A lawsuit whose declared purpose is to financially cripple the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations and force it to close its fortress-like compound near here goes to trial Monday amidst extraordinary security.
If the lawsuit prevails, a hate group that has been at the forefront of the national white supremacy movement for nearly a quarter century could lose it headquarters just as its aging founder, Richard G. Butler, prepares to surrender the leadership.
The defendants in the lawsuit in Kootenai County Court include not only Butler, an 82-year-old avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler who founded the Aryan Nations in 1977, but also his entire organization as an incorporated entity. They also include Butler's former chief of staff, Michael Teague, and three former Aryan Nations security guards who shot at a local woman and her teenage son two years ago and assaulted and terrorized them after a high-speed car chase at nearby Hayden Lake.
Human rights advocates say that in the atmosphere of hate that accompanies racial conflict, it is important to hold not only the perpetrators of racially motivated crimes accountable, but also the groups that inspire them to act.
Morris Dees, a founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which filed the lawsuit for the victims, declined to comment on the case as jury selection was about to begin. But Dees has repeatedly said in the past that he wields an economic weapon against hate groups and that the purpose of the lawsuit was to win a punitive award so large that it would bankrupt the Aryan Nations.
The shootings occurred July 1, 1998, when Victoria Keenan and her son, Jason, were driving by the compound. Keenan said that when she doubled back toward the entrance after Jason accidentally dropped his wallet out the car's window, her old Datsun backfired.
A truckload of security guards, including Jesse Warfield, John Yaeger, Shane Wright and several other unidentified men, roared out of the Aryan Nations compound in a truck and chased the Keenans for two miles down a country road, firing at them until hitting a tire and forcing the car into a ditch.
Keenan, 43, was struck with the butt of a gun and dragged out of the car by her hair while her son, now 20, was beaten by guards who shouted, "Don't mess with Aryans," according to testimony at the criminal trials that convicted Warfield, 44, and Yaeger, 22, of aggravated assault. They are serving prison sentences, while Wright is still a fugitive.
Keenan said that after she pleaded with the guards to take her but leave her son, one of them said, "Because you're white we're going to let you live today."
The Keenans are seeking damages for assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and reckless and negligent conduct. Butler was named a defendant because the plaintiffs believe he should be accountable for his security guards' actions.
Human rights groups are increasingly filing lawsuits aimed at bankrupting hate groups by holding their leaders accountable for crimes committed by their followers. In some cases, juries have handed up huge compensatory and punitive awards that have effectively silenced the racist groups.
A pattern has evolved in which racist leaders like Butler have been unable to avoid such judgments by claiming that the First Amendment protects incendiary rhetoric that incites hate crimes by others. Using conspiracy laws, plaintiffs have convinced juries that white supremacy leaders of groups like the Ku Klux Klan are liable not because of their racist beliefs but because of their acts or their knowledge of the acts of others that lead to hate crimes.
In recent years, civil suits filed by Dees and his center on behalf of hate-crime victims have bankrupted or financially crippled a half dozen or more white supremacy groups. They include a $15 million judgment in 1998 against Horace King, South Carolina leader of the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, for participating in a conspiracy to burn black churches, and a $12.5 million award in 1990 to the family of an Ethiopian student killed in Portland, Ore., by a skinhead gang organized by the California-based White Aryan Resistance (WAR), led by neo-Nazis Tom and John Metzger. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the Metzgers' appeal of the award and WAR's assets were seized and distributed primarily to the victim's son.
In 1991, Butler created Saphire Inc. to own and control the 19-acre Aryan Nations compound, which is worth an estimated $200,000. He has said he hopes his legacy will continue operating after his death, and that the corporation was intended to keep his assets "away from the anti-Christ Jews." Butler says that his legal fees have put him $50,000 into debt, and that he has been putting $600 of his $800 monthly Social Security check into a defense fund. In addition, the Hayden Lake property has a $65,000 lien for Butler's unpaid legal bills.
Attendance at Aryan Nations gatherings has diminished steadily, and there are signs that the heart of the white supremacy movement has begun to move elsewhere, according to the Poverty Law Center's intelligence report. Aryan Nations lost more than half its state chapters in 1997, retaining only 13, the center said.
In an appeal for defense fund donations, the Aryan Nations Web site warns that "the barbarians are at the gate."
Last month, at a "World Congress" that attracted about 100 Aryan Nations followers and their families to Hayden Lake, Butler's designated successor, Neuman Britton, leader of the California Aryan Nations branch, called the incident with the Keenans a "setup" planned by "the forces of Morris Dees" to provide grounds for a lawsuit.
On his Web site, Butler contends that Dees and his "Marxist anti-Christ anti-White Jewish cabal" had engineered a "contrived trial brought solely for the purpose of bankrupting a small Christian organization."
An Aryan Nations spokesman said Butler will not give any "free interviews" during the trial, but will talk to any reporter willing to pay $100 into the defense fund. When told The Washington Post does not pay for interviews, the spokesman, who said that his name was Rick but that it was "inappropriate" to ask for his last name, said, "You don't have any trouble charging people for the stories you write about us."
Earlier this month, the plaintiffs won a key ruling when District Judge Charles Hosack said the plaintiffs will be allowed to seek punitive damages as well as compensatory damages. This means the Keenans will be able to present witnesses in an attempt to show that Warfield, Yaeger and Wright were acting as agents or employees of the Aryan Nations at the time of the assault.
Aryan Nations attorney Edgar Steele argued that the security guards were volunteers, not employees, and acted on their own contrary to a written Aryan Nations policy. Thus, there is no direct negligence on the part of Butler or his group, Steele argued in a preliminary hearing.
The attorney also told the court the guards were poor, uneducated, "disaffected members of our society" who did not realize what they were doing.
Human rights leaders hailed the lawsuit for sending a strong message to white supremacy groups.
"It's important because it is about holding hate-group leaders accountable for the actions of their followers. If financial remuneration [to victims] takes their resources away, that's what happens," said Bill Wassmuth, a former Coeur d'Alene Catholic priest whose house was bombed by Aryan Nations members in 1986. Wassmuth, founder of a human rights group that became the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity, said, "It's not going to signal the end of white supremacy, but it will have an impact on limiting its effect on society."
Wassmuth said that the Butler followers who bombed his rectory were convicted, but that he did not sue the Aryan Nations. "I've always wondered if that was the right decision, and whether I could have saved some lives," said Wassmuth, who co-wrote a book on the Aryan Nations, "Hate is My Neighbor."