Demolition begins at former Aryan Nations compound
HAYDEN LAKE, Idaho (AP) – For 27 years, Norm Gissel never could have made it past the guard shack at the Aryan Nations headquarters. Now he and other human-rights activists roam the 20-acre compound as if they own the place.
That’s because they do own it – the result of a lawsuit that bankrupted Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler – and this week they are savoring the demolition of what they call ”the campus of hate.”
An excavator arrived Wednesday to begin dismantling some of the most potent symbols of Butler’s neo-Nazi organization: the guard shack, a 40-foot watchtower and a commissary with a huge swastika on the roof.
Where skinheads and uniformed Nazi wannabes once goose-stepped around Butler’s property in the woods of northern Idaho, the new owners are planning a human-rights retreat or a children’s camp devoted to diversity.
Gissel, a lawyer who helped bankrupt Butler, smiled broadly as he stood outside the former Aryan Nations office, watching workers haul away garbage. Inside, shelves were pasted with labels of mail-order tracts: ”America: Free, White and Christian,” $9. ”The Jews and Their Lies,” $6. ”Klansman Handbook,” $5.
Resting his hand on a small printing press, Gissel said: ”We’ve spent many sleepless nights worrying about the effects of the speech that came off this press. This isn’t the only printing press out there, and I’m sure they’re buying another one as we speak. But they’re not going to have this one anymore.”
Butler, now 83 and in poor health, still lives in the area, in a home donated by a wealthy supporter. His following, which over the years included some of the nation’s most violent racists and anti-Semites, has dwindled to a dozen or so people. The Aryan Nations still maintains a phone number and answering machine, though no one returned three messages left this week.
Butler moved to northern Idaho from California in 1973. By 1980, when anti-Semitic graffiti appeared on an area restaurant owned by a Jew, community members had taken notice of Butler’s racist rhetoric.
The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations was soon formed and has battled the Aryan Nations ever since. When the Aryan Nations would hold a youth conference, the task force would counter with human-rights rallies. When Butler staged parades in nearby Coeur d’Alene, the task force would assemble protesters.
It seemed as if the duel would continue indefinitely – until 1998, when Aryan Nations security guards chased a car they thought had fired a gun at them. (It turned out to be backfire or a firecracker.) The guards fired at the car and forced it into a ditch. One of them grabbed the driver, local resident Victoria Keenan, jabbed her with a rifle butt and put a gun to her head.
Keenan and her son, Jason, sued Butler and last year won a $6.3 million verdict. They gained possession of the 20-acre compound and its nine buildings after Butler filed for bankruptcy protection, and in March they sold it for $250,000 to the Carr Foundation, a human-rights group based in Cambridge, Mass.
Foundation head Greg Carr, an Idaho native and former chairman of the Internet company Prodigy Inc., wants to convert the site into a retreat. He also wants to build a public human-rights center 10 miles down the road in Coeur d’Alene – all in the name of erasing Idaho’s image as a haven for racists.
Carr and activists plan to demolish some buildings and let the fire department burn down the rest for firefighting practice.
There was a festive air at the compound this week. A dozen law enforcement officials who had tracked the Aryan Nations toured the site Wednesday, posing for photos and poking around the abandoned buildings.
”We’re just sightseers like everyone else,” said one FBI agent official who refused to give his name or allow journalists to photograph the group. ”Some of these guys are still working,” he explained.
It was a last chance to see the place more or less intact, and the best view was from the 40-foot watchtower.
To the west was a pile of charred timbers in a pasture, left over from cross burnings. To the northeast was the commissary, with its red, black and white swastika on the roof and a menu board offering ”Naziburgers” (with sauerkraut) for $1.25.
At the foot of the tower was the chapel, where Butler, a minister in the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian, once preached that northern European whites were the true lost tribes of Israel, favored by God.
Everywhere there were swastikas: carved into trees, stuck on windows and walls, taped onto wastebaskets. ”Beware of Dog” signs remained on the trees. But the German shepherds, like their owners, were gone.
”This is a great relief,” said Tony Stewart, a founding member of the task force. ”It may be a long time coming sometimes, but justice prevails when good people do the right thing.”
EDITOR’S NOTE – David Foster is the AP’s Northwest regional reporter, based in Seattle.
On the Net:
Task force: http://www.idahohumanrights.org
Southern Poverty Law Center: http://www.tolerance.org
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.