Suit aims to bankrupt Aryan Nations

Lawyer Morris Dees, who won a record judgment in the murder of Mulugeta Seraw, now seeks damages in an assault

The Oregonian/January 27, 1999
By Bryan Denson

One of the nation's leading civil rights lawyers has filed a lawsuit against the most notorious neo-Nazi in the West in hopes of bankrupting him.

Morris Dees, lead trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a suit Monday in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, against Aryan Nations founder Richard G. Butler. Dees and Idaho attorney Norman L. Gissel represent a woman and her teen-age son who were shot at and assaulted last July, allegedly by Butler's security troops.

The lawsuit is similar to the landmark 1990 legal battle in which Dees won a record judgment against white supremacist Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance in Portland. In the past 20 years, the Alabama barrister has hobbled WAR and four other racist organizations in similar fashion.

"At this time, we have no comment," said Pastor Mike Teague, a leader of Aryan Nations and its Church of Jesus Christ Christian.

The Idaho lawsuit seeks damages for Victoria Keenan and her son, Jason, 19, who were assaulted July 1 when their car backfired on the road that passes the Aryan Nations compound.

The suit alleges that Butler's security forces, working as agents of Aryan Nations, piled into a pickup, chased the Keenans more than two miles and shot at them with an SKS military rifle and other firearms. The Keenans' car, struck several times with bullets, then veered into a ditch, according to the suit.

Several neo-Nazis surrounded the Keenans, grabbing Victoria Keenan's hair, striking her in the arm and hitting her son in the back with a hard object before detaining them at gunpoint, the suit claims.

The former head of security for Aryan Nations, 43-year-old Jesse Warfield, stands as the only person charged criminally in the assault. He was charged with aggravated assault and is being held in the Kootenai County jail in lieu of $100,000 bond.

The suit names as defendants Butler, Aryan Nations, Saphire Inc. (a corporation that controls Butler's 19-acre compound), Warfield, John S. Yeager, Shane Wright and three unidentified men.

Dees and Gissel hope to cripple Butler's organization by proving that he was responsible for the attack on the Keenans because his troops were acting as the agents of his organization.

In 1989, Dees and Portland attorney Elden Rosenthal filed a similar case in Multnomah County Circuit Court. A year later, they proved that Metzger and WAR had incited three Portland neo-Nazi Skinheads to beat to death an Ethiopian immigrant named Mulugeta Seraw. The jury hit WAR for $12.5 million, then the largest such judgment for a racism case in U.S. history.

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