MEDFORD, Ore. – Sitting in the living room of his home in Coeur d’Alene, Rico Valentino listened as two white supremacists hatched a scheme. What was needed, they said, was a smaller group, a specific target and a specific plan. A bomb.
Valentino nodded as they spoke. The men trusted the flamboyantly dressed, guitar-playing wrestling promoter who’d endeared himself to the Aryan Nations’ decidedly macho membership. What Robert Winslow and Stephen Nelson didn’t know that day 25 years ago was that within a year, they’d both be in federal prison because of Valentino’s testimony.
On a recent afternoon at a Medford, Oregon, coffee shop, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, Valentino, who now lives in a rural part of Jackson County and describes himself as “78 before breakfast,” says he first became an informant while working in the burgeoning wrestling industry in the 1960s. In those days, the circuit was rampant with drugs, he says.
“I was promoting wrestling in California and two federal narcotics agents came up to me,” he recalls. The agents wanted him to help them make a case against another member of the circuit who was also a prominent cocaine dealer. “They said he was bringing it in big-time.”
The undercover gig paid well and he enjoyed it, so he kept it up, going on to work for other agencies in Northern California. Another job opportunity presented itself in the early 1980s, when a drug dealer approached Valentino while he was in Medford visiting with his sister. Valentino said he went straight to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and approached then-Sheriff C.W. Smith, asking for $10,000 in buy money and offering his services as an informant.
Smith was skeptical at first and called around to check his references. “He told (Lt. Jim VanSant), ‘If that S.O.B. runs with the money, shoot him,’ ” Valentino recalls, laughing.
But the sting worked and investigators got their man, so he continued working for the sheriff’s department. “I’ve worked for a bunch of sheriffs, but C.W. was the best,” he says. “He’s one of the few people in the world I can call a true friend.”
By 1989, Valentino was working for the FBI as a highly placed informant in the Aryan Nations compound at Hayden Lake. The white supremacist group was at the top of federal law enforcement agencies’ target lists after a splinter group called The Order went on a nationwide crime spree and sought to start an anti-government revolution four years earlier. Valentino was so successful infiltrating the organization that Richard Butler, the leader of the Aryan Nations, was later reluctant to accept that Rico had been working against him all along.
For much of his time working undercover, Valentino wore a hidden microphone connected to a transmitter or a tape recorder. Discovery of the wire could have meant death for the former wrestler, but his intimidating size kept anyone from getting too handsy, he says. “Nobody had the nerve to search me.”
At the time the FBI was inserting Valentino into the Aryan Nations, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms already had placed a man of their own close to the top. These days, law enforcement agencies “deconflict” their undercover and tactical operations through state and national watch centers and regional computer systems. But when he first encountered Valentino in 1989, ATF informant Kenneth Fadeley later testified before Congress, there wasn’t any coordination between federal law enforcement agencies with regard to avoiding conflict between their informants.
Valentino remembers Fadeley walked and talked like he didn’t belong. “I’m old enough to realize who’s a cop and who’s not,” he says, though at the time he wasn’t certain which agency Fadeley worked for. Fadeley was eventually outed as an informant when Aryan Nations security guards, looking into his background, discovered his car’s license plate number didn’t match its vehicle identification number.
After Fadeley’s cover was blown, ATF agents eventually approached Ruby Ridge resident Randy Weaver, who allegedly had sold Fadeley two sawed-off shotguns. The agents offered to drop their case against Weaver if he agreed to serve as an informant, but he refused. Weaver later found himself at the center of a standoff with the FBI, ATF and the U.S. Marshals Service, during which his wife and son were both fatally shot by agents.
In 1990, while still undercover in the Aryan Nations compound, Valentino befriended Winslow and Nelson, who had decidedly militant ideas about advancing the group’s ideology.
“You’ll always have idiots like that hanging around (white supremacist groups),” Valentino says. As the men plotted in his home that night, their conversations were recorded by a video camera hidden inside his television set.
After watching Winslow and Nelson test a homemade bomb with a third man, Procter James Baker, Valentino offered to drive the group to Seattle, where they planned to target the Neighbours Disco in Capitol Hill. FBI agents swooped in and arrested Winslow and Nelson en route after they stopped to purchase alleged bomb components; Baker, who hadn’t made the trip, was arrested the same day in Idaho.
Informants generally keep their identities secret and aren’t expected to testify in court, but Valentino, who was paid $90,000 in the Aryan Nations investigation, wasn’t shy about taking the stand. His testimony proved crucial in putting the bomb-plot suspects behind bars. Winslow was sentenced to nine years in prison, Nelson to eight and Baker to two.
Valentino maintains he never instigated criminal activities himself and was careful to document every bit of his eventual testimony. “I recorded everything they said and I wrote it out,” he says.
In 1992, Nelson, Winslow and Baker appealed their convictions to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing the FBI had used Valentino to entrap them, effectively encouraging criminal activity. The court rejected their appeal.
“At the time Valentino first targeted the appellants for investigation, both Winslow and Nelson had already expressed interest in blowing up establishments frequented by homosexuals,” Judge David R. Thompson wrote in the court’s decision.
Valentino says he’s received plenty of death threats since his identity became known. One Aryan Nations member told him over the phone that the only reason Valentino was still alive was that his would-be assailant didn’t have a car. Valentino said he offered to pay for a cab.
“The way I looked at it, I lived a full life – if I get killed, so what?” he says. “You are only going to die once, but you get to live every day.”