White supremacist group is threatened by lawsuit

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - A lawyer who specializes in bankrupting hate groups is going after the Aryan Nations, whose compound in the Idaho woods has served as a clubhouse for some of America's most violent racists.

In a lawsuit that goes to trial Monday, attorney Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center is representing a mother and son who were attacked by security guards for the white supremacist group. The victims are suing the Aryan Nations and founder Richard Butler.

''Put them out of business, that's what we try to do,'' Dees said when the lawsuit was filed last year. He has declined additional comment.

Butler said the lawsuit was brought by enemies of the white race.

''That's the way it is for the white man today,'' Butler, 82, said Wednesday. ''I think it's a rape of the American justice system.''

The case has its origins on July 1, 1998, when Victoria Keenan, 43, and her son Jason, 20, were driving on a country road near Hayden Lake. Their car backfired as it passed the Aryan Nations' 20-acre compound.

Security guards for the Aryan Nations mistook the backfire for a gunshot, piled into a truck and chased the Keenans, who are part white, part American Indian, for two miles. They fired five bullets into the Keenan car and forced it off the road. Both Keenans were punched and threatened at gunpoint before the guards backed off.

Two of the guards were convicted of assault and are in prison. A third remains a fugitive.

The Keenans are alleging assault, false imprisonment and emotional distress at the hands of the guards, who they contend were agents of the Aryan Nations. They are seeking an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages.

Butler and his attorney Edgar Steele are expected to argue that he should not be held liable for the actions of the volunteer security guards. Steele did not return a call.

Dees has long used lawsuits to destroy the finances of hate groups. In six such lawsuits, the Montgomery, Ala., lawyer has never lost.

In 1987, Dees won a $7 million verdict against a Ku Klux Klan organization over the slaying of a 19-year-old black man in Mobile, Ala., forcing the group to turn over its headquarters building. In 1990, he won $9 million in Portland, Ore., against the White Aryan Resistance in the beating death of a black man by neo-Nazi skinheads.

The Portland case is similar to the Keenan lawsuit, in that Dees argued that White Aryan Resistance founders Tom and John Metzger incited the skinheads to commit murder.

Dees has received death threats in the past, so the Southern Poverty Law Center will have its own security force to augment the tight security promised by Kootenai County authorities.

Butler is pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, which holds that whites are the true children of God, that Jews are the offspring of Satan and that blacks and other minorities are inferior. He presides over weekly services in a chapel where an Israeli flag is used as a doormat.

Over the years, his disciples have included some of the most notorious figures in the white supremacist movement, such as Robert Mathews, Randy Weaver and Buford Furrow, a former security guard at the Aryan Nations compound who is awaiting trial in Los Angeles on charges of killing an Asian-American postal carrier and shooting up a Jewish day care center last summer.

Butler, however, has been largely able to escape jail time. In 1988 he was acquitted of federal charges that he was involved in a plot to overthrow the government.

People who study hate groups consider Butler a godfather of the white supremacist movement.

From his compound, which is valued at about $200,000 and has a sign out front that reads ''Whites only,'' Butler mails his literature, recruits followers and plays host to the annual Aryan World Congress, a skinhead symposium that often draws more than 100 acolytes. The gathering is generally held on Adolf Hitler's birthday.

Butler said the possible loss of his home ''bothers me a little bit.'' He is appealing for defense funds from neo-Nazi sympathizers, writing on his Web site: ''We must not let the enemies of our race win this round.''

Six distributors of skinhead music are donating proceeds from the sale of CDs with titles like ''Too White for You,'' and ''Holocaust 2000.''

Vincent Bertollini, a wealthy former computer executive who lives in nearby Sandpoint, Idaho, sent a mailing to thousands of Idaho households last week attacking Dees as an ''anti-white, Jew supremacist.''

''Just think about it,'' Bertollini's mailing said. ''A Jew team of lawyers trying to destroy a white Christian church.''

Dees is not Jewish.

Opponents of the Aryan Nations are looking forward to seeing the group punished.

Bill Wassmuth, whose Coeur d'Alene home was once bombed by white supremacists, said it is important to hold leaders of hate groups responsible for the actions of their followers.

''Will a successful outcome eliminate hate groups in the Northwest? No,'' Wassmuth said. ''Will it have an impact? Most certainly.''


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