Butler's message of hate may return to haunt him

Part three in a four-part series on the Aryan Nations:

Spokane Spokesman Review/August 22, 2000
By Bill Morlin

Racist faces his biggest legal challenge -- and perhaps the loss of his compound Richard Butler is used to nasty legal fights. The 82-year-old racist has been in court many times since he took early retirement as an aeronautical engineer and moved from California to North Idaho in 1973.

The white supremacy views that he brought with him -- the cornerstone of the Aryan Nations -- frequently catch the attention of law enforcement and civil rights advocates.

"We are facing the enemies of the white race," Butler said last week as he ate a patty melt and some coleslaw at a Coeur d'Alene restaurant. But his critics say Butler's anti-Semitic, racist words spawn violence, and the time has come to hold him accountable.

Next week he'll square off with famed civil rights attorney Morris Dees in a courtroom showdown that could cost him his North Idaho compound. So far, Butler seems to have won more court battles than he's lost. He faced the FBI in 1988 in Fort Smith, Ark., and beat charges that he was involved in plotting the overthrow of the U.S. government.

He's been convicted of trespassing twice and obstructing an officer once. In a half dozen other criminal cases, Butler has either been acquitted or seen the charges dropped. He hasn't faced any serious civil suits.

Next Monday, though, Butler confronts perhaps his toughest opponent in Dees. Dees, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, wants to use a civil tort damages suit to bankrupt and close the doors of the Aryan Nations. "Does the First Amendment exist for the white male?" Butler asked. "That's the question at this trial."

Butler is viewed nationally as a patriarch of the white supremacy movement. For three decades, he's been one of the country's most influential racists. Many "Aryan warriors" who've passed through the gates of his compound are now in prison for murders, bombings, counterfeiting and armored car robberies.

He continues to attract young neo-Nazi skinheads and felons on parole to his pine tree studded compound. Dees will represent Victoria and Jason Keenan, who were shot at outside the compound in 1998.

They are seeking unspecified civil damages from Butler, his Aryan Nations church and three Aryan security guards. Two of the guards are serving prison terms for felony convictions associated with the assault on the Keenans. The third guard is a fugitive.

The plaintiffs also will seek punitive damages, and Dees thinks they have a good chance of success. After the assault, the Keenans contacted Coeur d'Alene attorney Norm Gissel, who is a co-founder of the Kootenai County Human Rights Task Force. Gissel recalled that Dees had used similar civil suits to successfully attack other hate groups. Dees agreed to get involved.

"It takes some experience and background in dealing with tort cases against hate groups, and Mr. Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center have that," said civil rights activist Bill Wassmuth. A jury of 12 Kootenai County residents will hear the suit, which Butler says is "a trumped-up case."

Dees and a team of attorneys will argue that Butler's Aryan Nations compound has spawned two decades of criminals, and that Butler should bear responsibility.

Butler preaches that the white race is a nation, and that nation is religion. White people are the real children of God, Butler says, and Jews are impostors.

He also preaches that the Aryan Nations is under siege and at war with Jews and anti-Aryan forces.

Butler concedes those points, but says he can't be responsible for what his followers do once they leave the 20-acre Aryan compound north of Hayden Lake. "When a guy comes to church and leaves, he is his own man, isn't he?" Butler said.

Butler said the Aryan guards were given written and verbal instructions that they were "on their own" once they left the Aryan compound. Much of Butler's work "has been behind the scenes," said Dina Tanners, who co-founded the Kootenai County Human Rights Task Force in response to the Aryan Nations.

"But he has sparked so many others, I believe, who have committed crimes," said Tanners, a Jewish activist and college instructor who lives in Spokane. The Aryan Nations compound continues to pump out racist literature that's mailed worldwide, including to various prisons. It also hosts the annual Aryan Congress, which attracts a shifting array of racists and anti-government types.

The Aryan Nations had one of the first Internet "hate sites," carrying Butler's message worldwide. Butler said he isn't losing sleep as the trial in Coeur d'Alene nears. "I haven't even thought about it," he said when asked about the prospect of losing the suit and being forced to turn the keys to his Hayden Lake compound over to Dees.

"I will leave that up to destiny and God," he said. Butler frequently launches into diatribes against Jews and anti-Aryan whites -- "race traitors who are the Jews' puppets." "The white man is now on trial," he said. "Hate laws are against him. "No hate laws can be applied to a nonwhite," Butler said. "That makes the white man a third-class citizen, in my mind." Butler said if he prevails in the forthcoming trial, he intends to bring his own suit.

"I am going to try to recover legal costs, and monetary damages for pain and suffering," he said. Butler said he worries only about legal costs associated with defending himself and the Aryan Nations. He said he is setting aside $600 of his monthly $800 Social Security check for legal costs.

He is represented by attorney Edgar Steele of Sandpoint. "I think he's doing an excellent job against terrible odds," Butler said of Steele. Butler's also pleading for donations, but didn't offer an estimate of how much he's raised.

"What I feel is there is a lot of support here for us," Butler said. "There are a lot of people who don't think we should be run out." Other white supremacists are voicing support for him, Butler said. "We have received calls from people wanting to come for the trial. I have tried to discourage them because the courtroom is only so big." Soon after moving to North Idaho, Butler made headlines in 1975 when he and his "Christian Posse Comitatus" tried to arrest a police officer in the Kootenai County Courthouse. Butler narrowly avoided arrest.

In 1976, Butler and Posse Comitatus member Harold Hunt were charged with threatening a man with a pistol. Butler was acquitted. In 1980, Butler and three of his followers were convicted of trespassing at a Boise motel. The Red Lion Inn had canceled a scheduled meeting by the Aryan Nations.

In 1998, Butler was convicted of obstructing a sheriff's deputy during a pepper spray fracas outside the Aryan compound. Earlier, he was convicted of trespassing for handing out literature at a hotel in Coeur d'Alene. Butler, who survived bypass surgery in 1987, still conducts Sunday services at his Church of Jesus Christ Christian at the compound. Typically, a couple dozen people show up.

On weekdays, Butler walks from an old farmhouse, where he lives with his German shepherd, Fritz, to the tiny Aryan Nations office. He opens mail and checks with a small staff of volunteers who run the office. They answer the telephone and mail Aryan literature to those requesting it.

Pictures of Adolf Hitler and Bob Mathews, who left the Aryan Nations to form a terrorist group known as The Order, are on the office walls. His wife, Betty, died in 1995, and he still talks about missing her, associates say.

He has two daughters, one of whom lives in Coeur d'Alene, but they do not actively support their father's racist views. He doesn't regret his leadership role in the white supremacy movement for the past three decades, Butler said.

"It feels very good. I have no regrets, nope, none whatsoever. I feel privileged that I was allowed to embark on this course."

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