Northwest Hate Groups Lose Prominence

The Associated Press/March 11, 2002
By Nicholas K. Geranios

Hayden Lake, Idaho -- For more than 20 years, this scenic corner of northern Idaho was synonymous with hate groups, and the Northwest in general was considered a haven for assorted extremists.

Names like Theodore Kaczynski, Randy Weaver, the Aryan Nations, the Phineas Priesthood and the 11th Hour Remnant Messenger dominated the national image of the region from Spokane, Wash., to Lincoln, Mont.

But many of those people are gone - to jail or to other states - and the number of militia and hate groups in the region is static even as it grows nationally.

That has area human-rights activists breathing a cautious sigh of relief.

"We can't assume they are all gone,'' said Mary Lou Reed of the Human Rights Education Foundation in nearby Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "Certainly the vast majority of people are relieved and happy to see the scenario changed.''

While hard statistics are difficult to obtain, a new Southern Poverty Law Center report indicates that hate groups have plateaued in the Northwest.

In 2000, Montana had four identified hate groups, Idaho had nine and Washington 12, the center found. Those numbers were identical in 2001, the human rights group said. Nationally, the number of hate groups grew 12 percent in the year.

Still, anti-government feelings die hard in the Northwest.

In late February, officials in Montana broke up a militia group that authorities said was planning to assassinate judges, prosecutors and police officers. The group, which called itself "Project Seven,'' hoped to kill enough officials to force the state to call in the National Guard, triggering what they hoped would be open warfare.

Racist, anti-Semitic and technophobic extremists began appearing in the region in the 1970s, drawn by the overwhelmingly white population and a general to-each-his-own attitude that brought minimal opposition to the groups.

The ascendancy of the Aryan Nations in northern Idaho began when Richard Butler moved here in the early 1970s, looking to establish a white homeland. Eventually, the group began staging neo-Nazi gatherings and exporting violence from its compound about 10 miles north of Hayden Lake. Over time, the region was tainted by hate groups.

The 1992 shootout at Ruby Ridge that killed a deputy U.S. marshal and the wife and son of Weaver, a white separatist, focused national attention on members of the radical fringe living in the Northwest.

The 1996 arrest of Kaczynski near Lincoln, Mont., for the Unabomber attacks helped cement the image.

Drawing a somewhat lower national profile were a series of bombings and bank robberies in 1996 by members of the Phineas Priesthood, a shadowy sect that holds religious beliefs against banking, abortion and a strong central government. The four men, all from the Sandpoint, Idaho, area, bombed a newspaper office and Planned Parenthood clinic and robbed two banks in the Spokane area before they were captured and sent to prison.

The 11th Hour Remnant Messenger, founded by two wealthy Californians after they moved to Sandpoint, Idaho, for a time sent unsolicited mass mailings of anti-Semitic and racist brochures and videos to every home in Bonner County, and to others around the nation.

Both men - R. Vincent Bertollini and Carl E. Story - have reportedly left the Northwest.

Bertollini, 62, has not been seen since disappearing last summer after being charged with drunken driving and resisting arrest. Story's house is up for sale, and the 68-year-old businessman has reportedly moved back to California.

The most high-profile group, Aryan Nations, went bankrupt in 2000 by a civil rights lawsuit argued by the Southern Poverty Law Center. That forced Butler to sell his 20-acre compound, and new leaders subsequently deposed Butler and moved the group's headquarters to Pennsylvania. Butler remains in Idaho, but keeps a low profile.

Although many of the hate groups are gone, the image persists.

A few years ago on the television show "Chicago Hope,'' a black doctor accused a white colleague of prejudice and told her: "Maybe you should move to Idaho.''

On a recent episode of "ER,'' a character said she was from Idaho: "Not the white supremacist part, the potato part.''

Business and government leaders have fought back, declaring Idaho "the human rights state'' and casting hate group members as misfits from other regions.

Last year, the Hayden Lake Chamber of Commerce complained to television host Geraldo Rivera after he said there was "racism and fascism'' and a "kind of perverse militarism run rampant'' in Hayden Lake.

"I think the sad reality is the Northwest still struggles as some kind of supremacist enclave. It's unfair,'' said Mark Potok, spokesman for the Montgomery, Ala., law center.

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