Mourned by few, the Aryan Nations founder left his mark
COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — With his white hair and lined face, Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler looked like a kindly grandfather.
But when he spoke, it was to issue vile diatribes against Jews and minorities, and to call for a whites-only enclave in the Northwest.
Butler, who died in his sleep on Sept. 8 at the age of 86, surrounded himself with thugs and skinheads, and decorated his home with swastikas and pictures of Adolf Hitler. For three decades his neo-Nazi group became the dominant public image of northern Idaho. He is mourned by few.
“I would say his death closes a particularly ugly chapter in the history of race and religious hatred in this country,” said Daniel Alter, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director for civil rights.
Butler, who insisted on being addressed as “pastor,” is easy to dismiss as a crackpot bigot with a tiny following. But he actually spawned a spectacular amount of criminal activity around the country, pushed Idaho to pass some of the nation’s toughest hate-crime laws, galvanized human rights groups in the region, and displayed a gift for tweaking his opponents.
His parades through downtown Coeur d’Alene at the height of the tourist season horrified local leaders. His run for mayor of Hayden last year drew worldwide attention and prompted a record turnout to resoundingly vote no. He was always available to reporters and television cameras, making outrageous comments, often delivered in front of a swastika.
“Although all of us will take time to reflect and honor this man, we shall continue to build Aryan Nations above and beyond its former glory,” Charles Juba, leader of a Pennsylvania-based splinter group also called Aryan Nations, said. “Pastor Butler was one of the last true racial warriors of his generation.”
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the human-rights group whose lawsuit bankrupted Butler in 2000, estimated Aryan Nations has about 200 members in 17 chapters around the country. But he left no heir apparent and Potok expects the group will eventually fade away.
Butler’s death and the 2002 death of William Pierce of the neo-Nazi National Alliance likely signal the end of the large, centrally organized and at least partially disciplined white supremacist groups, Potok said.
“I would say that, ironically, many times the leaders of these groups act as brakes on their members, and prevent them from shooting cops and holding up banks,” Potok said. “They say, ‘yes, yes, we need to shoot the Jews, but not today.’ “
A dark legacy
Butler’s real legacy may be that he pushed lily-white Idaho into confronting racism. The state Legislature passed tough laws against malicious harassment and adopted a Martin Luther King Jr.-Human Rights Day holiday. In Boise, a memorial to Holocaust victim Anne Frank opened in 2002 after a $1.5 million private fund-raising effort. Politicians pushed a slogan “Idaho, Too Great to Hate.”
A well-organized network of human-rights groups appeared across the state.
The bombing of Roman Catholic priest Bill Wassmuth’s home in Coeur d’Alene by Aryan Nations members in 1986 inspired Wassmuth to form the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which led efforts across the region to spread tolerance.
But while he may have produced some inadvertent good, Butler left a long legacy of evil.
He was working as an aeronautical engineer in California when he became enamored of Adolf Hitler and of Christian Identity, a sect that holds that people of white, Northern European ancestry are the true children of God, and Jews and minorities are inferior.
While working for Lockheed, Butler helped invent a system for rapid repair of tubeless tires. The money he made enabled him to retire at 55 and move to Hayden Lake, Idaho, in the early 1970s.
Butler and his wife purchased an old farmhouse on 20 acres. By 1977, he formed the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, and called the political action arm Aryan Nations. He held services in a chapel and had a bunkhouse where supporters could live.
In 1981, the church hosted its first Aryan World Congress, gathering white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and others.
In 1983, Butler supporter Robert J. Mathews decided it was time to move beyond words and start a race war. He and others formed The Order, and initially funded their activities by printing counterfeit money on the Aryan Nations presses. Butler would say later he had no idea his presses were being used for that purpose.
The Order began robbing businesses, bombed a synagogue and assassinated a Jewish radio talk show host in Denver. They robbed an armored car of $3.8 million in Ukiah.
In 1985, a federal jury in Seattle convicted 10 members of The Order in the crimes. Other members were on the run after shootouts with the FBI at Sandpoint, Idaho, Portland, Ore., and on Whidbey Island, near Seattle. Mathews died on Whidbey Island during a gunfight with FBI agents.
The federal government accused Butler of conspiracy to start a race war, but couldn’t make it stick. He was aquitted by an Arkansas jury after a 1988 trial.
Another Butler supporter was Randy Weaver, who attended three Aryan World Congress and moved his family to a mountain cabin near Naples, Idaho. When federal agents tried to arrest him in 1992, it triggered an 11-day siege that became known as Ruby Ridge, and led to the deaths of Weaver’s wife and son and a U.S. marshal. Butler joined other anti-government activists at the roadblock below the fugitive’s cabin.
Ruby Ridge was later cited as one reason that motivated Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Buford Furrow, a former Aryan Nations security guard, killed an Asian-American postal carrier and shot up a Jewish day care center in Los Angeles in 1999.
Heart of darkness
Butler’s annual gatherings got more elaborate in the 1990s, featuring skinhead bands, cross-burnings and speeches by a who’s who of hate. He also began organizing parades through downtown Coeur d’Alene.
The community tried to block the parades, but failed because of First Amendment protections.
The community finally got its revenge in 2000, when a Coeur d’Alene jury ruled against Butler in a $6.3 million lawsuit filed by two people who had been attacked by his security guards. The verdict pushed Butler into bankruptcy, forcing him to sell his 20-acre compound near Hayden Lake.
The land was sold to a multimillionaire human-rights activist, who had the buildings burned and the grounds converted into a peace park.
Butler moved into a home in Hayden purchased by a sympathizer. He held services each Sunday in his living room, and used the Internet to spread his message.
Despite the activities of human-rights groups, there remained a question regarding how many residents of northern Idaho secretly supported Butler. Some believed he served as a junkyard dog, scaring minorities from moving into the area.
Those questions were largely put to rest last year, when Butler ran for mayor of Hayden.
In a record turnout of voters, Butler got only 50 of 2,122 votes cast in November.
“I just hope with him gone we have a little bit of peace in the Hayden area,” Hayden Mayor Ron McIntire told The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash. “It’s not been good for Hayden’s reputation.”