Death Of The Order: A Look Back At Whidbey Island Siege -- Raid 10 Years Ago Led To The Splintering Of White Supremacists

This time, Robert J. Mathews was not going to get away.

Mathews, 31, founder and leader of a group known variously as the Order, White American Bastion and Bruder Schweigen, (German for silent brotherhood,) had been sought for two weeks in the shooting and wounding of an FBI agent during a raid in Portland.

Shot in the hand during the same raid, Mathews escaped, then eluded capture again when agents arrived too late at a hideout near Mount Hood, east of Portland.

Now Mathews was surrounded by dozens of FBI sharpshooters, explosives specialists, negotiators and antiterrorist experts at a rented Whidbey Island waterfront home where he had an extensive arsenal.

Mathews met his end 10 years ago in a fire ignited by an FBI illumination flare, the climax of a two-day siege that changed the course of white supremacist agitation in the United States.

George Fisher, now retired, said the logistics of the operation - 150 FBI agents from five states and the head office in Quantico, Va., plus Island County sheriff's deputies with Coast Guard and Navy support - made it the biggest in which he participated in 30 years with the FBI.

"The Whidbey Island portion of that case was very successful," Fisher said last week.

Evidence gathered there and at two other houses near Greenbank led to a series of arrests nationwide and a massive racketeering indictment against two dozen people in 1985.

Testimony showed Mathews was trying to carry out a violent takeover of the United States by white supremacist forces as described in a novel, "The Turner Diaries" by William L. Pierce. The National Alliance, founded by Pierce in Arlington, Va., was described by police as the successor to the old American Nazi Party.

Crimes linked to the group ranged from counterfeiting to armored car robberies to the slaying of a Jewish talk-show host in Denver. Most of those arrested in the investigation and practically all of those who were indicted are still in prison, some for state as well as federal crimes.

The case became the subject of a stage play, "God's Country" by Steven Dietz, and a book, "The Silent Brotherhood," by Rocky Mountain News reporters Kevin Flynn and Gary Gerhardt.

"Whidbey certainly was the incident that sort of congealed it all, condensed it all, got it (the investigation) off the ground," said David E. "Gene" Wilson, who directed the prosecution as an assistant U.S. attorney and is now a U.S. magistrate judge.

"I would hope that it would stand as a warning to anyone of that extreme political view that you can't use criminal behavior to further your goals," Wilson said.

"It was the first right-wing, declared effort to overthrow the United States government in some time," said Marvin Stern, regional director of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League.

"It polarized law enforcement and other governmental agencies to take a harder look at the (white supremacist) phenomenon," Stern said. "It gave law enforcement the impetus to take a harder look at the threat this posed to them and to all of society."

Links between groups exposed

The resulting probe revealed a web of links between the Order and groups with similar aims although sometimes less overtly violent methods, including the Aryan Nations Church in Hayden Lake, Idaho, where Mathews lived for a time; the Ku Klux Klan; the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, subject of a subsequent raid in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas.

"It was the focus that the Order gave to this ideology that sort of brought these people together," Stern said. "(The investigation and trial) kind of severed those connections."

Mathews moved to Metaline Falls near the northeast corner of the state in 1973, working at a zinc mine and then a cement factory, after becoming a tax-resistance activist in Phoenix.

Mathews spent time at the Aryan Nations compound in north Idaho but broke with the group because he felt it involved too much talk and not enough action.

To raise money for his cause, Mathews directed operations that included the making and passing of counterfeit money, a $25,000 bank holdup in Seattle in 1983, a $500,000 armored car holdup on April 23, 1984, and the $3.6 million ambush of an armored car near Ukiah, Calif., on July 19, 1984. Little of the money was recovered.

Top Mathews associates also were convicted in the machine-gun killing of Alan Berg, a caustic critic of right-wingers who sometimes called himself "the man you love to hate" in his KOA radio show in Denver, and Walter West, a member of the Order whom they thought had turned informer, both in June 1984.

The noose began closing that Oct. 18, when FBI agents raided the home of Mathews' associate Gary Lee Yarbrough, near Sandpoint, Idaho. Yarbrough got away, but among the evidence seized was the gun used in the Berg killing.

Yarbrough, then 29, was arrested in an FBI stakeout when he leaped from the second floor of the Capri Motel in Portland on Nov. 24. One of the agents was shot and wounded slightly.

Mathews, wounded in the hand, fled from the motel. After missing Mathews a second time near Mount Hood, the FBI got a break when Mathews' associate Thomas Martinez, then 29, of Philadelphia, was arrested on counterfeiting charges and agreed to become an informer.

Strike force assembled

Mathews was traced to a house off Smuggler's Cove Road on Whidbey Island. An FBI strike force was assembled from Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana.

On the morning of Dec. 7, a Friday, the Navy closed the air space over much of the 50-mile-long island and Puget Sound shipping lanes were closed by the Coast Guard. Agents descended on three homes.

Four people were arrested with little resistance, but Mathews fired more than 1,000 rounds and rebuffed all attempts at negotiation.

The next night, when members of a special weapons and tactics team were repulsed by gunfire, illumination flares fired from a launcher on the grounds set the house ablaze.

Mathews' blackened bones were found in a bathtub.

Mathews' widow, Debbie, who still lives at their old home in Metaline Falls, said she had nothing more to say.