Aryan Nations In The Dock

It's Sunday morning at the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, and Richard Butler is on his way to church. The 82-year-old leader of one of the nation's highest-profile white-supremacy groups stalks up the hill from his house, past the guard tower and the cook's shack with the giant swastika painted on the roof. He lingers for a moment outside the church, chatting with muscle-bound, tattooed skinheads in fatigues, who are smoking cigarettes just outside the door. As his congregation files in, Butler strides to the pulpit, taking his place next to a silver bust of Hitler. He strikes a familiar theme: attacking minorities, whom he considers his "natural enemy." "We are in a state of war!" he bellows, his aging voice like a crackling radio. "The time is going to come when if you're not ready to fight and kill for your children, you might as well kill yourselves!"

Butler is right about one thing. He's in the fight of his life--a potentially bankrupting trial set to begin in Idaho this week. Butler and his organization are defendants in a civil suit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Morris Dees, an attorney with a long history of using civil litigation to combat hate groups. The suit stems from an incident in 1998, when an armed Aryan Nations security squad chased down and terrorized a mother and son who happened to be driving by the compound, shooting at their car with an assault rifle. The attackers were convicted of aggravated assault and sent to jail. But Dees saw the incident as a chance to stop Butler for good. If a jury awards the victims punitive damages, it could be enough to strip Butler of his compound, cripple one of the country's most virulent racist organizations and send a powerful message to other hate groups.

Dees is no stranger to success. After making a fortune in the direct-mail business as a college student, he went to law school and founded the SPLC in Montgomery, Ala., in 1971. One of his first cases against white supremacists involved Vietnamese fishermen who were being harassed by a branch of the Texas Ku Klux Klan in 1981. Butler showed up in the courtroom wearing a Nazi armband to lend support to the Klan. "When I caught his eye, he burned a hole through me," Dees wrote in his autobiography. Dees won the case, the first in a string of victories. He later persuaded a jury to award $7 million to the mother of an Alabama man who was lynched by members of another Klan group--a verdict that forced the organization to turn over its headquarters to the victim's mother.

Now Dees is looking to shut down the Aryan Nations. Butler, a former aerospace engineer, bought the compound in the mid-1970s to serve as headquarters for his church and political group--which aims to establish an all-white state in the Pacific Northwest. Over the years it has housed a who's who of violent racists; associates have been convicted of bank robberies, bombings and murders. But so far Butler has escaped unscathed; in 1988 he was acquitted of sedition. In this case, Dees will have to convince a jury that Butler employed a dangerously unqualified security force, and then drove them to violence with his rhetoric. But the guards insist they acted on their own. "I'm a grown man," former Aryan Nations security chief Jesse Warfield told NEWSWEEK from an Idaho prison, where he's serving two to five years for his role in the incident. "To hold another man responsible for my actions would be ludicrous."

The reckoning in Idaho is welcome news for local residents, who have been terrorized for years by Butler's group. A verdict against the Aryan Nations "won't end white supremacy," says Bill Wassmuth, a local human-rights activist whose house was bombed by Aryan Nations followers. "But it will shut down the compound, and send a message that these groups are accountable for the actions of their members." Richard Butler understands the stakes. "I'm nervous about it," he told a NEWSWEEK reporter in his office, filled with tiny Ku Klux Klan figurines, framed photographs of Hitler and a file folder labeled hate mail. For now, though, it's business as usual at the compound. Outside the church, a security guard with a holstered sidearm stomps across the group's makeshift doormat--an Israeli flag covered with cigarette burns. Nearby, a group of laughing, crew-cut children watches, and learns.

Aryan Nations In The Dock | News