Richard Girnt Butler, one of the most notorious racists in the United States, who built and ultimately lost a North Idaho compound dedicated to bigotry, was found dead Wednesday at 86.
The spiritual godfather to a generation of white supremacists and a magnet for violent anti-government criminals, Butler apparently died in his sleep, of natural causes. He had suffered from coronary problems since at least 1988, when he had open-heart surgery at taxpayer expense, after he became a federal inmate on charges of plotting to overthrow the U.S. government.
Last year, as he waged a largely symbolic campaign for mayor of Hayden, Butler seemed to acknowledge his end was near.
“There’s nothing further than this,” he said in an interview some three weeks before a record turnout of voters handed Butler and two followers a resounding defeat.
By then, he had lost a federal civil trial and had to surrender his Hayden Lake compound. His flock was scattered, and he was living in a house with payments being made by a former follower who had become a fugitive.
Butler was clearly ailing when he appeared seven weeks ago with about 40 supporters in the annual Aryan Nations parade in downtown Coeur d’Alene. He rode the eight-block length of the parade in the back of a pickup truck, seated in a lawn chair, and made no statements before or after the event.
Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies were sent to Butler’s home in Hayden, Idaho, Wednesday morning to check on a report of an unattended death. An autopsy was ordered.
A racist’s path
Butler was born Feb. 23, 1918, in Bennett, Colo., where his father, Clarence, was a machinist, and his mother, Winfred, a homemaker. They were of German-English ancestry and Presbyterians, but didn’t attend church regularly.
The family moved to Denver in the early 1920s where Clarence Butler opened his own machine shop. He wasn’t active in a large Ku Klux Klan organization that existed in Denver, but didn’t hide his dislike for Jews from his son. After the Depression set in, Butler and his family moved to East Los Angeles. There, Richard studied aeronautical engineering and science at City College, and started working part time at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Co., which was building the B-11.
After a stint in India for the company, Butler returned to the United States and married Betty Litch in 1941.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Butler enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He never left the United States during the war, and was assigned to a base where he taught aircraft hydraulics.
“In the newsreels of the day, I was thrilled to see the movies of the marching Germans,” Butler recalled in a 1991 interview. “In those days, all we knew was that Hitler hated communists, and so did my folks, as we did as teenagers.”
He later would embrace Hitler’s beliefs, and repeatedly say in interviews and writings that Hitler was the second-greatest man who ever lived, after Jesus.
“I fought on the wrong side during World War II,” Butler said in later years. His views began to radically change after the war, he explained in writings, lectures and interviews. He became troubled by “government edicts that seemed to always be contrary to the best interest of the nation and the white race, in particular.” He blamed “Jewish communism.”
The church Butler founded in Hayden Lake preaches a mixture of Hitler-style national socialism and Christian Identity, a belief that people of white, Northern European ancestry are the true children of God. After World War II, Butler and his wife lived in Montebello, Calif. The couple had two daughters, who have kept their distance from Butler’s Aryan Nations activities. But Betty Butler, who died in 1995, was a close confidant to her husband and shared his beliefs.
In the early 1950s Butler began supporting various anti-communist movements. While participating in a campaign to expose suspected communist schoolteachers he met William Potter Gale, a candidate for governor calling for the impeachment of President Dwight Eisenhower and Supreme Court justices for their efforts to desegregate the South.
Gale introduced Butler to an armed vigilante group known as Posse Comitatus and to Christian Identity. In 1961, Butler began attending the Anglo Saxon Christian Congregation in Lancaster, Calif., run by Dr. Wesley Swift, a former KKK organizer.
Bonded by the belief that race is nation, Butler came to view Swift as his mentor, and the two had long, private study sessions together during the 1960s. Butler described his friendship with Swift as the “most rewarding of all personal relationships” he had in his life. He took a correspondence course and became an ordained Christian Identity minister. He would frequently explain God’s life law with the example of Noah’s Ark. “The elephants are with the elephants, the lions are with the lions.”
A ‘white homeland’
In 1968, Butler was hired as a senior marketing engineer by Lockheed Aircraft Co. and helped set up assembly lines at the company’s plant in Palmdale, Calif. His personal interest in aviation led him to obtain a private pilot’s license.
By the early 1970s, he and his wife were growing tired of racial strife in the Los Angeles area and began making trips in Butler’s small plane to the Northwest, dreaming of finding a “white homeland.”
Butler had helped invent a system for rapid repair of tubeless tires. If he made a lot of money from that innovation, he never boasted about it. But he was able to retire at 55 and move to Hayden Lake in June 1973. The Butlers purchased an old farmhouse on a wooded 20-acre site, surrounded by fields and pastures.
Butler formed his own Christian Posse Comitatus, and appointed himself marshal. By 1977, he formed the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, and called the political action arm of the church Aryan Nations.
In 1981, the church hosted its first Aryan World Congress, an event that became an annual gathering for white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and others.
Over the years, nearly every significant leader in white supremacy circles – some from as far away as Germany, Italy and South Africa – showed up for the meetings. Butler would preach that the Pacific Northwest should be a homeland for whites, that Jews should move to the Northeast, African Americans to the South and Hispanics to California, Arizona and Texas. He called the idea his “territorial imperative.”
In June 1983, Butler and his followers showed up at a public rally in Spokane’s Riverfront Park, where one young Aryan got into a shouting match with anti-Aryan demonstrators. The rally helped convince the man, Robert J. Mathews, that the time had come to move beyond Butler’s words and start a race war. That fall, Mathews and others who met at the Aryan Nations secretly formed The Order.
The white supremacists initially funded their intended race war by printing counterfeit money on the Aryan Nations presses. Butler later would claim he had no idea his church presses were being used illegally.
Members of The Order graduated to robbing adult bookstores and security guards transporting money in Seattle. The Order terrorists also bombed a synagogue and assassinated a Jewish radio talk show host in Denver. They robbed an armored car of $3.8 million in Ukiah, Calif. In all, members of The Order stole more than $4 million, and some of it went to Butler’s church and other white supremacy groups, court testimony revealed.
A federal jury in Seattle in 1985 convicted 10 members of The Order in the crimes; others pleaded guilty. Sentences ranged from 40 to 100 years.
Federal agents could never prove that Butler knew he was given stolen money.
“They’re tithes,” Butler explained. “I don’t ask where it comes from.”
By early 1985, various members of The Order were on the run after shootouts with the FBI at Sandpoint, Portland, and on Whidbey Island, near Seattle.
When Mathews died on Whidbey Island during a December 1984 gunbattle with FBI agents, Butler called him a hero. “I wish I had been with him when he died, but I don’t have the guts, anymore,” Butler said. As Butler honored The Order at his 1986 Aryan World Congress, a newcomer from Iowa listened. Randy Weaver had just moved to North Idaho to follow a white separatist lifestyle in a mountaintop cabin near Naples.
Weaver attended Aryan World Congress again in 1987 and 1989 before becoming a federal fugitive and getting involved in a 1992 deadly shootout with federal agents. During the 11-day siege – now remembered as Ruby Ridge – Butler joined other anti-government activists at the roadblock below the fugitive’s cabin.
Federal prosecutors accused Butler of being part of a conspiracy to start a race war, but couldn’t make it stick. In a 1988 trial, Butler called the allegations nonsense and Jewish lies. His wife said he was a nonviolent man who “wouldn’t spank a puppy dog.” An Arkansas jury acquitted Butler and a group of white supremacist “godfathers.”
In April 1989, to commemorate Hitler’s 100th birthday, Butler invited skinheads to the Aryan Nations. Butler said he wanted to renew his commitment to Aryan youth. The skinhead gatherings, officially called Aryan Youth Conference, became an annual springtime event at Butler’s compound. By the mid-1990s, Butler paid for skinhead bands to attract a crowd at his youth rallies. Still, he never drew more than 200 skinheads.
Another annual event developed in the late 1990s, when Butler began organizing parades through downtown Coeur d’Alene. The community objected, fearing the demonstrations painted the region as a haven for hatemongers. But when they tried to stop the parades, Butler was protected by the government he despised – the courts ruled he had a First Amendment right to march.
The counterdemonstrations often drew more people than the parades. Tourists gaped at the sight of hooded Klansmen and skinheads inching down the street.
End of an era
In 2000, Butler was forced into bankruptcy when Victoria and Jason Keenan won a $6.3 million civil judgment against the Aryan Nations, after being fired upon and assaulted by three Aryan guards.
The Hayden Lake compound was purchased by the Keenans at an auction, and they sold it to a multimillionaire human-rights activist who turned it into a training ground for firefighters. As the compound burned in mid-2001, a firefighter talked about tossing a swastika into the fire: “Hopefully, it will be the last one in North Idaho.”
But Butler wasn’t chased out of the Panhandle. He moved into a home in Hayden purchased in October 2000 for $107,500 by former follower Vincent Bertollini, currently a fugitive from charges of drunken driving in Sandpoint. The aging pastor held services each Sunday in his living room, and began using the Internet to spread his message.
Butler was always evasive about what would happen after his death. In 1987, he said he was proud of preaching his racist message, and was convinced the movement would thrive after he’s gone.
“If I were to die tomorrow or anything else, it will still go on,” he said.
But it may not go on in Hayden. A few hours after his death, family members ordered white supremacists out of the home, put some of their belongings on the doorstep and removed an Aryan flag from the window.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.