Verdict busts Butler

Jury orders Aryans to pay $6.3 million

Spokane Spokesman Review/September 8, 2000
By Bill Morlin and Thomas Clouse

A jury returned a $6.3 million judgment Thursday against the Aryan Nations, its founder Richard Butler and three former members. The verdict in the civil trial means the jury believed the 82-year-old white supremacist and his organization were guilty of "gross negligence'' in appointing security guards who carried out a 1998 assault on two passers-by, Victoria and Jason Keenan.

The panel of three men and nine women awarded $250,000 to Victoria Keenan and $80,000 to her 21-year-old son.

But the big punch came in punitive damages -- just the kind of award the plaintiffs' attorneys believe will bankrupt the Aryan Nations. The jury tagged Butler with $4.8 million in punitive damages and his former chief of staff Michael Teague with $600,000.

Aryan guards Jesse Warfield and John Yeager were hit with $100,000 and $500,000, respectively, in punitive damages.

"If it hadn't been for three of us, they would have gotten Butler for $100 million,'' said juror Judy Jacobson, a 45-yearold carpet layer from Spirit Lake. "They wanted to bury the whole Aryan Nations,'' Jacobson told The Spokesman-Review late Thursday night from her home.

Five other jurors contacted by the newspaper did not want to talk about the verdict.

To collect the award, civil rights attorney Morris Dees said he will move immediately to seize the Aryan compound and all of Butler's assets except the clothes on his back.

Dees said he will also take legal moves to gain ownership of the name "Aryan Nations'' so he can retire it.

The co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center said he wants to turn the Aryan hate compound into a school for tolerance.

After deliberating nine hours over two days, the jury returned its verdict at 5 p.m. to a packed and well-guarded courtroom in the Kootenai County Justice Building.

Butler arrived at the courthouse as police snipers patrolled the rooftops. After being told of the judgment by his attorney Edgar Steele, Butler walked outside, appearing somewhat stunned.

"This is nothing,'' Butler said of the award. The man who founded the Aryan Nations two decades ago said his message of white supremacy and separatism will live on despite the jury's decision. "We have planted the seed,'' Butler said. "Most of North Idaho is fertile with people who don't want multiculturalism.''

The Aryan Nations will live on, he said, despite the jury award. "I'm still here,'' Butler shouted, getting into an old Pontiac LeMans. "I'll remain in business until the day I die.''

Following Butler out of the courthouse was Teague, wearing a crewcut and a $5 suit he bought in a thrift shop for the trial. "They think this verdict is like a magic pill they can swallow to make the Aryan Nations go away,'' Teague said.

"You can shut down the Aryan Nations, but you can't stop our hearts. You can't stop our minds. The Aryan Nations will live as long as the white race is alive.''

But others who've fought Butler and his minions of hate were jubilant after the verdict.

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, visiting Moscow, praised the jury for sending a clear message that Idaho doesn't tolerate racism.

"This is a significant event,'' the governor said. "We finally, through a court of law, could put a voice to how we feel, and I think the jury did a great job.

"I think those 12 individuals spoke for hundreds of thousands of Idahoans, and I'm very proud of that jury,'' Kempthorne said. Coeur d'Alene Mayor Steve Judy said Butler "is not a member of our community and never has been.

"He may call himself an American, but he's not one of us who live in Coeur d'Alene,'' Judy said.

Dees and Law Center attorneys J. Richard Cohen and Peter Tepley teamed with Coeur d'Alene attorneys Ken Howard and Norm Gissel for the suit. The legal team is now expected to move immediately to seize all of Butler's assets, including the 20-acre compound north of Hayden Lake.

"We even intend to take the name `Aryan Nations''' and retire it, Dees told a press conference after the verdict.

Dees said he would like to turn the compound into a tolerance center so school children can "go to the former seat of hatred and learn tolerance.'' Steele called the jury award an attempt to end free speech.

"I'll tell you, $5 million dollars of `We don't want you here' is a pretty potent statement,'' Steele said. "That's what they said with this verdict: `Take your hate out of this community.'''

Dees had asked the jury for slightly more than $11 million, and admitted he was nervous when the panel didn't quickly return a verdict, stretching its decision-making over two days.

But he beamed after learning he had won his eighth straight victory over a major hate group in the United States.

"For too long the Aryan Nations compound in this county has been a haven for violent racists,'' Dees said. "I hope that this jury verdict will put an end to that.''

The Keenans, he said, "didn't bring this case for themselves alone. "They brought this case also for many, many people in this nation who've suffered from the violent racists who studied under the tutelage of Richard Butler,'' Dees said.

He later mentioned ex-Aryans who assassinated a Jewish talk show host in Denver in 1984 and ex-Aryan guard Buford Furrow, who is accused of killing a Filipino-American postal carrier and shooting at children in a Jewish day-care center last year.

Butler, Dees said, "has a right to hate, but he does not have a right to hurt people and to teach other people to hurt.''

"He has a right to live in this community. He has a right to live in this state.''

For those who might think he came to Coeur d'Alene "to bankrupt Mr. Butler because of his views, I hope they see now that was not the case,'' Dees said.

"Certainly this judgment bankrupts Mr. Butler, but he was bankrupted to start with because his ideas were corrupt and evil,'' Dees said. "I hope the citizens of this community will see that this was not a case that dealt with suppression of speech or ideas.

"I don't know of anywhere in this nation where free speech and free ideas and tolerance is more rampant than in the great Northwest and in the Panhandle of Idaho,'' Dees said.

"Probably few places in this nation would have tolerated Mr. Butler as long as he was tolerated here.''

Victoria Keenan didn't answer questions, but delivered a brief statement at a press conference she attended with Dees.

"I'd like to thank the justice system,'' she said. "It did prevail.'' "I'd like to thank the jury: Thank you very much for your braveness.'' A small white feather was intertwined in her braided hair.

"Most of all I'd like to thank my lawyers, everyone of them,'' said Keenan, who is a Native American.

"I'd also like to thank my family for holding us together at this time. Without them I don't think I could have done all this.''

Dees used the press conference to send a message to Butler, who wasn't in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

"I'd like to say publicly for Mr. Butler to get the message: We consider every single asset on that compound and anywhere else ... to be the property of the plaintiffs in this case,'' Dees said.

"We will consider it a fraudulent transfer of assets if Mr. Butler moves one single thing from that compound other than his personal clothes.'' Steele said there are several legal moves he can take, including requesting a new trial.

"I'll tell you, I don't understand this result,'' Steele said. "I considered this area the last bastion of free speech,'' but the jury's verdict means "they just don't like his speech and they want it gone.'' Steele said he wasn't "necessarily surprised'' by the decision against Butler.

"But the numbers are way out of line,'' Steele said of the monetary judgment.

Butler "certainly doesn't have that kind of money,'' Steele said of the $4.8 million.

"This would certainly put him out of business if he tried to pay it today,'' Steele said.

Steele said in defending Butler, he "went up against seven lawyers.'' "I think I held my own pretty well,'' he said. "What would I do different? I'm not sure what that would be.''

"I'm not going to say the jury is wrong,'' Steele said. "They are members of our community.'' The Keenans were injured in the assault by Warfield and Yeager and "they deserved to be compensated,'' he said.

However, he did attack the police presence and media outside the trial. "I think all of this hoopla -- this media circus, this big name attorney, closed circuit TV -- I think we would have had a different result but for all that stuff.''

Although he never filed a motion to move the trial, Steele argued that media attention prior to and during the trial hurt his case.

"Pastor Butler was tried and lynched in the local media before and during this trial,'' Steele said. After seeing the verdict, Steele said maybe he should have asked to move the trial.

"I talked with pastor Butler. We felt we had the best chance of a fair trial in the town that he lived. He may be a demon, but he's our demon.'' As his police officers took down barricades, Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Tom Cronin said "it would have been unconscionable'' not to have a sizeable police presence during the trial.

"The fact that nothing happened showed that we meant business and that we were not going to tolerate anything here,'' Cronin said.

Vincent Bertollini, a self-described evangelist who heads the 11th Hour Remnant Messenger, was present for the verdict, as he was throughout much of the trial.

"I think the jury sent a message'' with the verdict, Bertollini said. "We respect that message but we will continue to spread our message.''

"This isn't over,'' Bertollini said. " Dees hasn't won anything. "There are still legal remedies available to Butler and Steele. Butler is going to be on that property ... probably forever.''

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