Sitting in his office near Hayden Lake, Idaho, the leader of the Aryan Nations has the grim demeanor of a man under siege. Richard Butler growls that "Jews run the government" and that "Jewish conspirators" are intent on destroying him. A portrait of Butler's hero, Adolf Hitler, hangs on the wall, and white-robed figurines of Ku Klux Klansmen decorate a shelf. He fiddles with a booklet of Nazi war art and clicks his teeth as he talks. At 82, he has failed in his goal of founding a whites-only homeland, and now he faces the prospect of being driven from his last redoubt.
This week, in nearby Coeur d'Alene, Butler will be in court facing a civil suit that could cost him his most prized asset: the 20-acre compound where he has lived since 1973, providing a haven for the nation's racist misfits. Featuring a chapel, bunkhouses, gun tower and stage, the $238,000 spread serves as headquarters for Butler's activities, which include a direct-mail operation and a website. Each Sunday, at his Church of Jesus Christ Christian, he preaches hatred of Jews and racial minorities. And each summer he is host to an Aryan World Congress. At the three-day event in July, Butler pronounced aids in Africa "poetic justice." Loudspeakers blared "Aryan rock," and at night everyone enjoyed a good cross burning. But the party will probably be over if Butler loses his compound. "We're barely hanging on," he says dejectedly.
If recent history is any guide, the suit against Butler could succeed. It has been filed by Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala. In similar suits, they have won more than $40 million in damages for victims, from nine K.K.K. factions and other hate groups. Among Dees' victories: a $12.5 million judgment against the White Aryan Resistance in 1990, and a $21.5 million judgement against a K.K.K. group in 1998.
Dees' suit against Butler aims to hold him liable for an incident involving his security guards on July 1, 1998. That evening, according to the complaint, three of his guards assaulted Careywood, Idaho, resident Victoria Keenan, 44, a seasonal berry picker, and her son Jason, 21. The Keenans had stopped outside Butler's compound to retrieve some papers that had flown out of their car window. Their vehicle reportedly backfired. Driving off, they noticed a pickup truck following, with Butler's guards inside. One of them shot at the Keenans with an assault rifle, forcing their car into a ditch. The guards jumped out, reportedly yelling, "Don't f___ with the Aryans!" Security director Edward Warfield allegedly grabbed Victoria by the hair, struck her with a rifle and screamed, "I'm going to kill you!" Another guard hit her son, Dees claims, leaving him bawling.
In his civil complaint, Dees argues that Butler owes the Keenans damages, basically for the terror of it all. By arming the men, Butler was negligent, he says, because one of them—Warfield—had previously been charged with assault, while another, John Yeager, was thought to be emotionally unstable. Both men, among six defendants in the suit, are in prison, convicted of aggravated assault, while a third remains at large. Because none have any assets of note, Dees wants to seize Butler's property as a civil punishment.
The Aryans' leader seems shaken by that prospect. Since the suit was filed last year, Butler has been soliciting support from fellow racists: five producers of "white power" music recordings are donating proceeds from sales of titles like Holocaust 2000. Butler says he's at least $60,000 in debt, from fighting "Morris the sleaze with his Jew faggots."
Butler's defense: his men weren't authorized to conduct actions off his property, and they were volunteers, not employees. "This case is really about Dees vs. Butler," says the Aryans' lawyer, Edgar Steele. "It's a free-speech case. I'm representing one of the most vilified men in the country. People don't like his views. But it's still legal to hate Jews."
Some of the evidence of negligence, though, comes from a former Aryan Nations security guard. In sworn testimony, Floyd Cochran admits that guards regularly operated off-premises because Butler "never told us not to." Moreover, Dees says, Butler's compound has long been a haven for ex-cons, a training ground for violence-prone men to commit crimes against "Aryan enemies."
"He's had some unsavory types there, no question," rebuts Steele, "but there isn't a shred of evidence that he's advocated breaking the law." Yet Dees points to alumni like Buford Furrow, who is awaiting trial on charges of shooting up a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles and killing a Filipino postal worker last summer. Furrow, who pleaded not guilty, worked security for Butler in the 1990s. Another ex-security chief, Eldon Cutler, 59, was convicted in Boise in 1986 of conspiring to kill a federal witness in a case against the Order, a notorious terrorist cell of ex-Aryans who had gone on a crime spree in the 1980s. "It was only a matter of time" Dees argues, "before the unfit, untrained, unsupervised members of the security force attacked someone they thought was the 'enemy' in the 'war' with the Jews."
Finding a receptive jury shouldn't be hard. The area around Coeur d'Alene is a wonderland of snow-capped mountains, turquoise lakes and trout-filled streams. The region is a magnet for families fleeing congested citiesKootenai County is one of the state's fastest-growing areasbut civic leaders feel that its allure to industry and tourism has been marred by its association with Butler's Aryans. "No one's calculated how much revenue's been lost," says Jonathan Coe, president of Coeur d'Alene's Chamber of Commerce. With 33,000 people, the city recorded 11 hate crimes in 1998, far more than similar size towns like Kokomo, Ind., or Allen, Texas. "A lot of people in Coeur d'Alene resent the Aryans' impact on perceptions of their community," says David DeWolf, a professor at Gonzaga University School of Law in nearby Spokane, Wash. "Butler may be liable if Dees proves the guards were carrying out his wishes, even if they didn't literally follow his instructions. It's a minimal standard to establish liability."
"I wish Dees the best of luck," says Mayor Steve Judy, 30, "and that's the sentiment of the community." Judy plans to hire an "Aryanbuster" of his own, to promote a friendlier image for Coeur d'Alene. Also looking for a P.R. boost, the state of Idaho will build a memorial in Boise to the Holocaust victim Anne Frank. As for this week's trial, many residents hope its publicity will be the last of its kindand that maybe Richard Butler will leave town, an isolated, if still angry, old man.