Wednesday, August 5, 2009


The house where Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler lived has been demolished. So has the church where he preached his racist religion. Cows graze where hundreds of white supremacists used to burn crosses in the summer.

The Aryan Nations is long gone from northern Idaho, but its reputation lingers - to the chagrin of locals.

When a man recently shot up the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., much was made of the fact that accused shooter James von Brunn spent a few days in 2004 in this area, living with a fellow anti-Semite before he was evicted for being too radical.

“The stain is so deep,” said Tony Stewart, a longtime resident who helped evict the Aryan Nations. “We feel stereotyped in a way that is unjust.”

At the center of the debate is Hayden Lake, a posh town of fewer than 500 people that mostly consists of a country club and lavish homes along its picture-postcard lake. Hayden Lake served as the post office address for the rural Aryan Nations compound, some five miles away, and became shorthand as the haven for hate groups.

Instead of goose-stepping neo-Nazis, its streets are full of golf carts and joggers.

So it is in much of the Idaho Panhandle these days, where tourism has replaced logging and mining as the major economic activity.

Coeur d’Alene, eight miles south of Hayden Lake, is the largest city and economic hub of the panhandle. Built along Lake Coeur d’Alene, it draws golfers, boaters and outdoor enthusiasts, and the charming downtown is full of sidewalk cafes, art galleries and boutiques.

A decade ago, the Aryan Nations held annual marches by its handful of members down Sherman Avenue, at the height of the tourist season.

Not that it hurt business much. Kootenai County has grown from 69,000 residents in 1990 to nearly 140,000 now, and has been able to recruit jobs and retirees from larger urban areas.

The Aryans were never a local product. Mr. Butler was an aerospace engineer from Southern California who used to vacation in the area because it had so few minorities. The county is more than 94 percent white and non-Hispanic, one of the most homogenous places in the nation.

In the 1970s, Mr. Butler bought 20 acres near Hayden Lake and began gathering followers from around the country. He held annual skinhead symposiums called the Aryan World Congress, which lured hundreds of supporters to the compound for a weekend of speeches, cross burnings and marches. Some followers would leave and commit acts of violence.

Mr. Stewart and other community leaders organized a human rights task force that rallied the community against Mr. Butler. Their opposition put them at risk, as when the home of activist Bill Wassmuth was bombed in 1986. Three Aryan Nations members were convicted in the bombings.

The end for Mr. Butler began during a congress in the summer of 1998. A car driving past the compound apparently backfired, and Aryan security guards, thinking it was a gunshot, gave chase.

They shot at the vehicle and forced the two terrified occupants off the road. Working with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the two victims sued the Aryan Nations for negligence in the supervision of the guards. A Coeur d’Alene jury awarded them a $6.3 million judgment, and Mr. Butler was forced to declare bankruptcy and then sell his land.

He lived his remaining days in a donated house in Hayden, dying in 2004. His remaining followers scattered around the country.

There are still scattered efforts to revive Mr. Butler’s legacy.

The Aryan Nations Web site lists Coeur d’Alene residents Jerald O’Brien and Michael Lombard as leaders. Both hold the title of pastor, which was also used by Mr. Butler. Mr. O’Brien declined to say how many people had joined the group, but welcomed a reporter’s attention.

“Any publicity is good publicity,” Mr. O’Brien said. “If the enemy is not screaming for our blood, we are not doing a good job.”

Mr. O’Brien, who knew Mr. Butler, said he is trying to re-establish the annual congresses.

“I promised Pastor Butler on his death bed that I would not let this die,” he said.

Accused Holocaust Museum shooter Mr. von Brunn, 89, grew up in Missouri, worked in advertising in New York City and has lived on Maryland’s Eastern Shore since the late 1960s.

But what got the most publicity in his background was a few days in 2004 he spent at the home of Stan Hess, an anti-Semite in Hayden, Idaho, who Mr. von Brunn located via the Internet. Mr. Hess found his visitor too violent for his liking and asked him to leave.

“He lives in Maryland, but Maryland didn’t get the bad rep,” Mr. Stewart complained.

Many of the Idaho newcomers hail from California, including a large cadre of retired law enforcement officers, of whom O.J. Simpson trial figure Mark Fuhrman is the best-known.

“L.A. cops move up here to get away from diversity,” said Rachel Dolezal, director of education for the Human Rights Education Institute in downtown Coeur d’Alene.

Ms. Dolezal, a multiracial woman who graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., jokes that she traded one monoculture for another when she moved here in 2004.

As a woman of color, she finds plenty of challenges in Coeur d’Alene. The center’s efforts to bring black history programs to schools, and a black student association to North Idaho College have resulted in letters to the editor criticizing the efforts, she said.

There also was a recent incident in which three skinheads visited the office and asked for a tour, Ms. Dolezal said.

They showed little interest in the center’s work, she said, but saluted a Nazi flag that was part of an exhibit on propaganda.

“They asked me where I lived,” she said, and where her young son went to school.

The three eventually left. Ms. Dolezal reported the incident to the FBI, which interviewed the men. The center also installed security cameras.

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