Suit aims to hit home for supremacists

Coeur d'Alene Press/August 22, 2000
By Mike McLean

Coeur d'Alene -- Backers of a suit against Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations are hoping to strike at the heart of the Aryan Nations where other efforts have failed -- by seizing the very ground that is often viewed as the home of the racist movement.

The basic trial strategy of the plaintiffs in the case will be to show that Butler is responsible for the actions of his security force which assaulted Victoria Keenan and her son with a car chase, gunfire and physical force on July 1, 1998.

Two Aryan Nations members are in prison on related criminal charges. They are also named in the Keenan's civil suit, which seeks Butler's property near Hayden Lake in the form of punitive damages. The trial is set to begin Monday.

Morris Dees, the famed co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, who is leading the Keenan's legal team, has used legal tactics to bankrupt hate groups and seize their assets on behalf of victims before. In court documents, Dees contends Butler is liable for the assaults through a combination of encouraging violence, providing inadequate training and allowing the security force to violate the few existing policies.

Richard Cohen, another SPLC lawyer, said in a previous court hearing that Butler demonstrated "gross negligence in the selection and supervision of the security force."

One of the anticipated trial witnesses is Floyd Cochran, former "chief propagandist for the Aryan Nations."

Cochran left the group he now characterizes as a gang in 1990 when members said he should kill his child because of genetic imperfections. He lives in Pennsylvania where he is now director of the Education and Vigilance Project, an anti-racist watchdog group.

Cochran said Butler and Aryan Nations sympathizers plant images of violence. "I don't think, for instance, anyone told Buford Furrow to go to Los Angeles and shoot Jewish children," he said. "But while he was living at Aryan Nations, Furrow was being taught Jews were the biological descendants of Satan and that white people such as himself were Aryan warriors."

Furrow, a former Aryan Nations security guard is charged in the Aug. 11, 1999 slaying of a minority postal worker and injuring children during a shooting spree at a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles.

People with Aryan Nations ties have been linked to dozens of other violent, racist and criminal acts since 1983, including members of the Order, a violent offshoot of the Aryan Nations which was responsible for armored car robberies and the murder of a Denver radio talk show host. That group was followed a few years later by the Order II which included other followers of Butler who were responsible for four bombings and a botched bank robbery plot in Coeur d'Alene.

The Keenan case isn't the first high-profile case naming Butler. He, along with a dozen other white supremacists were acquitted in April 1988 of charges of plotting to overthrow the government following a two-month criminal trial in federal court in Fort Smith, Ark.

Butler said he is confident he will also prevail in the Keenan case. "It is a bologna case brought by a $100 million cause for the SPLC to bring lawsuits against white people," he said. Butler said the motivation for the case is the same as for the sedition charges. "A government policy against white males."

Butler said he can't be held responsible for actions Aryan Nations members take off of his property.

He said all members are told "they are on their own" once the leave the Aryan Nations grounds. "If you leave church and then go rob a bank, does that make the church responsible?" he asked.

But he refused to condemn the violent acts of others linked to the Aryan Nations. "The land their fathers worked for is being taken away from them," he said. "They are resisting those things." Butler said the Keenan case will show whether the First Amendment applies to everyone.

American Civil Liberties Union Idaho Director Jack Van Valkenburgh said he doesn't see the case as a First Amendment cause. "If (Butler) really can be proven to be responsible, he can face liability," Van Valkenburgh said.

The ACLU did act on Butler's behalf in 1999 to force the city to allow the Aryan Nations to march through downtown Coeur d'Alene after the city set the route on Ramsey Road, more than a mile north of the city center. District Judge Edward Lodge found in favor of the Aryan Nations and ordered the city to allow the group to march through town.

"That was a real free-speech issue," Van Valkenburgh said. "We are satisfied with the result and satisfied with the fact that we represented the Aryans even if we don't agree with their philosophies."

The Keenan trial is scheduled to last seven days, but may take longer, court officials say.

Staff writer Eric Flowers contributed to this report.

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