"The kids got in the way"

Time Magazine, The Nation Volume 154, Number 8/August 23, 1999
By Frank Gibney Jr.

All the warning signs were there, but still Buford Furrow got his hands on guns and went on a rampage

He always paid the rent and never bothered anybody. His friends and neighbors say Buford O. ("Neal") Furrow loved children. He was a good pal to his stepson. A co-worker even insists that Furrow's kindness and reliability overshadowed the fact that he was a proud white supremacist. That's not unusual in the corridor that runs from the coast through the wilds of Washington State to neighboring Idaho, where tolerance and intolerance share a fragile coexistence. Nor should it have mattered that Neal Furrow had a familiarity with guns in a region where hunting is a pastime, if not a rite of passage. His parents live next door to Olympic Arms, a mom-and-pop manufacturer of gun parts, in the rural Nisqually Valley. Indeed, the thump-thump of artillery is a part of the audible landscape, thanks to a howitzer-firing range at nearby Fort Lewis.

Yet those who know Furrow well had been worried about him for months. Jailed after brandishing a knife at a psychiatric hospital, the heavyset mechanic had been on medication and living at his parents' home since his release on probation last May. His parents confided in neighbors Clint and Bernice Merrill that they feared Furrow would crack. Loni Merrill, who has known Furrow and his family since the two went to junior high school together, recalls her mother saying just a few months ago, "I really hope Neal doesn't get a gun." He had seemed fine for a while, tending his parents' mobile home and staying there with his mother, who is suffering from the onset of Alzheimer's, whenever his father was away. But then on Saturday, Aug. 7, Furrow up and left. "I have to get out for a while," he told his parents. "I've been here too long."

Furrow headed for Los Angeles, carrying an AR-15 rifle, an Israeli-made Uzi, several handguns and stockpiles of ammunition accumulated over the years. He had apparently cased three Jewish institutions in the city--the Skirball Cultural Center, the University of Judaism and the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance--before deciding their security was too tight. Then, three days after leaving Washington, he pulled off the freeway into the Granada Hills area of Los Angeles and saw his target. Police say he walked into the lobby of the North Valley Jewish Community Center carrying the Uzi and opened fire, spraying bullets in a sweeping motion from right to left, leaving a room filled with acrid smoke and more than 70 shells scattered on the floor. By the time he ran out the door moments later, a 68-year-old receptionist, a 16-year-old camp counselor at the day-care center and three children were wounded. "Just shooting like a maniac," says Victor Ruelas, 19, a maintenance worker who carried the most seriously wounded of the children, Benjamin Kadish, 5, to safety. When told of the extent of the boy's injuries, Ruelas hung his head. "I didn't know he was shot in the back too."

After hijacking a green Toyota Camry, Furrow drove to the sparsely populated residential area of Chatsworth and spotted Joseph Ileto, 39, a Filipino-American postman making his midday rounds. Furrow got out and asked Ileto to mail a letter, then started firing a Glock 9-mm pistol he had drawn from his back pocket. Hit by two shots, Ileto struggled to run away, but Furrow opened fire again, killing him.

Almost 24 hours later, after a 275-mile trip and an $800 cab fare to Las Vegas, Furrow calmly turned himself in to federal authorities and allegedly heralded his shooting spree as "a wake-up call to America to kill Jews." In a year in which mass killings have ravaged every place from high schools to stock-trading floors, Furrow exposed a new area of vulnerability: day-care centers. Furthermore, he refocused attention on America's geography of violent intolerance, one that emerged from the shadows after the attack on Oklahoma City and this time came out of the woods of Washington and Idaho, where a religion of hatred lurks.

Experts who track that shadowy faith warn that anxiety over the approaching millennium, the power of the Internet and a new emphasis on independent action rather than group effort may contribute to a kind of domestic terrorism that is harder to track and impossible to anticipate. At its heart are an unknown cohort of largely disgruntled white males, many of whom, like Furrow, have failed so many times that they've given up trying to succeed in the mainstream of American life. Spurred on by the rhetoric of a handful of racist high priests, they are turning increasingly to violence. Says Danny Coulson, the 31-year FBI veteran who arrested Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh: "They are basically a bunch of losers who have to find someone they hate more than themselves."

That about sums up Furrow. Acquaintances recall the son of a career Air Force enlisted man as a bookish, nerdy, chubby kid with few friends and a first name that drew plenty of scorn. "He would not be called Buford," says neighbor and classmate Merrill, who says Furrow preferred the name Neal. At Timberline High School in Lacey, Wash., she adds, "he was kind of like a shadow. He didn't make an impression." Still, by Merrill's account, Furrow was curious and bright enough to go on to community college after an aborted stint in the Army (he was honorably discharged because of a bad knee). He studied engineering and then landed a series of solid jobs, including a stint at a Northrop Grumman plant near Rosamond, Calif., 40 miles from Granada Hills, where the shooting was to take place.

And then, in the early 1990s, Furrow was drawn into a club that was perfect for someone who had never really fit anywhere else. He joined the Aryan Nations, an organization of neo-Nazi white supremacists founded in the mid-1970s by former aeronautical engineer Richard Butler near Hayden Lake, Idaho. Butler based the group on the religious doctrine of Christian Identity, established in Los Angeles in the late 1940s by an anti-Semitic rabble rouser named Wesley Swift. Christian Identity holds that white Aryans are the authentic lost tribes of Israel, the true descendants of Adam and Eve. Jews of the modern world, on the other hand, are impostors--the spawn of Satan's union with Eve. Thus Jews, in the words of Swift, "must be destroyed." All other non-Anglo-Saxon peoples are beasts, "mud people."

From that version of biblical history, Butler and a man named Richard Kelly Hoskins crafted an ideology that serves as a grim elixir of anti-Semitism and racism. While Butler is the center of the organization, Hoskins has provided a skein of quasi-scholarly justifications for the movement, covering history, economics and mythology. Hoskins, a former securities dealer living in Virginia, insisted in a statement last week that he does not advocate violence. Yet his book War Cycles/Peace Cycles, a copy of which was found in the van Furrow drove to Los Angeles last week, discusses the necessity of assassinating national leaders.

Another of nearly a dozen white-supremacist tomes by Hoskins is even more incendiary. Vigilantes of Christendom: The Story of the Phineas Priesthood urges followers to copy the biblical Phineas, who, in the 25th chapter of the Book of Numbers, kills an Israelite man for an interracial marriage. In return Phineas is granted the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, for zealously upholding the creed of his God. According to the current doctrine, Phineas Priests earn membership by killing or maiming homosexuals, Jews and anyone who is not white. There is no organization of Phineas Priests. In fact the order's conceit is that men act alone--not unlike the shooters in several historic episodes, including the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers--just as Furrow did last week.

Furrow steeped himself in the teachings of Hoskins and Christian Identity and may have believed he had a calling to be a "priest." By 1994 he had distinguished himself as a member of Butler's security detail at Hayden Lake, and he was courting Debra Mathews, the widow of white supremacist Robert Mathews, who died in 1984 during a 36-hour gun battle with federal agents on Whidbey Island, Wash. Mathews was the founder of the Order, a radical offshoot of Aryan Nations believed to be responsible for a series of bombings and murders, including that of Denver radio talk-show host Alan Berg in 1984. Mathews' gang financed its campaign of violence with a string of highly successful robberies that netted an estimated $4 million.

Half of that money was never recovered, and according to some Aryan Nations members, that may have been a factor in Furrow's pursuit of Mathews' widow. In any case, he moved in with her in 1994 and took a job at LaDuke and Fogle, a machinery-repair shop in Colville, 50 miles south of Metaline Falls, Wash., where Mathews lived with her son Clint, 17. The following year, in a ceremony complete with engraved invitations and traditional wedding dress, Aryan Nations chief Butler married them at the Aryan Nations headquarters. The only thing missing from the ceremony was a license from the state, an institution that the newlyweds (and their pastor) despised. Though she was against killing, Debra Mathews was deep into the Aryan Nations brand of Scripture. "When I told her Jesus was a Jew," says Meda Van Dyke, 82, a neighbor, "she blew her stack." Mathews also told Van Dyke that "she wouldn't marry anyone but a white supremacist." Furrow fit the bill.

Some former Aryan Nations lieutenants suggest that Furrow, who had always asked questions about Mathews' missing millions, had not married for love. Dan Villers, Furrow's boss at LaDuke and Fogle, says Furrow later boasted he'd found some of the money--once when it blew out of the eaves of a shed and again in the bottom of a survivalist food barrel. The loose cash may help explain how he was able last week to pay $4,000 for the van he drove to Los Angeles and the taxi fare to Las Vegas.

Nonetheless, Furrow's brief stab at a stable domestic life faltered. "Neal wanted her to become completely submissive, like a trained dog," says Van Dyke. Though he was generally liked in Metaline Falls, Furrow drew the ire of locals when at one point, pistol strapped to his waist, he confronted a logging crew overseen by Van Dyke's son, asking whether any "n______" were working there. "Not today, maybe tomorrow," the crew replied scornfully. Debra Mathews was reportedly furious because her husband had "stirred up" the loggers, who thought of bringing their own guns in to work.

In late 1995, Furrow was laid off from his job in Colville because of a business downturn. Not long after that, he left Metaline Falls and began wandering from job to job. His parents, whom he visited regularly in the Nisqually Valley, far to the west, knew nothing about their son's affiliation with Aryan Nations, although they began to worry that he couldn't seem to keep a job or stay in one place. Police records show that aside from a minor traffic violation, he was never arrested for any crime, but he was drinking heavily, and acquaintances say he became increasingly unpredictable.

Furrow's downward spiral entered its final twist last fall. In late October, he took a 12-week leave from his job as a computer-assisted-design engineer at Northwest Gear, a maker of aircraft parts in Everett, Wash. Then he started drinking. One afternoon, in the depths of that bender, he tried to check himself into Fairfax Psychiatric Hospital. Babbling about having stabbed himself a few days before, he also boasted that he had a gun in his car. When an administrator took his keys and warned him that she would have to call the police, Furrow thrust a black-handled switchblade at her. It took a local cop three warnings at gunpoint before Furrow dropped the knife.

It was only a single paragraph, but Furrow's error-riddled written statement to police that day spoke volumes: "I am a white seperatist. I've been having suicidial thoughts. Yesterday I had thoughts that I would kill my ex-wife and some of her friends then maybe I would drive to Canada and rob a bank... Sunday I was feeling suicidial and cut my left index finger to the bone... Some times I feel like I could just loose it and kill people."

Now that he has, it is hard not to ask why nobody tried to keep Furrow off the streets or at least give him more than the six weeks of mental-health treatment he apparently received. He was released from the King County jail for good behavior last May, 2 1/2 months before the end of his eight-month sentence for assault. Did he then begin planning where he would strike? Did he have help?

It is more likely--and in a way more disturbing--that he acted alone. The real question is, How many other single white supremacists are out there, blessed by the doctrine of Christian Identity and fueled by hatred and the pursuit of the Phineas priesthood? The Rev. Richard Butler of Aryan Nations told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last week that Furrow had probably been motivated by "the war against the white race." Furrow himself said as much to the authorities. "You can say he was sick, but [the supremacists] gave him a focus for his sickness," says veteran cult watcher Rick Ross. "His involvement with the movement let him project his concerns outward."

Law-enforcement officials fear that the ranks of the disenchanted are growing--and that they will be harder than ever to track if, like Furrow, men begin operating alone. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups nationwide, there are between 35,000 and 50,000 adherents in 100 Christian Identity ministries. Even though supremacist rallies are often sparsely attended, Joe Roy, intelligence director at the Alabama-based center, notes that there have been 10 times as many episodes of domestic terrorism, including hate-based murders and bombings in abortion clinics and newspapers, as the 100 such cases that were recorded in the U.S. in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building.

After the shooting last week, the Internet was peppered with hate messages like this one: "Recent events should remind jews [sic] that they are indeed an unwelcome minority in this country and should leave one and all...let the killings begin!" According to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the number of hate websites has ballooned from one to more than 2,000 in the past four years. "The Internet has been the greatest thing since fire for these groups," says Roy. "They can potentially reach millions now."

One man they won't be reaching is Buford O. Furrow. Currently being held in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, he could face the death penalty if he is found guilty of California charges of murder and attempted murder. He also faces federal charges for illegal-weapons possession and the murder of a U.S. Postal Service carrier during the performance of his duties. "There was always an aura of the macabre around him," says Furrow's classmate Merrill. "He fits the portrait of someone who would do this...on the other hand, he doesn't at all." Furrow's one expression of regret last week: He hadn't intended to hurt any children. "The kids," he told investigators, "got in the way."

Reported by Pat Dawson/Metaline Falls, Julie Grace/Nisqually Valley, David S. Jackson/Los Angeles, Michael Krantz/Seattle, Flora Takovsky/New York and Dick Thompson/Washington



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