the mattress I had been offered was missing. It was OK with me when my hostess told me to keep the door open. "I just got out of jail," she said. "I can't abide closed doors." The mosquitoes didn't mind.

The next morning, two swallowtail butterflies chased each other across a meadow where children played on a swing set. A vivacious young woman named Kristy served Frisbee-sized flapjacks on paper plates. A voice boomed from a loudspeaker mounted on the guard tower.

Neuman Britton, a California pastor, had started his sermon in the chapel. Wagging his index finger and glaring out of the corner of his eye, Britton raged about a holy war against Jews. When he had finished, faithful listeners gathered around to lay on hands in an attempt to heal an egg-sized lump that festered on Britton's mouth.

The day grew hot. A chain saw hummed in the meadow. Young men preparing a tree-sized cross for burning soaked burlap with diesel fuel. "How are you going to lift the cross into the hole?" I asked. The sweating young man with a post hole digger didn't miss a beat. "White power," he said.

The Blue Shirts debated whether to make a trip to Coeur d'Alene to pass out literature. Some skinheads from Montana wanted to tour the area and go shopping. Families napped through the heat of the afternoon. Into the evening, anticipation for the cross burning grew.

The toilets I had encountered at the compound so far were stopped up. A woman directed me to one in the woods behind the cookhouse that worked, and had toilet paper galore. It felt luxurious to have a moment to myself away from the Aryans. But it didn't last.

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Three hard knocks shook the door. "In the Chapel. Now!" a deep voice commanded.

An agitated Blue Shirt herded me through the pines to the back entrance of the chapel. I had no idea what was going on. I was surprised at the press of people in the room. They were all men and they started shouting at me: "Women in back!"

I pushed my way through the staring crowd, wondering if they were going to do some ritual that excluded women. It was 9:45 p.m. The "Cross Lighting" was scheduled for 10. Maybe they had a prayer service first. I joined several dozen women in a meeting room behind the chapel.

"We're going to do a strip search," a Blue Shirt informed us. We learned that the registry of participants for the Aryan Congress was missing. The list had names, addresses and phone and license plate numbers for everyone. The guards were wound up. "We have an infiltrator," I heard more than once. Then Pastor Butler walked into the room of nervous women. "It's OK," he said. "It was a mistake. The list has been found."

The Blue Shirts were unconvinced. They wanted to see the list with their own eyes, but nobody knew where it was. "Everyone can go back outside." Again it was Butler's calm voice. The women timidly filed out into the night as four heavy-booted men charged into the woods. I don't know what they were after.

Fifteen minutes later, the congress participants were posing for family snapshots like 150 happy tourists, while a huge wooden cross and two swastikas burned behind them.

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