Millionaire left fortune to neo-Nazis

Sunday Telegram Worcester, MA/December 3, 2000

Boston -- Richard J. Cotter Jr. was a tall, distinguished-looking man from the upper tier of Boston society. The son of a well-known Boston lawyer, he was a graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School, where he befriended John F. Kennedy.

He was an avid equestrian. Indeed, he owned dozens of expensive, American Saddlebred show horses. By all accounts, he led a normal life. But when the millionaire from Duxbury died in April 1999, at age 81, another side of his life emerged.

Only then did his old friend, Donald O. Smith, who is executor of his $6 million estate, learn of Mr. Cotter's unlikely connections to some of the most prominent figures of the right-wing fringe, and that he had left nearly one-sixth of his estate to neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and white supremacists.

"Dick never spoke about any of this stuff," said Mr. Smith, who is trying to keep a substantial sum of his old friend's money from winding up in the hands of a well-known Holocaust denier and neo- Nazi. "I always knew he was a conservative guy, but not someone who thought the world would have been a better place had Hitler won the war."

Mr. Smith knew Mr. Cotter for nearly 50 years, since the days when the two worked for the same Boston law firm. Nothing ever seemed particularly out of the ordinary about the man or his politics, although he did have conservative leanings. And at first, his dying wishes seemed in keeping with his life, Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Cotter's will provided generously for his show horses, setting up a $400,000 trust for their care. He left $50,000 and real estate in Plymouth County along with personal belongings to his only surviving relative, a niece in Brooklyn; another $50,000 to the Kentucky man who trained his horses; and $25,000 to his favorite waitress at a local luncheonette.

He also bequeathed parts of his estate to a local conservation group, a nonprofit organization that celebrates children's author Thornton Burgess, and a local visiting nurses association.

But then Mr. Smith noticed something peculiar in the will. A large amount of Mr. Cotter's estate -- about $500,000 -- was headed south, to Chalmette, La., a suburb of New Orleans and home of the New Christian Crusade Church.

Mr. Smith thought it odd that his old friend, who had grown up in Cambridge and lived his whole life in Massachusetts, had left money to a tiny church in far-off Louisiana. So he began making inquiries.

Before long, he learned that the church's founder and leader, James K. Warner, had a long and well-documented history as a white supremacist, Holocaust denier and neo-Nazi.

According to information from the national office of the Anti- Defamation League, Mr. Warner is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, a founding member of the American Nazi Party and a close friend of David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard who has run unsuccessfully for governor of Louisiana, U.S. Senate and president of the United States.

Mr. Warner's New Christian Crusade Church and the church's offshoot organizations -- the Christian Defense League and Sons of Liberty -- all espouse virulently anti-Semitic and racist views, according to Anti-Defamation League literature.

"Dick never talked about any of this," Mr. Smith said. "I was stunned." This discovery prompted Mr. Smith to peruse the will again. He found other men tied to hate groups among the beneficiaries.

One is Ernst Zundel, a well-known Holocaust denier, to whom Mr. Cotter left $100,000. Mr. Zundel, who lives in Canada, made headlines in the Worcester area in 1995 when one of his Holocaust-denial shows aired on a Westboro local cable access channel. The Anti-Defamation League says Zundel has, for more than two decades, been the leading Holocaust denial propagandist in Canada.

Then there was William L. Pierce, the leader of the National Alliance, an organization that experts call the most prominent pro- Nazi movement in the country. Mr. Pierce, who was bequeathed $25,000, is infamous for writing "The Turner Diaries," a crude, violent work of fiction that groups such as Hate Watch and the Southern Poverty Law Center -- two organizations that track hate groups across the country -- say inspired the Oklahoma City bombing.

Mr. Cotter also left $25,000 to the Confederation of Polish Freedom Fighters, which, according to Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates of Cambridge, is an anti-Semitic group based in Salem.

Although Mr. Smith could do nothing to stop Mr. Zundel, Mr. Pierce and the Polish Freedom Fighters from receiving their inheritances because they were left cash sums outright, he has drawn a battle line with the New Christian Crusade Church. A year and a half after Mr. Cotter's death, Mr. Smith continues to withhold the inheritance, which could, in the end, amount to more than $500,000.

He is doing so, he said, because he believes the organization is not actually a church and therefore does not satisfy a provision in the will that it must have qualified as a "tax-deductible charitable bequest under the United States Internal Revenue Code" at the time of Mr. Cotter's death.

Mr. Warner is not a legitimate pastor, he is a hate monger, according to Jerry Himelstein, a researcher in the Anti-Defamation League's New Orleans office. "Warner is a prolific anti-Semite and racist propagandist," he said, "and it would be a shame to see an infusion of funds that would no doubt enable him to crank up his efforts to a higher level."

In a telephone interview, Mr. Warner rebutted that charge, insisting he is the pastor of a legitimate church that worships out of his modest brick home and that is tax-exempt in Louisiana. He said he has a small flock of followers who attend services on Sundays and that his church "helps out a lot of poor people with different projects -- recreation centers -- all around the country." Asked the location of the recreation centers, he said, "They're around."

Mr. Warner confirmed his anti-Semitic views. "They're satanic people," he said of Jews. "They're vicious, hateful people." He also called the Holocaust a "lie," adding that Hitler did not persecute the Jews but, "gave them notice in 1934 to leave, but they didn't."

Mr. Warner has not been shy about writing and publishing his political beliefs. In a recent issue of his Christian Defense League Report, Mr. Warner wrote the articles "Jewish Control Over the Media" and "How the Jews took over Disney."

Mr. Smith said Mr. Warner's actions raise questions about the New Christian Crusade Church's authenticity as a religious organization.

According to the IRS, Warner's church is not listed as a tax- exempt religious organization. However, IRS spokeswoman Peggy Riley said churches are not required to file for that status to be exempt from federal income tax and to receive tax-deductible contributions, although they may voluntarily file.

Mr. Smith said he has told Mr. Warner that, if he wants to receive the inheritance from Mr. Cotter's estate, he must file with the IRS and qualify as a charitable organization.

"I've thrown down the gauntlet with Mr. Warner," he said. "If he can't convince me he's running a charitable organization, he won't get any of that money. And even if he does qualify as a charitable organization with the IRS, I have to be satisfied that he is being truthful about his activities."

It is nothing new for a hate group to pose as a church. Indeed, it is a common ploy used to disguise their activities and shelter their finances, said Andrew Tarsy, a lawyer in the Anti-Defamation League's Boston office. "There is a long list of hate groups masquerading as religious organizations," he said.

How successful these so-called groups are in spreading their hateful message depends on the funds they can raise, Mr. Tarsy said. "That's the key to their success. If they can get their hands on large sums of money, they can keep their movement going and become a greater menace," he said.

Mark Potok, a researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said it is uncommon for a hate group to pull in a large donation. For example, it took Timothy J. McVeigh a year to raise the $10,000 he needed to build the bomb that decimated the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995, killing 168 people, he said. However, it does happen. Wealthy individuals have come to the aid of Aryan Nations, a paramilitary hate group based in Idaho, which was hit last month with a $5.8 million judgment in a civil rights suit, he said.

To Chip Berlet, the executive director of the Cambridge-based Political Research Associates, it is no shock that someone like Mr. Cotter, a reclusive millionaire, would leave his money to an organization such as the New Christian Crusade Church. Outwardly normal people do sometimes hold deep-seated, hateful views. "These people are our neighbors," he said. "The idea that they are deranged, or on the lunatic fringe, is wrong.

Research has shown that they are relatively normal people who lead normal lives, except for their radical beliefs. And they are in every community." That was certainly the case with Mr. Cotter, according to Kathleen A. Pyle, who worked for Mr. Cotter for 22 years. She met him when she was 19 years old, answering an ad he had placed in a local newspaper seeking a caretaker for his show horses. She knew little about horses, she said, but "he hired me on the spot, and taught me everything I needed to know."

For her loyalty and hard work, he left her land and two homes in Plymouth County.

Ms. Pyle said Mr. Cotter did not talk about politics much, but every once in a while he would let a remark slip. "I knew he had some strange politics," she said. "It was the little things he'd throw out once in a while, but I didn't pay much attention to that. It didn't seem to jibe with him. The man I knew was kind, generous -- a gentleman. But I guess everyone has their own little secrets."

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