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Obituaries

Richard Butler, 86; Supremacist Founded the Aryan Nations

September 09, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Richard Butler, the rural Idaho pastor who was called "the elder statesman of hate" for the racist campaigns he led as the founder of the Aryan Nations, has died at the age of 86, authorities said Wednesday.

Butler, who was living in a modest house in Hayden, Idaho, after losing the longtime headquarters of the Aryan Nations in a lawsuit three years ago, was found dead Wednesday by Kootenai County sheriff's deputies who were summoned to Butler's home by house guests.

Capt. Ben Wolfinger of the Sheriff's Department said Butler apparently died in his sleep. An autopsy is pending.

Butler, a former California aerospace engineer, founded his 20-acre barbed-wire-rimmed compound in Hayden Lake, on the edge of the Idaho wilderness, more than 30 years ago to serve as the cradle of a homeland for the white race. It became the nexus of a hate-mongering network, with chapters in a dozen states and contacts with neo-Nazis around the world. It distributed racist and fascist literature and coordinated campaigns to mobilize convicts and guards at prisons across the country.

At the compound, which contained both a chapel and a gun tower, Butler housed a who's who of violent racists who were later convicted of bombings, bank robberies and murders.

But Butler, who maintained that he opposed violence, managed to operate relatively unhindered until 1998, when Aryan Nations guards fired at a passing car, forced it into a ditch and assaulted its driver -- Victoria Keenan, a Native American woman from Careywood, Idaho. Keenan and her son sued Butler in 1999 with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., and in 2001 won a $6.3-million verdict against him. The lawsuit effectively bankrupted Butler and his organization and forced him to sell the compound to a human-rights group based in Cambridge, Mass.

"Butler's death is really the end of an era," Mark Potok, director of intelligence for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Times Wednesday. "It is the end of the idea of the Pacific Northwest as a separate racist nation.... It is also the end of the big compound era for white supremacist groups. Butler was a figure who really brought factions of the movement together, from skinheads to Christian Identity followers and others, and he provided a gathering place. Our lawsuit ended that."

Though ailing, Butler remained defiant into his 80s, appearing as recently as July in a parade through the heart of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, with 40 neo-Nazis and Aryan Nations members, who waved racist flags and shouted epithets at anti-racist demonstrators during the annual Aryan World Congress meeting.

Butler's journey to the top of the white supremacy movement began during World War II, when he worked in India for a private contractor. He was impressed by the Indian caste system, observing that the lighter-skinned a person was, the higher he ranked. "It all got me to thinking," he told The Times in a rare 1999 interview, "that we, the white race, were losing the war."

He spent most of the war with the Army Air Corps fighting Japanese in the Pacific but remained keenly aware of Adolf Hitler, whom he came to revere. Portraits and busts of the Nazi leader would later adorn the Idaho compound.

"I admired [Hitler] because it seemed like he was the only one who stood up ... who led a nation, a division of our race, to fight for the life of our race," he said.

After the war he lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Montebello, where his racist animosities grew. He began to focus his hatred on Jews, whom he believed were mounting a worldwide conspiracy under the guise of communism. In 1961, he helped lead a ballot initiative to ban communists from teaching in California public schools.

The final straw for him came when Lockheed accepted a federal loan to keep building the L-1011 commercial jet that required the aerospace company to hire more minorities at the Palmdale plant where he worked.

"It just kind of made me sick," he recalled. "It got to the point where the quality went down, production went down." He quit his job. He also left his Presbyterian church when the new pastor made plain his intention to broaden the congregation by inviting minorities to worship at the church. Butler turned to Dr. Wesley Swift, who headed a church at Hollywood and Vine and gave sermons that spoke of the struggles of the white race. By the 1980s, he was a leader of Swift's Christian Identity church, which promoted an angry theology of hatred toward blacks and Jews and warned of a coming apocalypse.

Butler opened his compound in the early 1970s and it gradually became a magnet for all manner of right-wing extremists. It did not gain widespread prominence until the mid-1980s, however, when supremacists who had spent time at the Aryan Nations headquarters went on a crime spree that made headlines -- a series of armored-car holdups, counterfeiting operations and bombings that culminated in the 1984 murder of Denver talk show host Alan Berg.

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