Gregory Withrow, founder of the Aryan Youth Movement and reformed neo-Nazi thug, was standing in a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise, surrounded by Jews in suits. Elaborate tattoos were visible through his navy-blue tank shirt; his burnt-orange hair was uncombed.
All morning long as he was interviewed in the offices of the Anti-Defamation League, he kept scratching the wounds on his back, where swastika tattoos had been burned off with laser and chemicals two months ago in a surgery arranged by the ADL.
Withrow is a Nazi turncoat, a one-time confidant of the nation's most prominent hate mongers, who took a dark and painful trek to the other side. Bandages remain on his shoulders, but the scars, like Withrow himself, have begun healing.
The latest step in that process came last week with the first of several planned appearances the former racist from Sacramento has promised the ADL he'll make in this, his new-found role: warning teen-agers away from the hate movement.
The night before, Withrow had told a crowd of 100 at the Jewish Community Center about the costs of his defection, which peaked with his crucifixion by skinhead comrades he had led until two years ago.
"I was brought up to fear you," he began, then offered them an insider's view of the Ku Klux Klan, the White Aryan Resistance, the skinhead and other anti-Semitic hate groups, some of which preach what he once preached: "complete and total extermination of all nonwhites from the face of the American continent."
The 45-minute discussion ended in a standing ovation.
"We want him to be an advocate, and he's an eloquent one, a forceful one," said Jerry Shapiro of the ADL's Los Angeles office, which paid Withrow's travel expenses, a $100 honorarium for his talk and the cost of a night's lodging. "He seems to have a real rapport with kids."
"It scared me," Withrow said later, stroking his droopy mustache. "A man who fears begins to hate, and so it was like facing my greatest fear. I've never spoken to a group of Jews. But afterwards they gave me a standing applause. . . . I would do it again just for the hugs."
Born in 1961 in Sacramento, Gregory Steven Withrow said he never had much choice in the path he would follow. Before he was old enough to read, he remembers there were always anti-Semitic books on the shelves of his family home.
Ruler of the Roost
"The books I remember seeing at a very early age. A lot of little things that went on around the house," Withrow said Thursday as he chatted before catching a flight to San Francisco. "I was 6 1/2, maybe 7 years old."
Six-feet-four and domineering, Albert Withrow ruled the roost. His mother "really had very little to say about things," Withrow said.
He will say virtually nothing about his mother, with whom he has only recently begun building a new relationship. She is his influence now.
But his father--an auto mechanic who became a bartender and professional gambler--shaped most of his life.
He had a personality so "powerful" that it squelched other viewpoints. Though his dad worked for a time with radical conservative groups, the elder Withrow never bought in on the KKK, his son said. "He saw the Klan as cliche, as something that would never really make a difference; too ceremonial. Almost bourgeois, in his view."
His father, nevertheless, raised him "to lead the white race," Withrow said. "Some fathers raise their kids to be doctors, lawyers or ballerinas. I was raised to be sort of a 'Fuhrer. ' "
By 1979, Withrow--at 5-feet-6 and 130 pounds--was a member of the White Aryan Resistance known as WAR, the KKK, the Skinheads and the American Nazi Party. When he enrolled the same year at Sacramento's American River College, Withrow formed the White Student Union, which stuffed hundreds of fliers in high-school lockers in California and other states claiming that the Holocaust was grossly exaggerated by Jews who had enough money to rewrite history.
His adviser at the time, both men have said, was Tom Metzger--a Fallbrook television repairman, leader of the White American Political Assn. and the White Aryan Resistance, a former San Diego congressional candidate and a former California Grand Dragon of the KKK.
Post Office Box
Metzger, who hosts a cable television show, "Race and Reason," offered financial support and encouragement. While there was no official link between the groups, WAR and Withrow's White Student Union shared a Fallbrook post office box.
Richard Hirschhaut, executive director of the central Pacific region of the Anti-Defamation League, said the discrimination-fighting group has followed Withrow's activities since 1979, when he founded the White Students Union. In his role as the union's leader, Withrow was a key recruiter of new membership in what later became the Aryan Youth Movement, which Hirschhaut called "the stepchild of WAR."